There’s two things that I love fondly that I grew up with: Video games (natch), and game shows. I’m not exactly sure what gravitated me towards game shows: Could be the flashy sets, the catchy themes, the thought of people winning $25,000 in mere seconds; but whatever it was, I was hooked. I still enjoy the classic game show every now and then, even though my interest in the genre has waned in recent years.
Since I like game shows and video games, having the two come together sounds amazing. It’s my version of a peanut butter cup. There were a whole bunch of them on the ol’ NES, almost all of them published by GameTek, a US-based software company. I think the game show games were their only hallmark, though they did publish games like Frontier: Elite II and Corridor 7: Alien Invasion, as well as working on publishing Robotech: Crystal Dreams before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999. There were some NES game show games published by other companies, such as Hi-Tech Expressions, but the less said about those games, the better.
Now, there’s a fair share of game show games on the NES by GameTek, including four different editions of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, as well as Double Dare, Hollywood Squares and many others. What most people don’t know is that some of these were developed by Rare. Yes, that Rare. Donkey Kong Country Rare. Banjo-Kazooie Rare. Kinect Sports Rare. For those who don’t find that as surprising as I do, Rare is a games company based in Twycross, England. All the game show adaptions that they had made weren’t as well known on British TV at the time, so to have a company based in England to do American TV game show video games is funny. I would assume the production companies would send them episodes of the show as well as the rules of the game so they understand what they’re trying to make.
Since Rare was a small skeleton crew throughout the ’80s, they only had one composer: Dave Wise (pictured). Wise pretty much composed all of Rare’s games solo up until the early ’90s, and seeing him try to recreate some of game show’s iconic themes on the NES sound chip sounds intriguing. Let’s see how well he did on each of them…
Jeopardy! (also includes Jeopardy! Junior Edition and Jeopardy! 25th Anniversary Edition)
The NES version:
“Think!”, Jeopardy!‘s theme from 1984-1991 (originally composed by Merv Griffin):
There really isn’t much to say about Jeopardy! as a show. Surprisingly, there were several NES adaptations by Gametek, with new editions out about a year apart from each other.
The theme to Jeopardy! is undeniably the most well-known and iconic game show theme. Merv Griffin’s little think tune eventually became the show’s hallmark theme since the show’s revival with Alex Trebek. Being one of the earliest Rare/GameTek collaborations, this is probably one of the closest. However, the intro – used during the contestant selection in the game – goes up three keys rather than two like the actual theme does.
The rest of the game has random little ditties that play throughout, and none of them resemble cues from the show. The theme is the closest they get, and it’s surprisingly passable.
The two later releases of Jeopardy! by Rare, 1989’s Junior Edition, and 1990’s 25th Anniversary Edition, have the same exact music. 25th Anniversary adds a little ditty during the copyright screen, which would also appear in Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition.
There really isn’t much difference between the three editions besides new clues — the Junior Edition might be even harder than the other editions unless you know a lot of 50s-60s stuff — even the 25th Anniversary edition recycles the contestant sprites from Junior Edition, except giving one of the kid models a mirror-universe beard for some reason.
These are alright versions of Jeopardy!, especially by 80s standards. You could do much worse.
Wheel of Fortune (also includes Wheel of Fortune Junior Edition)
The NES version:
“Changing Keys,” Wheel of Fortune‘s theme from 1983-1989, originally composed by Merv Griffin:
While Jeopardy! is a fairly straightforward game, Wheel of Fortune is a bit more elaborate. Spin a wheel and play hangman, and try to win cash. The 3 (!) versions GameTek released are identical in every way, and are particularly backwards by not having prizes on the wheel, the top dollar value never going higher than $1,000, that sort of thing. Otherwise the game’s pretty spot on to the nighttime “playing for cash” format that started becoming the show’s standard by that point. (Sorry, no shopping for ceramic dalmatians here.)
Wheel’s theme was another Merv Griffin-composed tune called “Changing Keys,” which was made to replace the original theme composed by Alan Thicke when the show entered syndication in 1983. The theme was arranged a few times over the years by Griffin and later Steve Kaplan, before being completely replaced with a Kaplan composed tune in the early 2000s. A shame, as the later themes are rather generic-sounding.
In the NES game, Wise opted to use the bridge that played during the show’s credits as the theme, rather than the introduction that was associated with the show at that point. It’s only something the game show diehards like me would notice, but it’s close enough to the main theme that it’s not a bother. Plus you’re likely only gonna hear a few seconds of this before you go into the game itself anyway.
Like Jeopardy!, Wheel had two additional releases done by Rare: Junior Edition in 1989 and Family Edition in 1990. Oddly, Family Edition completely changes all the music to completely original compositions such as this:
It sounds okay, but for a Wheel of Fortune game to lack the famous theme song is a strange omission, especially since the show had still had Changing Keys as its theme by the time Family Edition was released. Maybe this was music for an unfinished Rare game that they didn’t want to go unused? It definitely matches the sound of later Rare NES titles like Cobra Triangle and Battletoads…
The NES version:
Double Dare‘s theme from 1986-88, originally composed by Edd Kalehoff:
Anyone who was a Nickelodeon kid probably remembers Double Dare, especially Edd Kalehoff’s hi-octane uptempo track that got your blood pumping as kids tried to make human spaghetti to win cash and prizes.
However, the problems with making a video game adaptation of a physical game show becomes apparent as a lot of the physical challenges are needlessly difficult, and the obstacle course is an exercise in sore thumbs. It gets the show’s spirit down, but it’s probably the most frustrating of the lot.
Compared to the original theme, the NES version sounds way off. Wise nails the dramatic intro, but then the tune goes into something that sounds like the theme, if it was made by somebody trying to remember a tune by ear.
Not only that, the rest of the action-packed cues from the show are completely missing here, replaced with random tunes that have nothing to do with Double Dare. I’m guessing these were all random music tracks Wise had made that they threw in just to have incidental music for the game. Even the iconic Obstacle Course tune is missing from here, replaced by something fast-paced, but not nearly as exciting as the TV show’s.
Granted, the music on the NES Double Dare isn’t terrible – all of Wise’s NES output had some catchy tunes, even for stuff like Time Lord – But if we’re basing this just on how accurate the NES version is to the TV show’s theme, it gets a failing grade.
Note that I used the original Double Dare theme for comparison, which used a synthesizer as the lead instrument, rather than the version that’s more well known which is heavy on the brass. That version didn’t start being used until around the time Family Double Dare premiered around 1989-1990. My apologies if you were expecting a more triumphant theme for comparison.
The NES version:
Hollywood Squares intro theme used from 1986-89, originally composed by Stormy Sacks:
Finally, I saved the best for last. I grew up watching the John Davidson-hosted revival of Hollywood Squares from the 1980s. While it got frequently zany compared to the more light-hearted affair of the original with Peter Marshall, I still found some enjoyment in it as a kid in spite of the ridiculous celebrities like Jim J. Bullock. I could see why people didn’t like that version, however.
Hollywood Squares on the NES is not a pretty game. Lots of blank solid colors, boring graphics, and 8-bit John Davidson is wearing a pink suit for some reason. Worse off, all the celebrities are in the same squares but given random names in each game. No digital Jim J. Bullock or Joan Rivers here, sadly. Though I doubt they would’ve made the game any better.
Stormy Sacks composed the saxophone and keyboard-heavy theme song. It’s one of my favorite game show themes from the ’80s, so I was worried Wise wouldn’t be able to replicate it as well, repeating what he did with Double Dare. I was wrong. Dead wrong.
While the NES theme does deviate from the original theme slightly, it’s a spot on arrangement of Sacks’ catchy theme. Surprisingly, every other small cue from the show is replicated almost perfectly with the NES sound chip. Hell, Wise even re-created a cue from the show that doesn’t even appear in the game itself! (You can read more about this on The Cutting Room Floor’s entry on the game here.) I don’t know how he composed them perfectly – maybe they gave Rare the master tracks, who knows – but he made Hollywood Squares sound pretty damn awesome on the NES.
Granted, the NES game isn’t perfect by any means – certainly better than the other attempts to make a Hollywood Squares video game – but to go from Double Dare to this is a surprising 180.
Alas, Gametek started looking to other developers to make their game show games by 1991, using all kinds of contract developers from Beam Software and Imagitec. Rare would eventually come into their own with their own unique games, including Battletoads, so this period of Rare basically making schlocky licensed stuff based on TV properties came to an end. It’s funny, considering Rare is a British studio and were making games based on American properties of which were probably not that big in the UK. It’s funny to me.
If you wanna give these game soundtracks a listen yourself, you can get the soundtracks here. These require a player that plays NSF sound files. If you’re a dinosaur like me and still use Winamp, I recommend NEZPlug++, but there are alternatives for users of other media players like foobar2000 (such as Game Emu Player), or for those who just want a dedicated music player.
If you guys liked this, I ended up making Volume 2 a few years later that covers those other GameTek game show games made after Rare moved on, and those are a bit more interesting just for the developers involved. Give it a look!
(Updated September 4, 2014: Updated information, and replaced unreliable YouTube videos with MP3s instead.)
(Updated October 7, 2019: minor changes and moving the files to the website itself rather than from an outside source.)