Sonic the Hedgehog Adventure Gamebooks

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This six-book series was released (through British channels only) by Penguin in the early-to-mid nineties, first under the Fantail imprint and later under Puffin. The books are based on Sega's popular side-scrolling video game series, and they capture the spirit of those games fairly well. As in the action games, Sonic collects rings during his travels. When he's hit, he loses all of his rings. If he's hit when not holding rings, he dies (but, being a video game character, he has several lives). In addition to the system borrowed from the game, the book also features a number of attributes (assigned values by the reader without randomization -- a good thing, in my opinion) and inventory management. A single six-sided die is used (in combination with various attribute scores) to resolve combat and other actions. The system is only moderately complex, and it has a fairly decent balance of skill and luck. There are minor variations from book to book (most notably the one-time inclusion of separate statistics for Sonic's friend Tails in book two), but the rules are fairly consistent from title to title.

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 1. Metal City Mayhem
Author: James Wallis
Illustrators: Chris Russell (full-page art), Keith Rawling (filler drawings)
First Published: 1993
ISBN: 0-14-090391-7
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 7 (not including defeat by loss of lives)
Plot Summary: Sonic gets distracted by a tough Game Gear game, and while he's not looking, all of his friends are kidnapped. This is particularly frustrating because he really wants to consult with one of his buddies on how to beat the final boss.
My Thoughts: I'm a big fan of James Wallis thanks to his brilliant Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen competitive role-playing game; thus, I was eager to try this book, even though the Sonic the Hedgehog theme kind of frightened me. As it turns out, the book is a mix of wonderful and not-so-wonderful elements. First, the good: despite seeming like it was going to be condescending and cheesy at first, the writing turned out to be pretty decent. It's written in third-person, present tense, but the "third wall" is frequently broken, with Sonic talking back to the reader from time to time. There's also a fairly funny running gag in the conversation options when Sonic encounters other characters. Because of its somewhat irreverent, self-referential attitude, the book actually reminded me of the Tiny Toon Adventures TV series, which was just about its contemporary. Other positives are the game system, which is simple but effective, and the successful integration of video game elements and overall logic into the text (mentions of background music, a bonus stage for high scorers at the end, and so forth). The book does have problems, however. The art is less than inspiring (Sonic's tone demands bright colors, and black and white line drawings just look flat), the mission is very linear (though not frustratingly so), and there are a number of points where rules issues become confusing. The book tends to make you loop back a lot (after dying, mostly, but also after making some non-fatal mistakes), yet it doesn't really address what happens to items that were picked up and enemies that were defeated -- I was frequently unsure whether I should erase items from my inventory or whether it was necessary to fight the same old foes again. This seriously detracted from my gameplay experience, as I didn't feel quite satisfied when I finally won -- the uncertainty of whether or not I had accidentally cheated after losing lives and otherwise being sent back prevented me from feeling proud of my efforts. Still, despite its problems, this is a solid gamebook, and better than you might expect from the subject matter. It's worth a look.
My High Score: 56 rings
Errata: The "Cool Looks" attribute on the character sheet should actually read "Good Looks."

 2. Zone Rangers
Author: James Wallis
Illustrators: Uncredited (provided by a company called Arkadia)
First Published: 1993
ISBN: 0-14-090392-5
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 22 (including one ending which directs the reader to section 1 instead of saying "Game Over," but not including defeat by loss of lives)
Plot Summary: Sonic and Tails are napping when they are suddenly interrupted by a bulldozer tearing up the countryside. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Robotnik isn't far behind.
My Thoughts: After the second or third attempt at this book, I was preparing to declare it the most brilliant thing I'd read in ages. It has the same sense of humor as the previous book, but it's even more successful. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and also some amusing (if a bit predictable) references to things like Alien and The Prisoner (Doctor Who fans must also be sure to examine the artwork carefully). The book also has a very interesting structure, jumping between the separate adventures of Sonic and Tails in order to build suspense -- it's very effective, and I was pleasantly surprised by the pacing. Unfortunately, further readings revealed significant flaws which prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending the book (though I still recommend it with 90% of my heart). First of all, the game design, for all its cleverness (or perhaps because of all its cleverness) is fairly linear and episodic; this wouldn't be a bad thing in and of itself, but it means that once you figure out the optimal paths through early segments of the adventure, getting defeated near the end gets increasingly annoying since it requires tedious replay through familiar territory. Each death feels more frustrating than the one before it, and it gets harder and harder to look at the bright side and view defeat as an opportunity to try new things. Of course, you could always cheat to avoid this problem, but as a matter of principle I don't like to do that. Also, the book could have used a bit more proofreading and playtesting, as it has a lot of continuity problems. None seem to be fatal to the gameplay, but they are distracting. At one point, for example, if you have a key, you have to sneak past some guards in order to use it. If you fail the sneak roll, you're sent to a combat section, where you're told that you attack the guards because you don't have a key. Similarly, later in the adventure, if you use a rope to reach a high perch, the book acts as if you got there with a see-saw catapult. Reusing segments to save space is a good thing, but it should have been done with more caution here. In any case, if you don't take the game system too seriously and can deal with a few slightly confusing errors, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Despite its problems, it's an amusing read, affectionately poking fun at both Sonic the Hedgehog and gamebooks in general.
My High Score: 838 points

 3. Sonic vs. Zonik
Authors: Nigel Gross and Jon Sutherland
Illustrators: Uncredited (provided by a company called Selecciones Illustradas)
First Published: 1994
ISBN: 0-14-090406-9
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 24 (1 victory, 4 instant failures, 19 conditional failures)
Plot Summary: Robotnik has created an evil duplicate of Sonic, and it must be stopped quickly!
My Thoughts: My expectations for this book were fairly low, since I figured that it would be difficult to follow James Wallis' excellent act. Alas, my fears were justified. This book isn't nearly as good as the first two. First of all, the humor is almost entirely gone -- there were one or two jokes that were passable, but for the most part the book's attempts at being funny ranged from unimpressive to cringeworthy. Worse, the general quality of the writing is remarkably low; most upsetting is the fact that the tense keeps changing from present to past and back again in a distracting (not to mention amateurish) manner. This sort of error, especially as widespread as it is here, simply should not have made it past the editor. And speaking of errors, there are a lot of game-breaking typos present. At first there's nothing too severe, just the occasional point where the numbers for choices are reversed. As you approach the conclusion of the book, though, things get really bad. Sometimes you'll end up in a section which has no relevance to what you're doing, and other times you'll get stuck in an infinite loop of vaguely related (but obviously not quite right) sections. Either way, the book frequently forces you to backtrack and take other choices because the area you've reached is completely incomprehensible. As with the tense problems, this simply should not have made it past the editor. The final blow is the fact that, as with the rest of the books, the combat system is rather vaguely defined, making battles hard to resolve satisfactorily and making the book even more frustrating than it should be. Even without these problems, the book couldn't be considered much more than an average effort. It has a few interesting ideas (most notably a "zone chip" which can be used at any time to warp into a different area of the book), but these don't do it too much good in the face of all the pointlessness on display. Far, far too many of the choices are of the random "do you go left or right?" variety, and there are two fairly tedious mazes (three if you count the otherwise somewhat nifty pinball machine puzzle) that serve as little more than padding -- to be fair, though, I should mention that at least one maze offers an easy solution if you get a good enough roll of the dice. Ultimately, if not for the many typos, the mission would be an easy one -- I finished it on my second attempt and lost within just one move of victory on the first (though it's possible I unintentionally cheated due to vague rules). I'd recommend avoiding this one -- while the first two books were surprisingly fresh and entertaining, this is more what you'd expect of a licensed video game gamebook: a cynical attempt to cash in on a popular name with the help of a hacked-together, barely-playable mess.
My High Score: 120 rings
Errata: Your starting equipment isn't listed on the character sheet, though I think it's just supposed to consist of the Energy Gun. The choices are reversed in sections 298 and 119. The path that leads from 82 to 67 should in fact lead to 121 instead. The path from 85 to 68 should instead lead to 227. The transitions from 216 to 114, 153 to 268 and 199 to 97 are all wrong, though I'm not sure where the paths actually should lead. The only place where I'd make a guess about a correction for an incomprehensible transition is in the jump from 180 to 76, which works slightly better if you replace 76 with 234 (though it still doesn't make much sense).

 4. The Zone Zapper
Authors: Nigel Gross and Jon Sutherland
Illustrators: Keith Ward (cover), Uncredited (provided by a company called Selecciones Illustradas) (interior)
First Published: 1994
ISBN: 0-14-090407-7
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 27 (6 unconditional endings, 21 conditional failures)
Plot Summary: Sonic must undo the results of Dr. Robotnik's latest creation, a device which turns good into evil and evil into good.
My Thoughts: Like the previous adventure, this lived down to my low expectations. As before, the writing was of amateurishly poor quality, with tense problems and questionable grammar and punctuation. There were also a few typos which messed up gameplay, and though the book was silly, it was very rarely funny or clever. Some new problems also arose to further lower my opinion of the adventure. In at least one place, the same text was copied and pasted in such a way that it was possible to encounter the same paragraph in two different places during one playthrough. More seriously, the adventure was far, far too easy. I was able to finish it on my first try without losing a single life (though I did lose all of my rings near the end; I guess that's something). I don't like gamebooks to be too hard, but this is just ridiculously simple. There are far too many "do you run blindly in or think of a plan first?" choices, the various riddles that need to be solved become rather obvious when there are only two possible answers to choose from, and many crucial die rolls allow the reader to retry indefinitely, thus making the rolls entirely pointless. The only difficulty-lowering feature that I really appreciated here was the fact that there's a maze that only needs to be solved if the reader makes an otherwise fatal mistake during the adventure; it's nice to have a second chance. On another positive note, I also enjoyed the idea of having a friendly (but somewhat cranky) monster for a companion. Beyond these two redeeming features (which are barely even redeeming), this is pretty much a waste of time. Still, I see that the next two books have different authors, so maybe they'll be more interesting; I can only hope....
My High Score: 0 rings (but I got the best possible ending... really!)
Errata: The rules state that you start the game with some equipment, but nothing is listed on the character sheet. Section 36 fails to include a difficulty level to roll against. In section 80, both choices mention having the Power Sneakers on, but the path leading to section 203 should actually read "off." The transition from section 199 (and various related sections) to 294 makes no sense; however, if you ignore the lack of continuity and try different options, you can eventually proceed with the story.

 5. Theme Park Panic
Authors: Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green
Illustrators: Adrian Chesterman (cover), Uncredited (provided by a company called Selecciones Illustradas) (interior)
First Published: 1995
ISBN: 0-14-037847-2
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 1 (or failure by loss of lives)
Plot Summary: Sonic pays a visit to a new theme park only to discover it is a decidedly unsafe environment.
My Thoughts: With a new set of authors, the style of this book is a bit different from the previous two. It tries a little harder to resemble the first two books, with a light tone and some sections in which Sonic directly addresses the reader. Unfortunately, the text lacks the wit of James Wallis' writing and falls almost completely flat from a storytelling perspective. The gameplay, while not too exciting, is at least functional and captures some of the feel of a video game. It's also interesting that there are no instant deaths in the book. Anyway, since this takes place in a theme park, there are different themed areas to visit -- a house of horrors, a pirate ship, the Wild West, etc. Each area feels like a different level of a game and generally concludes in a battle with a boss-like character. Defeating these characters generally gives the reader items which prove useful in the final battle of the book, and completing certain areas offers access to new places. It's not absolutely essential to visit every area, but it helps, and the reader has some freedom to try going different places in different orders (though the book is far from totally non-linear). Unfortunately, though, it's not as interesting as it sounds, mainly because the reader doesn't have enough control over character creation. Well-chosen stats can help in completing the first area or two, but after that, it's more down to luck. Opportunities to boost ability scores before the very end of the book might have made the adventure more exciting and less luck-based, though this admittedly might also have made things too easy. In any case, as it is, the book is an entirely playable but also entirely forgettable adventure. I have no major criticisms, but I also can't think of any real reason to bother playing this.
My High Score: 0 rings (but I got the best possible ending... really!)

 6. Stormin' Sonic
Authors: Marc Gascoigne and Jonathan Green
Illustrators: Adrian Chesterman (cover), Uncredited (provided by a company called Selecciones Illustradas) (interior)
First Published: 1996
ISBN: 0-14-037848-0
Length: 300 sections
Number of Endings: 3 (or failure by loss of lives)
Plot Summary: Sonic's home in the Green Hill Zone is suddenly plagued by bizarre and dangerous weather.
My Thoughts: This book is quite similar to the previous one, but marginally better while still not being very good. After a brief introductory segment, the reader has the choice of exploring four different locations (each with different strange weather) in any order. After a particular two of these areas have been explored, the last stretch of the adventure is unlocked (but going there without having completed all four sections is fatal). This structure makes for good replay value at first, but once the individual areas have been cracked, it becomes extremely tedious to work one's way back to the endgame (which will almost certainly be necessary, as the last part of the book features a rough time limit); this is definitely a book where some sort of "save game" mechanic would have been most welcome (though admittedly not in keeping with the video game that inspired the book). As with the rest of the later books in the series, though, the real problem is that there's no reason to bother with the gameplay because the story simply isn't interesting and the writing lacks flavor. There are a few moments that are almost weird enough to be fun (camel-riding penguins with exaggerated French accents, for example), and the presence of a section styled after Donkey Kong surprised me (after all, this is inspired by Sega, not Nintendo), but the whole thing really fails to come together as a story. I almost hate to say it, but somehow, in the absence of a real plot, allegedly cool anthropomorphic animals don't work as well as generic fantasy cliches. This series stopped being worthwhile the moment James Wallis stopped writing for it, and I'm really pretty relieved to be done with it.
My High Score: 5 rings
Errata: In 270, the second choice should read "If Knuckles hits Sonic, turn to 84." As written, it makes no sense, since if Knuckles totally wins the fight, the book would be over and there would be no reason to turn to a new section.

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