The aptly self-appointed "Irreverent Trivia Party Game" is back after a long hiatus. And the world is a little safer.
On the whole what I want to do spectrum trivia games usually fall between fighting for the remote and doing the dishes. Buzz-in trivia games are usually lame, tired and undignified. They're the sort of thing you do once a year during a family trip or to shut up the young ones, but rarely do you elect to do it for more than an hour or two. Jellyvision's You Don't Know Jack might just be the cure to all of that. Instead of being lame and tired it's genuinely funny and fresh. Though...
...It is still really undignified.
That's a Fact, Jack!
From its humble beginnings as a trivia game for people that don't like trivia games You Don't Know Jack went on to spawn eighteen different video games and spin-offs in just over eight years. That's a release schedule that would have made Guitar Hero jealous. And so, after the crush of everything YDKJ the series took a long break, not to be heard from again until Regis Philbin whispered its name three times from the world's highest mountain top.
If you're still lost let me spell it out for you, and not because you're dumb or anything, just because pantomiming wouldn't get us very far. Anyway - You Don't Know Jack is a trivia game that lets up to four players compete in an episode. Each episode is made up of 10 questions over two rounds and a third, final, round where players take part in a "Jack Attack" where player's are given a base hint and then have to buzz in when two words flash across the screen that match. But Jack's got some other hooks during the first two rounds as well. The 'DisorDat' gives the lowest scoring player two things, like a pop star and a pope, and then they have to rapid-fire answer which word that appears on screen belongs to which. There's also the Wrong Answer of the Day where you get a specialty item for literally getting a specific question wrong, and each episode has one of those.
And then there's the Screw. The Screw is an evil little bastard meant to instill pure hatred into those closest to you in life. Every question is timed so buzzing in faster gets you more points, but you get those points against you if you answer wrong. The Screw is something you can pull against an opponent, - and I'm presuming you'll always be playing someone - forcing them to answer in less than 5 seconds. Should they fail they get docked big points and you get a chance to answer the question with one fewer possible choice. If they get it right they earn big cash and you lose it. Similarly, during regular questions you have to decide if a quick answer for lots of cash is worth taking a chance at, lest you get it wrong and get docked an equally high amount. This is a perfect example of what YDKJ does so right within its risk/reward system, adding layers of strategy to an otherwise straight forward formula.
In fact, the Jack formula remains unchanged in almost every regard from fifteen years ago which makes it all the more surprising how well it still holds up. It's a testament to what YDKJ has always done so well, the writing. The questions tend to blend well known pop-culture references with obscure trivia that reaches into all areas for inspiration. It's intelligent, witty, biting and always funny, going a long way to making this something almost anyone can enjoy. The yapping at the beginning of the game, in between cutscenes and at the ending adds to this image that you're a contestant on a real life game show. It's usually just quirky chit chat but it sounds real enough to create a believable world, which is a nice step. It's funny that a silly game like You Don't Know Jack does a better job at game shows than every other game show around.
How to stay Culturally Relevant in 10 Easy Steps
Though YDKJ is extremely easy to recommend it does have a few things that stop it from being for absolutely everybody. For starters, I'm not going to presume to know what other people find funny or appropriate so you should know that Jack has no problem hitting below the belt at every opportunity. It's not exactly a game made for kids, if you know what I mean. The bigger issue with the game is that virtually every match I ever played was decided in the last few minutes, and not because there was parity among the groups stupidity levels (there was, that just wasn't the reason). Jack Attack answers are worth $4000, -$4000 if you guess wrong. Every person I played ended up guessing wrong at least once, then panicked and mashed the button, resulting in a whole lot of negative. So a lot of matches ended in scores that hovered right around the zero mark. It was rare anyone came from behind to win based on an impressive showing and not on someone else failing.
The other problem is more an issue with players and not the game. YDKJ has over seventy episodes and the game will check the profiles of the players and pick episodes that they haven't played yet. That's an important feature and it's really nice that the development team streamlined things. However, online a glaring error arises that may not be avoidable. The game in its current state doesn't randomize where the answers show up, so a lot of people online have memorized the episodes. They then go online and compete in a universally epic test of their own reflexes, leaving the rest of the adults to wonder what the hell they got themselves into. It's an unfortunate underbelly to an otherwise great experience and unless they start changing answer placement you shouldn't expect to have any fun online.
Who Wants a Cookie!
It's a good thing then that the standard game is fresh enough and it appears Jellyvision is going to keep supporting it with DLC. Already there's a new 10 episode pack available to buy for $5. Some might balk at paying 50 cents for an episode but I think it's a great value, since each episode takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete and the production value is so high. That might be the most surprising element of YDKJ. The simple design achieves an aesthetic that sets up almost as many jokes visually as you'll get from the audio. The one downside is that the question cutscenes don't ever change, so you'll see the same ones for every seventy plus episode, which gets a tad tiring.
But all is made okay by the games most charming and hilarious feature - Cookie Masterson. Tom Gottlieb voices the witty host with the kind of edge that takes most comedians a lifetime to master. It's an exuberant manifestation of everything this fictional game show aims to be. Credit must be paid to Jellyvision Games and however many writers scripted the content. I was pretty blown away by how current they are, making cultural references to stuff that's just now at the forefront of public consciousness. This is where YDKJ finds the most separation from other trivia games, at least for the time being. The questions are framed in a way that two friends might pose them to one another, right down to making fun of every wrong answer someone gives. And it's Cookie's voice work embodies everything that makes the game so much fun.
You Don't Know Jack is an old favorite series that has managed to do what very few franchises ever can, it's reinvented itself more than a decade after it began and it did so by relying on what made it so special in the first place. It's funny as hell, a blast to play with friends, and the structure of the game allows for it to be the perfect pick up and play experience. It's not really worth playing online, and if you're grabbing this on the PC you won't be able to anyway (the PC version is $20) but even still this game has a lot of content out of the box and comes at the ultra cheap price of just $30 bucks. You Don't Know Jack has swiftly taken the trivia game crown, and you owe it to yourself to see why.