You sit in the front seat of a car. Your destination? Vegas, baby. But you don’t possess a “multi-colored galaxy of uppers and downers” like Hunter S. Thompson, you don’t aim to pick up a cute cocktail waitress like Vince Vaughn, and you’re certainly not leaving Las Vegas, like Nicolas Cage (or even Sheryl Crow). Your only goal is to parlay your limited knowledge of casino games into a big win, a modest increase or at least a minor hit to your bankroll. Fortunately, 1993’s “Vegas Stakes” on Super Nintendo gives you the chance without leaving your couch.
After checking into the “Golden Paradise,” you quickly discover you’re in need of a gambling buddy. The choices range from Zach Morris look-alike Richard to sexy blonde Maria. The two of you hit any of four casinos next — the Golden Nugget-esque “Paradise,” the Western-styled “Buffalo Head,” “The Hideaway” (a low-stakes casino with $1 slots reminiscent of Eddie Griswold’s favorite haunt in “Vegas Vacation”) and the quaintly futuristic “2020.” Only the most basic games are available (sorry, no Pai Gow poker or Keno) and, like in a real casino, trying to win lots of money in the long run by playing slots or roulette usually turns out to be a futile exercise.
Your best bet – for money and entertainment value – is seven card stud, where habitually winking card sharks pepper the games with blustering and reverse psychology almost seedy enough to resemble that of actual casino chatter. Indeed, the great fun in “Stakes” lies not in the games, but in the peripheral personalities who try to trick you, help you out or just waste your time. For example, during a game of stud, you might be approached by a woman named Ursula who appears to have a robotic eye and will attempt to sell you a diamond. If you buy the diamond, an organ grinder wearing a trench coat will appear and ask to buy the diamond for double what you paid. If you agree, the grinder may ecstatically hand you the cash, or he may laugh in your face and inform you the diamond is made of cubic zirconium. The challenge of these tense little encounters – where you can make as much, if not more, money than in the actual casino games – is gaining the ability to tell if the hawker is for real or just a snake-oil salesman. It’s not so unlike playing a real game of poker.
Today’s glut of online poker players might wonder why one would want to play a game where, no matter how many winning lottery tickets a Rastafarian offers to split with you, you’ll never actually make a cent of real money. But this misses the point entirely. “Stakes” doesn’t just simulate the experience of gambling. It simulates the casino experience itself. The variety of casinos, the motley cast of friends and foes, the High-Rollers Suite you’re invited to join once your bankroll reaches a million Simoleans – this game has the whole Vegas experience sans $2.99-lobster dinners and affordable prostitutes.
One might wonder why the likes of PS3 and Xbox 360 haven’t used their high-end graphical capabilities to produce a vicarious Vegas even more visually stimulating than its SNES counterpart. The likely answer is that casinos aren’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing locations to render in vivid 3D. The rolling roulette ball, the dinging slot machine – how realistic they look is immaterial to how fun the game is. The only objects worth animating in full detail are the gamblers, whose most interesting activities include counting their cash and sipping complimentary drinks.
Then again, games like “Guitar Hero” have proven that even in an era where emphasis on graphics comes first, gamers can enjoy playing even when the game’s visual quality is somewhat of an afterthought.
That being said, I propose a game called “Casino Hero.” Charles Barkley will be a playable character – though you start $10 million in the hole – and old Ursula will be back, hawking her mysterious diamond. That’s a casino I’ll lose my wad at any day.