Game show video games are fascinating to me. They’re neat ways to enjoy your favorite shows, it can be good practice for how you’d actually do on the show itself, and it’s interesting to see how they adapt certain game shows to video game form. I never understood why some retro gamers balk at these games, a lot of them seem to miss the point why they’re fun.
If you’ve visited the site before, you’ve probably read a few pieces on me talking about game show games in various ways, from comparing game music versions of iconic game show themes to game show-adjacent games. But if you haven’t, let me make this clear: I like game show video games. And once again, we’re gonna talk about them.
For a good chunk of the 80s and 90s, GameTek was the definitive game show game publisher in North America. A subsidiary of IJE Inc, the publisher would license various game show franchises – usually Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, two of the biggest game shows in the USA – and put them out on every platform imaginable. Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, DOS, Windows, you name it, they likely published a game show game on a system you had.
They published other stuff too: They helped publish Frontier: Elite II for instance. Hell, their UK branch helped distributed the work of Capstone, “The Pinnacle of Entertainment Software.” Despite this, they will always be the game show game guys to me.
Unfortunately by the late 1990s, GameTek was struggling, and in December 1997 they had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Some of the projects they were making, like RoboTech: Crystal Dreams, got canceled. But in spite of the bankruptcy, they had one last hurrah, by releasing two games that they were mostly well-known for: game show games based on the one-two punch of one Merv Griffin.
Wheel of Fortune – released around November 1997 – and Jeopardy! – released in February 1998 after Take-Two Interactive acquired GameTek’s assets – are the final two game show adaptations published by GameTek. By this time, GameTek was developing the games in-house, forgoing the early NES/SNES days of having contract developers make the games for them. For a company who had a decade+ of game show games under their belt, having their last games be yet another version of Wheel and Jeopardy! was a sad way to go out.
I remember these games because Nintendo Power had covered both games in different issues of the magazine: Wheel of Fortune in December 1997’s issue, and Jeopardy! in the January 1998 issue, of which I owned. It’s surprising to see these games to get a multi-page spread on the magazine.
Why they decided to dedicate magazine space to these two games is a bit weird to me. I know the Nintendo 64 was struggling for a good while, but to give multiple pages about these games makes me think the system’s library was pretty dire until The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Of course, maybe I’m wrong and they always covered stuff like this.
I’m going into these with the assumption that you know what these shows are and how they play, mostly. If you don’t… well, you might wanna catch up on that first. With that preamble out of the way, let’s give these a shot, shall we?
I’ll start by covering the one that came out first: Wheel of Fortune. This was one of the first games I got for the Nintendo 64, alongside stuff like Diddy Kong Racing and Super Mario 64. Me being a game show fan meant naturally I was gonna have this game in my collection.
Much like most Wheel games until around 2010, our “host” is Vanna White, the show’s co-host and letter turner. Or in this case, “letter toucher,” as this was released just as the new modernized puzzle board was revealed, something prominently shown on the cover.
Like most adaptations, there’s character customization, AI opponent difficulty, even the option to play 3-5 fixed rounds of play, or a “full game” which can go for the maximum six rounds or until the game decides time is up and goes into the Speed-Up portion, complete with Vanna giving the Final Spin of the day.
Wheel‘s core format is fairly simple: A puzzle similar to Hangman is revealed, spin the wheel, land on a dollar amount, call a consonant and hope it’s in the puzzle. Wanna know if a vowel’s in the puzzle? You can buy one for $250. Try not to hit Bankrupt as you’ll lose all your money you’ve earned that round. Highest scorer wins.
Like the show was doing at the time, round three is the Jackpot round, where every correct letter adds to a Jackpot that starts at $5,000 each game, and landing on the Jackpot wedge, guessing a correct letter and solving the puzzle immediately awards the jackpot. Also, the $10,000 prize space also makes an appearance, the only major prize on the wheel in this version.
Interestingly, for the Nintendo 64 version of Wheel, there’s the rare opportunity to actually control the strength of one’s spin. Most adaptations of Wheel just use a sliding gauge the player stops to control the speed, but since the Nintendo 64 has an analogue stick, you can actually move the stick from right to left to spin the wheel, which makes it feel a bit more immersive. Granted, one could just press the A or Z button to automatically spin for you, but that’s not nearly as cool.
After the game’s over, the winning player goes to the bonus round. The usual RSTLNE and picking three consonants and one vowel come into play here, and a successful solve earns the player a flat $25,000. After that, Vanna waves bye-bye and then the credits roll.
As for the game itself, it’s alright. There are no other prizes on this adaptation, everything is cash. No armoires, no trips, no cars. There’s no Surprise wedge, either; the Jackpot and $10,000 Wedge are the closest the game gets to interesting gimmicks. Despite these unusual omissions, it has all the categories that were on the show at the time, including the quirky Same Name and Before & After puzzles.
Wheel of Fortune is definitely not a looker for 1997, when 3D graphics were basically the norm. While the Wheel and the puzzleboard are pretty accurate to the show, the rest of the set is incredibly barren, switching between random locales from game to game. Vanna and the contestants are flat sprites, having less animation than previous adaptations on the Super Nintendo. Vanna doesn’t even properly touch the letters, she walks back and forth between the puzzleboard and the letters magically change.
The only interesting thing is having full motion video of Vanna in a small box giving comments about what round we’re playing, whether a player hits Lose a Turn, that sort of thing. Granted, the “full motion video” is just a bunch of sprites stitched together, but hey, it was still pretty neat, we didn’t know any better at the time.
Like a lot of GameTek adaptations of Wheel, it tries to capture the spirit of the show with so many little flourishes that it seems impressive that they cared so much. I mean, the title screen is a literal recreation of the show’s intro at the time, complete with the show’s theme. Did they need to go that far? Not really, but at times it feels they boxed themselves in with trying to be pitch-perfect to the show, something some later adaptations tried to move away from.
There isn’t much else to add to Wheel of Fortune on the Nintendo 64. It’s a perfectly serviceable adaptation for Nintendo’s first 3D console, but could’ve been so much better.
Onward to the other half of our episode for today, Jeopardy!
This being the last major GameTek game is interesting. When featured in Nintendo Power, a lot of the graphics were different from the final release, using the logo and graphics package of the show at the time. Due to the delayed release, these uses the logo from that season, the one with the red boxes.
Compared to Wheel of Fortune, where it’s mostly puzzles, Jeopardy! is quite a more complex beast. Since it’s a quiz game that asks for 61 clues between 13 categories daily, this required probably a bit more time in the oven. Which means we get something that feels a little more fleshed out, but has the same problems.
Naturally, we get Alex Trebek as our host here, this time just in FMV form, his host lectern disappearing to the ether. FMV Alex does appear in-game, but usually when you’ve given an incorrect response, with him making comments like “Gosh! That’s wrong,” which has that signature Trebek snark that most people are familiar with. Alex does talk a lot in this one, making frequent comments, so it at least feels accurate to the show.
Like previous iterations, Jeopardy! has a bevy of character customization options, this time being able to input your name, something Wheel lacks. One can change the clues from being fairly easy ones most will get to being a mix between easy, average and rather challenging clues, just like the show.
The most interesting thing about the Nintendo 64 adaptation is that it actually introduces something that would become more common in future Jeopardy! adaptations. There’s an autocomplete option, where typing in some of the letters will show a question filled in if you’re looking for a specific guess. Pressing Z will accept the autocompleted answer as your guess, which is really helpful. This can be adjusted in the menu to accept more loose spelling, or turned off entirely, but I can’t fathom why you’d do that unless you wanted a challenge.
The biggest problem with a lot of Jeopardy! games on home consoles up to this point is that they required the player to type in their answer and be accurate to the letter, something that really bogs down the gameplay to what is normally a fast-paced quiz game. This little change makes a big difference to Jeopardy! video games going forward, something these games desperately needed.
The downside is that while that makes it more user-friendly, the game is still a slog to play. Every clue starts with a 10 second lockout timer, presumably so players can read the clue, then a gamer timer that goes for 15 seconds. An incorrect response resets the timer to 5 seconds. This means each clue can take 30 seconds if no one decides to ring in, or upwards of a minute or so once a player buzzes in and start typing. So while we have some changes that help speed the game along, the game still takes a long time to play a single game.
Like the show, there’s a Daily Double on the board where the player who chose it can wager any or all of their money on a challenging clue. While the game does tell you the critical info – how much each player has, the minimum and maximum wagers – this is a bit ugly due to the art style the game uses.
The rest of the game is pretty self-explanatory at this point. Double Jeopardy! doubles the dollar values and has two Daily Doubles, then onto Final Jeopardy!, the wagering portion where players are given some time to write down their response to a challenging final clue. Here the timer’s extended from 30 seconds to 60, which gives us a weirdly extended version of the Final Jeopardy! think music, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.
A lot of the same problems that plagued Wheel of Fortune are in this version too: Stiff sprites with limited animations, a barren but mostly accurate set, and lots of “FMV.” The sound effects are off too: expect to hear the Final Jeopardy! p-TING! after every clue, and hearing bizarre chirping sounds to indicate which player rang in. Makes sense, since Alex can’t really call out player names; but even some Jeopardy! games mitigated that by having him say “Contestant #1” or something.
Even the AI has flaws. While it does actually give incorrect responses rather than generic “ZWXYZ” messages like the Game Boy Jeopardy! games, it doesn’t really do math very well: Their default wager in any Daily Double or during Final Jeopardy! is half of their earnings, which can lead to a minor problem. In one game I played, one of the AI opponents hit all three Daily Doubles and ended up with a weird score like $3912 or something by the end. While scores like that do happen on the regular show, it’s incredibly uncommon, and it just seems like they didn’t give good wagering strategies to the AI.
I will admit that even though I’m a mild fan of the show, I am incredibly bad at Jeopardy!. It took me about 6-7 games with the AI set to “Average” difficulty to even win a single game, and that required me to basically be conservative with my wagering in Final Jeopardy! once I figured out the AI’s wagering strategy is not anywhere close to an actual human’s.
After Final Jeopardy!, the game ends with a player being crowned the new champion, and the option to either start a new game with the same players, a new game with different players, or to quit, which starts with Alex saying that “we’ll play again soon,” rolling the credits and… oddly sitting on several minutes of a black screen before a goofy easter egg pops up. After this, you’ll need to reset the console to get back to the main menu. Considering how this came out months after Wheel of Fortune, they probably just ran out of time and shipped it.
And that’s it for Jeopardy!. It’s a pretty good blueprint for future Jeopardy! games to come, but it’s too rough around the edges for anyone who likes the show or trivia games to enjoy.
It’s fascinating to see GameTek’s final games just be these rather soulless adaptations of the classic game shows that they used to publish and release. From the cheap-looking menus, the odd gameplay omissions, to even relying on FMV cutscenes of the hosts, these just make the shows tackier than they really are.
Judging how certain parts of each show are omitted or simplified, these games were probably pushed out the door just to fulfill any deals GameTek had with Sony Pictures Television. Though even if they were given another year on each, they probably wouldn’t be outstanding, just better than mediocre.
In spite of my complaints, for 1997-98, these are perfectly serviceable adaptations of the big game shows on the market. If you wanted to play these game shows without digging up your old Super Nintendo, these worked fine, provided you didn’t pay $70-80 for a Nintendo 64 cartridge. They’re perfectly functional, which is really all you could ask for.
While GameTek may be defunct now, the Wheel and Jeopardy! licenses were still white hot, so it didn’t take long for them to find a new home. Hasbro Interactive would acquire the licenses and release new Jeopardy! and Wheel games for the PlayStation and PC. This would continue well into the 2000s as Hasbro Interactive was bought by Infogrames and folded into Atari. (The modern Atari, the one that tried to go into cryptocurrency and hotel chains.)
The license for Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! played a bit of publisher hopscotch after that. Currently, Ubisoft released modern adaptations for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch in 2017. So it’s not like GameTek folding was the end of those video games, as there’s always gonna be new video game consoles and people who wanna play their favorite game show at home.
If you want to play these games, the only viable option is the secondhand market. Unfortunately the retro collecting scene is going through a phase where all games have jacked up prices. Even loose cartridges for these two go for $15-20 each according to pricecharting.com.
Rarely do I recommend this, but I think you’d be better off emulating these games or hunt down an Everdrive 64 if you insist playing them on real hardware. Though, there’s little incentive to really play either of these versions unless you’re curious, they’ve been usurped by better versions out there, some of them even made by the fans. But they’re definitely an interesting peek into the dying days of GameTek.
I’ll miss you, GameTek. You weren’t the best publisher around, but your game show games were pretty solid. They were in the hands of people who are least cared a little bit about the property, compared to other companies like Hi-Tech Expressions, or in more recent cases, Ludia. The less said about stuff like The $1,000,000 Pyramid and Family Feud 2012 Edition, the better.
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Screenshots were taken in the Simple64 emulator, and may not be 100% accurate to how these games are on real hardware.
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