Retro Game Retrospective: Wheel Of Fortune (Various)
Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to the newest edition of Retro Game Retrospective. As many of you have been more than patient, we are finally proud to upload for your enjoyment, the history of the various home console versions of Wheel Of Fortune as released over the many years of home video gaming. You may remember that this article was originally scheduled to be released about two weeks ago, to coincide with the 30th season premiere. But due to a computer malfunction on my personal computer, the entire file was whipped out and due to its length and complexity, took this long to be rewritten. So without any further delay, let’s get this party started, and take a look at the Wheel Of Fortune video games, from Commodore to Wii!
First off, a little bit of history about the game show itself, for those that have been living under a rock for the last 40 years. Wheel Of Fortune originally started out as a pilot concept called “Shopper’s Bazarre”, hosted by Chuck Woolery in 1973, and Edd Byrnes hosted two pilots under the Wheel title in 1974. Ultimately, when the show began productions, Chuck Woolery got the job. The original letter turner was a lady by the name of Susan Stafford. The show premiered on NBC daytime on January 6, 1975, and what makes it very ironic, is that the show replaced it’s now sister show, Jeopardy, which aired its final episode of the network run the previous Friday. Chuck Woolery hosted the show on NBC until December 25, 1981, and left the program due to a salary dispute with creator Merv Griffin. Pat Sajak replaced Chuck the following Monday, which happened to be a special Teen Week edition of the show. Susan Stafford remained on the show until October of 1982, mostly due to various injuries she had in her personal life. Summer Bartholomew, Vicki Lovine (then Vicki McCarty) and Vanna White rotated as guest hostesses on the show, until Vanna White was selected as permanent letter turner in December of 1982. The syndicated nighttime version that we all know and love premiered on September 19, 1983, and is still going strong after all these years. The daytime version went off the air on September 20, 1991, but not before having a network change to CBS, and 2 host changes: San Diego Chargers place kicker Rolf Benirschke as well as Entertainment Tonight host Bob Goen hosted the daytime version before its cancellation.
While the first version of Wheel Of Fortune in video game form wouldn’t happen until the 1986 version released for the Commodore 64 and other computer systems, the concept was thought of years before that. In 1982, a company called “The Great Game Company” had planned a wide variety of game show based titles for the Atari 2600, and exclaimed that they were going to be ready for a Spring, 1983 release. They planned a lot of popular game show titles, such as Family Feud, Jeopardy, Tic Tac Dough and The Joker’s Wild. And yes, Wheel Of Fortune was on that list. However, none of these games every got to see the light of day, and all of them were cancelled before they got released. There has been much speculation on whether or not any of these games even got to the prototype stage, as no known demos have yet to be discovered. I personally would have loved to see how these games would have been programmed for the Atari, since having a game like Wheel Of Fortune would seem impossible to program on such a small amount of space. It had long been assumed that if these games ever did get released that it would utilize either the Starpath Supercharger for data, or perhaps incorporate board game elements, which would place it in the same boat as the original Odyssey. (If anyone out there knows anything about any of these prototypes, please let us know!)
Before it was officially coined as “America’s Game”, Wheel of Fortune has had numerous video games made available over the years. The very first home version of the game was released in 1986 for the Commodore 64 computer, and released by Sharedata, who created many computer versions of popular game shows early in the lifespan. 1987 would also allow the game to be published for other computer platforms, including the 8-bit Apple II series and the IBM PC. Unfortunately, the graphics for all 3 of these versions was quite primitive. For the DOS versions, it is in a way understandable since it ran using CGA graphics which have very little on the color palette. However the Commodore 64 was much more capable of having decent graphics, and it just seemed to be a little rushed into production. As far as the Apple II version is concerned, you have to wonder why a specific version for the Apple IIGS system, which was capable of doing video screen grabs, was never created. Instead, we got ports of the original Commodore engine, and sadly, it shows thanks to lack of programming. The puzzles and game play are quite excellent, don’t get me wrong. In fact, the games were so successful that two other editions were made, including a “junior” edition that had puzzles that were easier for kids to solve. I just personally feel that by the mid 1980s, these computers were starting to run at its greatest potential, and that the programmers were just a little sloppy. However, if nothing else, it started a franchise that just wouldn’t quit.
A company called GameTek took over the rights for home video game consoles as well as computers, and that’s where the magic begins. GameTek really loved its game show licenses, and released many creations over the years. The first home console version of Wheel Of Fortune, came out for the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. The game itself was actually designed by Rare. Turn it on, and you get the famous theme as well as a digitized screaming of “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” New to this version of the game includes a completely smooth animated wheel with figures directly on the wedges, which the previous computer versions lacked. What it does not offer however, is an increase in value as the rounds went on. The top value was always $1000, no matter what round you were playing. The game always played a total of three rounds: 2 normal rounds and then a “speed up” round, which is similar to the current “final spin” round. Win the game, then pick your prize for the final round to win big. (For the record, all of the versions that were made into video games always followed the all cash format. As many of the old timers may remember, when the show started, all the money you won on the main games were exchanged for prizes instead of cash. Because after all, “Once you buy a prize, it’s yours to keep!”) One cool piece of history is that in the sprite code, there is a Coca-Cola logo that is not used at all in the game. At the time, Merv Griffin Productions was owned by Coca-Cola Company. Who knows? The NES version is the one closest to my heart, as it was my very first experience. The animations are pretty smooth for the most part, and the puzzles don’t tend to repeat that often if you vary the difficulty. A junior version of this engine was also released in April of 1988, but for some reason, the entire game runs noticeably slower. Also, a “family” version was also created in 1990. The only thing that freaks me out (and still does), about all of these versions, is how our beautiful and elegant letter turner, looks like a monkey in a dress! (My mom’s original words when she first saw it.) It actually becomes a little bit of a distraction if you ask me. But that would change in 1991.
In 1991, GameTek would release a new version of the game, completely overhauled. Apparently, too many people were complaining about how terrible Vanna looked on the previous releases, so they released a version called “Wheel Of Fortune featuring Vanna White”. This version was released for both the NES console as well as DOS compatible PCs. While it contains a decently digitized graphic of Vanna on the opening screen, the sprite that they used for the actual game play looks to be a little more like Barbie on the games made featuring her, complete with crazy puffy dress. (It was 1991 now, not 1986!) This was the first game of the series to use player sprites, and they are completely borrowed from Super Jeopardy cartridge. (Both games were designed by IJE.) The sounds and music are a lot more authentic here, nearly digital from the show. The wheel is now shown in a third dimensional format this time, but the values of the wedges are only shown as a display underneath it. This was the very first game in the series to have the values on the wheel increase for every round, unlike the previous versions where you were always stuck at a $1000 maximum. For historical reasons, this was also the first time that the current bonus round rules of giving the contestant RSTLNE was used, allowing for extra letters to appear on the bonus round. Also, this version of the game uses the bonus round prize rule where you had to pick one of 5 letters that spelt “WHEEL”, with a hidden prize behind each one, so your big finale prize was a secret till the end. While the game itself is still quite solid, all of the enhancements have a single flaw, which is the animation smoothness. The wheel is not nearly as smooth spinning this time around, and even the animation of the turning of the letters on the board don’t seem to be as fluent. But, I guess you just cannot win them all, can you? (But since this is a game show, you certainly should be able to!)
Let’s fast forward to the 16-bit era for a moment now. In 1992, GameTek released a version of Wheel for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles. Both versions have a lot of similarities, but we’ll get into the differences in a moment. First off, both titles feature a digitized picture of Vanna White that is absolutely incredible on 16-bit hardware. Not only that, at the end of the game, there is a digitized graphic of the studio, which while looks great on the Genesis version, looks like you were watching a VHS tape of the show and pressed pause on the SNES model. (Yeah, you remember VHS, right? It wasn’t THAT long ago!) Both versions utilize other digitized graphics, including having the outline of the letter board be a graphic of the actual board used on the show at the time. Not to mention, for the very first time in the series, we have digitized speech as well! While that sounds like it would be excellent, it gets too repetitive. If you play this game, be prepared to hear Vanna White say “Choose a letter” after every turn. Cute gimmick, but at this time in technology, it wasn’t required and just got annoying. The sprites for both games are excellent, and the puzzles are generally the same kind that you have on the show, but I personally feel that these versions were by far the easiest puzzles ever programmed, and just not all that challenging. The bonus round also retrograded itself by going back to the 1989 rules with a choice of prizes.
The main difference between the Genesis and SNES versions, is the animation of the wheel while it’s spinning. Normally, I wouldn’t be so picky about something like this, but the way they were done were completely different, and one of them is flat-out a joke. The wheel you see on the Genesis version is basically just part of the wheel spinning, rather smoothly. No figures on the wheel itself, but a readout below it like on the NES version featuring Vanna. It worked well and was effective no doubt. The Super Nintendo version however made an attempt to emulate the entire wheel spinning, much like the original NES versions. Which was fine, except for one problem: The wheel looked horrible! The wheel was overly pixellated to try to make it look as real as possible, but it was just incredible unclear to read. Add to the fact that it is spinning, and you can certainly get a major headache, very quickly. And not only that, but the wheel wasn’t even a smooth circle! When the wheel spins, it spun unevenly. It’s kind of like this. Ever play a vinyl album on a turntable? Records are supposed to be totally flat, but as you know, most of them have some kind of small warp in them that you can see as the record spins. This is exactly like that, but instead of the record wobbling up and down on the needle, the wheel here is wobbling left and right and up and down! Kudos for trying to make it look very realistic guys, but you better stick with the still photos for now. The technology isn’t ready for your vision just yet. (Nintendo knew this too. When they released a Deluxe edition for the SNES, they replaced it with a more traditional animation.)
Wheel Of Fortune, meet the compact disc! GameTek released a version of the game for the Sega CD add-on attachment in April of 1994. This version was released by Sony (pre-PlayStation, of course), and was also published alongside of a PC version. This is the first version of the game that features full motion video, as well as authentic CD audio of the Wheel Of Fortune theme song as well as various music cues and sound effects from the show itself. While the set had changed by this point, this version still uses the old 1992 set that was used on previous versions of the game. It features digitized sprites, in which most are recycled from the Sega CD version of Jeopardy. Off the bat, for the technology around the Sega Genesis and Sega CD, the game looks pretty decent, but the main gripe is that the video looks worse here than it did for Jeopardy. It actually looks like Vanna is standing in front of a green screen with the graphics added later. This version looks a lot more like you are watching an episode of the show as opposed to playing a video game. Video intro for the start, excited contestants and the like, add to this feel. The wheel when it spins simulates what you see when you’re watching at home as well, which is the first time this was able to be completed, and it looks rather good for the period. This version even adds the prize wedges when needed, another first. Ironically though, the background of the puzzle board looked more realistic on the Genesis and SNES versions, since they were digitized photos, which was not done here. And obviously, since Vanna couldn’t record video turning every single letter combination possible on the board, when a letter is on the board, Vanna just walks across the board and the letters turn themselves with no help from her. (Not to mention, in a “Back To The Future” type prediction, when a puzzle is solved, all of the letters just pop up automatically, just like how the show is done today!)
We’re going to go back to Nintendo now, with a version released on December 2, 1997 for the N64 platform. And, just like the Nintendo 64 version of Jeopardy, this version just seems to be taking too many steps backward than forward. First off, the video on the sprites of all of the contestants as well as Vanna at the letter board, are 2D, low resolution and blocky. When the game starts to get a little more exciting, the video is simply not clear at all. More of a blur. The game does however feature video clips of Vanna at various points in the game, but not full screen like the Sega CD had attempted. But those segments are a lot clearer than the Sega CD version, so that makes it better in my opinion. Again, we have a problem with the wheel not being a perfect circle, but in this case, we definitely have the N64 hardware to thank for that, as the N64 was never any good with spheres. But not only that, again, just like Jeopardy, the words on the puzzle board, which should be the easiest thing to read, while is clear, uses a font that makes it more difficult. The letter selection keys are easy to read, so why go for a fancy font? It’s not even that they could have been going for the classic lettering on the board, since by 1997, the touch screen was introduced and being used here! Another negative has to do with the bonus round. No choice in prizes in any way! Either take $25,000 or leave it. (I’ll take it, but still!) And while the manual claims that the game has a “Surprise” wedge, good luck finding it. The only good thing about the rules that makes it accurate to the time, is the inclusion of the $10,000 space, and the Jackpot Round. But, just like Jeopardy, it was rushed into production and released to early. (Either that, or if you remember from the Jeopardy article, GameTek was in bankruptcy at the time, no pun intended. So perhaps it was rushed in hopes to make the money to save the company? Of course it didn’t, and GameTek was no more the following year.)
In 1998, Hasbro took control of the franchise (as well as the Jeopardy franchise), and released versions of Wheel Of Fortune for the original PlayStation and Windows-based PCs. Both of these versions were nearly the same, but I’ll get to the main difference in a moment. Again, we have Vanna doing her hosting duties on the game, with full motion video and authentic sound effects. For a console like the PlayStation as well as the home computer market, we would have to expect this at this point. The video that features Vanna, both the full screen and in the corners during game play are very crisp and clear, however we do not actually see Vanna approach the board on this version at all. (I guess at this point, Hasbro figured since the game board is now automatic anyway, why waste the time when we all know that Vanna is “just a pretty face”.) Still, it would have been nice to at least have Vanna walk across the board. Also, no game sprites at all on this version. Like the Jeopardy counterpart, this version makes it seem like you are physically on stage and uses a first person point of view shot from everything from viewing the board and spinning the wheel. Vanna announces which players turn it is, and contestant voices are heard. The only major difference between the PS1 and PC versions is how the wheel is shown while spinning. The PS1 version shows the wheel on a first person angle, while the PC versions show it how the wheel looked at home, either the top view that we see currently on the show, or a shot of the video wall that was frequently used in the late 1990s. The wheel also looks more realistic on the PC version and more, well, like a video game on the PS1 version. Both versions play very well and are enjoyable. A second edition of the game was released for both formats in November of 2000, which included new puzzles, a behind the scenes look at the show, and a sample contestant examination.
Let’s fast forward to March 9, 2003, which is when Hasbro released the game for the PlayStation 2, however this time using the Atari branding. This version was released a few months after a new version for the PC the previous year, and uses the same engine for both. Holding true to the version that was used on the original PS1, again, we see Vanna a lot, telling the rules of the game, how to play, and keeps everything running smoothly. The full screen, full motion video is crisp and clear, and very well produced. Just like the PS1 version, again, we do not physically see Vanna approach the board when letters are revealed. I hear people all the time say that full motion video can make or break a game, and its a little sad on the last two versions that we’ve seen here today. Vanna approaching the puzzle board is a very traditional thing on the show, and it just lacks when she’s not doing it. Even having a video of her walking across the board would have been a nice touch, kind of like what was done on the Sega CD version. But regardless, the view of this version is again first person, with a lot of various shots of the set and puzzle board. When the wheel spins, again, it’s like watching at home, and this time around it includes some very smooth and very well done animation in a 3D setting. It’s probably one of the best looking versions of the game, even with the lack of contestant sprites. Just like the second editions of the PS1 and PC games, this version also contains a sample contestant exam. The one thing I cannot get over, is how they used the font for “The Price Is Right”. I know that at the time, the “Grand Theft Auto” series was using the same font and was a big seller, but seriously? I think that’s kind of ironic!
Because I’m trying to focus entirely on physical game media, I’m going to skip over the PlayStation Network version that was released for PS3, and go straight to the most current home version, which was released for the Nintendo Wii console on November 2, 2010. This game was developed by THQ, and has a lot of interesting firsts. The one that is without a doubt the most obvious, is Pat Sajak. Yeah, you remember him, the HOST of the show? Out of all of these versions, this is the VERY first time that Pat is featured on a home video game version of the show. All I can say, is it is about time! The Wii version utilizes the Nintendo Mii engine, which allows the contestant sprites (as well as Pat and Vanna), to be Mii characters that you created. (Remember when Nintendo said that you would be able to incorporate your Mii character in a lot of the games that were created? Yeah, me too.) Pat and Vanna look great under the engine, even if it has a cartoon style look. One of the nice things about this version is how you interact with the entire game. To spin the wheel, you take the Wiimote and literally move it from right to left, just as if you were spinning the wheel physically. (THQ even got the direction right!) Also, it’s one of the few games that offer compatibility with the Wii Speak accessory. So now, not only can you speak the puzzle when you want to solve it, which will eliminate spelling errors, you can scream “EN!” just like the contestants do on the show. Very nice additions indeed, and a smart idea on THQ’s part. This is also the first version of the game to use gift tags that were velcroed to the wheel, the toss-up round, and of course, the million dollar space. In a bittersweet note, this was the final game to feature announcer Charlie O’Donnell, who died shortly after participating in this edition. This version is by far the most fun of all of the versions, with the interactivity alone. And the puzzles don’t tend to repeat that much as long as you don’t play frequently.
As you can see, there have been more versions of “America’s Game” published than you can shake a stick at. And I didn’t even get a chance to discuss the portable versions for Game Boy and Game.Com, nor did I discuss the dedicated handhelds. I also didn’t get a chance to talk about the “Playalong” version that actually interacted with the live broadcasts! (That’s a story for another day.) Regardless, Merv Griffin’s original creation was just that good and successful that naturally, everyone loves to play. I am a big fan of video games based on game shows, but the one thing that people always ask me, is why. After all, you aren’t playing for real money, so the challenge and guts are just not there. That’s where you are wrong. These aren’t the kind of games that you sit alone and play. This game genre, and especially this series, are the ultimate in modern parlor game. After all, we have all played Hangman at one time or another. (No, not the Atari 2600 version.) And this totally takes it to the next level. If you ever have some friends over and are starting to get a little bored, be sure to plug in a copy of Wheel Of Fortune on your console or computer of choice. Wheel Of Fortune is now in its 30th season under Syndication, and premiered this past September 17th, so be sure to check your local listings for time and station! And to finish it all off, here’s some video clips of the various versions we reviewed today, as well as video clips from one of the original pilots for the show in the mid 1970s, early clips from the Chuck Woolery era, as well as an early look at Pat Sajak hosting the show!