Beat The Geek was, to say the least, hyped. Not perhaps in that smelly outside world we all loathe and detest – but within the Red Dwarf fan community, it was widely anticipated, for a variety of reasons. The fact that the last eight series set new standards for sitcom DVD releases? Check. The fact that this release was something different? Check. The fact that this was new Red Dwarf? I WANT TO HAVE SOME FUN!
Ahem. So, does Beat The Geek stand up to the ridiculous weight of expectation foisted upon it?
Oooh, an O-ring. Or, indeed, a slipcase, to you. I don’t like them, for reasons I’ve banged on about in my Maid Marian reviews – they’re easily damaged, and they just get in the way. It’s an extra thing you have to take off before watching the DVD. Still, it doesn’t hugely matter – it’s a normal plastic case underneath, not a digipack. You can throw the piece of cardboard away, if you want. I dunno – you make an effort, you pull out all the stops, you try to do something with a little bit of extra class, and where does it get you?
The cover is beautiful. Really beautiful. It’s been said before that the cover resembles classic 80s/90s computer game artwork – and it’s true, it does. But what’s interesting that until I saw the cover, I didn’t realise how much I missed such artwork – artwork that used to be almost routine. These days, it really is usually a case of slapping a publicity photo and logo on the front of a release, rather than creating something that is a proper work of art. I am really, really hoping that it will inspire some distributors to be a bit more adventurous with their packaging. After all, it isn’t just to please the packaging geeks – it makes your release stand out on the shelves too. And isn’t that the entire point of cover art?
I do find the slogan at the bottom of the cover amusing: “Pit your general knowledge against the Red Dwarf fan in your family!” In other words: fandom is already going to buy this. So target the waverers, and the people buying the release as gifts. It’s canny marketing, and no mistake. And entirely the correct thing to do.
Open it up, and you’ll see on the right the beautiful picture disc, with the same artwork as the cover – things have come a long way since the Series 1 and 2 releases. There’s also the Geek Chase leaflet; we’re reviewing that when the competition has closed, as if you think I’m helping you on it you’re sadly mistaken. Then there’s the booklet, which is… I can’t believe I almost wrote “the standard affair”. Standard compared to the quality of the previous eight Dwarf releases, perhaps, but sadly not TV DVD releases in general. The booklet is in a similar style to the previous eight, though, and quite amusing in places. There’s places to write your game scores and Games Arcade unlock codes at the back, which is a nice touch.
Look they used a widescreen version of the 2 | entertain logo instead of the 4:3 version as used on the later Fry and Laurie releases why did they do that mummy they completely wrecked the game.
The opening menu is marvellous. You’ve got your four options – One Player Quiz, Two Player Quiz, How To Play, and the Games Arcade. And you’ve also got the two Hollys sitting there waiting for you. And it’s hilarious. Remember Robert Llewellyn’s story about Norman Lovett in The Man In The Rubber Mask, where he tells how Norm entertained an entire audience for seven minutes, without saying ANYTHING, using a variety of facial expressions? It’s exactly like that. You also get the obligatory insults if you leave it too long, of course.
The How To Play section is ostensiably the two Hollys telling you, erm, how to play. And it does that very well – clearly, and to the point. But it’s the jokes that make this a joy (“Or, you know, just get the answer right by knowing stuff” – with “Knowing stuff” hilariously appearing on-screen). The best example of this is the joke about winning a trip to Jupiter – after which, Norm pops up with the disclaimer “price does not include flights or accomodation” – said in an extremely offhand manner. It’s hilarious, very Holly-ish – and yet not how you would expect him to deliver the line at all. Brilliant. It’s perhaps at this point that it really hits you that this is new Red Dwarf… and it also hits you just how much you want to see that Movie of theirs.
Shall we have a game, then? Brilliant. Let’s play!
Two Player Game
I’m starting with this first, as it’s going to be by far the most-used mode of play. There has been complaints about the game only allowing two players, rather than three or four, but I honestly don’t mind. It means there’s more space on the disc for questions, but more importantly – the whole structure of the game is built around the two Hollys. The game wouldn’t work if you had Norm asking two different teams questions, and Hattie doing the same. (Of course, what would be great would be if Queeg and Gordon could also ask you stuff – but you’d be swapping discs halfway through and paying £25 for the privilege.) It doesn’t even really matter hugely a practical point of view, as you can always split into teams – and then the winning team can battle between themselves. Sure, there are problems if you’ve got an odd amount of players – but I see little else the release could do. The odd person out can always go and make the tea. And hurry up, bitch.
So, start her up, and select the player type for both players – out of Viewer, Geek, and General Knowledge, as I’m sure you don’t need telling. A quick random introduction from one of the Hollys… but actually, I can’t leave it there. That’s a random introduction – not a bog-standard “Welcome, here’s the quiz, smeg”. The amount of thought and effort put into this release is nothing short of superb. The lines are quite amusing, too: “Welcome to the Red Dwarf interactive quiz. Don’t forget to hand the remote control over when your turn is finished – otherwise, it’s just cheating.” It might not sound funny written down, but Norm just delivers it perfectly.
Then you’re greeted with the (nicely-designed) level graphic… and what have we got here? Why, it’s the original design of the Red Dwarf ship!
It’s perhaps worth taking some time out to appreciate this for a second. When Ganymede & Titan first started, Ian (and later me) bemoaned a lot of things. That the Re-mastered version of the ship was used on all merchandise. That the VIII style of graphic design was used for everything. That Hattie had been pretty much forgotten about since Norm was back. Now, in many ways this was natural – VII, the Re-mastered series, and VIII were the most recent Dwarf products. As me and Ian weren’t keen on all three however, it was equally natural that we wouldn’t approve of this development.
What the release of the last eight series has done is see Dwarf return back towards its heritage. I think there’s no doubt that if Beat The Geek had been released in 2001, the design of the ship used in the graphic would be the Re-mastered version. Hey, it’s obviously going to make me happy that the original ship was used, given my opinion of VIII and the Re-mastered series. But I just think it’s nice that all of Dwarf is now represented in the merchandise produced for the show.
But onward. Another random introduction to the level from Holly (“Starbug is your home for Round One. Try not to crash it”), and we’re into the questions. They’re all multiple-choice, of course, as befits a DVD game – but they take various forms, to keep things entertaining:
- Standard multiple choice – Often fairly easy for me, even on Geek mode, but occasionally a real stinker will come up. Those of you who have been playing The TOS quizzes will know the kind of thing I mean. The questions are also interesting – “Which was the only Low crew member to be shown dying on-screen?” raises the point that we don’t see most of them die! If all it takes is hiding in a shuttle, they could have escaped…
- Scene order – Put the four pictures in order in which they appear in an episode. This is made harder by the fact that the four pictures are actually quite small – fine if you’re on a big screen at DJ, but more difficult on your living room telly. Them being made a bit bigger wouldn’t exactly have gone amiss. Selecting them is also fairly clumsy – what with the fact that you can’t see what you’ve selected, and the fact that the menu has to continually reload – but both are problems you can’t actually do much about on a DVD game. You soon get used to it.
- Picture rounds – Sometimes something as simple as a picture, and asking you to name the episode – but… well, see the screengrab. EVIL.
- “WATCH the following….” – I’m sorry. I’m just going to have to say one thing before we carry on: AAAARRRGGGHHH AN ELLIPSIS HAS THREE DOTS NOT FOUR AAAARRRGGGHHHHH. I’m really sorry, but the caption that begins each question annoys me every time I see it. Moving on from that, these are great – a clip, followed by a question relating to it. (And a second clip afterward, if it’s a “What happened next” question.) Whilst they’re short – literally only few seconds, most of the time – the enforced duration actually helps give the quiz a bit more pace. They’re well-chosen, amusing clips as well – and brilliantly, include some Smeg Ups!
- “LISTEN to the following…” – My favourite. A piece of music from Dwarf is played, whilst one of the Hollys sits listening to it. And reacting. I’m usually too busy laughing to listen to the music properly. It’s hilarious. This round does have the worst authoring error on the disc by miles, though – on one question, the music plays for about half a second, and then you immediately go to the selection screen. It’s not something to get hugely upset about – it’s the only bad authoring error I’ve come across – but for what it’s worth, if it happens to you, the answer is Demons & Angels.
Get a question right or wrong, and you’re greeted with your Holly either congratulating you or insulting you. These are generally very amusing, and one of the highlights of the game. (“According to my databanks… you SUCK.” Again though, it works better on-screen than on the page.) There’s such a sheer variety to the responses here – 248, to be precise. But if you ever do get bored, just imagine that the Hollys are commenting on how well you’ve just had sex.
(I also can’t stop shouting “RIIIIIGGHHHHHHHTTTT!” like Roy Walker when I get a question right. But that says rather more about me than it does about the game.)
When you’re playing, there does seem to be a slight problem with pace. It’s not really the speed; the transition between questions is relatively fast. No, it’s (and I know I sound like a stuck record) the limitations of the DVD format. With a game like Buzz! on the PS2, you can have music tying all the sections of the game together, and the loading is a lot smoother. You can’t do that with a DVD game, and so by its very nature it feels ever so slightly clunky.
Once you’ve finished the questions, the Hollys give you your scores, and then we leave Starbug and travel to the next level – of which there are eight, all set around the various sections of the ship, as I’m sure you all know. Now, we’ve all been going on about how great the wireframe whizzing down corridors looks – but it’s not until you see it in action in the context of the rest of the quiz that you realise just how great it actually looks. It’s the perfect example of turning a budget problem into something absolutely fantastic. Wonderful stuff.
It has to be said that this is not an easy game to do really well at. Remember what Millionaire says – that there’s no trick questions? Well, you can forget that here – some of the questions are clearly designed to trip you up, and quite right too. On the other hand, it’s not so difficult that you feel disheartened. I think the difficulty balance is spot on, actually.
If you’re playing as General Knowledge, then the questions are adapted to suit – spotting visual things on the clips, and so on. The questions are very amusingly chosen – I laughed my head off when a question about the Wailing Wall came up. It’s an excellent move by GNP to include this mode – and it’s paid off very well.
So far, my review of this release could safely be classed as “gushing”. But there are a couple of what I think are major problems with this release. Firstly, there is a large problem with repeated questions. And with over 1200 available, you wouldn’t think there would be. Now, I don’t know how these are split up, but for the sake of argument, let’s say they’re split equally between General Knowledge, Geek, and Viewer. That’s 400 each. Now, there’s eight levels, so that’s a pool of 50 questions in each level. Bearing in mind that six questions of each type are asked in each level – twelve if both teams are playing the same mode of play – and you can see why repeated questions happen. The DVD is stuffed to the limit, so clearly putting more questions on the disc was not an option – but this does actually lead us into what I think is the main problem with the game.
Which is: the Two Player game is simply too long. It takes about an hour to play through the game – and I don’t think a game should be much longer than an episode of Red Dwarf. You’ve got 96-98 questions in a game – and that just takes too long to play, especially with the aforementioned slight pacing problems. Ironically, I think there’s too much content – in terms of level design, at least. Which is obviously a better problem to have than a rush-release with five questions and Norman Lovett shot on a camcorder, but it doesn’t stop it being a problem. Instead of eight levels of six questions each, I think five levels of five questions each would have been more than enough – that’s 50 questions.
Not only would this make the game more enjoyable – but it would have the added bonus of addressing the previous problem with duplicate questions. You’d be getting through less questions at a time – but also, there would be a larger pool of questions available at each level. As it stands, if you’re both playing the same player type, you’re getting through a quarter of that player type’s questions in one sitting – which just isn’t good for replayability. Five rounds would more or less double the lifespan of the game.
The problem with this approach is that it would create some balance problems with the bonus games, as getting them would be much, much easier – and would also create problems with the One Player game being too short. Of course, you could just decide to play, say, four rounds – which indeed I’ve done. But the problem here is that the problem with repeated questions just gets worse – you get to know the questions for the first four rounds too well. There’s also the simple issue of closure – switching a game off halfway through is less than satisfying.
Finally – I do wonder whether the Viewer type was strictly necessary. I can certainly see the logic behind it – but in the end, is the average viewer of Red Dwarf going to know episode titles, let alone know Kochanski’s middle initial? Or, indeed, know which day of the week Cat did “double nothing”? I know I’d call myself a viewer of Open All Hours, but I couldn’t answer any questions on specific episodes to save my life. In fact, a lot of the time there doesn’t seem much difference between Geek questions and Viewer questions. Sure, some of the ultra-hard questions aren’t there, and it is a bit easier – but in general, the modes of play are pretty similar. Of course, this has the advantage that you can play the Viewer questions if you’re a fan and give the game extra life – but I do wonder whether it might have been an idea simply to combine the Viewer and Geek categories, and have a larger pool of questions to choose from.
One Player Game
“Also known as the Billy No Mates edition.” Fucking fantastic.
Pick your Holly and your player type, and off you go. Play is exactly the same as the Two Player version. The good news with this mode of play is that the length of play suddenly seems a lot more reasonable – 48/49 questions is a lot faster to get through. Indeed, it’s almost as though the eight level play was designed for the One Player game. It’s a pity that the Two Player game couldn’t have been five levels, and the One Player couldn’t have stayed at eight – but yedda yadda disc space issues blah bang.
However – I won’t actually be playing the game in this mode. I just don’t want to spoil the questions for the Two Player game – and it’s the very nature of a release like this that the Two Player games are a lot more fun, as half the joy comes in the interaction with other people. (I never thought I’d ever hear me say that.) I was originally going to write that this almost feels like a tickbox feature – it’s nice to say that you can have a One Player game on the box, even if you’ll never actually do it. That’s probably unfair, as it is enjoyable – and has its advantages over the Two Player with the speed of play. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be playing it, and I suspect that a lot of people who want to play the game with a group won’t either.
Not really that great.
To be honest though, I expected it. The DVD medium was not designed for arcade-style games – they’re pretty much impossible to implement. (About the only thing that I think would work would be a Dragon’s Lair style of game – clearly not within the budget of this release.) It turns out that GNP realise this too, and most of the games are memory-based… but they’re just a bit boring, really.
I’m going to list the first four games below – so avoid if you don’t want spoilers. I’m not giving you the passcodes, though:
- Black Holes – “Use the arrow keys to pilot Starbug through the invisible space maze and dock with Red Dwarf. You only have three lives – so watch out for black holes. (Which are impossible to see, ‘cos they’re black.)” It’s a funny idea, but in practice it’s just frustrating and dull.
- Whack-a-Flibble – “Just like the classic game, but with Mr Flibble. Hit the penguin with a mallet as he pops up through one of nine holes. How many can you hit?” The one actual arcade-style game in the first four… and it just doesn’t work in the DVD medium. This is entertainment to these people? It’s pathetic.
- Vending Machine – “A three-round memory test. After being shown a menu and the codes for various food items, you’ll be taken to the vending machine and asked to order two starters, entering the codes from memory. This then repeats for two main courses and two desserts, getting harder each time.” More entertaining than the last two… but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s too little fun for too much effort.
- Memory Morph – “Kinda like Simple Simon. The Polymorph will turn into five things in quick succession. You have to memorise the sequence and then enter it, in order, into the computer. Then again with 8 items, then 12.” By far the most entertaining of the first four games, I quite like this one – but it’s not exactly like I’m going to keep going back and playing it. And the jump in difficulty is too large – it’s a pity it couldn’t simply be made to add one item per round, rather than jumps of four.
As far as I’m concerned, these could have been left off altogether. The theory behind it is excellent – giving people rewards along the way should make playing the game a far more pleasurable experience – but in practice, it doesn’t really work. Not only is the disc space and limitations of the DVD format a problem, but the development time and budget isn’t there to make something truly worth playing. About the only really positive thing I can say about them is that I like the graphic design of the menu and instruction screens – very retro.
To be absolutely fair to the bonus games, I haven’t unlocked the last one yet – and presumably, it’s better than the other four, it being the hardest to unlock. I could cheat and have a look, of course – and if I was a cold-hearted reviewer, I would do. But dammit I’m a fan, and I want to feel the achivement of getting there fairly – I’ll just be honest and say that I just haven’t managed to get all 50 points in a game yet. This is, of course, a recommendation for the release – dammit, this game is challenging, even on Viewer mode.
So, does Beat The Geek manage to transcend the medium of DVD games? In a word: no. The technical limitations are just too large – and the game mechanics are slightly dodgy. It’s clear that a huge amount of effort has gone into this – but, in an odd way, it’s almost like too much effort has gone into it. The Two Player game is long – too long. The games arcade is a lovely idea – but impractical to implement effectively.
The major problems are the length of the Two Player game, and its replayability. 1200 questions sounds like a lot, but when you’re playing 100 questions at a time, it isn’t – you start getting repeat questions very quickly. Sometimes you don’t remember the answer, and so it’s not a problem – but sometimes you do, and so… well, it is. 50 questions in a Two Player game (25 each) would have doubled the life of the game, and made it more enjoyable to play into the bargain. I tend to get tired around the 6th round.
It would have made the game less challenging, and buggered up some of the carefully worked-out game mechanics with the bonus games – but I think it would have been worth it. It’s a pity, because I think it’s this that stops the release being an absolute classic. And if Viewer mode had been got rid of, the lifespan of the game would have been stretched still further. As it is, there’s something wrong when you’ve got 1200 questions available – and you start getting repeated ones on your second game.
For all of that, it’s still fun to play. It is an extremely good DVD game. And whilst there are playability issues, they aren’t of the same league as the QI DVD game, which made the questions far, far too hard, and the gameplay even harder; you can get the right answer, but still go down the wrong path, meaning you have to do loads of boring and tedious replaying.
I couldn’t be happier with the live-action stuff with the Hollys. I made no secret of the fact that I think A Life In Lamé on the Series IV DVD is, well, rubbish. The script (what’s left of it) is poor, Hattie doesn’t give a great performance, and it just looks cheap – the whole thing is pointless. This is a complete turnaround – the jokes are funny, the performances are spot-on, the production values are excellent – this is very far indeed from being pointless.
So, is it worth the purchase? Yes, without question – it’s funny and entertaining, and all-round good fun. It’s easy to play and do fairly well, but hard to get top marks – which is exactly as it should be. The problems with the game mechanics should bump this down from a five star release to a three star one – but the Holly stuff bumps it back up to a respectable: