Thursday, May 1, 2014

Three Obscure Pricing Games On "The Price Is Right"

Everyone has their favorite pricing game on The Price Is Right, whether it be Plinko, Lucky $even, Hole In One, Clock Game, or whatever the case may be.  Some may fancy retired games such as Hurdles (1976-83) or Super Ball!!! (1981-98).  Long-time producer Roger Dobkowitz once said "every pricing game is somebody's favorite," and with over 100 pricing games played over the show's long history, it's been sufficient to keep millions of viewers still watching loyally every morning.

For as many memorable games as the show has, they have certainly had some, shall we say, "experiments" that did not go so well.  Some games were dull; others simply did not mesh well with the spirit of Price is Right (like Professor Price or Double Bullseye).  Still others have grown old (like Barker's Bargain Bar), were killed off due to inflation (like Walk of Fame), were plagued with mechanical issues (like Hurdles), or became too confusing for today's contestants to win with regularity (like Hit Me).  And it's not for a lack of effort on the part of the staff; some of these involved detailed game props or an interesting game play, and as such, they still make for exciting fun to watch--if not for the gameplay, then for the "vintage factor" or even the "kitsch factor" (though it is hard to find kitsch on Price is Right if you ask me!).

Most of these retired games can be viewed by the public by means of tape trading or on YouTube.  As such, the game where two people bid on a car (Double Bullseye), and many other games which you may have never heard of, can be seen and enjoyed by die-hard fans.  And, this month, thanks to venerable emcee Wink Martindale (who I'm surprised is this into Price Is Right and its fans to have done this!), three very short-lived games from 1978 have now been recovered from the vaults to be mused over by fans.

For 35 years, these three games had remained unseen since they originally aired because Game Show Network did not air them for one reason or another and no original broadcast tapes of these episodes had appeared on the trading circuit.  These games include Shower Game, Telephone Game, and Finish Line.  (By the way, Wink recently posted another video detailing the original rules for Punch-A-Bunch.)

Tell me more!

If you plan to watch these videos with all the curiosity of someone whose imagination has intrigued them about these games for years, you'd better not read on.  However, I'm guessing most of you would go either way, and perhaps some of you wouldn't even make it through the whole video. :-P  So, here I shall describe my initial reactions to these videos.

First, I started with Shower Game.  This game was only played ten times, all airing between September 4 and November 30, 1978.  The man who played Shower Game on its premiere sported the quintessential '70s style: poofy hair, mustache, and tinted glasses indoors.  His shirt, with big pointy collars, was already unbuttoned quite far, and became even moreso once Bob told him he would be playing the Shower Game.  The game is played for a car, and its prop is quite large.  There is one price listed above each of six shower stalls, and the contestant must enter the stall and pull the cord to "start the shower."  The shower could consist of confetti (in 3 stalls), 100 $1 bills (in 2 stalls), or a large prop resembling a car key in one stall.  The game continues if the contestant draws confetti; once they win an actual prize, they stop.  As for the key, it doesn't fall all the way down; it's on a short hook so it simply swings out.  It was amusing to see the camera swing from price to price over this huge prop in a "Jeopardy" style, as if it were revealing the categories in the round.

Anyway, it took Bob Barker longer to explain the rules of the game than it took the contestant to jump in a stall and win the car.  You would expect more from a prize reveal, and as it's up to the contestant to pull the rope, there's really no way Bob could have built it up in such the way as he was masterful at doing.  Not only that, but what if the contestant could look up and see what prize was there?  I'd have to imagine the big car key was hard to hide.  Nevertheless, it was great to see the contestant win, but it would have (hopefully) been more amusing if he'd have gotten some confetti on him first.  The game was obviously based on sheer dumb luck, with no strategy involved; not to mention, the shower stalls evoked imagery of the Holocaust among some viewers.  This would explain its quick demise.

I hastily proceeded to watch Finish Line, which had been posted next.  Finish Line was played 16 times, seen from February 21 through September 25, 1978.  Among the trio of obscure games I'm presenting, this was the longest-running one.  This game definitely had flair, and would have been a great replacement for Give Or Keep (seeing as how the rules were identical), had it not suffered from mechanical problems and just taken too darn long to play.  Give Or Keep itself was not a flashy game by any means, but the essence of the game in Give or Keep was not lost in all kinds of superfluous activities such as moving a yellow bar slowly down the track to indicate the Finish Line (i.e. how far the horse has to go, which is based on the sum of the prizes the contestant thinks has the lowest price) and then moving a tacky plastic horse slowly down this track until it either crosses the finish line... or doesn't.  Give Or Keep revealed this information right away; instead, on Finish Line, it takes a long time to learn the outcome.

On the surface, both games have quite uninteresting gameplay compared to some of the more modern games, which boast more challenges than simply picking the cheapest prize among three pairs of prizes.  Nevertheless, it's still a solid concept, totally fits the Price is Right theme, and is a quintessential game.  They might have luck bringing Finish Line back, in particular, if someone would rework the prop to use solid-state electronics and stepper motors instead of analog electromechanical devices (an entire wall full of relays, for instance) which are more prone to failure and inaccuracy.  (And, they'd need to pick a theme with a broader appeal than horse racing; plus I can see how in later years, as Bob became more of an outspoken animal rights activist, he'd want nothing to do with horse racing anyway.)  As for Give or Keep, that one's pretty much toast.  The staff tried for years to get it retired, probably because it was so simplistic, and ended up finally getting their way after 18 years of it in the Price is Right rotation.  At least one other game (Trader Bob) was built around the same concept, but it too only managed to last for a couple years.

Finally, I viewed the game among these three I was most excited to see: Telephone Game.  Even though it was only played three times, all airing within November 1978 (and played more times than only Professor Price), it has the most novel gameplay among these games.  Several elements contributed to this factor.  In a cue from Five Price Tags, you had to win at least one choice of prices among the three that could be for the car; except on this game, you had to buy two grocery items from among four with a budget of only $1 and save at least 10 cents to make a phone call on the payphone.  Then, in a twist unlike any other game I can think of, Bob would present the contestant with a phone book containing the price of the car in dollars, and the price of the other two items in dollars and cents (prizes less than $100, as new cars cost only about $4,000 or $5,000 back in 1978).  The contestant would then dial the price they chose on a rotary phone, and after a painful amount of waiting around, a telephone would ring next to the prize that had the price the contestant picked, and the model standing next to that prize would answer the phone.

The game started out solid, with picking out the grocery items, but then quickly went downhill from there.  Bob giving the contestant the dime seemed hokey, and then he had to tell the contestant to actually put the dime in the phone!  That seemed superfluous because it doesn't actually need to happen (unlike Master Key, where the contestant needs the key to find out what prize they've won).  Finally, in another stroke of "dumb luck," the contestant managed to win the car, only after arbitrarily picking the right price and waiting quite a while to see if he was right.  It was reminiscent of waiting for a cell phone call to go through when the network is really busy; sometimes it takes a while for the phone to start ringing!  Maybe they only strung this game along through three playings to see if anyone would actually win it, because after this game was finally won (on the third try), it was retired and never to be seen or heard from again until clips of its third playing finally resurfaced in 2014.  This one could possibly be revived if they could somehow remove the painful elements of watching the game unfold; perhaps this means taking away the whole "telephone" theme and playing through it just for what it is.  However, then it'd become a little too close to Five Price Tags except that you would win something on the first try as opposed to continuing to try for the car (or getting nothing).

Hey, that was cool!  May I have another?  How about that Punch-A-Bunch?

Since Wink Martindale has posted additional rarities beyond these three obscure games, I'd like to go into one more as a bonus.  The first game played on The Price is Right to offer a big cash prize had remarkably different rules in its first 11 playings than it does now.  The original rules for Punch-A-Bunch throughout 1978 had a higher "suspense beta" (where "beta" is a stock-market term for volatility) than it does now.  While Punch-A-Bunch is (and has been for a long time) a very exciting game, it could have been originally super-suspenseful or super-boring.  The contestant gets to choose which one of the four prizes they would like to attempt to earn a punch with, and then before punching, they must pick a letter on the top row among "PUNCHBOARD."  Each letter contains a number from 1-10, so if the contestant picks a disappointingly low number, it becomes lame (kind of like in the mid to late '80s when someone wins the $6,000 showcase instead of the $20,000 showcase).  This number will then be multiplied by their punch from among the 50 slots -- where nowadays there are values between $100 to $25,000, back then there were "DOLLARS", "HUNDRED", and "THOUSAND."  Thus the "suspense beta" is pretty high if someone were to pick the number 10 from among PUNCHBOARD, then pick "DOLLARS" (and as such, would be a huge disappointment!), but less so if the contestant picks the number 1 and then goes on to pick THOUSAND.

The other thing that makes the original Punch-A-Bunch rules wildly different is you don't know how many punches you will get ahead of time!  Since you picked prizes one at a time, you pulled your punch after each prize.  If you wanted to give your cash winnings back to try for another punch, you ran the risk of losing the other prizes and not winning another punch, thus walking away with nothing.  That was a nifty element of the gameplay, but ultimately slows it down and adds to tedium while watching it.  However, it does introduce a bit of strategy most contestants probably didn't pick up on: you would want to pick the prize you are least confident about first so you'd be less likely to give up your cash winnings and then not get another chance. Punch-A-Bunch started 1979 with the format we all know and love today, which definitely plays through quicker yet still provides plenty of entertainment and suspense.  The rule change was wise, as the game has been a favorite among fans ever since.

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