Gaming

What I learned playing 30+ years’ worth of Jeopardy! video games

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Friday, January 8, 2021, marks the end of an era for American television. That’s when TV stations around the country air the final episode of Jeopardy! featuring Alex Trebek as host. Since relaunching Jeopardy! as a syndicated game show in 1984, Trebek emceed thousands of episodes until just before his death from cancer in November.

Accordingly, Friday may also mark the end of an era for one of video gaming’s most enduring franchises (and for Trebek as an enduring digital gaming personality rivaling football’s John Madden). Since the first PC releases of Jeopardy! in 1987, there have been more than 40 distinct video game versions of the quiz show released across at least 27 different platforms (that includes “Sports Edition” spin-offs and the like). That’s an impressive run that spans the space between the Apple II and the PlayStation 5, crossing on the way into curiosities like the CD-i, Tiger Game.com, Google Assistant, and Facebook (the last of which is no longer available to play in any form but is still captured in contemporary coverage).

It’s rare for a single gaming brand to encompass so much of gaming’s short history. That’s especially true for a licensed brand that’s not controlled by a single company—GameTek, Rare, Hasbro, Atari, Sony, THQ, and Ubisoft have all been attached to Jeopardy! games over the years. It’s even odder to see an enduring video game franchise where the basic answer-and-question gameplay remains almost entirely unchanged over a three-plus-decade span (though some developers have done their best to tinker at the margins).

To mark the end of the Alex Trebek era, I’ve spent the past few weeks playing and examining as many Jeopardy! video games as I could. The result has been a fascinating trip through video game history and an interesting encapsulation of how video game technology and design have evolved over 30+ years.

And now, here is the host of Jeopardy…

Believe it or not, Alex Trebek’s comforting face wasn’t always a part of video game Jeopardy! The very first versions of the game in the late ’80s appeared on the Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, and NES without an on-screen host at all. Instead, the presentation focused on the contestant avatars and the screen-filling question board.

It’s not until 1991’s Super Jeopardy! that publisher GameTek bothered to add an on-screen host at all. But even then, the developers eschewed Trebek in favor of an unnamed, big-headed, square-chinned host with a huge, goofy grin. I’ve taken to referring to this Trebek replacement (and his twin appearing in the Game Boy versions through 1996) as Guy Smiley, after the excitable muppet he resembles.

Trebek would have to wait for the 16-bit era for his digital debut, when he was finally rendered as full-screen pixel art with extremely limited animation (this was also the first time he appeared on video game box art). Both the SNES and Genesis versions even feature identifiable digitized speech samples of Alex saying things like, “Here are the categories,” or “You are correct” or “Sorry…”

Considering the small size (and large cost) of game cartridge memory in those days, those speech samples were a significant indulgence from the developers. Even the tiny Game Gear version continued the tradition with a few surprisingly coherent digitized speech samples.

The mid-’90s start of the CD-ROM era would bring even greater amounts of Trebek into our virtual lives. Both the Sega CD and CD-i versions of the game featured a very grainy digitized video of Alex walking onto the stage and welcoming us with a “Let’s play Jeopardy!” The expanded CD storage also meant a lot more of Alex’s voice, with short loading pauses prefacing phrases like, “For $ 300, here is the clue,” or “For game rules, select Help!” (it’s truly a wonder that last one never became his catch phrase).

In the CD-i version, you can even hear Alex address you by name… if your name happens to be among hundreds of canned recorded selections. Reading all those names must have been a fun recording session for Trebek in the ‘90s.

In the new millennium, digital Trebek would continue to change with the times. On the PS2, he appeared in full-screen DVD-quality video for the first time in a game. On the Wii and Nintendo DS, he appeared as a big-headed Mii-like avatar, aping the popular style of the time. On the Xbox 360, he resembled the system’s gaunt, cartoony “Avatars” (remember those?).

Starting with the Wii version, Alex also started reading the thousands of clues included in the game (announcer Johnny Gilbert or a sound-alike read clues in many previous CD-ROM editions). That was an important addition that helped digital Jeopardy! hew more closely to the pace and feeling of the TV show’s presentation.

Let’s play Jeopardy!

Converting the game show basics of Jeopardy! into a video game probably seems simple, right? Just present the clue (aka “the answer”) on screen and ask the player to provide the response (aka “the question”), right? In practice, though, there are dozens of little gameplay and presentation decisions that affect how a digital game of Jeopardy! has worked over the years.

How do you represent the human players and/or computer opponents onscreen, for instance? Most versions of the game allow you to select from six to 10 different avatars, from cartoony drawings on the NES to black-and-white digitized photo horrors on the Game.com. But some versions (CD-i, Playstation/PS2, PS4/Xbox 360/Switch) don’t feature any player avatars at all. Others, like the Wii and Nintendo DS, offer full-fledged Mii-style character creators for practically endless variety.

The canned avatar options usually present a decent variety of skin tones, ages, clothing, and male/female options available to choose from. The one exception is the Game Gear version, which for some reason only offers pasty, white avatars (and before you suggest it, other versions managed more onscreen diversity with much more limited hardware color palettes).

Early Jeopardy! games seemed really enamored with these avatars, to the point where they’d pause the proceedings for upwards of seven seconds for a canned animation after a player buzzed in or gave a response. This perhaps reached its apex on the Sega CD, where the onscreen avatars repeat the same five-second canned video loops to accept unseen applause (or hang their heads to sad “awwws” from the audience) after every response.

Text entry becomes an issue once you move away from the PC keyboard and into the console space. The makers of video game Jeopardy! can’t seem to agree on the best way to show an on-screen keyboard (OSK)—options range from the Game.com’s full QWERTY setup to a single horizontal alphabetical line on the SNES and PlayStation 2. Regardless of the layout, clicking through an onscreen keyboard is a laborious and time-intensive process, made worse in many versions by slow controller response times and annoying “clicky” sound effects.

The console versions give anywhere from 40 to 90 seconds for players to manually hunt and peck through the OSK with a d-pad or analog stick, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I needed every available second to type in “International Date Line” as a response on the less-than-responsive Game Boy version. On the other hand, I often exploited the extended text entry time window to reconsider my guess and type in a new one. The quick point and tap of the Wii Remote and the Nintendo DS touchscreen helped quicken the pace considerably

Starting with the CD-i version, many Jeopardy! games tried to get around their onscreen typing problems by offering autocomplete suggestions more than a decade before they would become standard on smartphones. That’s a great time saver, especially in versions that offer multiple, different autocomplete options for a single set of letters. But it can also serve as an unintentional clue system; if your guess doesn’t show up in the game’s limited “dictionary” of suggestions, it’s almost certainly wrong.

An onscreen keyboard also isn’t conducive to Final Jeopardy, where each player is supposed to enter their wager and response in secret before the big reveal. Most games just ask other players to turn away from the screen to allow for privacy. That’s too clunky for the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 versions, though, each of which just let players choose from a handful of onscreen multiple choice answers with their own controllers (what is this, Press Your Luck?).

The CD-i version may have the most novel Final Jeopardy solution, though. That game literally tells players to break out pen and paper to write down their Final Jeopardy responses, then simply asks them in turn whether they were right or wrong. How analog!

It’s the little things

Jeopardy! video games can also be maddeningly inconsistent on accepting variations in wording or spelling in responses. In a single category on first ladies on the NES, for instance, the game accepted “Reagan” as a correct response, but not “Lincoln” or “Madison” (where the full names were apparently required). I may have literally yelled at the screen when the game told me “What are Senators?” was wrong but “What are US Senators?” would have been correct. Ditto when I was told “What is bleach?” was wrong but “What is bleaching?” was acceptable.

On the other hand, the Game Boy version accepted a mistyped “What is [t]ranquility” as a correct response, and the Game Gear version accepted both “hiccup” and “hiccough” as correct. Some versions even let you set the strictness of the spellchecker in the options screen.

Those kinds of concerns only matter if you’re able to buzz in, of course. On the TV show, contestants can only hit their buzzers after Trebek finishes reading the question; most console versions add a similar pause of four to 10 seconds to let players read the question off the screen. A few versions don’t offer this pause, though, giving an advantage to speed readers (or AI opponents with preternaturally fast buzzer fingers).

Speaking of computer opponents, In early video versions of Jeopardy!, computer opponents would simply enter some gibberish to approximate an incorrect response. Later games would put canned incorrect responses in the computer players’ mouths, leading to hilarious responses like “Who is John the Baptist?” for a clue about a famous female jazz singer.

Some Jeopardy! video games feature highly odd AI quirks as well. In the Genesis version, the computer opponent buzzed in to offer a response on every single clue where I didn’t. On the PlayStation’s “2nd Edition,” on the other hand, I never saw the computer players give a single incorrect response when they did decide to ring in.

Where are we now

Today, video game Jeopardy! has come full circle to some extent. The Ubisoft-published versions of Jeopardy currently available on Switch, PS4, and Xbox One don’t feature any on-screen host, and the games delegate clue-reading to an unsettling robotic female voice. These versions also replace the onscreen keyboard with a set of three onscreen multiple choice answers at every difficulty level, which kind of makes a mockery of the TV show concept (Jeopardy! is about recalling trivia, not recognizing it among limited choices).

The iOS Jeopardy! World Tour is also a bit of an insult to the Jeopardy! format, condensing the game into short rounds of five multiple-choice clues in just three different categories. You’re paired up automatically against two online opponents here, and all contestants get to respond to every clue (no buzzing in required). Winning usually depends on being lucky enough to find the Daily Double among the five clues you choose in each round (out of nine available).

World Tour is also heavily laden with all of the worst trends of modern mobile and social game design, including energy timers, multiple in-game currencies, and an artificial leveling structure that encourages you to spend real money to move up the leaderboards more quickly. I’ll admit, I was a little sad to see Trebek’s digital caricature associated with such a bastardized version of his game.

The lone bright spot amid modern Jeopardy! video games is Jeopardy! Playshow. This version achieves video gaming’s decades-long dream of replicating the TV game show experience by simply presenting archived video of an actual Jeopardy! broadcast, complete with Trebek’s introductions and contestant interviews (don’t worry, you can skip them).

After each clue, the video pauses to let up to three players buzz in using a synchronized mobile device or Web browser, a la the Jackbox Party Pack games. You can even speak your answer into your device’s microphone, though the spotty speech recognition can lead to some hilarious snafus (luckily, the game is pretty forgiving with accepting nearly correct responses even when it misinterprets your speech).

This could very well be the apex of digital Jeopardy!; a version of the game that recreates the thrill of yelling responses at the TV screen while actually keeping track of your performance. But who knows? Maybe the future will include convincing augmented reality Jeopardy!, transforming your living room into a TV stage. Or maybe advances in AI will lead to endless question variety well past the thousands of prewritten clues we’re used to in each game to date.

Regardless, the future of video game Jeopardy! will likely move on without the face that has been synonymous with the show for over 30 years. Whoever ends up taking over for Trebek (after a series of temporary guest hosts finish their TV runs), we can only hope they will leave a similarly enduring legacy.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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