Don't look now, but You Don't Know Jack could turn out to be one of the most enduring gaming franchises of our time. How many other game series born in the '90s have seen as many different iterations or possessed such phenomenal staying power? By surviving and thriving for the better part of a decade, and even more remarkably, for staying essentially unchanged over that entire period of time, You Don't Know Jack demands to be recognized as a landmark gaming series.
But, as we all know, even the best games get old after a while. And to be frank, before playing this latest release (curiously subtitled "The Ride"), I had the sneaking suspicion that You Don't Know Jack was beginning to run out of steam. It wasn't so much that the quality of the games had diminished - they're all pretty much the same, and they're all pretty darn good - it's that my interest in the format itself was beginning to wane. The pop-culture references were growing tiresome, the humor seemed predictable, and the questions lacked the ability to surprise and entertain as they once had. In short, my extensive experience with the series was beginning to work against me, and as a result, each new game was marred by an underlying sense of "been there, done that - and more times than I care to remember."
Thankfully, Jellyvision, creator of the You Don't Know Jack series, must have been thinking the exact same thing. And as a result, it's made a number of changes to the game this time around. And thankfully, they all work like a charm.
First off is the game's new episode-based format, which is hinted at by "The Ride" moniker. The Ride refers to a ride on an elevator, which drops you off at different thematic "floors," which serve as the subject for any given game. The floor you end up on is determined by your answer to an either/or question at the beginning of the game. For example, if in response to the opening question you pick "the Land o' Lakes woman," you'll end up with a dairy theme, while if you choose "the Red Baron," you'll end up with a food theme (for Red Baron pizza, get it?).
In general, the themes make the game a lot more interesting, because rather than consisting of a random series of unrelated questions, each game has its own unique and discernable identity. The themes also make the host more engaging, as he'll refer back to questions from earlier in the game or even have a running gag throughout. For example, in the alcohol show, the host starts off by cracking open a beer, and then gradually drinks himself into a stupor as the game progresses. Obviously, not all themes are created equal - some are definitely stronger than others - but not knowing exactly what's in store is part of what makes playing the game fun.
As the alcohol theme might indicate, the other big change is a decided move towards adult subject matter. The Ride is filled with sexual double entendres, expletives deleted, and not-so-subtle references to various forms of intoxication. It's about time someone created an adult game that's based on mature, rather than pornographic, content. You'll also find that The Ride is generally more cynical and sarcastic than the earlier games and doesn't shy away from mocking you at every opportunity (even typing your name in can be dangerous).
There are also some new twists during the game itself. First off is the near-random value assigned to the questions (selected by the player hitting a key as values quickly flash on and off the screen). With ranges from $183 to more than $10,000, the randomization means that the lead can seesaw much more quickly than in previous versions. There is also a new type of question, dubbed "Roadkill" - which basically requires you to find a word that connects two other phrases - and it's a very good addition. Without giving too much away, there are also some one-off questions that only appear every few games, again adding some extra variety to the gameplay. The game is also faster paced, with shorter breaks between questions, another welcome change for veteran Jack players.
The graphics have also been mildly updated, with the transition scenes sporting a sleek, psychedelic look. And the production values are just about perfect - at this point, playing The Ride is pretty much like watching TV - and testing on numerous systems revealed none of the clipping or choppiness sometimes associated with the earlier games.
In conclusion, The Ride is a blast and arguably the best You Don't Know Jack since the original release. Jack is back, and that's very good news, indeed.