Impressions: Get Reacquainted With Jack

By Richard Cobbett on February 11th, 2011 at 10:55 am.

AAARGH! THE FACE THAT HAUNTED A THOUSAND NIGHTMARES!

Given the dietary habits of tortoises, what would the Teenage Mutant Ninja TORTOISES most likely order at Pizza Hut? What do a Victoria’s Secret model and the mineral feldspar have in common? Considering their natural life cycles, which Muppet Baby shouldn’t have arms? How many Earths could you stuff into the volume of Uranus? If I wanted to whack one ‘mole’ worth of moles during a game of Whack A Mole, how many moles would that be?

You Don’t Know Jack is back. It’s about damn time.

The first You Don’t Know Jack hit the shelves back in 1995, and since then, it’s barely changed at all. It hasn’t had to. It’s the best quiz game on the PC. It’s one of the funniest games period. Over fifteen years it spawned an endless set of YDKJ sequels – Sports, Television, The Ride and so on, along with a spectacularly vicious British version – plus a free web version (sadly no longer online), and its one big failure, the TV version that took everything great about the game and replaced it with Paul Reubens being an arse. Let us never speak of it again.

Now, as then, it’s the simplest game in the world – the trivia quiz “where high culture and pop culture collide”, where all you have to do is buzz in, answer questions and win fake money. And laugh. Lots. The questions revel in the kind of tortured thinking that the Geneva Convention was specifically written to address, happy leaping from questions about American Idol to the Ten Commandments at the drop of a hat. There are standard ‘pick the right answer’ questions, the classic Dis Or Dat round where you have to say whether or not the names on the screen are, for instance, ‘a video with over 250,000 views on YouTube’ or ‘a painting by Renoir’, totally off the wall stuff like ‘Who’s The Dummy?’ (answer questions posed by a bad ventriloquist) or Nocturnal Admissions, in which the host describes his most recent surreal dream and asks you to work out what the hell he’s talking about. In the case of the question titled “My eyebrows are lettuce and my gym teacher married me”, it’s Avatar. Of course. You idiot!

If a money-making machine counts, all of them are disqualified by default.

All this is wrapped up in design and writing that pulls the ultimate gaming con – to make being really, really smart look easy. The most impressive part of the game is how well it manages its flow, with the questions, background music, throw-in gags, call-backs to previous questions, randomly picked adverts and wacky throw-ins all seeming completely natural. Before the game, you fill in your details to the overlapping sound of studio chatter and random jokes; when you’re done, the credits roll to comedy adverts. In-game, invisible host Cookie Masterson (writer Tom Gottlieb, who puts in an absolutely stunning performance despite clearly having been trapped in a recording booth for centuries recording the endless script) makes every episode a genuine pleasure, belittling you for playing alone, throwing in visual gags, serving up your daily dose of abuse if you get ‘easy’ questions wrong, and never running out of jokes to tell.

This version of Jack is slightly different to previous ones, mostly because it’s now on the consoles too. Most of the changes are good ones – for instance, you don’t buzz in to answer any more, but simply pick your choice before the timer runs out. A few rounds are missing in action, notably the type-the-answer Gibberish Questions (which means an end to the sweary Easter Egg of old), but there’s still plenty of variety, and riding the insanity is just as fun as ever.

By far the biggest change in this version is that previous YDKJ games just took a big stack of wacky questions and randomised them. This one offers 72 ‘episodes’, each with 10 set questions. When I first saw this, I wasn’t too fond of the idea – it means that realistically, you’re only going to get 72 games out of this. Then I realised: you’re going to get 72 games out of this. 72 completely original, no-repeated-questions games out of this. That’s pretty damn good for a trivia game, and with 720 questions in total, it’s certainly not an excuse to cheap out on content.

I shall answer this question, but first, I shall be in my bunk, thinking about a particularly hot Aphrodite I saw a few years ago.

Against all this, YDKJ’s problems are utterly ridiculous. Not only is it only available in North America so far (presumably because of all the local pop-culture questions, although they’re really not a problem), the version on Steam is bizarrely cut down compared to the Xbox and PS3 versions. The console versions let four people play at a time, the PC version only two. There’s no DLC support yet, despite several of the Steam achievements mentioning it, and the first pack being out (containing ten new episodes for 400 Microsoft Funbucks, with another three packs on the way). The console version have online play. Here, you’re on your own. None of this makes any damn sense at all. Do they not want our money? Do our wallets have cooties?

One second, I’ll check.

Damn, there’s a lot of dust in here. Let’s see…

Okay. No. There are no cooties, Jellyvision. Only money, which could have been yours, but will now be spent on sweeties. I shall eat them while I stare daggers into your soul. You feel that? That’s your soul being daggered in the face. By me. And this bag of Mars Planets.

If you are able to play it though, and get past what can only be described as treasonous betrayal (at least until the DLC does eventually land, since clearly it’s going to at some point) it’s well worth it. Not many games can stay the same for 15 years and still feel as fresh as the original demo back on a Windows 95 sampler disc, and in most cases, it wouldn’t be a good thing. Jack is the exception – still the best trivia game in the world, and easily the funniest around.

And if you disagree with any of that…

Damn, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

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43 Comments »

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  1. J. says:

    I thought that the console versions allow 4 players at the same time.

  2. 4026 says:

    Needs the Staring Eyes tag.

    What? Memes are important to maintain.

  3. alice says:

    I am very disappointed that the pc version got the short end of the stick given this series’s heritage. I am begrudgingly picking it up for console.

    Nate was always my favorite host but in his absence Cookie seemed the most reliable.

    Does the game still come with amazing fake commercials? The Ride came with an entire CD full of them that I used to listen to on repeat whilst on long drives with my parents. Man I loved this series.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yep. There’s an Achievement for listening to all of them.

      (Others include “Turncoat – Play on July 4th instead of celebrating America” and “Social Outcast – Finish 5 single player games on Friday or Saturday nights”)

    • Nick says:

      brilliant achievements! I’ll have to bully my console owning friend into buying this.

  4. mda says:

    I played the demo when I was like, 12 or something!

  5. Voidy says:

    This makes me genuinely happy. Thank you, Richard!

  6. Deano2099 says:

    Small correction – The Ride also had set ‘episodes’ on a single theme, I think you even got some choice on what that theme was at the start via a question.

    Lack of online multiplayer kills it for me though, not because it’s not far better done locally, but because I no longer live with the guys I used to play it with,

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The web version also did set questions. But in general, Jack was randomised, so I still consider it a change to the core formula.

  7. DJ Phantoon says:

    You totally just hit a random button on player two for each question, didn’t you?

  8. Bilbo says:

    Mars Planets are a poor man’s Revels.

  9. suibhne says:

    On the other hand, the Steam version is $20 and console-toys have to pay $30 for the privilege.

    • alice says:

      Yeah but not having three player local multi is ridiculous. And you do not even get the awesome PQB (or was it V?) stickers either.

  10. McDan says:

    You may have mars planets but I found a bag of milky ways!

  11. malkav11 says:

    I love the spirit of You Don’t Know Jack, but in practice I found it nearly impossible to play. The questions often make no sense to me even if I happen to know something about the subject (which, mostly speaking, I’ve tended not to – if they ever came out with a Comics or Games edition, perhaps I’d do better).

    • Pijama says:

      Uh, that’s the idea? I mean, it’s exactly what it says on the tin.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Which is also the reason that the Nail mechanic works so well, IIRC (its been ages since I played it).

      Also this series is one of the very few examples that enjoyed a genuinely funny and well done* german localization.

      “Zweige und Laub…” :D

      *) Edit: listening back to the link… well, at least you can tell they had fun at the recording sessions. And the cheap-ass radio commercials they spoof aren’t that much better in reality, anyway.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      They’re screws. But yeah.

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      stahlwerk says:

      Screws? As in “to screw somebody”? Haha, see, that’s quality localization. In the german version those were nails. “jemanden nageln” (= to nail sbd.) is actually a pretty good approximation of the original meaning, double entendre and all, although it lacks the imperative form in german, i.e. there’s no “Nagel dich (selbst)!” as in “Screw you(rself)!”.

    • Bilbo says:

      True, but “nailing” can be used in the same sense as “screwing”.

  12. WPUN says:

    My GF and I play Vol 1 to this day. (About one game a month for 15 years, so probably 200 games.) The writers and Harry Gottlieb (the host) did some excellent and hilarious work.

  13. Jad says:

    Those lack of features in the PC version really piss me off. I can understand the no online play part, because the consoles come with networking features (XBLive, PSN), whereas for the PC they’d have to write an online system or plug it into Steam or something. So, extra work, for a feature that frankly, really isn’t the point of YDKJ (it’s a local multiplayer game through and through).

    But only two players? Forget going as far as the consoles’ four, didn’t the original games support three? Why on earth would they reduce the number of players?!

    They say it’s because its hard to crowd three people around a keyboard. First of all, the original games did it, so that’s stupid, and two — we PC gamers can plug controllers into our computers! I’ve got two in there right now. I know some people complain about only supporting 360 controllers, but you can at least do that. Microsoft makes it really really easy.

    Hell, we’re mod-crazy PC gamers, if they had make it support four players and no controllers, I’m sure the forums would be full of people talking about how to use Joy2Key or whatever to play it.

    Anyway, the two player restriction makes this an absolute no-buy from me. Terrible.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Since USB, having multiple keyboards attached is easy; as is hooking up an extension cable to them.

      So, yeah, this is a complete nonsense.

  14. Tsang says:

    Yesterday, they gave a reason for why it is only a two player game. This twitter message pretty much says it all, PC gamers are too fat to fit more than two at a keyboard.

    You Don’t Know Jack Twitter Posting

    While they are likely joking, that is a pretty tasteless joke to make and does nothing to gain the goodwill of PC gamers in general after removing features from that version.

  15. LionsPhil says:

    Had great larks with the original UK version, playing bunched around a USB keyboard with it running in a Win95 VM under QEMU under Linux. Took forever to get the terrible Linux ATi drivers to go fullscreen at 640×480 to the data projector so that the “lose the desktop” gag would work at the start.

    Totally worth it.

    (I remember the first thing the game said to me, upon being fired up on the 25th Dec on my old P200, being “ah, you got me for christmas, didn’t you”. Pretty much set the tone.)

  16. Premium User Badge

    Bahumat says:

    I’m excited. I loved this game series as a kid, and it’s precisely what it needs to be to stay fun for years to come.

    Insert content (more writing), iterate, play!

  17. geoffreyk says:

    On the topic of the 2-player limit: note that the game is no longer a “1-button per contestant” dealie, but is instead a “4-button per contestant” dealie. Thus, where 3 players used to require 3 keys, they would now require 12 keys simultaneously. While plenty of PC gamers are resourceful people, who might have multiple peripherals they could plug in to make this easier, I can see why they did what they did. Game functions well for people in a bare-minimum scenario. Better than them offering 4-player support, but 90% of the purchasing populace finding themselves unable to take advantage.

    Personally, I paid the premium to buy it on 360, and Amazon is shipping 4 “Big Button” controllers with some crappy pack-in trivia game to me as I type. I loved it on PC back in the day, but I think having people gathered around my TV with trivia controllers will be even better.

  18. Premium User Badge

    shoptroll says:

    I was really looking forward to getting this. I probably will eventually, but based on everything I’ve read it sounds like they took a step backward. Which is sad, because it’s pretty clear they prioritized the console versions over the PC instead of making two builds. I honestly hope they’ll revert to the old buzz-in style with a patch. Lack of 3 player support is really the only hangup I have for this game, and as much as I hate to say it, they took the easy way out and that rubs me the wrong way.

    That said, I’ve had great luck in the last year with hooking up my PC via HDMI to my HDTV and with a wireless keyboard the old games are still amazing when run inside a virtual machine.

  19. Fumarole says:

    I played the shit out of this back in the days when three people could play on one computer. I can still hear the commercials for the Major Dick action figure when I close my eyes in bed at night.

    “Uzi sold separately!”

  20. BooleanBob says:

    Everything I ever knew about You Don’t Know Jack (its name and its price) I learnt from the shareware listings of mail order companies (note for the kids: kind of a pre-internet Amazon). Never failed to catch my eye, even though I, like Richard, had no idea what the phrase connoted. I wondered about this Jack. What was remarkable about the fact that I didn’t know him? It was all a little menacing.

  21. ShawnClapper says:

    Yea, only two players makes this a no buy.

    Plus, I liked having the buzzers to answer. I remember plenty of times that someone would buzz in before the question was done and the game would do something like just give you a fill in the blank to punish you for buzzing in too early.
    Also, I guess that means the type the answer in questions are gone? Loved the Gibberish Questions! All in all seems like a dumbed down YDKJ, and I’m going to have to pass on this one.

  22. DigitalSignalX says:

    I loved the online version of this, used to play endless hours with my father, one of the few times I could get him to play anything other then solitaire or online poker at the PC. 2 player is fine, but I wish there was an online game still.