A dire rendition of the popular TV show, redeemed only by its brain-dead challenge level.

Finally, it’s the quintessence of Game Boy: A Western-developed game built around a broad-ranging, popular property—a game that turned out incredibly poor yet still manages to be fairly inoffensive. The Game Boy experience in a nutshell. Yes, it’s Wheel of Fortune, and it’s perfectly tolerable as a Game Boy release despite scraping up against the system catalog’s utter bottom end in terms of technical prowess.

Western-developed games have been a rare occurrence so far on Game Boy, literally. We had Wizards and Warriors X to kick off 1990, and The Amazing Spider-Man appeared midway through the year… both developed by, yes, Rare. Neither of those particularly set the world on fire, but they did at least demonstrate some degree of technical competence. You can’t really say that for Wheel of Fortune. This is the worst-looking and worst-sounding game we’ve seen so far. Its music in particular is fascinatingly wretched.

And yet, as a game, I wouldn’t even place it in the bottom quartile of Game Boy titles to date. There was some utter, unplayable rubbish on Game Boy through the years, and this isn’t it… despite its many and obvious defects. 

This cartridge’s strength comes entirely from the charm of the source material. Wheel of Fortune transforms the long-running television game show by the same name into handheld form. While the translation is imperfect, the fundamental design of the actual TV concept holds up—despite barely legible graphics and some of the worst music ever to vomit from the Game Boy’s speaker. 

Visually, the game is a mess. A clumsy effigy of co-host Vanna White glitches her way across the screen to turn letters after you spin a wheel whose numeric values are almost indecipherable. Yeah, the Game Boy doesn’t exactly offer tremendous color depth, but the developers here didn’t even bother to reverse out the traditionally black “Bankrupt” space to be white-on-black. Since “Bankrupt” is written as B-O-O here and appears in the same color scheme as the other spaces, it looks exactly like the $800 space until it settles in for a nasty surprise.

Not that this take on Wheel is precisely the most mentally taxing game unless you play against another person. While most head-to-head Game Boy software we’ve seen has stacked things unfairly against the player in vs. CPU mode, Wheel of Fortune seems to have been tuned to give even the barely literate a competitive advantage. The CPU habitually chooses the least likely letter choices possible, always going immediately for Js and Qs first. You really have to work to lose… and even then, the computer often hands you the win even if you bumble through a now-obscure puzzle like “Alvin Ailey Dance Company.” Like many references in this cart, that’s one of those frozen-in-time puzzles you get from a game created 25 years ago. Alvin Ailey passed away shortly before this game was developed, so audiences of the day might have been more familiar with the name, but it’s not something you hear about on TV these days. Nevertheless, the computer will steadfastly refuse to go for the win as you grope your way to an unearned victory in such puzzles.

The TV show Wheel of Fortune itself currently stands as the longest-running game show in U.S. history. Wheel debuted in 1975, but it really hit its stride about a decade later. This game came along arguably around the time the show was at its peak popularity, the point at which hosts Vanna White and Pat Sajak had become household names thanks to their habit of showing up in American living rooms every weeknight as a light breather between the news and prime time shows.

Sajak and White continue to host the show, though over time they’ve gone from being America’s game show dad and hot game show step-mom to America’s corny game show grandparents. In many markets, they show up dutifully after Jeopardy! to give America’s poor overheated brains a bit of a breather with their show’s combination of simple language puzzles and dumb luck.

The show appears to be some kind of double Tarot reference: It takes its name from the Wheel of Fortune card, and the game itself is a variant on The Hanged Man… or rather, Hangman. It’s not quite as highbrow as all that, though. Players spin a roulette wheel imprinted with monetary values and, assuming it doesn’t land on a bad space, attempt to guess which letters have been hidden on a large display board. With a correct guess, the player is awarded the wheel’s current dollar value multiplied by the quantity of that letter Vanna reveals, and the player takes another spin.

Calling vowels is a sort of free action, to put it in RPG terms, but players have to pay for each vowel they call. And the wheel itself contains quite a few hazards, including “Miss a Turn” (which passes control of the wheel to the next player) and the aforementioned “Bankrupt” (which passes control of the wheel and wipes the offending player’s earnings to zero). The Game Boy adaptation holds to this format, in a simplified form. There’s a max of two players here versus the show’s three, and each game consists of only three puzzles plus the final round.  The third puzzle always takes the form of the obligatory “time’s up” challenge in which Sajak—who is never named or shown in this version—spins the wheel to fix its value, after which players take turns guessing a single letter until someone solves. The final round, of course, allows players to pick five consonants and a vowel and attempt to guess the solution in a few seconds based on that info.

It’s all perfectly pleasant, the kind of thing anyone with the ability to read English can pick up and play and enjoy. Technical considerations aside, the Game Boy adaptation treats the game about as well as can be expected on the hardware. You determine the force applied to a spin of the wheel with a simple slider, which can be cheesed—there’s a sweet spot that causes the wheel to land on the same space every time. Once you spin, you’re given a few seconds to select a letter, and solving mode gives you about 30 seconds to complete a puzzle by picking one letter at a time. It’s basic fare, but it works.

Wheel is a functional if somewhat unpleasant game show adaptation, and to its credit it was the first-ever game show adaptation for a portable system, so I should think it sold tremendously. It may not have looked or sounded good, but sometimes, it’s enough just to show up.