Wheel of Fortune is one of America's most popular game shows. It's easy to see why. There's little or no skill involved, and your fate is usually decided by the spin of the giant wheel. Pat Sajak and Vanna White have become household names from sea to shining sea. Zillions of hapless Americans tune in regularly to see who will walk away with the brand-new car, luxury vacation, or fabulous yacht.
The premise of the game is simple. You try to guess a person, place, or thing by choosing consonants and buying vowels. If you're lucky, your spin of the wheel lands you on a dollar amount (ranging from $250 to $10,000). If you choose a consonant that's in the mystery phrase, you get the dollar amount you spun multiplied by the number of occurrences in the phrase. For example, let's say you spun $500 and picked the letter T. The mystery phrase has four Ts, so you get $2,000. Vowels are purchased at $250 a pop. The wheel is also loaded with Bankrupts, Lose a Turns, and Surprises. If your letter guess isn't in the phrase, the wheel passes to the next player.
The trick of the game is to figure out what the phrase is quickly, then keep spinning until the last possible moment. This strategy of sorts works well, unless you happen to land on a Bankrupt or Lose a Turn. All this activity and puzzle solving sounds exciting, right? And it is, if you happen to be playing the game in the Sony Studios and actually have a chance at winning money or a prize. It's less fun watching it on TV at home; but there's still some drama and excitement, wondering what each player will do and, of course, solving the puzzle before any of the morons on TV can.
Although there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to bring a game show like this to the PC, Hasbro will definitely have an audience amongst people who dream of being part of the action of a big-money American game show. But beyond that, what does this game really offer?
The game sets out right from the get-go to be as much like the TV show as possible. An emcee asks you simple questions to get you started and puts you in control of the wheel. That vicarious thrill alone will sell hundreds if not thousands of copies of this game. Not to mention the appearance of the one-and-only Vanna White as the show's host. Hasbro has cleverly integrated her FMV image dialogue into the show. Of course, at times, it's totally silly (there's this smiling clapping thing she does that pops up randomly that's just hilarious). But the dialogue and mannerisms are exactly as they are on the TV show (I watched it a few times just to make sure). It's the lack of human interaction that makes her appear so much sillier on the PC.
The point of view also changes constantly. Since I'm not a regular viewer of the TV show (really, I'm not), I found this irritating in the extreme. After watching a few shows, however, I realized this effect mimics the changing points of view on the set in an attempt - I'm guessing - to elevate the level of excitement (sort of like that weird hopping camera on NYPD Blue makes it seem more "real"). Another problem was that the mouse pointer used to select letters was slow, clunky, and often jumped around the screen in an alarming manner. I made many incorrect guesses and was chastised by Vanna for wasting time because I couldn't get my mouse pointer to simmer down and behave.
The first few games, I played against two computer opponents. Right from the start, I got the general impression that the computer-generated players were having a lot more fun than I was. ("Come on, baby! Big money! Big money!") The game isn't even smart enough to give these poor hapless ghosts in my machine names. But when Computer Player 1 won the fantasy prize - an African ballooning safari - I had no doubt that she was soaring the skies of the Serengeti somewhere between my hard drive and my motherboard. I, on the other hand, could only imagine going on the luxury cruise I won and paddling my antique wood canoe in a pond that looked like it belonged in one of those bottled water ads.
The big problem I had with my exuberant opponents was that, unless I was in control of the wheel, I spent a lot of time watching my AI counterparts playing, guessing, spinning, and winning. Then, I wised up and played against myself (under assumed names, of course). But I have to say, the game soon palled. The mystery phrases were so simple, even I could guess them with only a few letters showing. I totally realize that the object of the game isn't really to guess some difficult phrase or use my brain in any way. The mystery phrase is just a vehicle of suspense for the greedy players.
But the worst part of Wheel of Fortune was the lack of reward. This is a game where the only reward is winning money and prizes. Imagining money and prizes is just not the same. Even watching other real live people win money and prizes on TV was better than imagining how I would spend my imaginary $50,000 while driving my imaginary Land Rover. Another couple of games, and I'm cracking my computer case to join Computer Player 1 on her African ballooning safari.