Thursday, October 22, 2009

$100,000 Pyramid (2001)

by Sierra On-Line
for the PC

In the late 90s, Sierra was pretty much my entire computer gaming world. Between "You Don't Know Jack" and "Leisure Suit Larry," I had my CD-ROM library packed. When fellow game show-philes were abuzz about a PC demo based on the classic "Pyramid" game show with Dick Clark, I thought it was too good to be true. These days are long gone, where a company put all that power behind a casual game such as this. To get that kind of entertainment now, you have to turn to downloaded Flash games. Which may be fine after all, because the quality of play in this title is a lot like an online-exclusive download.

The rendering of the set is beautiful, though, getting a vast majority of the 80s TV show look correct. Sierra enlisted Lemon Cello Music to re-record the classic theme song, and it's a superb version. The incidental tracks are fine, but the in-game music is repetitive, overused and intrusive. Prizes and avatars have the look of traditional cel animation, with a cartoony/wacky bent to them.

In the event you aren't as well-traveled in game show circles as I, here's the rules breakdown. Two teams compete, made up of a celebrity partner and a regular contestant. Six categories (with misleading titles) appear on the board, each containing 7 words or phrases. The player giving clues tries to get their partner to say each word or phrase within 30 seconds. You can gesture, you can use full sentences as clues - you can't, however, say part of the answer, give the first letter of the answer, or say it rhymes with something else. Each correct conveyance is worth a point, and the team with the most points after all six categories goes to the Winner's Circle.

The Winner's Circle is the most memorable part of the show and its namesake, as the team now tries to climb to the top of the giant pyramid at the back of the stage. Instead of describing items, the cluegiver is now listing items to get their partner to name the category they all fit in. Each subject is worth a different amount of money, and getting all six in a minute is worth a big amount of money.

In this CD-ROM title, you can play against a friend, or play in teams of two, with the game simply providing the answers and scorekeeping. You can also play alone, partnering up with a cyber-celebrity to defeat the pyramid at increasing monetary values, each time requiring more points to advance to the Winner's Circle (9 to start, with a perfect 21 required to play the titular $100,000 Pyramid).

In a 1-player or 2-player game, instead of switching off with the celebrity to give clues, the celebrity always gives the clues, and you are always guessing. The "celebrities" are made-up characters with cartoony drawings and wacky names. (Rock Stone! Comedian Steve Burley!) There are four to choose from, with no appreciable difference in quality of clues. Unlike the show, the celebrities take a long time to get the point.

Say the word is "dark." Normally, your partner might say "not light, but..." In this game, they might go "wow, uh....this is a type of chocolate, it also describes colors, and it's the opposite of light." You get 60 seconds instead of the usual 30. Understandable given that you're typing, but even more understandable when you work with this interface. It is especially clunky, not being able to recognize keystrokes that occur too close together.

The writing is a bit iffy too. Words like "philanthropy" will show up, and other times "wig" and "toupee" will be part of the same category. Making your trek a little harder are the computer players' illegal clues. It's hard to guess "notepad" when your partner says "you write notes on this." Or when their best clue for "tempura" is "it sort of rhymes with the name of the governor of Minnesota." However, the game sometimes counts answers correct that aren't even close, perhaps making up for these problems. Typing "identification" gave me the point for "name." Typing in "president" gave me a correct answer for "politician."

The Winner's Circle also has issues, as the categories come up randomly. That means you could have three categories in one set that follow the "What _____ Might Say" format. You could have three categories in one stack as rudimentary as "Fruits," "Tools" and "Cleaning Products." You're only required to type in the key word (e.g. for "Things at a Sporting Event", typing "sports" is correct), but that can be frustrating if you're all around the idea and would've been otherwise correct on the TV game.

Fans of the old show will enjoy the bonus cards they threw in, like the 7-11, Mystery 7 and Gamble for Ten Grand. Each offers a different bonus for getting all 7 words within the time limit. The 7-11 earns you $1,100. In Gamble, you play with 15 less seconds, but receive $10,000 for a perfect score. All fine and good for your fictional total, but on the TV show (where it was played for $1000), they had the choice to try for the bonus, given the risk involved. They might've been better off not including it if they couldn't allow the player to choose.

The Mystery 7 adds the challenge of not knowing what all 7 words have to do with each other, but the writing is ho-hum, so it's easy to figure out. Your partner will unintentionally help you as well, saying things like "okay, this is another sport..." The prize for the Mystery 7 is a "joke" prize worth $10,000. These "funny" prizes show up in the end credits as well, as gifts for "departing contestants."


The voice acting is nothing to write home about. The "host" chews the virtual scenery, and one of the female celebrities sounds like she's being held hostage. It's fun enough to rack up fake money and guess at the clues, but the difficulty varies for the wrong reasons.

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