23/06/2016

PUB TRIVIA / BLOCKBUSTERS (COMMODORE 64)

It's two for the price of one here today at VGJunk, which sounds like a bargain until you realise the price is your very soul! No, I'm kidding. One of the games does feature clowns, but they're rather tame examples of the usually sinister slapstick scoundrels and seem incapable of removing your soul, as much as they'd like to. It's a pair of Commodore 64 quiz games that I'm looking at today - a topic that I'm aware is of very limited interest to anyone but myself - starting with Codemasters' 1989 pointless-knowledge-em-up Pub Trivia!


The full gamut of human history is on display, from Oliver Hardy to Pythagoras and what I think is the Ferrari badge hiding in the back there. It's a decent title screen, even if the Thinker has taken on a slightly simian appearance and Lady Liberty looks as though she needs a good night's sleep.


I guess that was the Ferrari badge, given that the graphics were provided by one John Ferrarri.  Not much in the way of options here - you can have up to four players, set controls to joystick or keyboard and also load another set of questions, which bodes well for the game's long-term appeal.


Before you can get into the action, you must select an avatar from an array of disappointingly normal-looking people. They do have a few quirks, mind you, most notably that their eyes have fused together into a single Sonic the Hedgehog-style ocular lump. Also, number one seems to be emitting stink lines. I'll be playing as number five, because his green background makes it look as though he's laying in a grassy field, perhaps dreaming about striking it rich on the country's pub trivia machines.


Pub Trivia's portraits remind me of the characters from Codemasters' own Micro Machines, seen here in all it's NES glory. It doesn't appear that John Ferrari worked on Micro Machines, so I'll put it down to that being Codemasters' in-house style, or John Ferrari being a pseudonym that the artist used to deflect the shame of working on a pub quiz simulator.


Here's the Pyramid of Trivia, a towering monolith that we must ascend by answering questions, starting at the bottom row. Answer the question correctly and you move to the next row, although you can only pick from questions that are touching the one you just answered - for example, if I got the sports question right, I'd be able to pick either the music of the clown on my next turn. So, music, then. I wouldn't poke a clown with someone else's severed hand, which is exactly what's happening here.
Questions fall into the categories of music, showbiz, trivia, and sports, with a special question waiting at the top of the pyramid. Why isn't music in the showbiz category? Who knows, but it works out fine for me because that means there's two categories representing the kind of useless pop culture ephemera that I've filled my brain with over the years. Of course, I was five years old when Pub Trivia was released, so let's see how well I remember my infant years, shall we?


A nice, easy question to start, then? Good, I'll take it. Rather than having to type your answers in with the keyboard, you move your cursor and hit fire to press the appropriate button, which makes sense because that's how pub trivia machines work.


And then the second question stumped me, because it's the kind of thing that only a zoo vet or Las Vegas magician is going to know off the top of their head. However, you've always got a 33% chance of getting the right answer in Pub Trivia, which explains how I got so far into the game the first time I played it. That's fairly typical of any multiple-choice quiz game, although they usually have four options so this game is even more lenient on those of us that have to rely on randomly pressing buttons. The answer here is, according to Pub Trivia, 25 years. I Googled "lion average lifespan" afterwards and was told they live about 10-14 years. Now I don't know who to believe.


It doesn't take long to reach the top of the question pyramid, and nothing much changes while you're doing so apart from the timer moving faster and faster with each rung you clamber up, although I never managed to run out of time on a question. I'm only moving a cursor, after all, and I either knew the answer or was just going to guess anyway. A combination of luck and bored hours spent skimming Wikipedia meant that I eventually conquered the pyramid - but what next?


The Money Maze, huh? I wonder what that's going to be like. Finding a path through a labyrinth of trivia questions, choosing which direction I take after each question, something like that?


Or, you know, it could be the exact same thing as the previous round. What's happened here, yeah, is that Codemasters have completely misunderstood the meaning of the word "maze." There's only one direction to go - up - and you can always see what's ahead of you. That might, in fact, be the very opposite of a maze. You can also see here that I'm playing for some dizzyingly high stakes, with a whole ten English pence up for grabs on certain questions! My character's dream of funding his retirement by clearing out these machines is cruelly dashed.


Okay, I'm going to do it. I'm going to touch this clown. If I fail to return, tell my family I loved them and that the plans for the giant golden monolith that will mark my grave are in the back of the kitchen cupboard, behind the blender.


The Joker card lets you skip a question. For his attempts to aid a human, this clown is now an outcast from the Dark Brotherhood of Jestership and will be hunted down and punished for his treachery. Imagine a balloon animal wrought from tortured flesh. It will not be a quick death.


And so on goes Pub Trivia, with pyramid after pyramid of questions to answer and, as far as I could tell, no end to the quizzing. Once you've collected some money, every incorrect answer removes ten pence from your total until you go bankrupt, and in the end I had to deliberately lose in order to finish the game. I don't think that's entirely down to the questions being easy, although many of them are, but also because it's easy to reach a state of equilibrium as you keep earning and losing cash. I would say the questions are easier than in most quiz games, but I think part of that is down to Pub Trivia being a British game with lots of questions on British topics. I've played a lot of American quiz games and done far worse, because there's nothing American quiz setters love more than questions about goddamn baseball. Here, though, there are questions about football, a subject which falls neatly into my wheelhouse, even if Uruguay is repeatedly spelled wrong.


The thirty-year-old nature of the questions does cause some problems, though, like not knowing enough about the origin of 80's pop singer Yazz, best known for her 1988 hit version of "The Only Way Is Up." If the Yazz-related question had been "who had a 1988 hit with 'The Only Way Is Up?'" then I've have gotten the answer right, but sadly the game wanted to know her home town and I did not possess that information. Still, there can only be so many questions about Yazz, right?


The very next question was also about Yazz. Someone at Codemasters must have been a fan.


My musical knowledge was redeemed by a question about Iron Maiden, and Pub Trivia is providing a deep insight into what's on Codemasters' office stereo. It's an eclectic mix, to be sure. It's a shame Ozzy Osborne's name was spelt wrong, but in Codemasters' defence Ozzy himself probably has trouble spelling his own name.
And finally, here's my favourite question of the lot.


Not exactly a headscratcher, that one.


Pub Trivia is a quiz game that works well as a quiz game, and who could ask more of it than that? Okay, so some of the questions are a bit too easy, and the questions repeat pretty quickly, and it's less a pub quiz and more a digital textbook for someone in an alternate universe where a GCSE in Yazz Studies is a thing that exists, but for a ten-minute spell it's an enjoyable little quiz game with clowns that occupy the very bottom of the threatening-o-meter. That said, being a home computer game it's missing the little details that really make the pub quiz machine experience: there are no old men in the background complaining about the price of beer these days, no smears of cheese and onion crisp residue on the screen and, most tellingly, no friend hovering over your shoulder and insisting that they know the right answer, only for them to say "oh yeah, it's that one" when you take their advice and it turns out to be wrong. Not a game for the long haul, then, but diverting enough for a short while.

On to game number two now, with TV Games' 1988 offering Blockbusters, and if you thought Pub Trivia was a little lacking in the graphics department then prepare for a whole new world of visual disappointment.


Overall blandness aside, the sight of this hexagonal playfield will bring back memories for readers of a certain age. The ones that spent time time watching daytime TV in the late Eighties, anyway, because Blockbusters is an adaptation of the British game show of the same name. I think there was also a US Blockbusters - and presumably many other countries had their own version - but I know this is the British Blockbusters because it's hosted by the genial Bob Holness. There's Bob now, the gruesome grey visage haunting the bottom-right corner of the screen like the ghost of an accountant who died because he was too boring. Poor old Bob has not come out of the conversion to C64 graphics well, his eyes replaced by emotionless slits and the way his mouth has been rendered making it look like his lips have been sewn shut. Fun fact for you, Bob Holness was one of the earliest people to play James Bond (on the radio, but still.)


Blockbusters is a head-to-head game where each player tries to be the first to create a line of hexagons from one side of the playfield to the other by answering questions correctly. You might notice this puts the red player, going horizontally, at a disadvantage because they have to give five correct answers where as the vertical, blue player can make the connection with four right answers. In the TV version this was mitigated by the horizontal team being made up of two people, as opposed to the one person on the vertical side. No such leniency here, though - it's just me versus the computer. Thankfully the computer is kinda thick, seemingly content to watch the hexagons change colour in any old order rather than trying to make a successful chain and being rather slow off the mark when it comes to giving their answers.


As well as the concept of making a chain across the board, Blockbusters' other quirk is that you chose the next question based on the letter shown, and the correct answer always begins with that letter. This format results in what was Blockbusters' most enduring legacy, and naturally I have captured it for this article.


Asking "can I have a P please, Bob" (the usual jokey response being "no, you should have gone before we started") has long outlived the show itself in the consciousness of the British public, although I'm sad to say that my generation is probably the last that will remember the game show that sometimes made the contestants sound as if they're asking to use the bathroom. I've got a lot of nostalgia for Blockbusters, honestly. I saw it a bunch as a kid, I owned the board game and there's something very visually appealing about the ordered honeycomb of the board combined with the VFD-style letters. My biggest disappointment with the C64 version is that it uses red instead of white as the third colour on the board. For a while I didn't get why this bothered me - and get comfortable, because I'm going on one hell of a tangent here - but eventually I figured it out.


It's because this Buck Rogers spaceship toy by Corgi, one of my childhood favourites, has the exact same colour scheme and some similarly geometric panel markings, and the spaceship and Blockbusters have thus become inexorably linked in my mind. Here I was, expecting some generic Commodore 64 quizzing, but I've ended up saddled with deep thoughts about the mysterious way memories are formed and can be triggered decades later by the ashen visage of a now-deceased game show host.
That's the graphics, but I should also mention the music, and Blockbusters does play a brief recreation of the TV show's theme tune when you win a match. It cannot match up to the intensity of the original, but that's not the fault of the game's composer nor the C64's sound hardware - it's just the the Blockbuster's theme is full on.



It's more "80s" than a giant coke-snorting marionette shaped like Ronald Reagan that's been crudely fashioned from discarded legwarmers and A-Ha singles, and the C64 is clearly not capable of capturing such magnificence. It also gives you a glimpse of what Blade Runner might have looked like if it was made on a budget of £300.



As for the gameplay, it's another perfectly serviceable trivia challenge, but naturally it has some foibles all of its own. For example, here I answered "host" instead of "hosts" and the game refused to accept my answer, which felt a bit harsh. I'm sure Bob Holness would have accepted "host" as the correct answer, he seemed like a nice man. Then a moment later, having not learned from my mistake, I answered "Gurkha" instead of "Gurkhas" and the game said "close enough" - I mean that literally, the message "close enough" appears on screen - and gave me the point. All I want is some consistency, is that so much to ask?
The questions are also perhaps too easy. Is that because I'm old and British? Possibly, but I was playing on the highest difficulty and this was one of the questions.


The easier questions do make sense when you consider the style of Blockbusters (the TV show): it was very fast-paced for a quiz, and because either team could buzz in to answer the question, the answers were generally a bit simpler to keep things moving along at a good pace. Unfortunately, the even on the top difficulty setting the CPU isn't much of a challenge, so rather than feeling like every second counts you end up with a lot of time to answer questions like "can you count to seventeen?" On the plus side, it's a surprisingly responsive game, with very little waiting around. Questions can be interrupted if you start typing so you don't have to wait for them to be laboriously printed on the screen, and selecting the next question is nice and speedy too.


On top of that, Bob Holness' ghoulish monochrome face jerks and twitches as you type in your answers, as though he's so excited to hear your response that he's attached the most sensitive parts of his body to a car battery in a misguided attempt to calm himself down. Blockbusters really does have it all.


If you win three games, you're whisked off to the Gold Run, a special against-the-clock round where you must still make a connection across the board but with a much stricter time limit and answers that start with multiple letters. It's certainly much more challenging than the rest of the game, and I enjoyed it a lot more, or at least I did once I realised that, unlike in the regular rounds, the timer in the Gold Run doesn't stop while you're typing. Once I'd figured that out, it became both a quiz and a speed-typing exercise. Turns out I'm not good at speed typing, and Blockbusters was not generous enough to accept "british nedcial asociaton" as the name of the UK doctor's union. I got there in the end, though. All the Blocks have been Busted, and my only disappointment is that I don't get to take home one of the game show's fabulous prizes, which I'm informed included a dictionary and a filofax.


Of the two games featured today, I just about prefer Blockbusters. Nostalgia plays a part in that decision, sure, but having to type your answers makes it feel a bit more involved and it seems to include a wider variety of questions - I didn't see any repeats while I was playing Blockbusters, and I played both for about the same amount of time. Both Pub Trivia and Blockbusters are solid examples of the genre, though, and if you're looking for a quick trivia challenge you should check them out, especially if you just fell out of a time portal from 1989. If you've got no other quiz games to play, that is. If you're trapped on a desert island with a Commodore 64, these tapes and a hand-crafted, coconut-powered generator, definitely play them. That'll eat up an hour or two as you wait for the rescue helicopter.

5 comments:

  1. The theme for blockbusters is amazing.

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    Replies
    1. It does rather get the blood pumping.

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  2. That Ozzie typo makes me sad. They coulda gone all out and made him Aussie Osborne.

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    Replies
    1. I'm just glad there was an Iron Maiden question.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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