Game show video games are a fascinating genre to me. Often criticized rather poorly by gamers who quite don’t get it, these sort of games are a fun little piece of entertainment for me. Some of the ones I like are straightforward adaptations of Jeopardy!, Concentration and High Rollers. They may have their own quirks, but they’re enjoyable well enough.
I even like the ones that aren’t based on standard TV game shows. I’ve written about ones using licensed properties like Outburst or MTV’s TRL, for example. But the ones I’m most interested by are the ones that aren’t based on any particular property or license, yet are clearly taking a few ideas from contemporary game shows. This one’s no exception.
Lexi-Cross is one of the rare video games that’s influenced by game shows, but is not based on a game show or an existing non-game show property. Published by Interplay and developed by Platinumware – mostly consisting of ex-Cinemaware employees – this game came out around 1990 and had been mostly forgotten. Unless you’re like me and you roamed Home of the Underdogs.
Yep, much like Blood II: The Chosen, Strife and several other games I’ve written about on this site at this point, that abandonware website rears its head once again. Home of the Underdogs made me aware of this game back in the late ‘90s. Considered a “Top Dog” on the website, given to games that were highly recommended by the site’s curators, combined with its game show sheen, made me incredibly interested in it.
Before finding it on Home of the Underdogs all those years ago, I had played a demo of the game on a Windows 95 machine. Since Windows 95 machines were just a pinch more powerful than 1990-era DOS machines, in rare cases the game would act rather strange, where the game’s “cursor” would act up and get stuck in a loop before crashing. Even when writing about this game for this article, I still worried of that particular bug occurring again, yet it never did in my several playthroughs of this game through DOSBox.
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The world of Lexi-Cross takes place in the distant future of 2091, and there isn’t much of a plot to go on. You meet up with a contestant coordinator as you put in your credentials – your name, date of birth, preferred board colors and your home planet. While I decided to be a smelly human being on Earth for these screenshots, there’s nothing stopping you being an alien from any of the other eight planets in the solar system. Afterwards, you’re whisked out of this room, switching to a camera of the game itself.
Our host is Chip Ramsey, and for the most part he just interjects once in a while and gives a brief rundown of the game and not much else. I can’t blame you if you forget that he’s there while you’re playing the game. To me, he looks like a cross between a Terminator and one-time Wheel of Fortune host Bob Goen. Considering how Wheel of Fortune was pretty big by 1990, this makes perfect sense. I’ve seen some people compare Chip to Chuck Woolery, but I’m not seeing it. I even made this joke image to prove my theory:
There’s even a small robot model named “Robanna,” who doubles as your cursor in-game. This, combined with the host, shows that Platinumware was clearly influenced by the famous game show involving wheels and letters.
So how does the game work? It’s a bit complicated, but I’ll try to explain it the best that I can. Two players compete, either you vs an AI, you vs another player (local or online), or among two computer players. Both players have an individual grid of tiles in front of them. You can use Robanna to reveal tiles on your board, hoping to reveal spaces that can be used to fill in words. There are blank spaces that will pass control to the other player if revealed.
There’s also a handful of special spaces. Some of them include spaces where you take or give points to your opponent, a safety card that works like Wheel’s “Free Spin” of old, a chance to reveal a vowel on revealed tiles free of charge, a Lose a Turn space that passed control to your opponent and gives them a safe haven, and the chance to peek at your own or your opponents column/row of tiles.
At any time, you can spin the wheel and pick consonants just like Wheel of Fortune. In addition to Wheel staples like Bankrupt and Lose a Turn, there’s also Reveal Row/Reveal Column spaces that will completely reveal every space on a selected row or column and give you the rewards for each. It’s helpful in certain circumstances, but any time you hit a points or special space, it gets replaced by an “End of Turn” space, which seems to be done as a way so a player can’t just dominate their turn by spinning all the time.
You only get points for any letter that’s on tiles that you already revealed, so it’s possible to find “no visible occurrences” of a letter, yet later reveal tiles that have the letter in question, so it’s important to try to reveal as many tiles on your board as you can before spinning to figure out the words in question.
Much like a crossword puzzle, all the words associate with a person, place or thing. Once you’ve seen enough words, you can take a guess at solving the overall puzzle to win bonus points. The game also gives a punny hint, which is filled in by revealing any “red” tiles that are found while picking letters. You don’t have to only rely on your grid of tiles and words, as both players’ boards are visible at all times.
Three rounds of Lexi-Cross action are played. Second one is played for double points and the third for triple (natch). Player with the most points after three rounds wins. The winning player then gets to play one more puzzle. Starting with a base time based on the score they got – up to 45 seconds – the player picks consonants until they call all the consonants in the puzzle or call 3 consonants that are not in the puzzle. After that, they pick 3 vowels. The player must then solve the puzzle to win the bonus game and get inducted into the Lexi-Cross “Hall of Fame.”
And that’s the game. After the game’s over, you can play a rematch or start a new game with new players. There’s no story mode, it plays a lot like other game show games of the era that it’s only a single match. That’s okay with me, but this coming from people that made popular story-driven games like Defender of the Crown does bum me out, considering we could’ve gone for a story mode akin to The Running Man.
So, now that I’ve gone through the complex rule set that Lexi-Cross has, I start to think like an armchair game show producer. Would this work as an actual show? What parts of the format work? What parts don’t work? What needs changing? Stuff like that.
The game itself is interesting. It’s got influences in existing game shows like Cross-Wits, Wheel of Fortune and Scrabble. The puzzles are simple, if not fun. But the game itself really drags. A single match of Lexi-Cross can take roughly an hour or more to finish, and most game show games are usually done in about 15-20 minutes, analogous to an actual TV show.
Well, the first thing I’d change is instead of each player having their own grid, there’s one whole grid that both players can pick from. I think this would speed up the game considerably, as the normal two grid play makes it a game of revealing tiles for several minutes before spinning or any other exciting things can happen. In addition to having only one board, this means that there’s no “cheating” by looking at your opponent’s board that might have more words revealed. There’s a bunch of times where I’ve solved puzzles not through the revealed words on my board, but glancing at my opponent’s board.
I’d likely also get rid of some of the more superfluous features. Stuff like Lose a Turn on the grid seems to grind the game down to a halt. Blank spaces already do the work of passing control to the other player, thus Lose a Turns on the grid just feel redundant and penalize players more harshly for no good reason. I’d also probably remove the “peek at row/column” spaces on the grid, as it rarely ever gave me any strategical advantage, and the reveal often went by too fast for me to even really see any of the prizes or penalties on offer.
Finally, I’d probably make the match a “best of three” scenario rather than three straight rounds. Again, this speeds up the game so that if a player dominates and gets two puzzles, we can head straight to the bonus round and get the game over with more quickly.
Otherwise, the game itself is fine. It’s a solid game show game made by people who were making something original rather than adapting an existing property. The sound’s a bit obnoxious – the F2 key will be your new best friend – and the music by George “The Fat Man” Sanger is catchy if not super game show-sounding. It’s a perfectly fine DOS game of the era.
One thing that really surprised me is that despite the game being a slight homage to game shows, they really don’t lean into that angle more compared to something like Smash TV. Outside of joke prizes for losers, there’s no toasters, VCRs, vacations or a faaaaaabulous new car on offer, which feels like a missed opportunity for more humorous jokes. The game’s fairly dry otherwise.
Unlike other Interplay-published titles, this has never really been re-released digitally. It’s a shame too, because it’s a pretty solid little title that even non-game show nuts would find some enjoyment in. I won’t link to any abandonware sites here, but you should give this a try if you want an enjoyable game show game.
Now that I think about it, there’s been many game shows trying to do crossword-like formats, none of them being any successful at it. There’s this game, and an adaptation of Merv Griffin’s Crosswords are some of the more notable ones. There’s even one that has a rather famous game show host at the helm that came and went. I wonder if that one’s any good…