The trivia genre hasn’t always had the easiest time getting a foothold in the gaming industry. Titles like Buzz! and Scene It? have come and gone with mild fanfare, leaving no lasting impression. When if first released in 1995, You Don’t Know Jack changed the way a lot of people thought about trivia video games. Rather than emulating existing shows it sought to be its own beast with a unique sense of style and substance. With its modern re-release You Don’t Know Jack returns in full force by delivering an incredibly polished experience with a plan to stay relevant long after its completion.
What makes You Don’t Know Jack so different from previous trivia games is that instead of loading the disc with thousands of questions and having them randomly appear to the player, the game is structured around the idea of a succinct episode. In addition to the questions, each of the 75 episodes on the disc offers a subtle narrative arc and topical commentary from the show’s hip quizmaster Cookie Masterson.
Played by Tom Gottlieb the character comes to life with a biting wit and unparalleled amiability. So much of the game’s enjoyment rests on his performance but it pulls through for a majority of players. Like Max Headroom or Wink Yahoo, Cookie Masterson carries every episode on his disembodied back; thankfully it’s not an incredibly heavy load.
You Don’t Know Jack is the definition of minimalist design; apart from a few graphical splashes the game is mostly text with clever typography. With no flashy 3D sets or wacky player avatars the game relies heavily on audio to set the scene. Existing entirely in the mind’s eye, You Don’t Know Jack lets the player’s imagination do the heavy lifting and consequently feels more like a real game show than any game before it.
The game itself is designed to be equal parts knowledge and reaction. Questions range from the mundane to the bizarre, with a skew to pop culture references. There’s room for deduction in every question but like every good game show, those in the know will always out-buzzer the clueless.
You Don’t Know Jack capitalizes on this by offering players the opportunity to ‘screw’ one another once per game for added bonuses. It’s a fun little trump card to play on your friends when you know they’re oblivious to the answer, adding both tension and guile to those moments when you just don’t know.
All the hallmark segments from the series’ history have returned; Dis or Dat and Jack Attack make an appearance once per episode. Fans of the classics will naturally have an edge here, but there’s nothing that isn’t learned by the end of your first episode.
Dis or Dat provides a fun mid-game disruption, requiring players to make quick classifications between absurdly contrasting categories; was Marie’s Creamy Ranch the name of a brothel or a salad dressing? Meanwhile Jack Attack offers end-game redemption for those who can quickly connect words based on a single clue, making every episode worth playing to completion.
There are few new additions to the format, but chief among them are per episode sponsorships by odd fictional companies. Somewhere in each episode there’s a wrong answer that corresponds with the sponsor’s name, netting the players who catch the rogue answer a tidy sum of cash. It’s a game changer for those who can stay mindful and it encourages players to look at things before they buzz in, which in a game about getting the fastest correct answer provides some balance between tortoise and hare mentalities.
Naturally You Don’t Know Jack is best experienced as a multiplayer game and there’s full support for local and online. Because of its episodic nature the game cleverly looks for an episode none of the players have finished yet and runs it, eliminating the possibility for repeat questions or providing advantage to the one player who’s already gone through most of the game.
With that in mind, this does mean there is an expiry date on the game. You Don’t Know Jack only features 75 episodes on the disc, which means that after all the 10-20 minute episodes are through there’s not much else you can do with the game. Within a week of play most players will likely complete more than half of the included episodes and it won’t be long afterwards for the game to be over completely.
Thankfully Jellyvision and THQ are working on a string of DLC expansions, and considering You Don’t Know Jack’s background as a daily episodic flash game the content will logically be frequent and topical. However, this does mean that long term fans of the game will be forking over $5 at a time for 10 more episodes. Normally this would be a major deterrent, but considering the game’s low $30 price tag there is some wallet wiggle room.
In addition to new DLC it would be nice to see a technical update for the game as well. There seems to be a small amount of host advantage when it comes to the Jack Attack finales. The netcode doesn’t feel as refined as it could be and can lead to frustrating defeats in the game’s final moments for guest players. It’s not exactly game breaking – I’ve won more than a few games via Jack Attack – but some additional transparency or optimization would be beneficial.
While we still need to wait and see if You Don’t Know Jack’s long-term plans will pan out, it doesn’t sacrifice quality, value, or fun for its future. What you get on the disc is well worth its price and the promise of expansion is sheer embellishment.
You Don’t Know Jack is one of those games you need to have in your library; it offers a completely different experience from anything else out there, including other trivia games. From its quirky host and incredible writing to the absolute ease of play, there’s no doubt that You Don’t Know Jack is officially the genre champion.