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by Sotenga - March 15, 2015

Pictionary: The Game of Video Quick Draw - NES (1990)

American NES Cover

Almost everybody knows of Pictionary, the board game all about interpretive art. Playing in pairs, one person gets an object card and attempts to draw it to the best of their ability while the partner tries to figure out what's being sketched, and they move towards the goal on the board if it's guessed correctly within a time limit. Simple and usually fun (though with the potential to become zealously overheated like any given party game), Pictionary has been a pop culture staple since its creation in 1985. Some people may recall that it had two game shows based upon it, and others may remember it as the uncomfortable centerpiece for the divorce of Milhouse's parents on The Simpsons. Whatever the case, you have very likely encountered Pictionary in some incarnation throughout your life. Some have learned about it thanks to the NES, which has somehow received a virtual counterpart to Pictionary and is one of the most patently bizarre games ever released for the system. The fact that it was published by the notorious LJN will already tell you that you're in for a rickety ride.

The main premise sees you as one of four game pieces based on an art tool, like a spray can or a pencil. Kinda weird but slightly clever. You then find yourself on the game board and launch right into... one of four decidedly weird minigames. This is the "regular game" where drawing isn't actually involved, but you instead earn "points" in a minigame to reveal pieces of a drawing until you finish the whole picture, run out of time, or end the minigame early if you think you know what the picture shows. The minigames in question are assigned to a different color space on the game board, where there are five colors and one space is a randomly picked minigame. It sounds a little odd to describe and is probably best seen for yourself, but the minigames themselves are easy enough to understand.

"The Warehouse Shuffle" has you as a warehouse worker stacking up boxes from the left edge of the screen, and you get a revealed image square for each box you successfully transport. However, these floating green globs with googly eyeballs will destroy your boxes if they bounce into them, with time lost for each destroyed box. "Leapin' Energy Capsules!" has you as an astronaut jumping around on three platforms collecting blue balls and avoiding purple blobs jumping out of pipes, which does not make a lot of sense. "Four Alarm Rescie" has you as firemen saving people jumping out of a burning building with a trampoline, though you can't move fast enough to save poor saps on the other side of the screen, so losing time is frustratingly inevitable. The last minigame, "Attack of the Paint Zombies," is basically reverse Space Invaders where you have a bucket of paint dump drops down on little aliens who fire paint right back up at you. It's probably the most fun of the games while the warehouse and capsules ones are a bit boring and the rescue one can be frustrating.

The fundamental problem with Pictionary's minigame angle is that it's not really Pictionary at all. The vague link of attempting to guess what a picture is based on pieces that you may or may not have feels more akin to Rare's own board game Anticipation and less like the physical board game upon which Pictionary is based. However, there is actual drawing in it if you say before starting the game that more than one player is on each team. This turns the random game square into a subgame which is something closer in spirit to classic Pictionary. The game asks everyone but the artist to look away before it gives whoever's drawing a word to try and depict on a large dark canvas. However, attempting to draw something is a clunky chore due to the cursor, which somehow manages to have "tank controls." Left and right turn the cursor, A moves it forward while drawing a white trail, and B moves it without leaving any lines. It really is a pain to draw accurately, and while there was no such thing as a mouse for the NES, this game could have used something like that. Why not have more conventional draw controls where you just guide a cursor normally with the d-pad, like the drawing ungame Videomation? It may have sucked, but at least its cursor was accurate.

There's also an alternate mode that kicks out the daffy minigames and just sticks entirely to the drawing mode, though even if that's a bit truer to the spirit of Pictionary, good luck trying to sketch anything out with the cursor controlling like a beached jellyfish. The alternate game ideally has you use cards from a real Pictionary board for prompts, but if it has to get to that, then why not just play actual Pictionary? This bizarre piece of software barely feels anything like Pictionary, and almost everything about its design feels unnecessary. The only upside is the soundtrack provided by the ever fantastic Tim Follin, even if there are only six music tracks total. Still, the "Follin Curse" of Tim and Geoff mostly composing for not-great video games holds true for whatever this game is. It's tough to call it "Pictionary" when it's rather botched the whole idea of actual Pictionary so far up to being unrecognizable.

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Pictionary (NES)

Pictionary (NES)

Pictionary (NES)

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