WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Hello and welcome to the second part of our exclusive in-depth review of Stern's new Wheel Of Fortune machine.
In this part we'll examine the rules and how the different elements of the game, such as the sounds, lighting effects, display animations and artwork all combine to produce a finished product.
This review is based on version 2 software which was surprisingly complete but superceded with version 3 mid-way through writing, so some of the issues we note may have already been fixed while others might be in the pipeline.
If you're familiar with how the game show Wheel Of Fortune works, you can skip this next part and jump straight to the paragraph below the translite picture.
The game was created by Merv Griffin and is all about working out a hidden puzzle - a phrase, name or saying - by guessing the letters which make it up. The words are shown on a large display board initially as a series of blanks but as correct guesses are made, the letters are revealed until it is solved. As the letters are guessed, the contestants spin a prize wheel in front of them and if they guess correctly they add the money shown on the wheel into their prize bank. If they know the correct answer to the puzzle, it is not necessarily in their best interests to solve it too early since they can keep making guesses and adding to their prize bank. There is a risk, though. The prize wheel also contains booby prizes which can wipe out their prize bank or give control to another contestant.
Whether or not Wheel Of Fortune strikes you as a good theme for a pinball machine, it does have some of the classic elements of a license. It is immediately recognisable to many people around the world thanks to the extensive syndication of the format.
The faces on the translite may not mean anything to players outside North America but they will probably be at least vaguely familiar with the way Wheel Of Fortune is played and the concepts behind it. That amassed knowledge should help pinball players feel more comfortable with an unknown machine when they step up to it for the first time and gives Stern a framework to build the game's rules around.
Wheel Of Fortune also gives Stern access to voice clips from presenter Pat Sajak and artwork for the logo, backglass and wheel itself.
The negative side the license brings is the association it has with a certain type of viewer who watches the show. Pinball's traditional home is in bars and arcades, neither of which is likely to have many members of the Wheel Watchers Club amongst their clientele. For home users, though, it's a safe, non-violent theme which might appeal to the whole family.
The other downside is the fact Wheel Of Fortune may have peaked in popularity many years ago and in many countries is now relegated to the daytime slots on TV if it is actually produced at all. In the UK for instance, it was last broadcast in 2001.
So the challenge to the game designers is to recreate the best of the game show on the playfield without detracting from the pinball side of things too much and incorporating all the elements we've come to expect.
Let's see how they did it.
Press the regular start button (remember, the tournament start button is just below it) and the game springs into life with a rousing chorus from the audience of "Wheel Of Fortune" and we're off.
With the ball sitting in the plunger lane we have the three choices of shot described in part one - to plunge into the pop bumpers with a strong shot, to go for a weak ball launch and end up on the right ramp or to go for the Toss Up skill shot.
The dot matrix display is clear which of those choices we should go for.
Before we go any further you'll have noticed the unusual layout for the dot matrix display. In Wheel Of Fortune the display is split into one-third for the scores and two-thirds for the information and animations. This is not just during the game but extends into attract mode too which is a real boon for tournaments or leagues where you have to write down the scores after the game.
We'll cover the dot matrix display effects later but you'll see examples peppered throughout this review to help explain how things work, so it's worth mentioning the layout here.
But back to the game and it's time for a Toss Up which is how the TV show starts to decide which contestant goes first.
For once we have a skill shot that actually lives up to its name. It's genuinely difficult to get the strength of the plunge just right. Even if you're just a tiny amount too weak, the ball hits the clear post and fails to make the skill shot. A fraction too hard and you're saying hello to Mr Pop Bumper.
But get it right and you've got an immediate 1 million points for the first skill shot.
But then the toss up begins and a blank puzzle is shown on the display and a value of 1 million.
Immediately, the 1 million toss up value starts rapidly counting down and letters are added to the puzzle.
Your task is to shoot the mini ramp ball lock before all the letters are revealed and the toss up ends, which is around 5 seconds. If you get the ball in the ball lock, you are awarded the current countdown value and the puzzle is revealed.
There's nothing on the display to tell you what to shoot and while it's tempting to watch the letters appearing and the score diminishing, shoot the ball lock and collect the points.
This is especially true on subsequent toss ups because the value grows rapidly. While the first skill shot and toss up value are worth a million, the second one is worth an immediate 2 million points and the toss up value is double that at 4 million. And things only get better with the third worth 3 million and a toss up value of 6 million and the fourth at 4 million and 8 million respectively.
While it's impossible to get the maximum initial toss up value (since it starts counting down before you get the opportunity to make a shot), it can still be worth an impressive amount when starting at 6 or 8 million.
Whether or not you make the skill shot, you're now playing Wheel Of Fortune and host Pat Sajak announces the subject of the first puzzle.
With the subject of "Landmark" the aim is to get the contestants to guess letters to earn points in the bank and then collect them. You can only collect one contestant's prize bank so it makes sense to build up just one before collecting it.
When one of the contestant's standup targets is hit, they will automatically guess a letter which will - for about 99% of the time - be one of the letters in the puzzle. You have no control over the letters they guess.
That contestant then earns the value on their segment of the wheel for each occurrence of the letter in the puzzle. Those points go into their bank.
So if Maria is hit with the yellow segment of the wheel parked on 100,000 and she guesses the letter "C", there is one "C" in the puzzle so she banks 100,000.
The DMD alternates between the prize bank values and the ball number / topic / credits information.
As the letters are guessed, the small dot matrix display above the flippers shows "GUESS 'L'" so you can see what letter has been chosen by the contestant. This is helpful since the diction is not the clearest on the voice calls and deliberately exaggerated making B, C, D and E all sound very similar.
After each letter is guessed, the wheel spins to give different values to each contestant. Those new values may mean you're better off switching, and building up a different contestant's bank to the one you've been building so far. There's another reason to switch contestants and that involves some of the other awards on the wheel.
Apart from the points values which range from 30,000 up to 500,000, there are also wedges for jackpots, a trip and an extra ball which you can add to the bank by shooting the relevant contestant. But there are also danger wedges such as "Lose A Turn" which prevents the recipient from guessing the next letter, and the big one - "Bankrupt" which wipes out all the points and prizes in that contestant's bank. These bad wedges do not need to be collected and apply immediately they land in a contestant's lit wedge.
That last award means all your hard work building up a contestant's bank can be undone with one spin of the wheel if they receive a "Bankrupt".
For that reason, you may decide to collect the bank sooner rather than later, especially if it is especially valuable or contains some nice extras. Once a contestant is bankrupt, they are excluded from guessing the next letter and if they were the active contestant, that status passes to the contestant on their right.
Due to the limited space available, once the prize bank exceeds six digits, a short-hand notation is used.
After a certain number of letters have been correctly guessed, you will be offered the chance to buy a vowel by shooting the ball lock when the white lamp is lit.
The number varies depending on the number of letters in the puzzle and you do not have to collect the vowel right now if you don't want to. You can choose to leave it until later in the hope of receiving a more valuable wedge and so more points for each occurrence in the puzzle, but when you do buy the vowel it will cost 25,000 points from the active contestant's prize bank total. The contestant will always have at least that many points since they just guessed the previous letter and will have earned at least 1 x the wedge value for doing so which is a minimum of 30,000.
After more number of letters have been guessed, the lock will light again to solve the puzzle. The last hit contestant is the active one and their insert flashes to indicate this. When the ball lock is shot to solve the puzzle, you collect the currently active player's their prize bank.
If "buy a vowel" is lit, that happens first before the puzzle is solved. If the active prize bank holds an extra ball, it is awarded after the puzzle is revealed.
The values and prizes in the other two contestants' banks are lost and all banks are then reset to zero in readiness for the next puzzle. The points held by the winning contestant are not won by you immediately but are transferred into your own bank of winnings which you collect as part of the end of ball bonus.
Importantly, this winnings bank is not reset at the start of a new ball but builds up instead, so winnings earned during ball one will be awarded during the end-of-ball bonus for balls one, two and three.
While it makes sense to concentrate on building up one contestant's bank, you should not be afraid of swapping to another if their values and/or prizes become more attractive.
Ultimately though, the points earned by solving puzzles aren't that significant. A typical puzzle will be worth under a million upon completion but it's the extra prizes, the fact that the winnings are awarded after every subsequent ball and progression towards the wizard mode that makes solving them worthwhile. The position of the contestant targets means they're all fairly safe shots and not likely to lead to a drain. Plus it's quite fun to solve the puzzles.
Which brings us to a contentious issue - the puzzles themselves and in particular the "on the map" rounds.
While some of them are quite well known, some are far more esoteric. Take, for instance the puzzle "*TH*NS, G******". Ah yes, that's the birthplace of civilization, surely? Well, no. But apart from the 100,000 people who live there, who in the world know's there's an Athens in Georgia?
Or Dover. The famous white cliffs. The world's busiest seaway. Yes, good old Dover, Delaware? More puzzles are on the way so let's hope someone goes through them to see if they make sense outside the US.
Because a contestant can only guess a letter once the wheel has stopped spinning and displayed their next prize bank value, you can't solve a puzzle quickly by repeatedly bashing the contestants. You have to wait for the wheel to click to a halt.
Sometimes that's a blessing as a wild shot at the wrong contestant could have lost you a prize, but the overall effect is to slow down the game and force you to either trap the ball before each contestant shot or make some unnecessary ramp or loop shot to keep the ball moving before the contestants become available again. Trapping the ball is the best move since it gives you the chance to examine the wheel values and adjust your strategy as necessary. When the ball is flying round loops and up ramps you really don't get any opportunity to check the wheel values either on the DMD or on the wheel itself.
The Bonus Wheel modes are qualified by collecting all five of the B-O-N-U-S letters on the five loop and ramp shots - left loop, left ramp, centre ramp, right ramp and right loop.
At the start of the game all five are flashing. Making one of the shots will solidly light its corresponding letter and when all five letters have been collected, the ball lock is lit and some hurry-up music begins.
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Sadly there were no bonus points awarded for making the B-O-N-U-S letters in order.
The various modes are shown by the bonus wheel on the playfield.
When qualified, a lit segment starts spinning. When the ball lock is shot, the currently lit segment is the mode which begins. Because of the speed at which the lit segments cycle, it's impossible to time it so you can choose any particular mode, making it effectively a random award unless there is only one mode remaining.
So an animation is played and one of the seven modes begins. All the modes have 30 second timers and also have a small grace period of a few seconds after the timer has expired to grab those last few points before the total points scored during the mode is announced.
Wheel Frenzy is a true "frenzy" mode with all switches scoring points.
The central contestant's (Maria's) wedge on the wheel is illuminated and this is the initial points value for all switches but you have the opportunity to change the value to one of the other contestant's wedges by hitting the standup target in front of them. If you don't like the look of any of the three wheel values, you can shoot the centre ramp and spin the wheel to a new set of scores.
In the absence of a spinner, the pop bumpers are a good place to send the ball once you've settled on a good wheel value for each switch hit. In this instance, a contestant with a 100,000 points value is hit to almost double the frenzy scoring.
As you can see, the points available for Wheel Frenzy far outweigh those earned from solving a puzzle, especially if you can increase the value and combine it with a multiball.
At the start of Risky Spinning, all five B-O-N-U-S inserts are lit and flashing to score jackpot on their respective shots. The first letter scores 1x the jackpot, the second 2x and so on.
The jackpot value is the combination of all three contestants' wedges but this can be changed, both for the better and for the worse. Hitting a lit contestant will unlight them and their wedge and remove its value from the jackpot. Hitting an unlit contestant will light them and their wedge while adding their wedge value to the jackpot.
As B-O-N-U-S letters are collected, they extinguish and become unavailable until all five have been collected when they reset and score jackpots again.
So careless shots can reduce your jackpot value while well-aimed ones can build it back up. However if you still think the jackpot value is unworthy of your skillful play, you can shoot the centre ramp to spin the wheel and increase it. As this is one of the B-O-N-U-S shots you should try to get this letter first to make the others more valuable.
In this version of the software, the scoring was a little erratic with the wheel not changing the jackpot value and the multiplier shown on the display not matching the actual awards. It was also obliterated by a multiball starting, leaving no shots lit for the mode.
The three ramps are the stars of this mode, scoring valuable jackpots which build the more you shoot them.
The rules are quite simple - the left ramp scores a multiplier of Lonnie's wedge value, the centre ramp scores a multiplier of Maria's wedge while the right ramp earns a multiple of Keith wheel wedge value. All multipliers begin at 10x and shooting any ramp scores its respective value but also adds another 10x to the multiplier for that shot.
Of course you'll want to increase those wedges if you can, so shooting the centre ramp will also spin the wheel and give you a new set of values.
As you'd expect, those 10x multipliers soon boost the values of the three shots and make for some decent scores.
When you get the multiplier built up, you'll be kicking yourself if you've still got a low wedge value to multiply.
So Ramp Rampage is another potentially lucrative mode which, like the others, should be combined with a multiball if at all possible.
The Combos wheel bonus mode is probably the hardest and relies on you making quick sequences of shots.
Make any of the five B-O-N-U-S shots - the loops and ramps - and you'll be awarded a 1 way combo score which is the value of all three contestants' wedged on the wheel multiplied by the indicated multiplier which starts at 5x.
Any single B-O-N-U-S shot scores the 1 way combo, but if you follow it up quickly with one of the remaining 4 shots you'll boost that to a 2 way combo and so on with the remaining shots. Combos start at 600K and score double for the 2 way combo, triple for the third and so on.
The second consecutive shot also doubles the multiplier for the combo points award.
The mode is quite strict and only allows a very short amount of time to string together the shots before it resets back to a 1 way for the next shot.
Combos is probably the hardest of the bonus wheel awards and it requires some accurate shooting to score many points.
Keep It Spinning is a bit like Wheel Frenzy but with a twist.
The wheel spins constantly during Keep It Spinning and your aim during the 30 seconds duration is to hit any switches or make any of the shots to speed up the wheel. The more revolutions it makes, the more points you score. If you stop hitting switches or shots, the wheel slows down and you score fewer points.
As with any "Frenzy" type mode, having a multiball running alongside is particularly desirable and doing so during Keep It Spinning can really get the wheel flying.
As with all the modes, if you drain during the 30 seconds duration, the mode ends and is lit solidly on the wheel to indicate it has been played and is unavailable all the others have been started.
The name describes the mode well. The wheel is spinning throughout the mode but you can interrupt it by shooting one of the three contestants' standups.
When you do so, the wheel comes to an immediate halt and you score the value on the wedge of the contestant you hit.
But once again there is a wrinkle to this mode which allows more points to be scored if you can hit the correct target. Initially all three contestants inserts are flashing and any of them stop the wheel and score their wheel value. But after that, the contestant you hit is no longer flashing.
If you hit one of the remaining two contestants, you boost a multiplier for their wedge value when the wheel stops.
The multiplier begins at 1x but increments by one for each hit on a flashing contestant. If you hit the second flashing contestant, they too stop flashing leaving one final contestant left to keep building your multiplier. Hit them and the multiplier for their wedge increases while all three contestants are once again flashing. Miss them, and you reset the wedge score multiplier to 1x.
You may have spotted the zero points score in the sequence above. If you stop the wheel on a "bankrupt" or "lose a turn" you score zero for that wedge but it doesn't stop you increasing you multiplier.
The mode ends when the 30 seconds are up or you drain.
No game is complete without a hurry up and while we have the Toss Up hurry up, there's no harm having a second one.
The rules are simple once again. You have 30 seconds on the clock and have to shoot one of the three contestants' standups to start a hurry up on one of the loops or ramps - the five B-O-N-U-S shots.
When you do so, after a two second grace period, a value starts counting down and you have five seconds to make one of the five shots to collect the current value.
Each contestant has a different starting value to their hurry up, probably based on 10x their current wedge values. Maria, for instance, is worth 550K in the example above while Keith was worth 450,000 for the next hurry up.
If you don't collect the hurry up before the five seconds are up and it reaches zero, you return to being able to hit one of the contestants to start a new hurry up.
When the 30 seconds are up or you drain the mode ends, unless a countdown is in progress in which case the grace period at the end of the mode allows you to collect it.
Contestant hurry up has the potential to be reasonably high-scoring but yet again it is multiball that will bring out the best of the mode.
When any of these seven modes starts, another action happens in the background which you may not notice - the wheel spins to a new set of values. That means there's no point waiting to start a mode until you have a good score on the wheel because by the time the mode has begun, the values have all changed.
As a side effect, it also means the scoring is a lot less random than it may initially appear. That's understandable to make sure a mode doesn't score excessively above what was intended but also a little like playing a slot machine and starting a feature, only to have it respin the reels and put all the valuable symbols out of sight (which is just what some do). When the code is doing tricks like that, you have to wonder whether modes such as Stop The Wheel really do stop on the correct wedge or whether some "prize management " is taking place.
Perhaps the wondering is all part of the fun?
Each bonus wheel mode comes with its own music which is nicely done and helps build the excitement - in contrast to the rather leisurely main theme.
So those are the seven bonus wheel modes. Next we come to the multiball modes and we'll start with the main one - Wheel Of Fortune multiball.
To start Wheel Of Fortune multiball you have to shoot all nine green standup targets scattered around the playfield to spell out M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L. The green inserts in front of each target is initially flashing but once the corresponding target has been shot, the insert lights solidly.
Shooting all nine targets lights the green multiball insert and the green lamp on the board at the ball lock.
Shoot the ball into the lock and off we go with Wheel Of Fortune multiball. If you have any of the other awards lit such as a bonus wheel mode, a puzzle to solve or a trip multiball, you have to wait for them to go through their animations and for the sounds and lighting effects to finish before multiball starts last of all.
This is a three ball multiball and the four of the six red star "jackpot" inserts are lit. They are the left-most ones; left loop, left ramp, ball lock and centre ramp. Shooting any of them will give you a 1x jackpot which begins at 750K points and can be built up by during multiball shooting the pop bumpers.
Each 10 hits by the pop bumpers adds 7.5K to the jackpot. It is also possible to increase the jackpot value before starting multiball although there's no indication how this is done on the display. It seemed to come from hitting lit M-U-L-T-I-B-A-L-L targets once they were complete and before starting the multiball to add 7.5K each time to the jackpot.
Collecting a jackpot unlights that shot leaving the remaining three available for increasing multiples of the base jackpot value.
The final red star insert is worth a super jackpot of 5x the base jackpot value.
When you collect the super jackpot the red star inserts do not relight immediately. Instead you have to shoot one of the contestants to light a different set of four red inserts and start collecting the 1x, 2x and 3x jackpots again followed by a super jackpot.
This continues until you are down to one ball (or fewer) but there is a grace period of several seconds after multiball ends during which you can grab a final jackpot or two. In this version there was no display to give you a multiball total which would normally indicate the end of the grace period, though that may appear in later versions.
The next time you light Wheel Of Fortune multiball during the same game, the jackpot value picks up where you left it.
It was disappointing to find there was no special Wheel Of Fortune multiball music - just a speeded-up version of the main theme. That may change in later versions but given the nice music for the bonus wheel modes, it was surprising not to hear a new tune for the main multiball mode.
If the "Round" number is flashing, you're playing a prize puzzle, so even if the sound is turned down you can see what's in store when you solve the puzzle.
You can also earn a trip if the wheel lands on the trip wedge and you add it to a prize bank before collecting that bank by solving the puzzle.
Whichever way you do it, when you solve the puzzle you begin trip multiball.
Trip multiball can take you to a number of places. In version two there was just Chicago, Australia and Africa but in version 3 Nashville has been added.
Each trip has its own set of jackpot animations, a unique music track and different background images behind the scores. We'll look at the Africa trip because that has probably the better and clearer animations with a scrolling African landscape behind the on-screen information.
Trip multiball is a three ball mode unless you combine it with a Wheel Of Fortune multiball in which case you get to play all the game's four balls.
Trip multiball plays very much like Wheel Of Fortune multiball with four red star inserts lit for jackpots. Jackpots begin at a base value of 500,000 points and have a multiplier which increases with each jackpot collected. So the first jackpot is 1x the base or 500K
When collected, a roaring lion reveals the award.
The second jackpot collected gets a 2x multiplier and an elephant trumpeting your score.
The elephant is back for the third jackpot which is 3x the base value.
The fourth is the final lit red star insert and collects a super jackpot of 5x the base value, once again courtesy of Dumbo.
This also bumps up the jackpot value by 100K, resets the multiplier and the relights four red star inserts for the next round of jackpots.
In addition, if you string together a combo of jackpots by collect a second jackpot straight after the first one, you get an extra combo multiplier of 2x, so this triple jackpot below which would normally be 1.8 million become a double triple jackpot and is announced as such.
This made it worth more than the super jackpot award below and shows how valuable it can be, especially as the multiplier and base value increase.
Each subsequent super jackpot adds a further 100K to the base jackpot value and resets the multiplier to 1x.
The trip multiball total display didn't quite work correctly in version 2 but will probably have been fixed by now.
During trip multiball, the announcements of " jackpot", "double jackpot", etc are made not by Pat Sajak as they are in Wheel Of Fortune multiball, but by the contestant making the trip. So it's either Lonnie, Maria or Keith calling out your awards. Lonnie and Keith are actually voiced by our old friend Fred Young who plays Lonnie in a very deadpan style. The voice artist playing Maria makes her highly excitable and rather annoying at times, while Fred as Keith takes the middle ground.
But the involvement of Stern staff within the game isn't limited to the three contestants, since Director of Parts Sales and Technical Support Joe Blackwell gets in on the act, playing guitar in the Chicago trip multiball mode's music track. Have a listen for yourself.
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The wizard bonus is activated by starting all the modes on the bonus wheel, collecting a super jackpot during Wheel Of Fortune multiball and completing four puzzles in a single game. When you achieve these three tasks the Wizard bonus will light.
At least, that's what we believe is supposed to happen but in the version we were playing, none of the lights lit as we achieved the tasks so either they are much harder than we believed or this hadn't been implemented yet.
We will update this section as more information becomes available.
The pop bumpers not only help build up Wheel Of Fortune jackpot values, they also score points themselves and build up the wild card value.
Initially, each pop bumper scores 1,000 points and adds 1,000 points to the wild card value. Those values increases by 100 points for each 10 pop bumper hits. But, as in so many other areas, there is also a multiplier which can be increased.
Each shot up the right loop into the bumpers increases the multiplier by one up to a maximum of 10x.
The multiplier only applies to direct scores from the bumpers and doesn't apply to the wild card value which only ever increases by the un-multiplied bumpers score.
The Wild Card is a random award given when your ball rolls through the wild card lane when it is lit. The lane is lit at the start of the game and relit by knocking down the third drop target in front of the right ramp. So you want to collect the free one before relighting it from the drop target.
When collected, apart from the points built up by the pop bumpers as mentioned above, you get one of a range of awards.
The range of awards varies from bonus multipliers increased or held through to extra balls and specials. Speaking of which...
Specials will normally come from one of the 100,000 wedges on the wheel and added to a prize bank, but can also come from the wild card award.
By default, specials award free games but can be adjusted to other values through the game's settings.
If the machines is set to give a free game at a certain number of points you get an animation combining the words "REPLAY" and "FREE GAME!!!"
Inevitably though, the ball must exit the playfield through the outlanes, the centre drain lanes, or most embarrassingly, under the flippers.
If the chosen route is down an outlane, you at least have the chance to recover it if a free spin lane is lit.
Free spin is lit from the first of the three inline drop targets and adds a lit lane to any that are already lit from earlier balls. It can be awarded from the wild card lane when lit.
The drop targets reset at the start of each ball so during a three ball game with no extra balls you should end up with three of the four lanes lit.
Roll through one of them and a new ball is immediately auto-launched into play.
If, however, your ball exits the playfield down the centre drain lane, your best hope is to get a big money award.
Shooting the second inline drop target lights one of the two drain lanes.
As with the free spins, uncollected big money lanes carry over to the next ball to allow you light both drain lanes.
Roll through a lit lane and the wheel spins.
When it stops, the lit wedge is multiplied to give you your big money award. The multiplier is 10x the first time you collect it during a game.
The multiplier increases by 5x for each subsequent big money score.
Whether it's the drain lanes or an unlit outlane, the ball's gone and it's bonus time.
The bonus count is made up from a number of elements, some of which are quite mysterious in their scoring.
First of all there's a score based, presumably, on the number of switches hit.
Then comes a simple one awarding 5000 points for each letter guessed.
Followed by 50,000 for each puzzle solved.
There is a bonus multiplier applied to the total of the previous three scores. Apart from the wild card award, it's not clear where else the bonus multiplier is built in the absence of any rollover lanes above the pop bumpers.
Unlike the previous three bonus displays, this one shows the value before the award is applied.
So the bonus score at this point is 11x 296K or 3.256M. Add on all the points you collected from solving puzzles...
...and you have your total bonus which, as you can see is not insignificant.
In fact it can be substantially higher than that, just as it was from the previous ball in this game.
If that was your last ball and it didn't get you a free game, your last hope is to get a match.
The match animation shows the wheel spinning and landing on the usual two digit multiple of ten.
From there it's into attract mode.
Throughout attract mode, the one-third/two-thirds split of the display is maintained meaning you can permanently see the scores from the previous game.
The single column of pixels that make up the dividing line are permanently on, so expect any display swapped out of a Wheel Of Fortune to be instantly identifiable.
Now you've seen how the rules work, it should become clear the game requires some strategic planning to get the most out of it. What might at first seem overly simplistic comes to life when you combine Wheel Of Fortune multiball with a bonus wheel mode and a trip multiball. Comparisons with running all three multiballs in Bram Stoker's Dracula are a little unfair since that game hides most of its features, whereas Wheel Of Fortune makes them really quite accessible with big inserts and bright green targets to tell you how to start features.
The bonus wheel modes are all inventive in their use of the wheel and the contestants to add twists to seemingly straightforward ideas such as stop the wheel and the need to hit the correct contestants to boost the multiplier. Novice players who are unaware of this twist can still shoot away and see their efforts rewarded albeit not as much as someone who takes the time to read the instructions.
While there are these twists, they never become too bizarre of outlandish. The designer has added the quirky features to the playfield so they don't need to be in the software too.
As has been the trend for recent Stern games, the software ships with some really easy default feature settings which would benefit from tightening up for home users or locations with good players.
Having a theme developed for the small screen could be seen as ideal for a pinball display. But the flip side of that is the way reliance on the dot matrix display can distract from the real pinball action on the playfield.
Wheel Of Fortune - the game show - has two mechanical devices (if you don't count Vana White) - the wheel and the puzzle board. With a physical wheel in the game, the DMD takes on the role of the puzzle board as well as performing all it's regular duties of scoring, instructing the player and showing progress through the various stages.
Knowing this game was still in development, we didn't have very high hopes for the quality or completeness of the display effects.
But we were very wrong. From the unusual but highly effective splitting of the screen real estate to the mode start and background animations, everything is made to a very high standard.
The left side of the screen not only shows the players' scores at all times - something we've promoted before - but also shows every addition, from each pop bumper hit to super jackpots. This is a great idea but we'd like to suggest a couple of refinements which, in our opinion, would make it even better.
First, if the scores being added to the total had a "+" in front, they would look less like a another player's score and second, the added scores need to be delayed slightly so they don't appear and disappear before the main area of the display announces them.
Unlike Spider-Man, Wheel Of Fortune has not tried to digitise video clips from the actual show but instead made 3D models of the logos and the wheel so they can animate them to better suit both the restricted resolutions and colour depth of a DMD. The results are very smooth animations which aren't trying to squeeze more out of the system than it's capable of.
And there are plenty of animations in there with very few static frames and good use of background movement overlaid with text. At times it can be a little distracting but it shows the effort put into making the game look and feel alive when it could have turned out very staid and plodding.
You'll notice by now we've hardly mentioned the other dot matrix display set into the playfield above the flippers. That's because it really is largely superfluous. Whereas a second display in The Simpsons Pinball Party reinforced the TV concept and gave useful guidance when the ball was in the upper playfield, the 8-digit display in Wheel Of Fortune is positioned in an area where you need to concentrate on the ball and the flippers while containing no compelling information.
It doesn't fit in with the theme and serves to confuse instead. It's a toy looking for a use and so far it hasn't found one (which probably means it never will).
Musically, this is a game of two halves. There is the main gameplay music which is a version of the show's 25 anniversary theme in the US. There have been many different themes for the US version but this is the one presently used, although with so much applause and all the voiceovers it's sometime hard to hear it.
There are only so many liberties you can take with licensed music and get it past the licensors, but there are some more punchy mixes of the same basic theme used in the show and it's promotions. The version used in the pinball is a bit bland and corporate by comparison and not something likely to build excitement.
That changes when we get into the music for the bonus wheel modes where the rules are relaxed and we get the impression this is what everyone really wanted to put in the the game. Since they're timed, there's a sense of urgency to the mode music and a constant reminder of the seconds ticking away.
So the music is another example of not taking the game at face value and perhaps being pleasantly surprised when you dig a little deeper.
The sound effects are effective and the synchronised clacking of the wheel works especially well. In version 2 there was a noticeable missing effect when shooting an unlit right ramp was given the silent treatment and hitting the multiball targets needed a more positive audible effect. The same is probably true of the wild card award too which could be awarded almost without notice. But the rest is well balanced and the mechanical chime effects in the pop bumpers is a nice touch and a nod to the old school fans. Additionally, there is a nice wide selection of samples from Pat Sajak which are well managed. He recorded several ways to say the same thing so you don't hear him repeating himself even when the same event happens twice in close succession.
Probably the only sounds anyone might find annoying are the contestants. Both the men are made to sound dopey and slow-witted which sometimes makes it hard to tell who was guessing from the voices alone, while Maria is the exact opposite; over-excited and a little grating, especially during her trip multiballs. It's all down to personal preference of course and you may find yourself warming to them after some extended game time.
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There are no "wow" moments in Wheel Of Fortune where your jaw hits the floor at the superb lighting effects but the LEDs illuminating the wheel do come reasonably close to causing chin bruises. The wheel works so well not just because it spins and stops - that's the relatively easy part - but because the lighting effects synchronise so well and signal very clearly to the player the prizes available.
The wheel also plays an important part in the game's biggest light show - the start of Wheel Of Fortune multiball when all general illumination is switched off leaving just the red star inserts lit while flashing the wheel and the red flashers either side in time with the "Wheel Of Fortune" chant from the audience.
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The other white LEDs on the bumper caps also work well now and although they do look rather cheap and something of an afterthought, the time and money saved not having to replace pop bumper lamps makes the trade worthwhile.
The playfield is well illuminated and bright looking. The only darker area is the right loop where the deep blue of the sky would benefit from an extra general illumination lamp or two.
Starting with the backglass image, the artwork is perfectly acceptable if not inspired but this, along with the cabinet art will be one of the areas the licensors apply their greatest scrutiny to make sure everything is in line with their branding guidelines and style guide.
There's nothing offensive here and the cabinet art is similarly conservative with just the logo over a coloured background resembling the studio cyclorama.
It's all bright, colourful and inviting. You may not be instantly drawn to the theme but the artwork will help overcome some of that reluctance and hopefully use the positive, familiar aspects of the license to get you to put coins in the slot.
But the area most people will be looking at is the playfield and while everything is "in-style" with a rainbow of colours both in the art itself and in the masses of inserts of various shapes and sizes, there's a definite feeling of trying to cram too many features into a small area. The different features illustrated - the bonus wheel, the prize banks, the wizard advances.
This gives the impression of a very crowded playfield, but is it? Let's take a look.
It certainly appears to be packed and perhaps a little confusing, but if you strip out the artwork, the inserts and display - in fact, anything you can't shoot with the ball and...
...it reveals a much simpler layout with all the important stuff up at the top of the playfield.
Using the same colours for the plastics as those used on the playfield can be excused in part because, with just about every colour in the palette is used somewhere on the playfield, using an colour for a plastic other than the one directly below it will make it look out of place and wrongly positioned.
We're still not sold on using the same pattern for the plastic which blends them into the playfield and reduces the visual depth, flattening the look of the lower playfield's layers.
A theme such as Wheel Of Fortune must be a challenge for any game designer. The theme is intrinsically a simple one with few elements to bring onto the playfield for the player to interact with - a host, some contestants, the wheel and the board.
Having moved the host into the game and the board onto the DMD, there's only the wheel and the contestants. The wheel is too valuable to allow you to smash balls into it, so no matter how impressive it is to look at, it's effectively outside the play area leaving the contestants as the only physical link to the game you can keep shooting with the ball.
The rest of the playfield is up for grabs (as long as the bill of materials doesn't exceed the budget). So in addition to the usual ramps, loops and pop bumpers there's the opportunity to break the mould, to make this game truly different and try some unusual ideas in areas of the game hitherto sacrosanct such as flipper placement.
The flipper arrangement used isn't new of course. It harks back to the Gottlieb days of games such as Buckaroo and Flipper Clown. They used short flippers but the layout is the same and as with those games, Wheel Of Fortune takes a little getting used to while you learn the power of the post to prevent straight down the middle drains.
It's not an arrangement that is likely to be the way forward at Stern but it adds another twist to keep the player interested and have some fun as balls they thought were lost bounce around the flipper area and back into play. It's not quite Orbitor 1 but it's as close as we're likely to get.
Split outlanes are also far from new. Silverball Mania had a similar arrangement where the upper track returned the ball to play while the lower one drained as normal.
But for the designer, an interesting bonus from both these features is their near-zero cost. The different flippers require a couple of lane guides, switches, inserts, lamps, posts and rubber rings. The outlanes require two switches, ball guides, inserts, lamps and posts with rubber rings because unlike Silverball Mania, the ball is returned to play from the shooter lane, saving the cost of an extra solenoid.
The same is true of the wild card lane which is effectively a guest appearance by the treasure lane from Pirates Of The Caribbean.
Something that definitely does cost money is the 3 bank of in-line drop targets guarding the right ramp. This fourth returning feature is probably the most welcome and although underused in the game, still satisfying to knock down and clear the shot through to the ramp.
In some ways though, despite using some ideas from much older games, Wheel Of Fortune continues the trend of many very recent Stern games. For a start there are no under-playfield tunnels. The ball never even drops below the playing surface until it hits the outhole. We probably have to go back to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! for a game where a ball drops below the playfield and re-emerges back into play elsewhere.
Like Designer Dennis Nordman's Pirates Of the Caribbean and Pat Lawlor's Family Guy, Wheel Of Fortune eschews the traditional "lock1 > lock2 > lock 3 & multiball" process in favour of an immediate multiball start with no lock process. This tends to make Wheel Of Fortune multiball a common occurrence and is one of the feature that needs to be made harder than the default setting.
For what could easily have been a stop-and-go game, it flows reasonably well with the left loop and both outer ramps sending the ball straight back to the flippers for the next shot. Meanwhile the right loop, centre ramp and ball lock can all hold on to it for at least a moment to break up the action and give you a chance to tweak that strategy (you do have a strategy, don't you?) and check the scores on the wheel.
It was easy to be tredpidacious about a game based around TV game show, especially when it brings to mind the type of customers playing the Wheel Of Fortune slots in places like Reno and Las Vegas. So producing an objective review requires a certain amount of goodwill before we even start to overcome the stereotypes.
It's definitely worth persevering though because although slightly gimmicky, the flipper arrangement and split outlanes do work well and add a couple of new elements to the gameplay.
The concept of Stern employees putting themselves not only on the backglass but on the playfield using their own names (for Lonnie & Keith) also felt a step too far towards egotistical. But once again, ignoring those concerns and keeping an open mind pays off with a fun game with some novel features, professionally presented and competently designed throughout.
It's a collaborative game where you play with, rather than against the machine. You're not trying to defeat anyone, the game never taunts you and your only foe is the clock as those bonus wheel seconds slip away. It's also a humourless game so don't expect to get any laughs out of it.
But despite all that, it's still highly enjoyable and if it's not an instant classic, it is likely to find new players warming to it as they put aside their preconceptions and give it a try.
Finally, here are the Editor's personal ratings for the game in its current state as reviewed, running V2 software with updates in V3 taken into account.
The game is well developed and shipping so only minor changes are likely to be made from now on. Consequently, barring any significant and unexpected revisions, these are likely to be close to our final ratings for Wheel Of Fortune.
The rankings are totally subjective and are included only as a guide. Feel free to disagree with them.
If you jumped straight here, please go back and read the full review to see whether you agree with them and if you put the same significance on certain features as the Editor.
If you read all the way through, well done and we hope you found it informative.
© Pinball News 2007