Every kid from the 80s and 90s remembers the Choose Your Own Adventure series, right? Where the reader is the main character and you have to pick what happens next in the story then flip to the right page to discover if you’re right, or if you’re dead? The newest book from Penguin Random House brings that excitement back with Midnight Arcade, written by Gabe Soria and illustrated by Kendall Hale, as the first installment of their new Play-Your-Way series for middle-grade readers.
As you stand in front of the boarded-up doors that loom before you, you can’t help but wonder: Am I nuts? You turn around and see your friends, who are standing behind a chain-link fence one hundred yards away, looking at you expectantly, with wonder and little bit of awe, because you’re actually DOING IT — you’re about to enter the abandoned Fair Oaks Mall. – excerpt from Midnight Arcade
As the avatar character enters the dilapidated mall, sneaking through the absolute darkness, you are attracted to the only illuminated area in the place by the “unmistakable electronic bleeping and blooping sounds of … video games.” While you look around in amazement at all the vintage-looking yet unfamiliar game cabinets, you are greeted by the mysterious Midnight Arcade attendant who asks, “Why don’t you try one of our games?” You are presented with two options: Crypt Quest, a throwback to the awesome side-scroller Ghosts ‘n Goblins, or Space Battles, which (according to the publisher) is a bit of a mash-up of several space-themed fighter games.
I chose Crypt Quest as my first foray into Play-Your-Way goodness and I was not disappointed. I immediately found myself in a deserted graveyard, clad in armor yet unarmed, with instructions to move one of four directions through the level. Navigating the book was simple as each option sent me to a new page with a corresponding number of pips to designate the correct place to continue as the story unfolded. I’ve always cheated in these stories by dogearing the pages where the tale diverges so I could backtrack easily and Midnight Arcade was no exception (although this time I used bits of paper). It’s a good thing, too, because there were dead ends, small side quests, and death waiting around every corner.
Sprinkled with snarky humor throughout, Soria’s Crypt Quest did a nice job of leading my protagonist along, with any misstep sending me directly to a gruesome demise, the end of the tale, or putting me back at a divergence, which made those little scraps of paper super handy. I read every option in each instance before moving on to the next plot point in the story, but there are many ways to navigate the adventure. I just happen to be the kind of player that has to flesh out every inch of the map and slay every beastie before I can move on.
Interactions with the few NPCs and the environment along with Hale’s detailed illustrations brought Crypt Quest to life. Each choice to fight or flee in the Play-Your-Way experience gave a sense of control over the story that doesn’t exist in other kinds of novels. Fraught with peril, the path toward the final boss battle was filled with enough adventure and silliness to mark this Midnight Arcade game a success.
Space Battles drops the avatar directly into the midst of a dogfight in space as the Galactic Authority attempts to crush the rebel Space Pirates and dominate the galaxy in a reign of evil. Your rookie cadet must hastily learn the ship’s controls and move out with the Pirate phalanx, only to go head-to-head with the Galactic Authority’s ace pilot, the Black Angel.
This story is more limited in scope as movements in flight formation tended to lead to exact copies of blurbs in multiple sections, a problem which Crypt Quest didn’t have. You move left you bump someone, you move right you bump someone, you move down you bump someone, etc … however, once the avatar progressed in the story I found this became less of an issue.
Kendall Hale’s illustrations complete the experience with detailed images of interesting tech as well as the crazy beasts the avatar comes up against. However, while I enjoy a good sci-fi story, the speed the plot moves from scene to scene and the addition of repeated sections made Space Battles feel rushed and incomplete.
The concept of Play-Your-Way entertained just as I remember and the overall story as a whole was fun to read alone and with my kiddos. While I imagine the organizational challenge of keeping all the pips and story divergences correctly correlating to the right page numbers was a bear (although there’s probably an app for that), the first installment of Midnight Arcade succeeded in delivering a fun story great for middle-graders and younger readers alike.