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A video-game story that's a bit 'Twisted'

  • Article by: Randy A. Salas
  • Star Tribune
  • September 30, 2008 - 2:19 PM

Video games come, and video games go. Sometimes they stick around for decades, such as the "Madden" NFL series. Sometimes they are reborn, like countless Mario games. Sometimes they just die, as happened with "Twisted: The Game Show."

"Twisted" should have never gone away. That feeling returned upon last week's release of the virtual game show "Buzz! Quiz TV" for the PlayStation 3. "Buzz!" is a fine game. It is no "Twisted."

"'Twisted' was actually way ahead of its time," said Trip Hawkins, the legendary video-game mastermind.

Hawkins knows. Not only did he conceive "Twisted," but he also founded its publisher, Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest game makers and the developer of "Madden."

You could play the original unaltered "Twisted" today, and it would not feel one bit out of touch 15 years after its debut.

When "Twisted" came out in 1993, it was available only for the short-lived 3DO system, a $700 disc-based console backed by Hawkins that never caught on. So, there are probably 27 other people besides me and him who even remember the full-motion-video game. Fortunately, one of them has uploaded a seven-minute compilation clip to YouTube (www.startribune.com/a/?4590) for the uninitiated.

"I wanted to create a TV game-show type of experience that would use simple challenges and trivia and be a group game-play experience," Hawkins explained last week by cell phone while driving in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he runs a new game company called Digital Chocolate.

The idea was to make a game that the entire family could play yet still be entertained and challenged. It's a concept that today we call casual gaming, and it's what has made the Wii wildly popular.

In the wacky game for two to four people, goofy host Twink Fizzdale guides players as they try to ascend a 90-step spiral staircase. Each player is represented by a virtual counterpart, such as the animated PEZ dispenser Uncle Fez and the live-action psychic Madame Elaine ("I can read your mind -- and you should be ashamed!").

"The object of 'Twisted' is really quite simple," Twink explains. "Roll the Cyber-Die, complete the various challenges and get to the end first. And what happens then? Ray?"

The announcer, Ray, booms in to reply, "Well, Twink, our lucky winner will receive a one-way trip out of this TV wasteland into whatever the hell is on the other side of the screen!"

"Oooh," Twink responds with mock enthusiasm. "I hear that reality is just beautiful this time of year!"

The challenges featured off-kilter concepts and game play that had observers giggling while the player sweated it out. My favorite, Sound Bites, is an audio version of the card game Concentration, in which the player must match sound effects. The catch is that the sounds emanate from the faces of U.S. presidents using Monty Python-style animation. In Zapper, the player must continually zap a commercial showing on one random screen in a bank of TV sets.

Speaking of commercials, zany five-second spots air regularly throughout the seamless "Twisted" presentation, flogging all kinds of fake products. They include an invisible dog toy ("What is it? Absolutely nothing!") and a stud finder that has nothing to do with construction and everything to do with locating the right guy for a date.

"'Twisted' was accessible to anybody, and we put in handicapping features that made it easier for someone who was playing very poorly to catch up and actually win the game," Hawkins said.

Many classic video games are available in original or updated forms for today's consoles. The Wii, for example, has more than 250 games originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis and other obsolete systems as part of its Virtual Console. But the only place you'll find "Twisted" is on eBay, where you can buy the required 3DO system with several games (including "Twisted") for less than the price of one PS3 game.

I contacted Electronic Arts, which Hawkins left in the early '90s, to see if "Twisted" might become available again in some form, but a spokeswoman said there were no plans to reissue the game. I got the impression that she wasn't even familiar with the game.

"A lot of companies just move on and tend to focus on things that are big blips on the consumer radar or are brands that are better known," Hawkins later explained.

Meanwhile, a recent round of "Twisted" with the Salas clan -- yes, I still have a 3DO -- proved yet again that the unique game hasn't lost one bit of its original appeal, even with players who weren't born when it came out.

Hawkins still considers it one of his favorite games: "It's interesting to think that if 'Twisted' had come out a few years ago on a platform like the Wii, it might be a big commercial hit."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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