Wheel of Fortune (NES) review
"None of this matters, though, compared to a careful dissection of Vanna's role in the game. It's obvious Rare's developers thought a lot of her. Watch closely as she saunters casually across the screen, flipping letters and looking nothing like her real-life counterpart. Another nice touch is that if a letter is more than halfway across the group, she'll walk to the opposite end of the puzzle, while if it's not, she only heads out to the letter, flips it, then returns lazily to her original position."
Don't let the wrinkles that have appeared under her eyes in recent years fool you; Vanna White is a sexy persona who has enlivened the pages of many a publication (including Playboy). She's appeared in movies, modeled more dresses than Paris Hilton, and has been interviewed time and time again. Amazing as this may seem, though, it's her full-time job that deserves the most praise. Tirelessly, year in and year out, this remarkable woman goes to work and... flips glowing letters.
Yes, I'm talking about that Vanna White, the one who blesses weekday television with her golden presence on Wheel of Fortune. She's one half of the famous duo that has kept the television show afloat for somewhere approaching twenty years. She also happens to be featured in Wheel of Fortune, the NES version of that beloved institution. This is what American gaming was all about in the late 80s and early 90s. So, of course, it was developed by Rare.
Now, before you get all huffy and ask what in the world a British developer is doing translating America's most beloved television show into a cheap NES cartridge, there's something you need to know: the game actually isn't half bad (though, unfortunately, it also isn't half good)!
When you begin, the usual copyright notice will appear and then, quite unexpectedly, the digitized version of a television audience will shout 'Wheel of Fortune!' as the title screen appears. It's the kind of miracle that will likely leave you flabbergasted, but it's only the beginning. Press the 'Start' button and you'll find yourself choosing the number of players (1 to 3, if you're not greedy and are willing to share a controller), then deciding whether or not you want to play against the computer.
Since I have a hard time convincing anyone to play NES titles with me, I usually go the one-player route, then reluctantly agree to let the computer in on the fun. Here, the game lets one choose the difficulty level of the computer, from 1 to 3. Lest you wonder, the screen hints that '1' is easy. The other numbers likely laugh about it behind its back.
Once that's tended to, the player is then asked to enter his or her name. There are nine spaces, so you're out of luck if your name is any longer than 'Henrietta.' Name entry is simple. You are presented with a letter strip (no numbers or special characters), and you move a glowing square back and forth with the d-pad, then press the 'A' button to make each letter selection. When you're done there, you select 'END' and get started with the game.
It's here that the flaws begin. There's no Pat Sajack, for starters. This is extremely disappointing to those who might hope to see him introduce each of the computer opponents... or whatever. And while we're on the topic, you don't even get to see your foes! Not cool, Rare. Not cool at all. But let's move past that, and give the game a quick play.
When things begin, you get to go first. You have seven seconds to decide whether you want to spin the wheel, buy a vowel, or solve the puzzle. My tendency is to start with a quick spin, since it costs money to buy a vowel and I usually don't know the puzzle's solution until some letters appear (much like the television show).
When the 'Spin' option is chosen, the screen switches to an overhead view of the wheel. There's a 'Strength' meter at the top left side of the screen, and a purple gauge fills, empties, fills, and repeats indefinitely. You can see where the wheel is presently situated, and then select the amount of effort you want to put into your spin. There are three glowing icons on the board, a '+' sign, and the letter's 'B' and 'M' (as in 'bowel movement'). You want to avoid the letters, though it's always nice to pick up the free spin the '+' represents.
Once you've spun the wheel, the animation will show the wheel rotating, then slowing to a stop on a value. For example, suppose you land on the space marked '700.' The screen will then switch back to a view of the puzzle, and you'll be given seven seconds to choose a letter from the letter strip (this is done the same way a name is entered). For each letter that appears when you make your selection, you get $700. If no letters are available, your turn is over and the next contestant gets a chance.
If part of the puzzle is revealed but you're not sure what to do next, you don't necessarily have to spin. If you have $250 or more, you can buy a vowel. This makes the puzzle easier to guess.
Speaking of which, you can also select 'Solve' if you think you know the answer, and you'll be given 40 seconds to fill in any of the blank spaces. It's enough time, particularly once you're used to the way the process works, but strategic players will wait to solve until most of the puzzle is already visible. That way, they don't run the risk of running out of time. When a puzzle is solved, the round ends and it's on to the next one.
The third round is a 'Speed Up' round, where the wheel automatically spins and selects a value, and then everyone picks a letter and tries to solve. It works much like the television show. And of course, the fourth round is for the player with the most money, who gets to pick a prize and hopefully win it. There are other ways the game mirrors the real show we all know and love. For example, you have a minimum win of $200, even if you solve the puzzle without spinning (which does happen from time to time. Also, the game lets you know if only vowels are left in the puzzle.
About the only way the game doesn't mirror the version of the television show that existed at the time of its release is in the final round. On television, some letters are also provided, and then players must pick three consonants and an additional vowel. Here, none of that is done for you. Instead, you get to pick a few letters and run with those. As a result, the puzzles are more difficult to solve than perhaps they should be.
None of this matters, though, compared to a careful dissection of Vanna's role in the game. It's obvious Rare's developers thought a lot of her. Watch closely as she saunters casually across the screen, flipping letters and looking nothing like her real-life counterpart. Another nice touch is that if a letter is more than halfway across the group, she'll walk to the opposite end of the puzzle, while if it's not, she only heads out to the letter, flips it, then returns lazily to her original position. Such a tiny feature must have taken awhile to program, and it's nice that Rare's developers knew Vanna is what makes the game work.
Less attention appears to have been paid to the artificial intelligence, which is unfortunate considering you'll likely be playing the game by yourself. On 'Easy' difficulty, the opponents don't put up much of a fight at all. You may as well be playing by yourself. If the computer players get a turn, they'll quickly guess most all of the correct levels, then make an obviously stupid guess when the thing is all but solved. Then you get to go and clean up with the cash prize. On higher levels, the wheel tends to favor you less, and the computer opponents guess obscure letters that end up being inexplicably correct, right from the start.
So challenge is uneven. Also uneven is the 'sound' department, which ranges from acceptable to downright irritating. It's hard to play for long without growing disgusted. The buzz when you miss a guess is like nails on a chalkboard, the sound of the 'strength' meter filling when the wheel is spun a masochist's delight, and the other sounds tend to range somewhere in between. What little music the game offers tends to be too fast-paced for its own good, and they somehow butchered the theme song music, as well. In fact, there really isn't a reason to keep the volume going once you've potentially listened to the digitized crowd scream the name of the game.
But like I've said, the game really isn't so bad. The lack of Pat Sajack and enemy faces is its worst flaw, and one can get over that easily enough. Aside from a few such gripes, the remaining package is mostly quite acceptable. It certainly wasn't a bad translation of the show for the time. Even if games have moved on since this one's time, it's fun to play with a few like-minded friends or (perhaps more accurately) grandparents. Just warn them that Vanna isn't as sexy as she should be and they'll likely agree to a few quick rounds.
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 20, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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