Trivia games tend to be better in theory than in practice. They’re nearly always too easy, too hard, too specialized or too boring. Outside of pub trivia nights, which offer the chance to compete against dozens of people while consuming skill-hampering adult beverages, they often become tedious after much more than a half-hour.
With “You Don’t Know Jack” (rated T, $30 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and DS, $20 for PC), THQ has brought back the creators of a much-beloved, mid- to late ‘90s-era PC trivia game for another go-round of convoluted questions and biting, irreverent wit. The resulting franchise reboot is a budget-priced essential for anyone interested in getting together with friends and showing off how much useless knowledge you have crammed into your head.
“You Don’t Know Jack” separates itself from every other trivia game on the market by subverting the idea of what it means to ask a trivia question. Instead of straightforward queries like, “Who was the 21st president of the United States,” you get the following:
“Suppose Soulja Boy wanted to bust some rhymes with a rap adaptation of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ For the music video, what would be an appropriate choice of bling? (Possible answers: A platinum pelican ring, a chain with an iced-out albatross, whale-shaped diamond earrings, a grill that spells ‘shark attack.’)”
The wordy but clever questions keep things whimsical and entertaining while also ensuring that “YDKJ” emphasizes quick comprehension just as much as it values useless knowledge and quick reflexes. The fastest button puncher may not always be the quickest to buzz in a correct answer.
Each episode consists of 10 questions, most of which follow the above format. Once an episode, you’ll get a “Dis or Dat,” which asks players to put seven different things into one of two categories. “Toys R Kelly,” for example, asks players to determine whether each of seven phrases is the name of an R. Kelly album or a product sold at Toys “R” Us. (“Rock and Roll Girls” tripped me up.)
Hidden within each episode is a “Wrong Answer of the Game,” worth a hefty $8,000 and somehow related to that episode’s fictional corporate sponsor. (The corporate sponsors, with names like “Burnie’s Baby-Browning Tanning Beds” and “What-a-Prick Cactus Company,” are another source of amusement.)
After the 10 questions, the final round has all players compete in a themed matching game called Jack Attack. At the start, you’ll be given a clue. Then, one word or phrase is flashed on the screen while other phrases appear one at a time. Hit the A button first when the match appears, and you gain $4,000. Hit it at the wrong time, and you lose $4,000.
In two-player games, the Jack Attack can feel a bit unbalanced. One player who’s quick on the buzzer can surge from behind to win even if they enter the round trailing heavily. With more competition in three- or four-player games, it’s less of an issue, but it would have been nice to see better balancing.
The “Screw Your Neighbor” attack helps balance three- and four-player matches as well. If more than one player is present, each participant will be given one screw to use on an opponent. The recipient of the screw is forced to answer the question at hand in just 5 seconds, instead of the usual 15. If the screwed player errs, the screwer gets extra points. In my two-player matches, this ability’s effect was minimal, but on Xbox Live, everyone ganged up on the leader and made it a much more potent weapon.
Though none of “You Don’t Know Jack’s” jokes are particularly ribald, the game features plenty of double entendres and adult references that I probably shouldn’t repeat in a family newspaper. (A tamer example might be, “How many Earths could you stuff inside Uranus?”) The game earns its T rating.
Though it’s a blast to play with friends and worth the $30 THQ is charging for 73, 10-minute episodes, one aspect of “YDKJ” made it feel a little too much like a budget game. Each of the first two rounds’ 10 questions is introduced by a little animation. The clips are cute, but there’s only one for each number. They start to get old after about the 10th game, and I’m guessing that after 73 games, you’ll be pulling your hair out. (Maybe that’s what happened to Cookie Masterson, “YDKJ’s” iconic bald host.)
If you’re trying to decide between versions, your best bet is to pick up the game on the Xbox 360 or PS3. The PC and DS versions support just two players. While the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3 all allow four people to play locally, only the Xbox 360 and PS3 feature online matches, and the ability to download more episodes. (THQ plans to release four packs of 10 episodes each, priced at $5.)
On the Xbox 360, “You Don’t Know Jack” is compatible with the game show-style controllers from the “Scene It?” movie trivia games. With bundles of “Scene It? Box Office Smash” plus four buzzer controllers selling online for $30, the 360 offers the most economical way to support four players if you don’t already own that many controllers. On the PS3, it’s a different story. Even though Sony has done quite well with its popular “Buzz” trivia franchise, its controllers aren’t compatible with “YDKJ.”