Who needs pen and paper when you can play Pictionary on your NES?
To Beat: Finish the Regular Game
What I Did: Beat the Regular Game and Alternate Game just for fun!
My Difficulty: 1/10
The NES has several games of game show and board game adaptations so it’s no surprise that one would show up on the blog fairly early. Pictionary plays like the classic board game but it has some surprises in the single player that make the game a little bit more interesting.
Pictionary was released in July 1990 on NES. It was developed by Software Creations and published by LJN. Software Creations developed a dozen NES games and LJN published a whopping 25 NES games by my records. There are only three developers attributed to creating Pictionary. Tony Pomfret was the programmer, Craig Houston created the graphics, and Tim Follin wrote the music. It probably should be four people as Stephen Ruddy’s sound engine was used in the development of the sounds and music. LJN has a reputation on NES for publishing many bad games but in the case of Pictionary I would say the game is pretty decent.
Pictionary on NES is a pretty straightforward board game. Up to four teams compete by drawing pictures and having their fellow team members guess what is being drawn. Correct answers allow the team to roll a die to advance their marker along the board and the first team to reach the end and guess a final drawing wins the game. Simple enough!
There are three game modes. Regular Game is the base game with some twists to it that I will explain shortly. Alternate Game is a way to play Pictionary using the NES as the game board, timer, and drawing area but you must supply your own Pictionary word cards (or your own words) to determine what to draw. The players are responsible for inputting into the game which team guessed the drawing correctly so it can handle everything properly for you. Drawing Practice gives you a free area for doodling so that you can get a handle for how the drawing in the game works. The drawing interface simulates a little bit like drawing lines with a pencil and paper. You can aim your cursor in I believe 16 different directions by pushing Left or Right. Press and hold A to draw in the direction of the cursor or press and hold B to move the cursor without drawing. Pressing Up or Down draws either a small or large circle. Select removes the last thing drawn, Start finishes the drawing early, and Select and Start pressed together erases the board. It’s a robust enough system without relying on complete freehand control.
The Regular Game mode plays more like a complete game of Pictionary with the computer providing words to draw for the teams, but most of the game is played out through mini-games instead of drawing out pictures. If there is one player per team then there will be all mini-games, otherwise there will be standard drawing mixed in. You can play single player with just one player on one team which is what I did. There are four mini-games that all play a little bit differently but they all help play out Pictionary the same way. Completing tasks within each mini-game reveal pieces of a pre-drawn puzzle and the object is to reveal as much of the picture as you can within the time limit to give yourself the best chance of identifying the drawing. Let’s get in to each mini-game!
The first one is Attack of the Paint Zombies. This is exactly like Space Invaders except the enemies are on the bottom instead of the top and you control a paint bucket dropping red paint down upon the purple paint zombies. Yeah, paint zombies, I don’t get it either. Each one you knock out reveals a square on the picture and if you get shot with paint you lose a few seconds off the timer. This one is my favorite of them all and I didn’t have much trouble revealing the whole board before time nearly every round.
The second game is The Warehouse Shuffle. I did not understand what to do in this game at all until I checked the manual. There’s just a man you control along the bottom and there are these balls with eyes that bounce around and nothing else was happening. What you are supposed to do is push up against the left side and press Up to grab boxes that are offscreen, then carry them across to the right and drop them off with Down. Each box you deliver knocks off a square and if the balls (called gremlins in the manual) come in contact with a box you lose time. You can carry a huge stack of boxes at once if you wan but you move slower the more you carry so there’s a basic risk/reward system at play. Once I knew what I was doing, I still didn’t do very well at this one.
The third game is Four Alarm Rescue. There are eight windows arranged in two rows of four columns and people randomly appear to jump out from one of the windows in the burning building. You control firefighters at the bottom with a net to catch the people as they fall. Catching each person reveals a square and having a person fall to the hard ground below removes that precious time. This game is so unfair. Often two people will jump out at the same time from opposite ends of the screen and it is impossible to catch both. Sometimes multiple people will jump one after the other from the same window but there’s no way to tell until the first person jumps out of the way. You can lose multiple people quickly if you are trying to catch a different person elsewhere. This game is very flawed and I don’t think it’s possible to reveal the whole board with this game unless the randomness is entirely in your favor.
The fourth and final game is Leapin’ Energy Capsules! This is a simple single screen platformer where you control an astronaut who is collecting these capsules or orbs that appear in a few pre-defined spots. Once you collect one or take too much time the next one appears. There are a couple of cannons that shoot a rising and falling bullet and they operate on a slow rhythm. Collect a capsule, reveal a square. Take damage, lose time. The only really annoyance is when a capsule appears in the upper left because you can only climb up to the upper level from the far right. Otherwise, this one is pretty simple and kind of boring.
Playing through the game is really simple in single player. Play the mini game and try to guess what the picture is. You get 45 seconds to scroll through the alphabet picking out letters to spell out your guess. The game shows the number of words in the answer plus the number of letters in each word just like Hangman, so that helps in solving these drawings. If you are correct, you get to roll a die and move up that many spaces on the board. There is no penalty if you miss so you just keep trying until you guess correctly. Eventually you will run into a solution and move up the board so there is really no way to lose. It took me around 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the board with I’m guessing a 30-40% success rate. And that’s the end!
In my run I tested out Alternate Game just to see what it is all about. I played with one team and it was all drawing. After the drawing phase you get to indicate which team answered correctly and that team rolls the die. I would just end the drawing early every time and say I answered it correctly so that I could always roll and move my marker on the board. It took hardly any time at all to reach the end. You get the same ending either way so you can technically beat the game without identifying a single drawing and no one would know the difference. It was an utter waste of time, but eh, I did it for completeness!
There was an unexpected casualty that happened while playing Pictionary. It was the weirdest thing. I turned the NES on and I was walking over to the couch when my hands got static shocked through the controller. Getting shocked in my basement is pretty normal in the winter but never through the game controller. Nothing worked when I tried to start the game even after powering off and resetting a few times. I swapped in another controller and that one worked fine, so I guess my controller is dead. It’s too bad because it is a nice condition dogbone controller and they aren’t exactly cheap to replace. I have a few other dogbone controllers in various states so I can probably hack together a nice working controller.
The one really remarkable thing about Pictionary is that it has a really good soundtrack. If you have heard some of the top NES music then you have almost certainly heard Tim Follin’s music and he did some fine work on the music in Pictionary. Tim has two brothers, Geoff and Mike, and all three brothers have worked in video games at some point. Geoff was also a game composer and he would work with Tim on music for several other NES games. The Follin brothers have a very distinct style to their music with very complex sounding pieces that really take advantage of the NES sound chip in ways that not many other musicians did. In Pictionary the title screen music is just awesome, and the Pictionary page on the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation website has links to all six music tracks for your listening pleasure!
Pictionary is a faithful adaptation of the board game and is a perfectly serviceable game on NES, even though it is very easy and barely worth playing even once. It’s fine but there’s so many better games on the NES. You would probably have more fun playing Pictionary with a group of friends on the actual board game but it could be fun at parties or whatever. At least the music is good! Plus, I don’t mind having a short, easy game to check off the list!