Late last year, I had written about Interplay and Platinumware’s attempt at trying to make a fake game show, Lexi-Cross. It was surprisingly interesting if a bit flawed. At the end of that article, I was reminded of a similar crossword-puzzle driven fake game show. This one came out during the big casual games boom of the mid-2000s, and actually featured someone that until recently, was rather elusive to the world of video games.
Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters is an interesting breed of game. Developed by Playtonium Games and published by Uclick, it’s a crossword puzzle game stylized like a TV game show, and features an actual host: Pat Sajak, the famous host of Wheel of Fortune. Originally released as a digital game with a trial mode, a later physical “Deluxe” release published by Atari came out in sometime in 2006 on bargain bin shelves everywhere.
I got my copy of this many years ago back in Year One: From a (now-defunct) Value Village in Seattle while I was visiting PAX West – then known as PAX Prime – that I also got complete-in-box copies of The Colonel’s Bequest and Police Quest II: The Vengeance. There were several copies there, one of which had been price-marked down from its normal $20 price down to $1. Knowing my love for dumb game show games, I couldn’t resist the $3 price tag.
Before I continue, I should clarify a bit who Pat Sajak is for those unaware: He’s the host of Wheel of Fortune, one of the more popular game shows in the United States. Taking over from previous host (and future die-hard conservative Trump supporter) Chuck Woolery in 1981, Sajak has been hosting the perennial game show ever since. Sajak currently holds the record for longest-running tenure of hosting the same game show in the United States – 39 years, beating out the late Alex Trebek’s 36 years on Jeopardy! and Bob Barker’s 35 years on The Price Is Right, respectively – and shows no signs of retiring any time soon.
But interestingly, he never did video games. Like most game shows, there’s been an absolute glut of video games based on the famous puzzle game. But for a good long while, most Wheel of Fortune adaptations usually featured co-host and puzzle board operator Vanna White as host instead, even some of the later games featuring announcer Charlie O’Donnell. But no Pat to be seen, something he’s even pointed out on the show in the past.
In the mid-2000s, he started a puzzle game brand called Pat Sajak Games that briefly existed to sell puzzle books featuring him and his likeness, but it would also branch out to something that until then had been rather elusive to him: the burgeoning video game market. Which leads us to Lucky Letters.
The game has three modes of play, all around the concept of crossword puzzles. One is the main Lucky Letters mode, which is the meat of the game. The others, the Lucky 10 and Lucky Players we’ll get into in a bit. But how does Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters play?
The rules go a little something like this: There’s a crossword puzzle based on a theme (TV shows, locations, current events, etc). When the game starts, the player can choose a few letters randomly chosen to fill out the board. After that, the game will randomly pick a word out of the crossword, and give it a cash value from three slot machines of various values. The goal is to fill in the crossword clue by selecting correct letters from a pile of random letters. Each correct letter gives you money, but you lose money if you pick a letter not in the word, which will also end that turn.
The “Lucky Letters” in the title refers to this game mechanic: One of the unrevealed letters is assigned as the Lucky Letter, and if correctly chosen, will fill in every other instance of that letter in the crossword puzzle, and is worth anywhere from 2 to 5 times the value of the three wheels.
In addition, sometimes the game will determine a word to be part of the Lucky Chance – this game’s equivalent to Jeopardy!’s Daily Double. You can wager a quarter, one half or all your winnings to fill in this hard word, but calling a wrong letter or running out of time will lose all money wagered. You can also pass this word if you have no idea.
After 10 clues have been played, the game moves onto the lightning round where you must fill in all the letters from the remaining clues in an amount of time. Lucky Letters will still fill in the puzzle, and words will slowly disappear as they’re filled in. Successfully solve the puzzle within the time limit and a big cash bonus is awarded.
Interestingly, there are five levels of difficulty for these puzzles, one for each day of the week. Picking a specific day will adjust the rules a bit: How many free letters you get to pick from at the start, the cash amounts awarded, to even giving you different amounts of time to complete the Lightning Round: from a comforting 2 minutes 30 seconds on a Monday puzzle to a nerve-wracking 1 minute 15 seconds on a Friday puzzle. Completing five games in a row, regardless of which days you choose, gives you the option to play the Championship game with a bigger, harder puzzle with a potential large cash prize if successfully completed.
The Lucky 10 shrinks the core game down to finding the Lucky Letter that fits the two words linking it, with a big bonus if you make no mistakes. Lucky Players just makes it a competitive game for up to four players, ala You Don’t Know Jack. They’re all based on the same crossword game, just with a few twists.
Sajak appears in the game as the show’s host, giving out quips and banter during play, of which there’s not a lot of lines. I heard him say stuff like “BINGO! Oh wait, wrong game” and “I didn’t even know that and it’s my game!” multiple times, which is a bummer for a game like this to only have Pat say the same 3-4 things.
Interestingly, Lucky Letters Deluxe added some new features presumably to make use of the CD, in the form of having full-motion videos featuring Sajak at various points. Most of these involve tips and tricks for the game, but other times they’re full of gimmick bits like him eating food or making a joke about playing Lucky Letters in French. Some of these are available online, and they’re about the most surreal thing imaginable. I can give the game credit for weirdness with these FMVs, but did we really want to see a video of him pretending to call Brad Pitt, or him slightly belittling the player for not getting a ridiculously high score? Seems a bit much to me.
That’s about it for Lucky Letters. But the Pat Sajak Games brand didn’t end there. A second game, Pat Sajak’s Trivia Gems was released about a year later, though this time it didn’t get a physical release (thus no FMV of Pat this time). There’s a demo version of Trivia Gems included with Lucky Letters Deluxe, and from what I played, seemed like a trivia game with a complex pyramid structure and wagering elements, making the game a bit more complicated than necessary.
After releasing one more game – a themed version of Lucky Letters tied to TV Guide Magazine – the Pat Sajak Games brand folded quietly in the late 2000s. By then, Sajak eventually got comfortable to finally appear in Wheel of Fortune games proper, with the THQ-published Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions finally featuring a digital version of Pat Sajak for the very first time.
As for Lucky Letters, it’s been mostly forgotten. An interesting crossword puzzle game in a flooded market that’s kinda fun but only if you can find enjoyment in fake game shows, crossword puzzles or Pat Sajak. Combined with a bunch of extra video to pad out the CD, and more Pat Sajak than you probably wanted, this thing has mostly been forgotten for a reason. The original game, FMV-free, is available on places like Big Fish Games for $8, and if you wanted to own an interesting game show game in your collection, this isn’t the worst thing imaginable. But I think there’s a reason I found several copies of Lucky Letters Deluxe at that thrift store nine years ago.
When it comes to games being promoted by a game show host, I can’t think of many other game show personalities who lent their likeness for video games. Besides this game and Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku, I think this market was pretty niche even by 2006. Unless you want to count Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. And honestly I’m kinda exhausted with crossword-related stuff, so I might need something that requires a bit less thinking in the future.
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