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Literature / Midnight Arcade

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Midnight Arcade is one of the more recent entries in the Gamebooks genre.

In each book the reader is a kid who finds themselves at an eerie abandoned video arcade that turns out to still be operating. A creepy attendant appears and gives them a free token and the choice of two games to play. Once they've selected one, the reader finds themselves thrust into the game and playing it firsthand, with much Affectionate Parody of video game tropes to be had.


The series includes:

  • Crypt Quest / Space Battles (February 2018)
  • Excellent Ernesto Cousins 3 / Wrestlevania (September 2018)
  • Fantastic Fist / Mow Town (March 2019)
  • Magician's Gambit / Wild Goose Chase (September 2019, set to be the finale)

The reader directs their input through a mock-up of the controls of an actual arcade cabinet at each juncture, usually with the options of the four cardinal directions and two other buttons such as attack/jump or punch/kick.


Midnight Arcade provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: You'd have to be one in Space Battles, considering winning the first level involves winning a dogfight with the enemy's most decorated pilot the Black Angel. With you as a lowly cadet.
  • The Alleged Car: Your sheriff department's squad car in Wild Goose Chase is a wheezy old jalopy, mainly since the game's a parody of really old cartoons.
  • Alliterative Family: Granny, Gordo and Goober Goose.
  • Anachronism Stew: In the pseudo-medieval world of Crypt Quest there's a soda machine in one area. Having a drink is even vital to getting the next Plot Coupon.
  • Armor Is Useless: Your character is described wearing armor a couple times in Crypt Quest, but as in any proper retro game your starting gear is only for show.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: An extremely literal example in Space Battles where you're promoted for each major victory. After a couple it notes you technically outrank the guy at Mission Control who tells you what to do.
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  • Bubblegloop Swamp: There's a section in a swamp in the last part of Magician's Gambit before you get to the Final Boss. Since the rest of the game happens in a mansion this part gets included so abruptly it's almost as if the author realized that was one trope he never got around to including. In Crypt Quest there's a gate leading to a swamp too, but it's impossible to get past the monster guarding the entrance.
  • But Thou Must!: Despite the wealth of apparent options at any given point where the reader's asked to make a choice, the path through the games are pretty linear. Guessing wrong will usually either send the reader to a paragraph where they're told nothing happens and to try again, or to a paragraph where they die, and are told to try again if they choose to continue, until finding the one "right" input to continue the scene. Perhaps fittingly it's like a literary version of playing Dragon's Lair.
  • Callback:
    • The third book has you encountering a guy wearing a wolf-themed luchador mask (outside of the games). A luchador turned into a werewolf was an opponent in Wrestlevania.
    • The fourth book has a part where you're attacked by killer ventriloquist dummies, mainly ones of Dracula and a werewolf, who were both opponents in Wrestlevania.
  • Cartoon Bomb: Since you're basically in one in Wild Goose Chase, don't be surprised when the bad guys pull a few on you.
  • Context-Sensitive Button: The secondary buttons on the control mockup sometimes do this. Sometimes "attack" is actually "speed up." Sometimes "jump" is instead "kick" or "stomp."
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Wrestler vs. Monsters in Wrestlevania.
  • Damsel out of Distress: The Bride from Fantastic Fist. She's kidnapped from her wedding by the enemies, but saves herself from them. Makes sense that the most trite video game trope of them all would be the most dramatically subverted.
  • Death Dealer: You and the Big Bad in Magician's Gambit are both magicians whose weapon of choice are deadly flung playing cards.
  • Death Is a Slap on the Wrist: Even if you do get killed, you're just given the option to continue and go back to the choice you were at before. The exception is the first book, where this feature gets turned off as you get close to the end of a game and dying will send you straight to the general ending.
  • Denser and Wackier:
    • In keeping with the cartoon setting Wild Goose Chase doesn't have many actual "deaths". Instead you tend to get knocked out or something like that and the criminals get away.
    • The series as a whole, really. The games in the first book were pretty serious except for a few silly bits. The writer seemed to figure out the books would be better by embracing the cheese factor of old video games, and they got gradually sillier.
  • Evil Matriarch: Granny Goose, the leader of the thieves in Wild Goose Chase.
  • Evil Is Petty: Dracula's plan is to down your plane, turn your fellow wrestlers into monsters with mad science, all so he can create a proper wrestling tournament, then defeat you to become a wrestling champion himself.
  • Excuse Plot: To be expected, really. Most mercilessly has the piss taken out of it in Space Battles, which does after all represent the genre most guilty of having elaborate plots which had nothing whatsoever to do with the game themselves: the space Shoot 'em Up.
  • Featureless Protagonist: Some of the cartoonier games show an androgynous protagonist, the others tend not to show anything but the back of your head or the vehicle you're piloting. Fantastic Fist is the exception, giving you a choice of characters.
  • Fictional Video Game: Duh. Although the inspirations for most of them aren't too hard to guess if you know your retro games.
  • Finishing Move: Used to end the match in Wrestlevania, and one used in appropriately dramatic circumstances after the couple reunites in Fantastic Fist.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Murray, the giant mutated mole boss from Mow Town.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The heroes of Fantastic Fist belong to F.I.S.T.S, the Fighting Initiative for Stopping Terrible Stuff. The bad guys have an acronym for the name of their group but you never find out what it stands for (either of them).
  • Gameplay Roulette:
    • Space Battles does this in each of its three levels. The first one has the player in a space fighter, which then changes into a humanoid mecha, then in the last level the player's remote controlling a drone to sneak into the enemy flagship and destroy it from the inside.
    • Wild Goose Chase has a car chase for its first level, then a boxing match, then a duel on top of a speeding train.
  • Golden Ending: In Excellent Ernesto Cousins you need to find all the secret areas and have all the special coins by the end of your playthrough to get the full ending. Same kind of thing in Magician's Gambit, but when you find a secret area you still have to win a game of three card monte to get the plot token.
  • Guide Dang It!: Sometimes, and with this it's hard to tell if it's a result of aping the source material or just plain old bad design. For instance in Space Battles the only correct input for the first two choices is the button that you're specifically told activates a special weapon, but only in emergencies, and doesn't do anything those times except get your superior to tell you you're wasting time trying to use it. And yet doing that extremely counterintuitive thing's the only way to actually get past the first two choices!
  • Has Two Mommies: Your avatar in the fourth book.
  • Hollywood Cyborg: The Bride in Fantastic Fist turns out to be one when she walks away from a helicopter crash with some of her skin burned off. Her fiance doesn't seem to mind at all.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: The town sheriff in Wild Goose Chase isn't exactly useless, but since the player controls his deputy, anything important that gets done happens because of them instead of him.
  • Inkblot Cartoon Style: The aesthetic of Wild Goose Chase is of extremely early cartoons.
  • Item Get!: Congratulations! You got the sword/black key/diving gear/riding mower/legendary magic hedge shears!
  • Kicking Ass in All Her Finery: The player characters from Fantastic Fist are attacked at their wedding and go on to beat the crap out of every mook and boss in formal wedding attire.
  • Killer Teddy Bear: There's a toy store you can enter in Crypt Quest. This trope is the reason you may not want to.
  • Left the Background Music On: In Wild Goose Chase you have a sidekick whose main job is to follow you around and play the game's BGM.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: The Midnight Arcade appears in the ruins of some old arcade, but there's no sign that anything happened once you get out of the games and back to reality (except a game token in your pocket that proves it really happened).
  • Magicians Are Wizards: In Magician's Gambit you and your rival base your repertoire on familiar trappings like decks of playing cards, rabbits out of hats, escaping from locked water tanks and sawing a member of the audience in half. There's no way prepared displays could explain anything either of you do, though. Like surviving get sawed in half!
  • The Many Deaths of You: A cross between Gamebooks and retro video games? But of course!
  • Modesty Shorts: The player character from Excellent Ernesto Cousins is shown wearing them under their skirt. Makes sense since it's a platformer with lots of jumping.
  • Next Tier Power-Up: In Mow Town you get something new and more impressive as your primary tool in every level. Impressive as lawn care equipment goes.
  • No Antagonist: Kind of surprisingly for a parody of the Super Mario series with its many colorful villains, Excellent Ernesto cousins has no villain to beat. The game has dangerous creatures, for sure, but there's no real bad guy.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Despite being altered by mad science into the monsters you fought earlier, the wrestlers from the intro of Wrestlevania are miraculously restored to normal after you beat Dracula in the championship match. The book itself basically tells you not to question it since you just won the game, and why ruin a happy ending asking nitpicky questions?
  • Obviously Evil: Not much to figure out about Nefario the Infernal.
  • One-Hit Point Wonder: Since there's no health system, any bad choice automatically kills you. Until you continue and go back to try that choice again.
  • Plot Coupon: Sometimes. In Crypt Quest the player has to find keys to get to each new area.
  • Plot Coupon That Does Something: The Flame Key in Crypt Quest is used to defeat a boss enemy after you've been disarmed.
  • Point of No Continues: The start of level 3 in the first book.
  • Power Fist: Used instead of wedding rings in, what else, Fantastic Fist.
  • Rolling Pin of Doom: Granny Goose's Weapon of Choice.
  • Rule of Three: The structure of the games. Three levels, three matches, three trinkets to unlock the best ending etc.
  • Serious Business: Mowing lawns in Mow Town. Everyone competes for the most prestigious lawncare jobs. There's even lawn-mowing street gangs in town! That's what the whole game is about, though, so of course all the characters make it their #1 priority.
  • Shell Game: In Magician's Gambit you have to find secret areas where you have to play three card monte to get the items you need to unlock the best ending. One card is the one you're looking for, one does nothing, and one automatically kills you. Wild Goose Chase has something similar where, if you guess the right card out of two duds, you can go back and try again if you make the wrong blind guess about which train the gang leader's using to skip town. These parts really do capture some of the feel of minigames in old video game titles such as in Super Mario Bros. 3.
  • Shout-Out:
    • He looks like and has the job of Nick Fury, but Captain Lu from Fantastic Fist calls to mind Captain Lou Albano, who of course starred in The Super Mario Bros Super Show!.
    • The Final Boss of Mow Town is what can only be a hedge animal version of King Ghidorah.
    • It might just have been part of lawyer-safing them, but the Mario and Luigi expies from Excellent Ernesto Cousins were carpenters. Before Mario Bros. officially made their jobs plumbers, Mario was said to be a carpenter back when Donkey Kong was the only Mario game around.
  • Suck E. Cheese's: The Arcade appears in the back room of one in the fourth book.
  • Super Drowning Skills: To get past the underwater level of Excellent Ernesto Cousins you need to find a diving suit and then clear the level before your air supply runs out. Surprising, considering who's always provided the page image for the opposite trope.
  • Symbol Swearing: After you finally catch Granny Goose and she's hauled away she's "exclaiming curses that have no place in a nice video game like this" written out like that, seemingly in a nod to Q*bert.
    Immediately one of the chicks asks "Mama, what does '!#$@*!' mean?" causing the crowd to laugh uproariously. It's always funny when a baby chicken says '!#$@*!'—trust us.
  • Transforming Mecha: In the second level of Space Battles your ship turns into a giant robot.
  • Trapped in TV Land: Transported into the world of the games. Not exactly trapped, though, since if you die you just get kicked back out of the game to the arcade again.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: The first two levels of Excellent Ernesto Cousins are typical platforming action/adventure stuff. The third level is a car race where you have to both win the race and duel the other drivers.
  • Video Game Tutorial: The games in the fourth book let you try out what all the inputs do when you're starting a new game or a new section with a different style so you're not caught by surprise, which was a problem sometimes in the earlier ones (see Context-Sensitive Button above).
  • Villain Protagonist: The player's side in Space Battles are technically space pirates who are fighting back against the despotic galactic empire, because nobody else was crazy enough to try.
  • A Winner Is You: The games end pretty abruptly once you win, but considering what the books are based on that has to be the point.
  • With This Herring: At the beginning of Crypt Quest. Forget starting with a weak weapon and powering up from there, you have to beat the Warm-Up Boss with your bare hands to get any kind of weapon at all!
  • Wizard Needs Food Badly: You've been spending all day running around in the summer sun in Mow Town, so if you didn't find the magical can of ice-cold lemonade you'll give out from exhaustion while you're fighting the Final Boss.


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