People who know me in real life will tell you that one thing I'm good at - possibly the only thing - is the storage and subsequent retrieval of utterly useless pop-culture trivia. Genuine superpower or sign of a diseased mind? I'm not sure, but my ability to remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer's middle name without consulting a wiki* but not the quadratic equation is further evidence that trivia and mathematics are stored in the same area of the brain and space in there is strictly limited.Why am I telling you this? Because for once it might come in handy as I take a quick look at RSP and Hi-Tech Expressions' 1990 NES version of the MTV game show Remote Control.
It's a quiz game, but unlike Quiz and Dragons or Quiz Daisousa Sen it's one that's based on an actual television show and not the mad pub-quiz-meets-Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasies of some Japanese game developer. Remote Control was a gameshow that ran from 1987 to 1990 on MTV, and it's very much of its time - loud, frantic, as garishly coloured as a rainbow that hijacked a Skittles truck and crashed into a paint factory. It looked like this:
Apparently it was also the first non-music show that MTV developed, so if you're the kind of person who laments over the days when MTV was about the music, man, then I suppose this is the show you should be blaming.
Now that I've built myself up as a repository of pointless facts, this is where my ill-founded bravado comes crashing down. Most of the questions on Remote Control are about TV, movies and music, and they have a distinctly American slant, as you would image. As such, I know jack shit about them, but hopefully I'll have absorbed enough information on them through other, later media to power me to victory. I mean, I've never seen Welcome Back, Kotter but I've heard it mentioned before. They probably made a joke about it on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I sure hope "things they made jokes about on MST3K" comes up as a category.
There are no options to fiddle about with or anything, so I figured I'd dive right in and select a character. Well, an avatar, really. There are a few different faces to choose from, all of them rendered in this strange, angular manner. I won't be picking this guy because I'm not sure I want to play as someone if I can't tell whether their eyes are closed or not, their face puckered and shrivelled as though a fresh layer of skin has grown over their eyeballs.
Of course, eyeball problems are solved if you wear a Starfleet-issue Geordie La Forge visor! This futuristic cyberpunk is leading the pack at the moment - with a style so sharp, how could they not be? - but I suppose I'd better check out the other options.
No, wait, I'm going with this one. That upbeat manner, the charmingly naive way they're not even looking at the camera, it's a winning combination. I'll just press the A button to select this character, then...
Aaagh! Sweet Jesus, what's wrong with your face? It looks like someone skinned their head, turned the flapping flesh-sack inside-out and crudely reattached it. No wonder they've got sad eyebrows, unless those are the original incision marks. They do look kinda raw.
What's actually going on is that you can press the A and B buttons to get a preview of your chosen avatars' "happy" and "victim of a deranged ritualistic killer" face. "Sad" face, I mean. It may seem like a frivolous touch but I'm glad the developers included it, because otherwise I might have selected this weirdo and then been shocked into a brain embolism when I got a question wrong and his face morphed into that nightmarish visage.
In the end I chose a nice young lady with a hoop earring and the hair of the drummer from a Motley Crue tribute band. You'll see her soon enough.
Not content with scarring my mind, Remote Control has decided to do the same to my retinas. The host's shirt alone has inflicted irreparable damage on my optic nerves. His podium looks like a sculpture produced by an alien race whose eyes can only register frequencies of light outside the normal spectrum of human comprehension. The whole thing is animated, too, a swirling void of shifting colours that could be called psychedelic if "psychedelic" meant "having food colouring injected directly into your eyeballs while someone hits you in the face with a cricket bat."
Let's see our contestants, the colourful man says. Yes, let's. I need the respite.
That's me on the left. I'll be competing in this battle of the minds against a surly ventriloquist's dummy and Sue, a part-time library assistant.
First things first - I have to choose a category from the nine available. You pick one by selecting a number from around the edge of that TV screen there. As an attempt to unnerve my competitors, I picked number four because of its association with death in Chinese culture.
The category is Video High, which I guess is about TV shows set in high schools. All of Remote Control's questions are sorted into categories like this, some more loosely than others, and I think I might have a chance with this one unless it's a question about a show that I've never seen or something.
Aww, c'mon, I was only three years old when 21 Jump Street started, and also I'm not American. All I know about it is that it starred Johnny Depp and it was something about policemen hanging around schools and trying to fit in with the youth? It doesn't sound very wholesome, if you ask me. So I guessed, and I guessed wrong. A poor start, but I'm sure I'll turn it around with the next question.
Oh dear, that is unfortunate. Bon Jovi is not a specialist subject of mine. The only (semi) interesting trivia I know about JBJ is that the letter that Laura gives James in Silent Hill 2 actually has the lyrics to "Blaze of Glory" written on it. The disease that took James' wife must have been truly terrible if she spent the last moments of her life scrawling down the words to a rock ballad written as a tie-in with the Emilio Estevez movie Young Guns II.
Look at the way the host is clutching his temples. Even he is struggling to read aloud this appalling slur on Washington think-tanks everywhere.
Ah, but you see the humour of the situation is derived from the fact that the question isn't really about Bon Jovi and instead requires knowledge of an unrelated scientific matter. Knowledge which I happen to possess, because I am a bit of a dork who spent large portions of his childhood reading about things like the Turin Shroud, and thus I gained some points by knowing that the answer is carbon-14.
So Remote Control goes on, firing trivia questions at me, some I knew the answer to and some I didn't. It all zips along at a merry old pace, although I was occasionally hampered by the developers' rather odd decision to map "press the buzzer" and "select your answer" to different buttons on the pad. It's presumably meant to make you feel like you're pressing a real, dedicated buzzer, but more than once I failed to answer the question in time because I was repeatedly slapping the buzzer instead of actually saying words and while it looks like you've got five seconds to answer these must be ultra-efficient German seconds or something because they tick down very quickly.
A comprehensive knowledge of the sitcoms and heartthrobs of the late Eighties is obviously a helpful thing to have while playing Remote Control, but if you dedicated your life to something more useful than squirrelling away nuggets of pop-culture ephemera - so pretty much anything else, really - you can get by with pure guesswork.
Here, for instance, I had no clue as to the actual answer but I buzzed in anyway, perhaps my father's insistence that knowledge counts for nothing and bravado is all that matters in this world having finally sunk in. As far as I can tell there's no penalty for answering incorrectly, which means you've got a one-in-three chance of taking the points without having any idea what the answer is. Also, sometimes one of the answers will clearly be false, as with the carbon-14 question, raising your odds to 50%. This, coupled with the fact that your competitors have the mental acumen of a bag of aquarium gravel, means you can do surprisingly well even if you've lived most of your life in a system of underground caves.
Plus the game threw me a bone a few times. This question appeared in the category "PhD TV," a category reserved for questions that are supposedly more difficult than the others. Not for me, though. This one was almost too easy. Moments after I had answered correctly, a self-satisfied smirk on my face as I raced into a commanding lead, I realised I was playing a twenty-three-year-old NES game alone on a Friday night, correctly answering questions about Star Trek. It was only my tight-fistedness vis-a-vis the phone bill that kept me from talking to the Samaritans for the next few hours.
So, what else does Remote Control have to offer? Well, it tries to keep up the pretence of being a TV show by having a commercial break (although with no commercials) in the middle, followed by something billed as "Snack Time". Don't get too excited, judging by this screenshot your snack consists of crumpled-up balls of paper. Filling, but hardly nutritious. The contestant in the middle looks real pleased about the paper buffet, but then again they look like the kind of person who spent their junior school days chewing on lined sheets of A4.
Once you reach the end of round two, the contestant with the lowest score is disintegrated by the electric fury of the almighty Zeus himself. They love game shows, those Greek gods - after all, what else do they have to up on Mount Olympus these days but watch TV? - but woe betide those who anger the gods by not remembering that Elizabeth Carlyle was a character from the soap All My Children, for the wrath of Zeus is swift and furious.
Now that there only two contestants remaining un-vaporised we can move on to the final round. It works differently to the ones before: the titles of TV shows appear, but one of the words in each title has been changed according to a theme, in this case sports terms. To score points you have to select the correct word from the list to complete the real title. In this case, the famous dam-based sitcom One Beaver at a Time has been changed to "One Play at a Time," so selecting "beaver" from the list will give you the points. (I accept no responsibility if you decide to play Remote Control only to find out that One Beaver at a Time, no matter how magical it sounds, is not really the correct answer.)
Hooray, I won, thanks to some solid guesswork and the occasional piece of actual trivia knowledge. I'm sure the host has some kind words of congratulation for me. Hang on, "Today I am proud to be your video game"? I think that shirt has seeped into your brain, game show man.
Yes, I am a winner. A happy, cheerful winner. My smile and voluminous hair lets all those around me know just how much of a winner I am.
I suppose I should tell you whether Remote Control is any good, which is a pretty easy thing to do when it comes to quiz games. Quiz games live or die based on two criteria: their presentation and the questions. To go back to Quiz and Dragons, it's a simple trivia game gameplay-wise but the setting, characters and graphics make it a much more enjoyable experience than it really ought to be. The Buzz! games get you involved via having an actual buzzer to press. Remote Control... well, going on what I've seen of the show it's based on I'd say that the game captures a decent amount of the feel of the original, so well done to the developers for that. Still, it's not what you could call an attractive game. I'd recommend you wear shades while you play it, something that'll not only protect your eyes from the flashing barrage of neon pixels but will also help you become absorbed in the radical and tubular late-Eighties zeitgeist. The sounds and music are barely noticeable, and when you add in the game's complete lack of options and alternate game modes it's safe to say that Remote Control's presentation won't be winning it any awards.
The questions don't save it, either, and even on only my second game there were plenty of repeated questions, so longevity can't save it either. Actually, you could only play it about once a year in order to give yourself a chance of forgetting the answers, so maybe it could last you for decades. Speaking as someone who is playing the game literally decades later, my advice would be don't. Okay, that's a bit harsh. Play it once, then bury it in a time capsule, unearth it in the astro-year 2023 and then have another crack at it. There's a whole category of questions about M*A*S*H in this game. M*A*S*H will have been off the air for forty years by then. That'll be a challenge, then.
* Buffy's middle name is Anne, by the way.