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Before They Were Games - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain


Areala

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November of 2009 saw the release of a new roleplaying game on the Nintendo DS (at least here in the US) entitled "Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain", developed by Big Blue Bubble Inc. and published by Aspyre. In it, you take on the persona of an adventurer who is very interested in getting his (or her) hands on the loot inside the previously-abandoned Dwarven mountainhome of Firetop. Legend speaks of treasure troves of gold coins, sparkling gemstones, and magical trinkets galore. Unfortunately, legend also speaks of Zagor, the titular warlock who now possesses not only the exterior of the mountain but also the passages, mazes and dungeons that twist through its dark depths. And Zagor, like all Really Bad Guys™, has taken great pains to stock his underhalls with all manner of grotesque creatures and lethal traps to bash, hack, slay, dismember and incinerate any would-be adventurers who decide that they would like a part of his treasure horde. Naturally, you're too quick-witted and fleet-footed and strong-armed and lucky to run afoul of any of these little problems, so dashing in and nipping off with a bit of Zagor's wealth shouldn't pose any problems at all. Of course, that's what the last few dozen explorers thought as well, and nobody has seen or heard anything from them in years...

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So, why is the Retrochick writing about a brand new DS game? Truth is, I'm not except to introduce the reason for this blog post. Because before there was "Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain", there was "Fighting Fantasy #1: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

Confused? Well, don't be. Unless you grew up in the 1980s, it is entirely possible that you have no idea at all what I'm talking about. The concept of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" story has been around for quite some time, and is familiar to almost everybody these days: take one book and write it in such a way that the reader can decide the outcome for him- or herself by taking one of several branching paths through the story. What Jackson and Livingstone did with this idea was to add an additional set of game mechanics on top of it, so that instead of just taking a passive role of moving your protagonist around in the book, you actually took on the role of the protagonist and using a very simplified set of roleplaying rules involving combat, healing, magic and so forth, played through the story. A pair of six-sided dice served as your randomizer element, used for determining if you hit an enemy in combat (or were hit yourself), if you got lucky or unlucky when trying to perform a certain action (like jumping across a deep chasm, for instance), or when the game required a random outcome (say a teleportation spell that could dump you in one of several possible locations). Your character had stats for Skill (weapon prowess), Stamina (how much damage you could stuffer) and Luck (self-explanatory) which were determined with dice rolls at the start of the game, so each playing experience was different as you created a new character.

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"The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" became an instant, overnight success when it was first published in 1982, selling out its initial print run in a matter of weeks. Jackson and Livingstone realized they had something of a hit on their hands, and began working on new ideas for books in the series, writing solo now so as to maximize output. After writing six more entries in the Fighting Fantasy series, they opened the doors to other writers, and the series went on to spawn some fifty-nine entries in the UK. Unfortunately for American readers (and gamers), only the first twenty-one books in the series managed to wind up printed in the US so even gamers familiar with the Fighting Fantasy brand are often unaware that they missed out on over half the series. Thanks a lot, Dell Publishing...

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The Nintendo DS incarnation of "Warlock" is not the first time the Fighting Fantasy series has arrived in digital format either. All the way back in 1998, Eidos Interactive (the games publishing studio formerly owned by Ian Livingstone himself) published a video game version of the sixth (and arguably most popular) book in the FF series, "Deathtrap Dungeon". Released on both the PC and the PS1, the game was far from being anything close to an accurate port of the game book, choosing to take only the backstory from the book while creating an entirely new adventure for the would-be heroes Chaindog and Red Lotus to explore. Unfortunately, what Asylum Studios wound up producing was almost universally lambasted by reviewers for having clunky controls, boring level design, and an often absurdly-high difficulty level due to the presence of "deathtraps" which would mercilessly kill players without warning and without any way for the player to bypass the trap without falling prey to it at least once. Level designers in one interview cackled gleefully about a trap that lowered the player on an elevator down a long shaft, then opened up with unavoidable flame jets when it reached the bottom, roasting the player with no means to escape. When the interviewer asked how the player avoided this trap, the designers just laughed and said that avoiding death was impossible; they would have to save and reload and then use the knowledge they had learned to not make the same mistake twice. Note to potential designers reading this blog: never in the history of gaming has this idea resulted in a game that was fun for people to play. As if that wasn't bad enough, the game's ending made absolutely no sense (yes, I actually took the time to beat this game...I paid $40 for it on the PC and by golly I was not going to let miserable design stand in the way of me conquering the hell out of it). Poor reviews and lacklustre sales put the "death" into Deathtrap Dungeon, and thankfully, the world was spared any further Fighting Fantasy mockeries.

The Deathtrap Dungeon opening cinematic

We can go back even further in gaming history to find Fighting Fantasy games though. Actually, all the way back to 1984, when "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" and two other books in the series, "The Citadel of Chaos" and "The Forest of Doom" were released on the ZX Spectrum. Warlock, in this case, was a 2D adventure game in the style of Rogue, where the player entered a randomly-generated dungeon and attempted to survive. The other two were more straightforward text-adventure-style adaptations with some graphics thrown in for good measure. Three other books in the series were adapted for the Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Amstrad in the same way: "Seas of Blood" in 1985, "Rebel Planet" in 1986, and "Temple of Terror" in 1987. And, as recently as 2004, "Warlock" received a release as a Palm Pilot title, as nearly a word-for-word dump of the gamebook that incorporated much of the artwork from the original as well. The Palm, in this case, served mainly as your automatic dice roller and inventory tracking system.

How good is this new DS release? I've no idea; I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. My hopes are that it's been given the treatment it deserves, and that a whole new generation of gamers are introduced to Fighting Fantasy. Because if there's one thing I really want to play, it's a good incarnation of "Deathtrap Dungeon." Oh, and "House of Hell" too, if Big Blue Bubble Inc. is out there somewhere and taking requests...

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Another DS game that wasn't really on my radar but I checked out some footage of it on youtube after reading your blog and it look's really good, at least in the look's department.

Hopefully (as you say) the game will live up to the rich heritage of the Fighting Fantasy series.

Great blog Areala. :)

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