Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wizards, Warriors & You #17 Conquest of the Barbarians

Last time out attempts to contact extraterrestrial intelligences led to wa-wa-wacky highjinks that would not have been out of place in a pile of deleted scenes that were cut from "Benny Hill" for failing to live up to the high intellectual and moral standards of that series. Fortunately, the painful space invader nonsense is over, at least for now. With eighties gamebooks it's just a matter of time before another encounter with a brilliant race that mastered interstellar travel but can't even zip up their pants without massive assistance. Some day, yes. Today, no. It's back to swords, sorcery and screwjobs.

Yes, screwjobs. The magic in this series is more along the lines of unpredictable mayhem than the sterile science by another name that it usually is in today's lame fantasy novels. For example the spell "Command Animals" will make animals that are already friendly hostile, while the magical Rejuvenating Battle Sword will repair itself if broken but the new blade might turn on you! You're probably thinking "I bet this leads to lots of pathetic, unheroic bad endings where your own spells and weapons create friendly fire situations" and you could not be more right. An ordinary person with no special powers fresh off the turnip truck would probably fare far better than the mighty "Warrior" and the mystical, inscrutable "Wizard."

Of course, if an ordinary Joe was an option these authors would probably describe his powers like this: Punching Fists! By balling up his hands Mr. Normal can deliver devastating unarmed blows similar to a mace or flail! But beware! The skin and bone of your fingers and knuckles can actually be damaged by these mighty strikes, possibly rendering you helpless! 

"Conan and his co-dependent fox herd."

We kick things off with Wizard and Warrior just maxin' and relaxin' all "I bet my own weapons don't kill me." Wizard is reading cards to tell the future, while Warrior is coming up with further embellishments for the already ridiculous legend of his worthless Sword of the Golden Lion. Seriously, it's garbage. If these books ever give you a choice between the "Immortal Blade" and any other weapon, including improvised weapons like rocks and chairs, pick the latter. This thing is like an instant lose button. The book claims it was forged along with Excalibur, is indestructible and was claimed after a three day battle with a sorcerer. In truth it's probably a piece of battered and rusted rebar that the Warrior fished out of a shallow pond in a quarry, only less effective.

 I won this magical blade after beating about a dozen dragons and maybe some sort of hydra.

An obviously doomed squire named "Blym" wants to know his future, but Wizard responds by tossing the cards in the fire and being all mysterious, as is his way. We go to some festival, but when we get there everyone is dead and we even get a lovingly crafted illustration of the carnage. The King is all "what's with all the death?" Wizard admits he saw all this coming, but couldn't prevent it because of "fate."

Wizards are kind of dicks. I'm just sayin'. When they mess up or are too lazy to solve problems they just hide behind the usual excuses. Except Merlin from Gauntlet. That's my bro, right there. Dude was so chill with his "Yeotch!" and "Yum!" He hardly ever shot the food and his potions were like tactical nukes. Yeah, Merlin was the exception that proves the rule.

This spell kills animals dead, hostile or not.

The bottom line is the same Barbarians who committed this massacre (including women and children, the book is quick to assure us) have now seized our own castle. Wizard and Warrior, of course, will have to take it back, using a "secret entrance." Yeah. "Game of Thrones" this isn't.

 I can see how the enemy missed this.

At this point I can choose my character. Obviously, I go with "Warrior" who is really a Knight with a golf bag full of weapons of dubious usefulness. Or at least he would be, but the armory is currently in the hands of the Barbarians so I'm stuck with the Sword of the Bad Ending and this Aegis shield knock-off that "reverses personalities." I'm paranoid about our enemies getting at my other weapons, but honestly it would probably help my cause if they did. Consider another example: "The Flying Spear." It can be thrown "five times" further than a normal spear, but it might "fly back at you with disastrous results!" 

I imagine opening the armory, finding all the weapons strewn about and lots of dead Barbarians. 

Inside: the worst gun control argument you'll ever hear!

Like the big fudging heroes that we are Wizard and I sneak through the darkness to try to find the hidden door. While generally bungling around, a Barbarian leaps out of a tree! Time to use my awesome shield to turn him good and then pump him for information!

Of course this is the one member of their Army of Evil and Child-Killing who is actually "gentle" and only goes along with the rapine out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to cultural norms. The mirror shield makes him evil! Who could have foreseen this obvious weakness leading to disaster? Wa-wa-wah.

The result is what the book also described as a "peaceable being" clinging to my back like a possum baby and battering at my helmeted melon. Not the finest hour for a heavily armed and armored soldier with a magical shield and sword. I'm getting my ass kicked by an unarmed, nearly naked former pacifist. Wizard is just standing there, perhaps sensing his spells, many of which could stop this farce, are too dangerous for the situation or more likely taking sick pleasure in my ineptitude and the resultant misery.

"Chaper Six: How Appeasement Would Have Eventually Defeated Hitler."

Then the book, which is already on my bad side, makes me throw a coin to determine what happens next. Not this shit again. Lucky Maryland quarter, deploy!


I die. 

Before you die you see the capital building or whatever that thing is.

I'm almost tempted to leaving it at that because the final page is so ridiculous, insulting and awful it barely deserves to be preserved for future generations in this online answer to the Great Library of Alexandria. All right, for the sake of those unborn here it is: I try to use the shield on this guy again because that makes more sense than stabbing him or waiting for him to realize that slapping a man in a suit of metal is going to hurt him more than me. No, use the magical shield that already failed once. Brilliant.

Naturally, more shenanigans occur. I look into the mirror myself and instead of becoming evil I become a coward and wimp! Wizard, of course, watches this happen with disinterest. Then I'm killed with my own sword while begging and cowering. It's hard to imagine a more ignominious end. Murdered with your own weapon by a guy that didn't even want to fight. Please make up some lies to make me seem more heroic or at least less pathetic at my funeral, Wizard.

Yeah, this one sucked hard. I'm not going to use "it was just a bad run-through!" as an excuse any more. The fact that the book would allow this sort of run to happen is enough of a condemnation. It reminds me of playing Dungeons & Dragons and getting the "you never said you put your armor on!" or "the magic sword you spent all the loot on isn't actually magical, haw haw!" treatment. I mean, it's bad enough being a dateless wonder geek doing an activity that both marks you as socially marginalized and ensures that state will continue, but then you get deprotaganized at every turn on top of that. 

This was like the book version of that experience. I mean, now I'm like a more muscular version of James Bond, but playing through this book put me right back in junior high, back in that basement, listening with disbelief as another brilliant plan fails via fiat. Roll to save vs. bad writing. A lousy two! Arrgghhh!!!!

On the plus side there was this awesome illustration of a massacre and I didn't get any paper-cuts.

Aaron Zehner's first novel The Foolchild Invention is available in e-book format at and Barnes & Noble.

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