Released: September 1988
US Cartridge ID: NES-JP-USA
Genre: Game Show
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 1 megabit
Mapper: AOROM (128k PRG)
The venerable American trivia game show staple Jeopardy!, sitting atop the Merv Griffin Enterprises throne alongside Wheel of Fortune, originally aired to a lukewarm debut on US television in the spring of 1964, and though it garnered enough popularity to keep it on the airwaves for the next eleven years, it was eventually cancelled in 1975. After a failed attempt to reclaim its relevance in a short-lived reboot (The All-New Jeopardy!, 1978-79), 1984 saw Alex Trebek brought on board to kick-off the beginning of the program’s third iteration. It was this version that introduced the world to Jeopardy!‘s iconic theme song and its self-distinguishing wall of monitors, and it was this version that would go on to become the wildly successful series that still airs regularly on TV three decades later.
In 1987, IJN, the company that held the rights to produce electronic versions of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, saw opportunity based on the success had by their licensee, ShareData, who had developed and published numerous home computer adaptations of Griffin’s hit shows. Deciding that self-publishing these titles would net a larger profit, the GameTek label was established: developed by prolific British software developer Rare, GameTek’s first game, Jeopardy!, was released in September of 1988 for the NES.
Closely mimicking the competitive “provide the question that goes with the answer” play of the television series, Jeopardy! presents players with 1,500 questions created specifically for the show’s first Nintendo outing. All of the staples of the show are present and accounted: three-player competitive play, risk-versus-reward style scoring, Daily Double challenges, and the opportunity to win massive sums of cash in the no-holds-barred Final Jeopardy! round are all incorporated into game play, and provide for an authentic experience.
Players select questions from a grid featuring six categories, each complemented with five questions of incrementally increasing value and difficulty. After a selection is made, a close-up of the monitor showing the “answer” is displayed, and a ten-second countdown timer begins. The first player to buzz-in is given an opportunity to answer with the correct “question”. The player wins the question’s designated amount and retains control of the board if they are correct; otherwise, they lose the question’s value from their score, and the remaining two players are given a chance to try. Daily Double squares are hidden on the board (one in the first round, two in the second), occasionally providing for dramatic upset by allowing the contestant to decide how much of their current score he or she would like to risk.
Upon completing the first round, the board repopulates itself with new questions, and all of the questions double in value. Final Jeopardy! gives all three players the same question and asks them to bet any amount that they’d like from what they have amassed at that point in the game. After the final question is answered by all players, the totals are calculated and a winner is declared.
Starting a new game, up to three contestants choose their in-game avatars to stand in their stead at the Jeopardy! contestant podiums. Choices are provided by a pool of hilariously stereotyped 80s caricatures, including the nerd, the yuppie, and the valley girl, amongst others adorned with inappropriately large hair styles, ugly accessories, and ludicrous countenances. As a welcoming gesture to non-Caucasoid players who might feel uncomfortable assuming the identity of a pink-skinned player, the initial set of selectable visages is also offered in mustard and brown hued skin varieties. After deciding on which genetic abomination is least offensive to their respective sensibilities and selecting a difficulty level, the game begins.
Game play proceeds at a brisk pace, and is primarily centered around multiplayer matches. Though awkward to control, if three people want to participate, the game only requires two controllers: Player 1 and Player 3 share the same controller (Player 1 uses the D-Pad to buzz in, while Player 3 uses the A button), and Player 2 keeps their controller to themselves. Playing against the computer is a viable option for those without friendly trivia hounds to join them, but the game loses its competitive spirit, and thus, the fun factor, without another human wielding the second controller. Additionally, the difficulty level setting in no way impacts the skill of the CPU controlled contestants – this misnamed option only shortens or lengthens the amount of time allotted to input an answer.
The largest problem with Jeopardy! stems from the way it requires players to input their answers. Though the game is constrained by the limits of both the NES’ hardware and the restrictive storage capacity of the one megabit ROM chip, the lack of tolerance for misspellings can at times prove infuriating: even if a player spells particularly well, one can never be sure if “Washington” is an acceptable alternative to “George Washington”, nor if “Old McDonald” is going to be accepted in lieu of “Old MacDonald.” This unfortunate quirk in the scoring system tends to produce a fair amount of flux in game scores, making them feel less valid as a representative sign of achievement (or failure) than they should.
Jeopardy‘s presentation is a questionable mix of utilitarian sensibilities and excessive gaudiness. The stilted animations that reflect the badly disfigured participants’ excitement and shame are unabashedly poor, and contribute considerably to the humor and personality of the game. The board is just as mundane and unexciting as it ever was on TV, and when compounded by the inexplicable lack of Alex Trebek (or any host figure, for that matter), the visuals can leave the player feeling underwhelmed. The title screen enthusiastically blares its 8-bit interpretation of the theme song at players, and a complementary theme accompanies the game setup, but during the game all remains
quiet, save for small fanfares and the beep of the timer counting down.
At its time of release, Jeopardy! for the NES provided a satisfactory way for game show hounds to try their hand at trivia from the couch. Its flaws, including the spartan presentation, strict text parser, and questions that will effectively alienate anyone who doesn’t remember 1980s, don’t sink the game, but rather serve as a reminder of how far gaming has come. Jeopardy! remains a remarkable attempt at translating something passive into something interactive, and though not without its faults, still can provide a couple of friends with some good-natured and fun competition.