Since its debut in 1975, Wheel of Fortune has been an early evening staple in homes across America. Its engaging simplicity has had viewers shouting answers at their television sets for almost 40 years now, and the tension stirred by a spin of its titular wheel has been felt by everybody rooting either for or against any given contestant. It's a fun game to watch, that much is clear, but would you actually do as well with these puzzles if you were playing yourself?
Well, Wii U owners can find out the answer to that question with Wheel of Fortune, which is an adaptation so faithful that they hired host Pat Sajak, hostess Vanna White and announcer Jim Thornton to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. The result is a bit mixed, but we do think it's safe to say that if you love the show, you're likely to enjoy the time you spend here.
The concept of the show is as simple as Hangman. You are given a category (such as "Things" or "Proper Name") and a board that displays blank tiles in place of the letters in the word or phrase. Contestants take turns calling out consonants, and if those consonants are part of the solution they are revealed on the board, and you receive the prize money that's currently displayed on the wheel. Vowels can also be called, but they cost money that will come out of the contestant's winnings. If the letter you call is not part of the solution, your turn ends and play continues with the next player. If at any time you think you know the answer, you can solve the puzzle.
It's simple, and it always has been. The wrinkle, however, which gives the game its unpredictability is the wheel itself. Before calling a consonant, the contestant must spin the Wheel of Fortune. This is what determines the cash value of a correct answer, but it can also lead to nasty surprises, such as losing your turn or total bankruptcy. There are three players in every game, and while some of them may be more or less of a wordsmith than others, their fates are all equally bound to the whims of the great wheel.
This is both a good and a bad thing when playing at home, as it serves as a way to ensure that nobody wins consistently, and nobody loses consistently. But it can also get frustrating for the same reason, as an entire round's worth of cash and prizes can be sucked away in an unavoidable instant.
The Wii U version of the game plays very well, though that's to be expected when the entirety of the interaction has to do with selecting letters one by one. Even the NES version handled that well enough. Player one uses the GamePad, and everyone else gets a Wii Remote, and the controls are uniformly good. For instance, anyone can select their letters with the D-Pad and buttons, while the GamePad holder can simply tap them on the screen, and the Wii Remote users can point at the television. It all works very well, and no matter what controller you end up with you should be able to find a comfortable option.
If there are fewer than three human players available, the CPU will take over the vacant slots. We'd recommend turning the CPU down to "easy" if that's the case, though, because if it's set too high AI characters simply end up solving every puzzle they can, with their turn not ending unless they happen to have an unfortunate turn of the wheel, and you'll have to sit back and watch patiently as they play through the final round alone. That's not much fun.
You can customise your players to a respectable extent, and you unlock more items of clothing as you play. Some of these, especially the trousers and shoes, are kind of pointless to unlock as you almost never see them, but it's a nice enough gesture. You can also unlock additional sound stages for the show, with such themes as Las Vegas and Cruise Week, all of which will be familiar to fans of the actual television programme.
The graphics aren't particularly impressive, and the large-headed versions of Pat and Vanna are the stuff of nightmares, but overall they get the job done. The audio is quite good as it borrows music and sound effects from the actual show, but there aren't many lines of dialogue which means you'll hear the same words of encouragement and condolences over and over again, and it gets grating even during the course of a single play session. There's also a nice touch of ambient audience noise during the "quiet" parts of the show; you'll hear them shuffling in their seats or clearing their throats. For whatever reason there's also the sound of somebody noisily breaking wind edited into the mix. You've been warned.
Overall it's not a bad game. It's absolutely suitable for families, and the controls are easy to master. But it is held back by the simple limitations of the format. When the difference between winning and losing the game comes down to a fateful spin of a wheel, it's hard to stay invested, or to feel satisfied by solving the puzzles. The fact that the money and prizes obviously aren't real also contributes to the game feeling somewhat uninvolving.
The developers did try to rectify this somewhat by including mini-games in place of the commercial breaks, wherein strategy and knowledge are the deciding factors, but you don't get anything for winning other than points toward becoming the "audience favourite". We played through this game multiple times and becoming the "favourite" didn't have any effect whatsoever, though, so the satisfaction of winning can only go so far. We're not even sure why it's there. Perhaps if you win that guy in the audience feels a little guiltier about breaking wind while you're trying to think.
Unfortunately that fact remains unconfirmed at the time of publication.
Wheel of Fortune is a flawed but basically solid family version of the long-running game show. Its pointless mini-games and tiny bank of voice samples mar the experience a bit, but ultimately fans of the show should feel right at home. The largest issue is the limited feel of the game show's format itself, so your mileage depends on how many times you, personally, can solve Hangman puzzles without getting bored. And that is something only you will know for sure.