This week’s entry: Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors
What it’s about: In 1987, magician duo Penn & Teller produced a direct-to-video release called Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends, which showed viewers how to use magic tricks, which all involved on-screen material provided on the video, to prank their friends. Having conquered the VHS-based prank market, the duo attempted to move on to video games. Smoke And Mirrors was a series of minigames intended to prank the friends of whoever bought the game. A 1995 release was planned for Sega CD, but the publisher abruptly went bankrupt, Penn & Teller couldn’t find another company interested in releasing the game, and it passed into internet legend.
Biggest controversy: While the game didn’t make it to stores, it did get close enough to release to garner some mixed reviews. GamePro called it an acquired taste, saying, “Some of it’s incredibly boring; some of it has one-time appeal; some of it’s hilarious. It’s a lot like life.” VideoGames both loved and hated it, recommending it for P&T fans, while criticizing the graphics, and calling one of the games “brilliant in concept, if mind-numbingly boring in gameplay.”
Strangest fact: This never-released game has a fan base. In 2005, someone managed to circulate an old review copy of the game on the internet, and people have been playing it ever since. Like Cruel Tricks, the games are largely fake games designed to trick the friends of whoever bought Smoke And Mirrors. In “What’s Your Sign,” Penn & Teller correctly guess the player’s sign and then birthday based on a series of seemingly unrelated questions. In fact, the owner of the game inputs their friend’s birthday in advance in a secret menu. “Buzz Bombers” is an arcade-style shooter, rigged to always give one player more points. “Sun Scorcher” makes the TV screen go to static because the game’s graphics were seemingly too intense.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The most intentionally frustrating game of the bunch actually put some good into the world. “Desert Bus” has no trick, per se, apart from the monotonous gameplay. Players have to navigate a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas at 45 mph, in real time. If nothing goes wrong, the drive takes eight hours. The steering pulls to the right, so the player has to constantly adjust their direction and can’t simply let the game run in the background. The game cannot be paused.
If the bus goes off the road, it will be towed back to Tucson, also in real time. If the player manages to make it to Vegas, they get one point and the option to immediately drive back to Tucson for a second point. Penn Jillette later said the game was a response to early ’90s “moral panic” about video games, and was an attempt to make the most innocuous game possible (while also frustrating the player, in keeping with Smoke And Mirrors’ overall theme).
Not only have people made serious attempts to actually play “Desert Bus,” the YouTube channel LoadingReadyRun ran a marathon “Desert Bus” session in 2007 to raise money for the charity Child’s Play. Four players took turns keeping the bus going and raised $22,805, including donations from Penn & Teller themselves. The group made Desert Bus For Hope an annual event, raising more money every year (2019’s total was $864,415.01).
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The wider world missed their chance to play a Sega game co-starring Debbie Harry and Lou Reed. “Smoke And Mirrors,” the title track as it were, was a platform fighter where the villains are thinly disguised versions of Siegfried and Roy. The duo claim magic is real, and it’s up to Penn and Teller to take them down, Double Dragon style. Harry, who was dating Jillette at the time, appears in the game, as does Reed. The late punk legend shows up to kill the player if they select Impossible Mode, reminding them that “Impossible doesn’t mean very difficult.”
Also noteworthy: Had the game been released, there would have been some extra encouragement to play “Desert Bus.” Jillette said he intended to give the highest scorer in the minigame an actual bus ride from Tucson to Las Vegas, “with showgirls and a live band and just the most partying bus ever,” leading up to a weekend in Vegas. Little did he suspect that just putting the game on the internet with the disclaimer that it was the most boring game ever created would inspire gamers out there to go for the high score, as a mind-numbing daylong monotonous virtual drive is its own reward.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: “Desert Bus” was somehow released as a standalone game in 2016 for the Intellivision. A competitor to the Atari 2600, Intellivision was a cartridge-based game console that sold three million units between 1980 and 1983. It apparently wasn’t officially discontinued until 1990, though how or why someone released a game for the long-defunct system in 2016 isn’t adequately explained.
Further down the Wormhole: Absolute Entertainment, which developed Smoke And Mirrors before going bankrupt, was also responsible for more accessible titles like Pete Rose Baseball, two Star Trek: The Next Generation games, and a very slightly more compelling counterpart to “Desert Bus,” Redline F-1 Racer. First released in Japan as Aguri Suzuki F-1 Super Driving (Suzuki was a popular Japanese Formula One racer of the era), the game allowed you to be both driver and pit crew, adjusting your car’s brakes, wings, and suspension. A car’s suspension connects the body of the vehicle to the wheels, and must balance handling and shock absorption for the driver. A fine-tuned suspension is a must for drivers interested in drifting, a racing technique that involves intentionally oversteering, then skidding into a curve. First popular in Japan in the ’70s and ’80s, drifting spread to the U.S. a decade later, and then into the Fast And Furious movies a decade after that. Equally thrilling and equally likely to involve Vin Diesel is extreme ironing. We’ll inject some much-needed domesticity into the world of extreme sports next week.