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RELEASE DATE (NA): September 1988 GENRE: Puzzle
// review by Jeff

Wheel... of... Function.

Wheel of Fortune has been a staple of American households for decades, as has been the combination of the parchedly dry wit of host Pat Sajak and the glorious blonde grandeur of letter-flipper Vanna White. It's hard to imagine a world without being able to spin a wheel for money.

For that one person way out there in Moldova who doesn't know what Wheel of Fortune is, allow me to briefly explain. Wheel of Fortune is a popular television game show similar in nature to Hangman, in which three contestants guess letters individually to slowly reveal a word, term, or phrase. After spinning a large wheel with an array of different monetary values (plus the always unwanted "Bankrupt" and "Miss Turn" spaces), a contestant can guess a letter to see if it is part of the puzzle. If it's there, the player earns the amount they spun, multiplied by the number of instances of that letter, and then they can spin again. If the letter is not there, the game moves on to the next contestant. He or she can also guess a vowel, but that will cost the player $250. Whoever guesses the puzzle correctly first wins all their money earned, while the others do not. After several rounds, the person with the most money gets to move on to a bonus round, where they can win even more grandiose prizes.

Whether you are among the most ardent of viewers, or whether you just tune in when that re-run of Columbo is preempted by a news story about a dog that saved a baby from a burning building, we tend to play along with every puzzle, so wouldn't it be great if you actually could play? The fine, fine, fiiiiine people at GameTek sure thought so. That's why they released not one, not two, but FOUR Wheel of Fortune games for the NES, let alone all the other versions for every computer and console available in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That is, when they weren't focusing all their energy on releasing "InfoGenius Productivity Pak: Berlitz French Translator" for the Game Boy...

So here's the first one: Wheel of Fortune for the NES. Yes, it's just that. It's like ordering plain vanilla ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins. This version was developed by Rare — yes, THAT Rare: the Donkey Kong Country Rare, the Banjo-Kazooie Rare, the GoldenEye Rare — and plopped out in September 1988, just in time for the new season. And it's everything you'd expect from Wheel of Fortune on the NES. No, actually, I take it back: it's a bit less, as its presentation is functional more than fancy.

First of all, there are no depictions of characters, aside from Vanna White, decked out in her finest bubblegum wrapper, er, I mean, rose chiffon evening gown. You're just a name on a gray, lifeless scoreboard that keeps track of everything you need to know, from contestant names to total money earned. I suppose if you are a programmer and have to make a choice between showing the players and giving plenty of room for a Cro-Magnon Vanna, it's a no-brainer: design and implement a jaundiced Vanna bootleg. All other visuals are as basic as they get; the entire scoreboard and interface is the loveliest shade of gray this side of a Leonard Cohen album. Music is also kept to a minimum, as there's very little of it around, aside from the occasional jingle to let you know, "Hey, wake up, doofus — it's your turn again." It's nice to actually hear an audience shout "Wheel... of... Fortune" on the title screen. It's an impressive sound bite unless you weren't paying attention; it'll spook you good if you're not prepared. I dropped my spanakopita on the carpet after a heart attack from that.

C'mon, be that one guy that guesses the X!

The interface is indeed functional (which is the most important thing of all), and for the NES, that's acceptable: you want something that actually works efficiently, given the limited controls and even more limited timeframe to take actions. (Who wants to wait several minutes for someone to make a move? You don't see contestants on the TV show taking a bathroom break mid-puzzle.) There's no need to fumble around when trying to guess "EIFFEL TOWER". You don't want to slip up and enter "WAFFLE FLOUR" instead, unless that's more correct. My only gripe, and it's a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is that when guessing letters or inputting responses, the alphabet is lined up horizontally, rather than in the typical multi-row name entry style we're used to in most NES password screens. It does make solving a puzzle take longer, which is counterproductive given the fact that there's actually a timer here and I need to get to M, then A, which are miles apart!

The puzzles are fine, provided you're American. There are many references to American locations, figures, etc., which probably factor in to this being released only to the North American market. But even we Canadians will be at a slight disadvantage sometimes. I still don't know where Stillwater, Oklahoma is, but not knowing this cost me the win of a Deluxe Kitchen.

You owe me a Deluxe Kitchen, citizens of Stillwater.

Wheel of Fortune on the NES is, as I've said before, functional, and yes, there is indeed "fun" in that "fun"-ctionality. I enjoy playing this one, usually with a second player so I can show off my mad Wheelin' skillz. After a while, you may come to recognize some of the puzzles; there are a fair number of repeats, as to be expected over time. My first playthroughs simulated the game show well enough, and despite Vanna White looking like a mangled Tootsie Roll wrapped in fuchsia cellophane, it's about as close as most of us would ever get to her in 1988, despite all our vivid dreams and wishes.

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