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NEWS: Wheel of Fortune Code Update (kind of)

Wheel of Fortune was one of those games that got lost in the shuffle during the dawn of a challenging period for Stern, who was busy trying to stay afloat under the weight and pressure of being the only pinball manufacturer in town. The stars kind of aligned for Wheel of Fortune’s misfortune: unappealing theme, experimental gameplay, off-putting playfield bobbleheads and the fact that it was Dennis Nordman’s swan song with Stern. The game has its fans, but it was a flop when it was new and it has not fared well in the secondary market either–being relegated to D-Lists and the third page (currently #212) of the Pinside Top 100. It is also one of those games to famously bear the heavy cross of “unfinished code”, which seems to bother the community to no end.

Unfinished code is nothing new. Especially for Stern. They only recently, after an ugly organized uprising by the community, became more adept at releasing code updates in a more timely fashion. We can thank the especially weak code Metallica code (and Stern’s disinclination to update it for more than a year) for the community backlash to rear its head and make Stern revisit its code update policy. However, Wheel of Fortune stumbled out of the gate in October of 2007, selling very few units, so there was no incentive for the company to go back and round out the rules of the game. Sometime after Wheel rolled off of the assembly line and into the discount bin, Stern decided to bury the game entirely, including burying designer Dennis Nordman, not inviting him back to work on future releases. It was almost as if they were just trying to get the game off of the books entirely. It is no surprise the troubled game didn’t get its due in the programming department.

The game is totally playable without the completed code, and, surprisingly, has a deeper and more entertaining ruleset than other Stern games of the period (IJ4, CSI, 24). It is missing a wizard mode and various animations/callouts, but on a whole, the game is fun if you can get past the grandmotherly theme. It had long been rumoured that programmer Keith Johnson did further work on the code during his time with Stern, and thanks to further processing within the rumour mill, some lay claim that Johnson had in fact completed the code.

That brings us to a For Sale thread that appeared on Pinside yesterday, advertising a $4500USD Wheel of Fortune with low plays and something interesting going on with its code. Seller, Pinside user devlman, touted in the original ad:

“It also has v6.02 software…I don’t know the origin of this but have never seen it before. From looking at it in the editor software it has some additional messages and another feature adjustment mode as compared to the latest public Stern release (5.xx).”

Devlman stated the game came with this code, and the previous seller told him not to share the code publicly, which he complied with. People were interested–even if this 6.02 code contained only minor fixes or additions it would still breathe new life into a long ignored game. I’m sure Devlman received more than a few private messages asking to share the code even though he stated outright that he would not right in the original for sale thread. Nearly 24 hours after the post apepared, and after much discussion of where the code originated, original Wheel of Fortune programmer Keith Johnson (Pinside ID “pinball_keefer”) joined the discussion to set things straight:

“I wasn’t going to say anything but I’ve been bugged about this a little bit so here’s what the deal is.

I released a version of software, “6.00I” (for IFPA, I don’t remember what tournament it was for) or some such, that basically added some competition mode stuff (derandomized wild card and big spin). Those are the ONLY changes from 5.00 which is the last public release I did while at Stern. 6.00I was circulated a fair amount amongst tournament types, mostly those running tournaments. (I didn’t/don’t care.)

While doing crapwork on other games (like IJ4 and CSI) I had time to add some of the stuff I wanted to on WOF. Many bugs got fixed. Probably more speech. I gave a test version to 1 person that I trust unconditionally. I don’t remember what version I called it, but I don’t think it was 6.02. I don’t remember for sure, though. I’m not sure if he still has his WOF or not, but I doubt it’s this game.

As someone stated, the main gameplay change that is noticeable is that there are “mode goals.” The goal is simply to score x points before time runs out. If you get the goal, you won, great. The next mode, the goal would be higher. If you didn’t win, oh well, the next mode, the goal would be lower. Also, you could replay the mode you failed, at 2x points. If you failed the same mode twice, you could play it a 3rd time for 3x points. If you failed 3 times, the game gave up. Oh, also for each mode you won, you got a “winnings x” for that ball’s bonus.

IIRC there’s no logic for completing the wheel yet, but the reward was going to be something like 10M for each mode won on try #1, 5M for each on try #2, 2.5M for each on try #3, and 1M for failed modes. If by some unfathomable stroke of luck you completed every mode on the first try, you’d get a bonus to round up the total to 100M.

And that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah, puzzle solutions in attract mode, too. No one other than my tester and myself had seen the code until (I think) expo 2010. Trent wanted 6.0 for the expo tourney. For some unknown reason, I was contacted by Stern asking where 6.0 code was, 2 years after I had been laid off and several months after I had been left out to dry on a possible rehire. I said something to the effect of I have [no fucking idea], look on my computer. I guess instead of finding the 6.00I version that had been around for a couple of years, they decided to compile whatever I had done and left sitting on my computer (since I wasn’t allowed to check in any changes after getting the boot) and release that.

So, the existence of 6.02 is solely due to Stern, and not due to me. I still do not have a copy of 6.02; my game runs 5.00. I have no way of making or creating any version of WOF. Stern released it to Trent, and whatever happened after that is between Stern and everyone else, not me. Other than having done the work on it while I was still there, I have absolutely no connection to the released image of 6.02.

If anyone cares, no, [I don’t give a fuck] if 6.02 gets passed around or not. Maybe Stern does and maybe they don’t; you’d have to ask them.”

So the code in devlman’s game amounts to a unreleased version with a few extra features for a game long maligned for being incomplete. It is a very interesting revelation, even if the update doesn’t amount to very much in the grand scheme of things, nor does it fix some of the more glaring omissions from the 5.XX code. It is amazing that something like this exists in a community where nearly everyone is connected to someone in the industry, and nobody can keep their mouth shut (being in such a tight knit community is a blessing and a curse all at the same time). So I suppose the rumour can be put to bed: Keith Johnson didn’t complete the Wheel of Fortune code, but he did work on an updated version while he was at Stern. Short of someone going back and rewriting the code (a la Data East Star Wars), this will have to give Wheel owners hope for the time being. Hopefully this talk of updated WoF code forces Stern’s hand, and, as a gesture of good will and new-found dedication to code updates, they will release this in some official capacity through their website. It may not be much, but it will be an olive branch. Even if that olive branch still doesn’t have a wizard mode.

Further Reading:

Pinside – FS: HUO WOF 550 Plays Mint Condition (quotes above taken from this page)
Pinball News – Wheel of Fortune Review
Pinside – Tell Me About Wheel of Fortune
Stern Pinball – Wheel of Fortune (Check here for future code updates!  Ha!)