Another short(er) article today, as I look at a game that combines the twin terrors of realising your own intellectual limitations and of being eaten by a monster. It's Cosmi's 1984 Commodore 64 pub-quiz-em-up The Trivia Monster, AKA Monster Trivia!
The Trivia Monster is much the more accurate title. Monster Trivia suggest that the questions will be about monsters, but they aren't, which is a damn shame because that would really play to my strengths. No, it's about a monster who exerts his evil influence upon our cosy universe via the medium of trivia questions. We'll meet said monster eventually - no matter how little we want to - but for now, let's admire the avant-garde decision to make the title screen look like it's been written in congealed ketchup.
The main reason that The Trivia Monster caught my eye is that it was created by one Paul Norman. Yes, that says "by Paul Norman," although I'm sure, like me, you'll read it as "Noman," as though it was written by a shadowy cabal trying to preserve their anonymity. No, it's Paul Norman, who also programmed the endearingly weird - and weirdly enjoyable - Forbidden Forest, a Commodore 64 game about an archer who travels through a forest shooting spiders, battling dragons and doing a peculiar dance between stages. Forbidden Forest's most memorable feature, even more so that some of it's impressive graphical tricks, was it's unsettling atmosphere of oppressive dread, so hopefully The Trivia Monster will also cause a black cloud of paranoid fear to settle over me like a sodden duvet.
Here are the rules. I know it says "hints" but if you don't obey them you will fail in your quest to reach trivia nirvana, so make sure you don't enter numbers using, you know, numbers, and avoid the word "the" except for the times you have to use it. Got that? Good.
Yep, it definitely looks like The Trivia Monster is skewing towards the "slightly unnerving" end of the spectrum. Nothing that greets you with "welcome, friends" is going to end well. Imagine if you turned up to a friend's party and they threw open the door and said "welcome, friends!" instead of "hello" or "did you bring booze?" You'd be understandably nervous.
The "vital questions" mentioned here are simply The Trivia Monster asking you to enter the number of players from two to four, as well as each player's name and gender. There are only eight characters available for each name, but if your name is more than eight letters long the game helpfully suggests that you change your name. All you Maximilians and Alexandrias out there, now's your chance to switch to a less cumbersome moniker!
The quiz begins, with VGJunk and Kelly sitting patiently in the fortified waiting room of a medieval GP, eager for you to select a category of questions so the quiz can get underway. I don't think they'll mind if you take your time, they look very relaxed. The also look very broad-shouldered - Kelly in particular has the body of rugby player. Maybe she's just come from a rugby match and she's covered in mud, and that's why she's brown from head to toe. Similarly, VGJunk had a terrible accident with a vat of mayonnaise before arriving at the quiz.
There are six question categories to choose from, and each contestant gets to pick which order they take them on in although you will have to answer from every category anyway so it's sort of a moot point. The categories are Science, History, Sports, Grabbag, The Arts and Showbizz, which is like showbiz but with an increased glamour quotient, as denoted by the extra Z. Most notable of these is Grabbag, because I can't read that word without immediately getting the theme from Duke Nukem 3D stuck in my head.
Questions are asked, and you answer them by typing in what you think is the correct response. It's a trivia game, you knew how this was going to work. Here I got the answer right, and I got some points. My character also stood up and took a bow. They take a bow every time you get a question right, which strikes me as a bit show-off-y, and well as eventually being torture on the joints.
Play moves back and forth between the contestants, and as I'm playing on my own that means I get twice as many questions to answer because there's no way (that I could find, anyway) to have a computer-controlled contestant. It's me versus me to see which me has accumulated the most pointless knowledge!
Something that always seems to come up when I play a quiz game - at least American-made ones, which The Trivia Monster is - is my surprisingly deep knowledge of the Bible. I say "surprising" because I am not religious in any way and the Bible isn't exactly a gripping page-turner you'd read for fun. I did attend a Christian infant school, but all that amounted to was hymns during assembly and the Lord's Prayer being permanently seared into my brain thanks to having to recite it every morning. It was all very happy-clappy New Testament stuff, so I can only assume I know things like who Moses' brother was is a result of listening to Nick Cave and watching American TV.
I got a question wrong, and my lack of knowledge about presidential golf mishaps came at a terrible cost. There, in the window: the glowing eyes of... The Trivia Monster! We can only pray that either the giant door holds, or I don't get any more questions wrong. Neither of those two outcomes seems likely.
Especially not when the text parser has turned against me! The answer to this question is obviously "the moon," but then I remembered that the game specifically told me not to use the word "the," so I just typed in "moon." "INCORRECT," says The Trivia Monster. "The answer is 'the moon.' Also, fuck you."
Incorrect answers give the Trivia Monster power, and now I hear it pummelling the walls of its prison until cracks appear in the brickwork. The contestants look as smug as ever, seemingly not worried by the approaching monster.
Maybe they're right to be unconcerned. You might think so too if you were just looking at the pictures, because after getting this question wrong thanks to not spelling "Schroeder" correctly on the first attempt (understandable, I'm sure you'll agree) the Trivia Monster's hand bursts through the door and... it doesn't look all that threatening. Muppet-y, even, like a skinny Oscar the Grouch, built for playful tickling and not rending the flesh of the innocent into bloody ribbons. Well, as I say, that's if you're just looking at the pictures. If you could hear The Trivia Monster your opinion may change, because sometimes a wrong answer will result in a terrifying, nerve-jangling digital scream that would be right at home in a Silent Hill game. Here, I recorded it for you, because nightmares are for sharing.
You're welcome. I appreciate the tonal shift of going from answering questions about Charlie Brown's friends to being aurally assaulted by the sound of Satan's dial-up modem. What, you don't think the Devil has broadband, do you? He lives in Hell, you're never going to get a wi-fi connection down there.
Once every player has answered questions from every category, the scores are added up and a winner is declared. In this case it is me, having triumphed over myself. I was a worthy opponent, and between the two of them VGJunk and Kelly managed to get enough questions right to prevent the Trivia Monster from smashing down the door.
Oh sweet Jesus, it's escaped! Run, Kelly! Run for your life while I sit here completely motionless in the hope that the Trivia Monster - this skeletal, Lovecraftian horror formed from teeth, kebab meat and oversized insect parts - won't notice me. By the grace of God, may my slight superiority in answering trivia questions be my shield!
Kelly! KELLLLYYYY! No, I have to forget Kelly. Kelly's gone now, dragged away into the Trivia Monster's lair for who knows what unspeakable purpose. Maybe the Trivia Monster is going to sit her down in front of Wikipedia and force her to read it... forever! Yes, even the Talk pages about endless edit wars and weirdoes who keep trying to include their own exhibitionist photos in the "erotic" articles. Or maybe it'll just tear the bones from her body and feast on the marrow within. Personally I'd choose the second option, at least that one would be over fairly quickly.
Also over fairly quickly is this round of The Trivia Monster. Kelly may be gone, but she is forever immortalised on the high-score table. Until you turn your C64 off, anyway, then she might as well have never existed.
That's The Trivia Monster - a simple trivia game that does most definitely have the sinister Paul Norman flourishes that Forbidden Forest led me to expect, and as such I'm very happy to have played it. I really like quiz games - for a brief moment they let me forget that all the pointless facts I have stored away in my head are completely useless in day-to-day life - and I love creepy, unnerving games, so this one is a winner in my book, and I even kept on playing it well after I had enough material for this article. Of course, it's not perfect...
For example, it uses the word "winningest." The Merriam-Webster dictionary can bite me, "winningest" is not a real word. I'm not one of these "purity of language" types, as you can probably tell, but "winningest" is so unpleasant to look at that it feel like someone has passed wind directly onto my eyeball every time I read it. If you're going to make up stupid words, why wouldn't you use "successfulest"? Good God, people, get it together.
The Trivia Monster also suffers from the same old problems as every quiz game, although most of those are understandable given its age. The text parser is finicky and unpredictable, especially regarding the use of the word "the," but it does at least tend to give you another chance if you're one typo away from the correct answer. There's a heavy focus on American topics, and especially American sports, which is so often a mortal blow for these types of games. I'll have to play some British quiz games to see a question about football, because quiz games written by Americans never take into consideration the fact that no-one outside the US gives the slightest shit about baseball. Cricket already covers much of the world's need for agonisingly dull sports about hitting a ball with a stick and then running back and forth, thank you very much. Another big stumbling block is that this was released in 1984, which was the year I was born, so all the showbiz (sorry, "showbizz") questions about television refer to shows produced on a different continent prior to my conception, although as always it's amazing how much of this stuff you pick up through cultural osmosis, and I put getting any of the US culture questions right entirely down to watching so much Mystery Science Theater 3000. There aren't that many questions, either, with the game been split into 16 "sets" that contain the same questions each time you play them, but while they last they're mostly good fun. I particularly liked the question "Who wrote the game Forbidden Forest (now that's trivia)?" Funnily enough I knew the answer to that one.
There are also a few trick questions, so keep an eye out for those. I was a little worried that the answer for this wasn't going to be "Tonto" but some archaic racist insult, so I'm pleased that turned out not to be the case.
I had another run through where I named the players Batman and Robin, and by coincidence I got this question. Nice. In the end Robin beat Batman by five points. World's Greatest Detective my foot.
The Trivia Monster, then - it lives up to its name by including trivia, as well as a healthy dose of unexpected terror in the form of the Trivia Monster itself, a malign presence that will haunt my mind's eye in weeks to come, which is a shame because I'll have to close my actual eyes a lot to recover from the strain that his flashing light-show put on them. Overall, a fun experience despite the contemptuous presence of the word "winningest," and if you're old enough to remember sports trivia from the Seventies then congrats, granddad, you're going to clear up in this one.