19/02/2014

THE NES GAME SHOW CHALLENGE

As shared human experiences go, shouting out the answers to game show questions is a fairly common one, so long as you're "fortunate" enough to have access to daytime television. I'm sure we've all snorted in contempt as Terry from Sussex boldly proclaims that dogs have six legs or laughed when a contestant chosen from our studio audience announces that Shakespeare wrote The Da Vinci Code. I'm not content to merely sit back and judge these contestants, though - I'm going to put my money where my smart mouth is by playing three NES titles based on game shows. One round of each, played on the highest difficulty setting available and with no do-overs and no cheating allowed, which actually means something when Wikipedia's right there. This one could get embarrassing. Okay, what's the first game?

Family Feud, 1991, Beam Software


It's Family Feud, which my fellow Britons will know as Family Fortunes and any French-Canadians reading this will be familiar with under the title La guerre des clans. Yes, it means "War of the Clans". And I thought "Family Feud" seemed like an unnecessarily belligerent title. I've written about the SNES version of Family Feud before, so I know how this is going to work: one hundred people are asked a question. The two teams then have to guess what answers those hundred people gave, with the higher-scoring answers being worth more cash. Get all the answers on a board correct and you win the money, give three wrong answers and the opposing team can steal the money with a correct answer of their own. There's no difficulty setting on this one, so all that's left before we start is to meet the contestants.


Cripes. I'm just relieved we're meeting the VGJunk family in a brightly-lit studio with security guards and not on a desolate mountain back-road. I don't understand how any of these people's facial features are supposed to work. "Dad" on the left looks like a stretch-necked Gomez Addams with his hair in bunches. Grandpa on the far right looks like someone who's banned from his local swimming pool. As for the blonde next to him, she's got the expression of a plate of breakfast food that's been arranged into a smiley face. Terrifying, all of them, but my opponents are even worse.


It's the Jackson family, which is short for "the accidentally grown in a lab from the discarded post-plastic surgery flesh of Michael Jackson family." From left to right we've got Happy Hank the Hillbilly Surfer, Skin-Skull the Unholy, Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks, a vengeful hamster spirit that has inexpertly assumed the form of a young girl and Jesus Christ what the hell is that thing.


"Feed me you sooooul!"


On to the actual quiz, and creepy grandpa steps up to answer first question: name a city often seen in movies. So, New York, then.


New York was, of course, the top answer. At this point in Family Feud you're given the choice to either try to fill in the rest of the answers yourself and win the cash, or let your opposition have a crack at it and hope they lack the required mental fortitude to complete the list, letting you steal in with a single winning answer. Filled with a misguided and inflated sense of my own game show talents, I elected to take the board on.


It went almost perfectly, but Family Feud is a harsh mistress and almost isn't good enough. The name of the final city eluded me. It wasn't Rome, or Tokyo, or Moscow. I'll admit that final answer was due to my inability to shake Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow from my mind, but overall these answers reflect poorly on America's lack of interest in world cinema. Unfortunately the Jacksons knew the answer, which was Las Vegas, and I lost the first round.


Next up: name a ticklish spot on people. I went for "feet," which was the top answer, but this time I let the Jacksons play. I thought I'd made a mistake, because they look like a group of people with detailed knowledge on the weakest, most vulnerable parts of human anatomy, but it all worked out for the best when they couldn't find the rest of the answers and I swooped in with "armpits" to take the round.


Can you guess what the third question was by examining the already-revealed answers above? No, it's not "name an object that the Jackson family's hate-spawned devil child has used to silence those who oppose him." It's "name a tool everyone uses." After letting the Jacksons take the board, I failed to correctly guess the final answer when I had the chance to win the game. I felt particularly foolish to discover the answer was "knife" when "fork" was already up there, but in my defence I was thrown by the inclusion of pencil as a correct answer. I mean, sure, it's technically a tool but it's not like you'd expect someone to say "sure, just grab one out of my toolbox" when you ask if you can borrow a pencil.


So the results are in and after only winning one round out of three I have lost my chance to take a shot at Family Feud's final question. It's nice that the game doesn't make you sit through the opposing family's attempt at the grand prize, although I am worried that the "family obligation" that has called the Jacksons away is a human sacrifice or something.


Just in case you really wanted to see what Family Feud's final round looks like, here it is. You get five questions, and you have to give two answers for each. Score enough points with those ten answers and you win. I did not win, not this time anyway, but I think I was dealt a harsh hand when "burger" scored zero points as an answer to "name a junk food" and no members of the public said they wanted to be reincarnated as dolphins. I suppose it's not really something you'd want to admit to, is it? Dolphins are dicks, everyone knows that.

Jeopardy!, 1988, Rare


Classic US quiz show Jeopardy is my next challenge, and the first challenge within this challenge is finding an in-game avatar that represents me accurately.


This was the best I could manage. I should point out I don't look like this in real life - I don't own a turtleneck sweater and I haven't had my eyes replaced by binoculars, no matter how useful that might be for spotting distant predators. Still, anything is preferable to the contestants from Family Feud.


Jeopardy is extremely famous in America, but if you're from elsewhere then here's a quick overview. It's a general knowledge quiz show where players answer questions from one of six categories. You pick a category and then a cash value - higher values naturally corresponding to harder questions - and if you buzz in with the correct answer you win that amount of money. Get the answer wrong and you lose that money from your total, which explains why I had minus four hundred bucks after three questions. Whoever answered the last question correctly gets to choose the next, and this goes on until all the questions have been answered. Two rounds of this and a special final round make up a game of Jeopardy. I've set the difficulty to high for this one, so may the trivia gods look down favourably on my chutzpah.


Thanks to the bizarre decision to make pressing the d-pad sound your buzzer, rather than one of the two perfectly good buttons that a NES pad possesses, I struggled at the start, but things soon picked up once I had figured out how to actually answer questions. It also helped that eventually realised that some of the categories are more literal than others - for instance, the answers in the "Triple Threat" category all had to do with the number three, and the "Wet or Dry" questions were even more straightforward as they all either had the word wet or dry in them. I'm just glad that didn't take me long to figure out.


One of Jeopardy's more well-known quirks is that you have to give your answer in the form of a question, so if the question was, say, "A comic book character who gets big and green when he's angry" you have to reply with "Who is the Incredible Hulk" or you don't get the cash. Why? Pointless complexity, it seems. Okay, so there's some suggestion that it's a response to the game show scandals of the 1950s where contestants were secretly fed the correct answers. I only bring it up because mercifully the videogame version does not make you answer in the form of a question. That's done automatically for you, which a blessed relief because the less time spent entering text using a d-pad and a cursor the better.
Also of note in the screenshot above, when one of the other contestants answers incorrectly their efforts are displayed as a random series of characters. I know it's so the game doesn't have to store a list of feasible wrong answers as well as the right ones, but it has the happy side-effect of making it seem like your opponent was so flummoxed by the question that they broke down and started gabbling in a nonsensical alien language.


The first round was going well, and after my shaky start the "tools" and "explorers" categories provided some good opportunities to raise my cash total. The biggest stumbling block was my Britishness, as I lost points for calling a wrench a spanner. I nearly messed up here by spelling Pearl Harbour with a U, but I caught it just in time and changed it to a spelling that the game would accept. I felt kind of bad about it, betraying my heritage like that, but my homeland was soon redeemed.


I picked the secret Daily Double question. This means I can gamble some of my winnings on a single question, with a correct answer doubling whatever I bet. Naturally, I went all-in and gambled $2300 of my non-existent, not-real money. In videogames, we can truly be the thrill-seekers we all wish we were in life.


British history comes to the rescue, I get the answer right and with that bonus money and a few more correct answers what I thought was going to be a struggle has become a cakewalk.


So, is my VGJunk avatar up there celebrating his success in the first round with a cheery thumbs-up, or is he crudely flipping the bird to the contestants on his left? Because honestly I could go either way based on his sprite. It must be the thumbs up, right? Just look at the way Hazel is dreamily staring at my contestant, she wouldn't have that expression if he was sticking his middle finger up at her, even if he does have over six thousand dollars in the virtual bank and the fashion sense of Andy Warhol.


Double Jeopardy is more of the same, only with the cash values doubled. My opponents seemed intimidated by this extra earning potential, and their answers became less frequent and when they did come they were often incorrect. I don't know if it was just how this game happened to pan out or if they were stunned by the combination of bravery and raw knowledge I showed in the previous round, but it was as though their hearts were no long in it. In contrast, I was on a roll, buoyed by the appearance of "Elvis Presley" as a category. You see, my mother is an Elvis fan. She really loves Elvis. Last year she travelled over four thousand miles to see Elvis' house. You don't spend time around someone with that level of obsession without a fair amount of their knowledge creeping into your mind, and thus I correctly answered every question in the Elvis category. There was a Daily Double question in the Elvis category. Once again I wagered all my accumulated pseudo-wealth and once again I answered correctly, this time on the subject of where Elvis met his wife (Germany, if you're wondering). Thanks, mum.


Knowing the lyrics to "Istanbul (not Constantinople)," first recorded by a group called The Four Lads but probably best known through They Might Be Giants' version, came in handy for this question.


And also the question immediately after it.
This round was something of a rout, as I supplied correct answers on everything from Superman to West Side Story to Little Bo Peep, and by the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I was far enough in front that victory was a mere formality.


In Final Jeopardy, everyone wagers some of their money on one last question. I intended to gamble everything to see if I could max out the cash counter, but thanks to the ponderous cursor-and-click input method I ended up only committing ten percent of my total. The final question was to name Cleopatra's third husband. Perhaps as a hint of the challenge that can be provided by playing the game on the hardest setting, all three contestants gave the correct answer of Mark Antony, but my competitors had no way of matching my total and so the glory of a Jeopardy victory was mine.


You're damn right I'm the winner. I'm busy working on my application to appear on Jeopardy itself as you read this. I'm gonna make a fortune.

Wheel of Fortune, 1988, Rare


My final challenge is an attempt to defeat the whirling and fickle hand of fate itself in Wheel of Fortune. It's Hangman, but with a big shiny wheel that clatters around, hypnotising the viewer into thinking they're watching something more interesting than televised Hangman.


All hail the Wheel, the endless and infinite, granter of boons but also crusher of dreams. This game also has a difficulty setting, and I can only hope that playing it on Hard doesn't affect the way the wheel works, making you land on Bankrupt every time you spin or something.


Wheel of Fortune works like this - you spin the wheel, and hopefully you land on a cash amount. You're then shown a board of blanked out letters. You choose a letter, and if that letter appears in the mystery phrase then you're given the cash value you landed on multiplied by how many times it appears in the phrase. I went for S. The letter S did not appear. I received nothing, besides the cold, mocking stares I assume were directed at me by the other, unseen contestants.


Contestant number 3, Jane, went for R, of which there were three in the name. You can tell it's a name, because you're shown the category on the board - in this case it says "Person".


Oh, so it's literally just a person, then? Some guy? A nobody? Because I've never heard of Aaron Burr before, maybe he's the phrase-setter's kid or something. Jane had heard of Aaron Burr, because she managed to solve the phrase with only the Rs and one N revealed. Maybe he's her kid.
Alright, so I looked it up. Aaron Burr was the third Vice-President of the USA. I don't feel too bad about not having a clue who he was now, but I did learn that he killed someone in a duel and was charged with treason so maybe everyone should be learning about him in History class instead of boring no-marks like Florence Nightingale and Julius Caesar.


The first round showed just how brutal Wheel of Fortune can be - I made one poor choice of letters and didn't get to play again for the rest of the round - but I redeemed myself slightly by solving the second phrase, which was "Greenwich Village". Wheel of Fortune seems to be even more American-centric that the other two games featured here, but the biggest problem I had was with the text entry. I knew the answer was Greenwich Village, so I typed that in... but like an idiot I didn't pay attention to what was actually being input, and because the letters you have already revealed are automatically placed I almost ended up submitting "GGEENRIEE NIVILLGE" as my answer. I just about managed to delete this gibberish in time, and won the second round.


Then the third round began. I span the wheel and landed on the Bankrupt panel. Contestant number two seized his chance solved the puzzle on his first attempt and the game ended with me having zero dollars. Wheel of Fortune doesn't mess around.


It even shows you the fabulous prize that the eventual winner gets to take home. Thanks for that, Wheel of Fortune. I felt inadequate as it was, and now I have to go home and look at my distinctly non-deluxe kitchen, crying myself to sleep over what might have been by the flickering light of my ancient refrigerator.


I'm pretty pleased my my performance in this NES game show challenge, you know. I lost in two out of the three game, true, but I take comfort from the fact that Wheel of Fortune is far too random to be a fair reflection of talent and that the game show I did win was the only one where you had to actually know things. I found Jeopardy to be the most enjoyable of the bunch, too, although I honestly think you'd get some fun out of all these games if you played them with a friend or two. Inputting text with a cursor is a painful experience no matter the game, but it's especially noticeable in Jeopardy where the rounds go on so long that it almost - but not quite - becomes unbearably tedious, and if that's the worst thing I can say about a game it can't be too terrible. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to show this article to a few pub quiz teams who might be looking for new members.

2 comments:

  1. I've now read through all your current In-Depth Game Articles, and I've cut a good swath through the General Articles as well. For some reason, I thought that this might bring you some sort of emotion.

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  2. Everybody knows about Aaron Burr in America, for the exact reason you mentioned. He's what we learn about as high school freshmen to establish that the history we learn now is hardcore, as opposed to that namby-pamby shit we learned in middle school.

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