Generally I leave matters of gaming to my play-obsessed colleague Chris Scott Barr - seriously, the guy has control pads grafted to his fingers - but occasionally along comes a gadget that is so cool even I get caught up in it. Being doubly fun when everyone involved has had a couple of glasses of the proverbial is a major bonus too, and so Radica Games' Say What? comfortably takes top-spot in my own personal gaming league.
Like criminal pathology or Steve Martin films, the idea is to unravel a mixed up situation; in this case, it's a phrase from popular culture that has been sliced up into five different segments. Each of the coloured domes on top of the crescent-shaped game deck represents one of these segments, and it's your job to rearrange them from their initial, muddled positions to the correct phrase.
It's a ridiculously easy concept that is far more straightforward to demonstrate than it is to explain. In each round the balls light up from left to right, with one of two vaguely annoying voices speaking the jumbled phrase accordingly; you then rush in a crazed panic to swap them around before you forget what each stands for, finishing up by whacking the Solve button to see how many you got right.
There are two main modes of play, where either time or the number of guesses available are limited; single-player gaming consists of five rounds, with either the time limit decreasing (from thirty seconds down to just ten) or the guesses decreasing (from five down to one). There's also a "Sudden Death" mode which sadly doesn't electrify the balls but instead deals up five rounds of ten seconds or single guesses. Difficulty of play can be governed through setting Say What? to one of three different levels, where either two, one or none of the pieces start out in their correct places.
Like I said, it sounds vaguely complicated but in actual fact you'll be juggling in no time. There are apparently over 300 phrases stored inside, from TV, film, song lyrics and famous soundbites, and if you're really struggling you can hit the "Hint" button to be told what medium the quote comes from. Up to five players can be involved in a single game, each at differing levels of difficulty, with Say What? keeping score and even unleashing a Sudden Death round if it comes down to a tie-break. Thanks to all that, it actually becomes feasible to pit adults against children without one group or another feeling hopelessly incapable.
It's a good thing, too, because once you start playing it's tricky to stop. Yes, the voices may be annoyingly chirpy and loud, but more often than not people insist on hitting Play Again "just one more time". Around my office hitherto-unknown rivalry suddenly flared, with some particularly sneaky attempts to put competitors off their game by shouting out alternative phrases. The plastics and construction are all solid and feel durable - important considering things get hectic when you know you've only got a few seconds left - and despite a whole lot of play the original four AA batteries are still going strong. And if you're childish (like me) then you'll always get a giggle from taking out one of the pieces and hearing the guy shout "missing a ball!"
If I had to criticise, there are one or two annoyances and one perhaps more fundamental issue about Say What? The former would include the lack of a volume control - don't expect to get a sneaky game in late at night if your walls are thin - and the lack of a carrying case, or at least some way to secure the five balls for transport. It might also be nice to see a countdown display for timed games; as it is, Say What? just bleeps at you when you're down to the final five seconds. As for bigger concern, it's a matter of longevity really. Many of the included phrases are very topical at the moment - recent pop songs, quotes from films - but could potentially date quickly, and there's no way (aside from Radica releasing an updated version) to add new ones in.
Still, at £24.95 ($51) it's not exactly trying to compete with a PS3, in fact it's cheaper even than a game for a current console while likely to entice even staunch non-gamers to have a try. If your family gatherings are filled with dreary silence and only punctuated with vague recrimination then you might just find Say What? makes all the difference; as the game itself might say "buy this you game should"!
Say What? is available now from Firebox.com; thanks to them for sending it over for review.