Most hard-core gamers probably gnash their teeth at the thought of Regis Philbin and his simple-minded trivia game outselling every other supposedly respectable game on the market. The TV game show that has every executive from other networks feverishly reshuffling his prime-time grid is also burning up the computer entertainment charts. With more than a million copies sold and no end in sight, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is the people's choice, whether fraggers like it or not.
Much like the TV show, and perhaps like Regis Philbin himself, Millionaire the computer game appreciates its own mediocrity, but it executes its blandness extremely well. First of all, the price is low enough ($19.95) to make it an ideal impulse buy. Second, it's got Regis himself, who's key to the game show's success. After all, Millionaire is about achieving unearned success by showing mastery of trivial knowledge that otherwise gets people nowhere in life. Who better to usher these average Americans into the Hot Seat and give them a shot at accidental wealth than a common-man celebrity like Regis?
While the game doesn't reproduce the social drama that makes the TV show so popular, it makes do with the bare-bones gameplay and adds some of the design qualities of the developer's signature product, the much better You Don't Know Jack. Each aspect of the show is re-created in the computer game in some fashion. In single-player mode, you go right into the Hot Seat, where you must ascend a ladder of 15 multiple-choice trivia questions to win. Reaching the one thousand and thirty-two thousand dollar milestones guarantees you will win at least that much if you lose later, though it hardly matters. All you'll get is an onscreen check with Regis' signature.
When you feel stumped, you have three "lifelines" to use throughout the climb. The 50/50 option removes two of the three wrong answers to a question. You can ask to poll the audience, which gives you the actual results taken from a sample group for each question. The most impressive re-creation is the phone-a-friend lifeline, in which Regis calls one of his friends, who then struggles to offer a suggestion that may or may not be right.
Jellyvision and Disney evidently invested the necessary resources to give the game as much of the TV feel as possible. While Regis doesn't actually read off all of the questions, he does offer the color commentary about where you are on the ladder and banters with the phone-a-friend character. Even after many hours of play, there still wasn't any tedious redundancy in his comments, and the question database seemed sufficiently deep to avoid frequent repeats.
With years of You Don't Know Jack experience under their belts, the Jellyvision designers know how important a smooth audio-visual experience is to keeping a simple game interesting. In addition to the melodramatic music, the questions - which pop in and out, causing the screen to rearrange itself - are animated well. Regis comments on the game without any telltale sound splices or lag times for disk access. However, the questions are noticeably more media and pop-culture-related than those in the TV version, suggesting that Jellyvision may have been dipping into the You Don't Know Jack database.
Unfortunately, the Fastest Finger multiplayer qualifying round is the weakest part of the game. On TV, more than a dozen contestants must arrange four items (like movies or historical events) into the correct order, usually chronological. Getting the fastest correct answer sends you to the Hot Seat. The computer variant struggles to re-create this by letting any number of people choose a letter as their own on the PC keyboard. The computer then shuffles the four items into different orders. The first person to press a key when the right order comes up wins, and then the standard single-player mode starts.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire could have been a better game in other ways as well. It's hard to say whether a network-play variant could have worked better than the Fastest Finger option, which just doesn't make Millionaire into the party game that You Don't Know Jack is. A head-to-head or multiplayer contest in which players simply respond to the same multiple-choice questions simultaneously until one player remains would have probably worked better. And since the central drama of Millionaire has to do with the money at stake, it would have been interesting to link the home and on-air versions somehow. For instance, home players who consistently reach the top of the money ladder could automatically apply to be TV contestants.
But for $19.95, one probably shouldn't complain that Jellyvision didn't explore any extensions to the basic gameplay. As it stands, Who Wants to be a Millionaire is both a faithful and entertaining simulation of the TV show. You Don't Know Jack is far and away the better trivia game, as it's both more entertaining and more appropriate for party play. But it's definitely the game for those who want to see how well they would do in the infamous Hot Seat. It may also be the best way to permanently shut up that irritating, know-it-all family member who barks out the answers to all of the questions whenever the show is on TV.