Author: John Legendoffzelda
Jeopardy!, perhaps the best game show after The Price is Right, has such a strong concept that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work as a video game. The most famous trivia contest in popular culture, the show has carried itself on the lasting thrills of both seeing and demonstrating how intelligence can be used to succeed. But where real video games thrive on interactivity and substantial input, the closest GameTek’s home version can get is creating a chain of quick responses; statements of how much knowledge about various topics you have stored in your brain. It’s essentially a pixelated recreation of what can already be found on television – yet the core sensation of the television program remains intact. As for the rest of this title, it’s at most a lot of odd window dressing meant to emulate the essential TV trappings; without that famous theme song or the giant wall of screens it wouldn’t really be Jeopardy!, now would it?
Every new game, staying true to the show, follows the exact same format. There are three contestants given a board with thirty clues divided into six categories; and after selecting a clue they each must identify what it is, specifically in the form of a question, so that they win the associated cash amount. Special clues named “Daily Doubles” allow a contestant the sole chance to respond, and to increase their winnings by betting what money they have on giving a correct response. There are two rounds of this mode of gameplay back-to-back, and a final round that’s basically a Daily Double where all three players participate. What’s changed about the game is that, in lieu of speaking their responses, the player must type them out by selecting the right letters from the alphabet. This particular method of working around limitations can feel more oblique than using, say, a multiple-choice menu, but it gets the most vitality out of the player’s thinking ability. It appropriately stretches the challenge; after all, if they can identify the inventor of the steamboat, they can afford to expend some effort on spelling out his name. (The sixty-second time limit and specialized screens for responses give the added flair of peering into a contestant’s thought process.) Elsewhere, of course, everything about this game is totally computerized; the NPCs always give instantaneous responses, as randomized as the clues presented in each round.
The box for this game boasts “over 3,500 all-new questions”, which is a tremendous amount of entertainment value even with its inevitable finiteness. This is where the adaptation runs into its second wall, the limitation that preprogrammed video games, however big, can’t rely on a team of writers to contribute new material for every session. The same feeling goes for the contestant models, stock designs that rotate with each game and almost entirely have the physicality of cardboard cutouts. If you play for long enough, chances are you may experience déjà vu. In the meantime, what’s there for the player to focus on are the quick reflexes and smarty-pants nature of the A.I. contestants, who at best are a definite match for a player’s skill. At worst, they’ll be the ones buzzing in on the majority of the clues and earning upwards of ten thousand dollars, and the player will languish behind them. This is definitively a game that lives and dies by its ingrained requirement that players be smart; it won’t be enough to activate your buzzer first, you also have to know your lyme disease from your Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Don’t forget to spell everything correctly, as the text-based system of gameplay is likely a stickler for it.
Without that requirement, though, the game would be nothing more than a stultifying string of quick time events. It definitely doesn’t benefit from getting sealed off from its natural television environment – I don’t just mean the uncomfortably static atmosphere, where familiar sound bites from Alex Trebek and Johnny Gilbert offset what sounds like the audience’s total silence. I also mean a more specific point, an observation that the game becomes an accidental time capsule of an odd era. While a more accurate depiction of the classic soundstage than the NES adaptation, this game is also stuck in time, demonstrating just how bizarrely the 1992 version of Jeopardy! has aged. It’s plain weird now to watch the stage go from icy blue in the first round to sanguine and maroon in the second, and to a lesser extent the sentiment applies to the giant logo that hovers on a wall between Alex and the contestants. For that matter, some of the sound effects seem dated as well; maybe not the laser noises that accompany a Daily Double, but surely the beep-boop of the clues appearing on the board, sounding like an overly complex phone ring. The big takeaway about the game’s early-1990s aesthetic, though, is the set of clues programmed within. This ultra-specific timeframe disallows references to things like Jurassic Park, but at the same time permits clues about the Dick Tracy movie and Guess jeans. All of these signposts of the game’s time are more jolting than fun, for the very reason that video games don’t allow their contents to age on the inside.
Jeopardy! doesn’t work as a video game both because it’s not designed that way and because it’s about age. Its image is constantly being remade throughout the years, and a single point in its history may not mature as gracefully as the entire series, not even the famous Ken Jennings episodes. In fact, the Alex Trebek variation we all know today is a remake of an initial version hosted by Art Fleming in the 1960s. As great as this show is, it can’t stay in one historical place; and even if its central appeal can manage within this digital Super NES amber, it ought to be enjoyed in its intended medium where it can grow like it should. And the same goes for all the other game shows out there.
Three out of five stars.
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