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Video Game / Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors

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Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors is a 1995 game featuring illusionist duo Penn & Teller. It was made for the IBM Personal Computer, 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and Sega CD. Although the game was completed, it was unreleased when its publisher, Absolute Entertainment, went bankrupt, although the game had appeared in gaming publications beforehand. It resurfaced years later when an owner to a website that documents unreleased games received a copy of the Sega CD version from an initial reviewer.

The game is a collection of minigames, and is intended as a commentary on the perception that video games are harmful. As a Penn and Teller product, the game is humorous, and features their usual mix of illusion and debunking of fraudulent uses of such. Several of the minigames are actually meant to fool the second player in some way and there's hidden menus to set up and practice some of the tricks beforehand.

The game consists of the following mini-games:

  • Desert Bus: The most well-known among the minigames, where you must drive 360 miles from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas, NV on a desolate highway with no other traffic or any turns, without being able to go faster than 45 MPH, and with the steering pulling slightly to the right to prevent you from simply weighing down a button to keep the bus moving. All in real time. Has been a subject of LoadingReadyRun's Desert Bus for Hope charity drive, and has also been ported to iOS and Android devices with proceeds going towards Child's Play.
  • Mofo the Psychic Gorilla: A gorilla claims to have psychic powers and asks questions to predict the card a player draws from the deck. The owner of the game is meant to use the intro segment to input the card drawn into the game via a series of control inputs under the guise of demonstrating the controls to whoever's playing the game: the questions Mofo asks are wholly irrelevant to the process and the manual states that the owner should encourage the player to attempt to mislead him as much as possible.
  • Buzz Bombers: Claims to be a demo for an "upcoming" two-player arcade shooter.note  Where the first player has access to a built-in cheat that can be used to adjust the difficulty on the fly so that the second player gets much less powerups and much more targets they're not meant to shoot while the opposite applies to the first player.
  • What's Your Sign: Penn & Teller uses the Personometer to determine the player's sign as well as their birthday. Which the owner of the game has simply input into the game beforehand.
  • Sun Scorcher: A space shooter which involves the use of "thermographics", as well as unskippable disclaimers that state such features make the screen dangerous to touch. Which largely relies on the owner's ability to act like they don't believe the disclaimer and then getting "hurt" in the process, with screen filling up with static after the third time to further enhance the effect.
  • Smoke and Mirrors: An adventure game of sorts where a magical duo called Stinkbomb and Rot claims that magic exists and become sensational. The goal is to have Penn & Teller go around town, make their way through and head back to Las Vegas in order to expose Stinkbomb and Rot as frauds. Comes in Normal and Impossible difficulties.

The minigames contain examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: The elements of the game are not immediately obvious to those who just catch a glimpse at the game. The manual is designed so the owner can set up the tricks in order to fool their friends.
  • Artistic License – Geography: It's weird that a game that's advertised as a verisimulator would have any Acceptable Breaks from Reality whatsoever, but Desert Bus does. In reality, the highway from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas, NV is more than 360 miles long and is not a straight line. Also, it goes through Phoenix.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: In Smoke and Mirrors, you can call Penn and Teller's stunt doubles after obtaining a cell phone and batteries. They are invincible and can beat up every enemy with ease. However, this consumes one phone battery and some cash, and they cannot talk to anyone, leave the screen, or collect items, and once they are done, you are forced to watch a minute-long unskippable cutscene of Penn and Teller eating pizza.
  • Bladder of Steel: The pause function is disabled during Desert Bus. Pressing the start button just sounds the horn. This was invoked by the developers in the instruction manual.
    "There's no pause feature. No, it's not an oversight. Does your life have a pause control?"
  • Classic Cheat Code: A number of important game elements are accessed this way to hide the tricks, including the secret owner's menu, the method to input the card for Mofo the Psychic Gorilla, the cheats in Buzz Bombers (as well as a method to boot the game right into it), and the prank elements in Sun Scorcher.
  • The Computer Is a Lying Bastard: The Desert Bus score counter has eight digits, but it caps out at 99 points, or "00000099" as shown in-game. Then again, getting to 99999999 points would take literally tens of thousands of yearsnote  since you get one point for completing the full eight-hour drive, and even 99 points takes a little over one monthnote  of non-stop playing.
  • Cruelty Is the Only Option: Smoke and Mirrors requires you to throw rabbits into a woodchipper and give an adoring fan your autograph, only to steal it back immediately in order to obtain some key items.
  • Deconstruction Game:
    • Desert Bus is an exaggerated deconstruction of supposed "realistic" games, by virtue of simulating a very real, very boring bus drive and making it far more tiresome than reality by limiting speed to 45mph and making the bus constantly veer right.
    • Smoke and Mirrors deconstructs the "Impossible" difficulty label by pointing out that "impossible" is supposed to mean just that, not just "really hard", and instant-kills you at the start of Impossible difficulty to demonstrate.
  • Driving Game: The infamous Desert Bus minigame simulating an eight-hour drive from Tucson to Las Vegas — in real time, with no pause button, in a bus with a top speed of 45 mph and a tendency for the steering to drift (which meant that you couldn't just leave it running unattended or the bus would crash — whereupon it would be towed back to Tucson, still in real time, and you'd have to start again).
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Smoke and Mirrors' Impossible difficulty is exactly that. The player walks only a few feet before bumping into Lou Reed, who blows Penn and Teller to pieces before reminding the player that "impossible" isn't just a synonym for "very difficult."
  • Eye Beams: In Smoke and Mirrors, the Impossible difficulty setting has the player run into Lou Reed after one screen, who will shoot beams from his eyes at the player, who in turn is instantly killed.
  • Filming for Easy Dub: What's Your Sign has the sign with the star sign cover the entire screen, making it easy to swap in the correct sign. And the switch to the date reveal video.
  • Foregone Victory: Player 1 will always win in Buzz Bombers thanks to a built-in cheat that can give a minor advantage to player 2 to lull them into a false sense of security, a minor advantage to player 1 to turn the tables or a massive advantage to player 1 that makes it impossible for player 2 to win. There's also a code to switch the cheat ability between controllers in case they suspect foul play and want to switch and a special video to play to player 2 when you feel like you've strung them along long enough.
  • Fun with Acronyms: What's Your Sign has the Cosmetic Research Organization for Clairvoyant Kinetics (CROCK) personometer.
  • Game Within a Game: Sun Scorcher and Buzz Bombers. In fact, the game was designed so that you could trick people into thinking Buzz Bombers is its own standalone game by converting the packaging for Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors and inputting a button code during the production logo. Both these games are also capable of being played as normal games without the prank aspects.
  • Interface Screw: Sun Scorcher has both warnings about "Thermographics" and when they (supposedly) break the TV.
  • Loads and Loads of Loading: Smoke and Mirrors needs to load for several seconds each time you go to a new room. And rooms are often two screens or less in size.
  • Leave the Camera Running: In Desert Bus, aside from a bug splattering at the window around 300 miles in, literally nothing happens for eight hours. Continuing through the game leads with the driver driving at dusk, night, and dawn.
  • Live-Action Cutscene: Being made for multimedia formats, the game features live-action cutscenes with Penn and Teller that play between minigames.
  • Losing Your Head: When Lou Reed kills Penn and Teller with his Eye Beams in Smoke and Mirrors' Impossible difficulty, their bodies explode messily while their heads remain intact, are launched into the air, and then land on the pavement. Despite no longer having a respiratory system, Penn can still talk in this state.
    You're too cool for us, Lou. We'll never be as cool as you are. Never.
  • Marathon Level: Each segment of Desert Bus lasts eight hours. You can't pause.
  • Medium Awareness: The NPCs of Smoke & Mirrors are aware they're game characters. One might mention that his job as a "sprite" has led him to meet various other characters, and another will say that he's sworn to secrecy about what he sees when he walks off-screen.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: The manual will note that no animals were harmed while making the game. But it is pleased to report that several magicians were.
  • Never Needs Sharpening: Parodied in a few lines of the official release, along with a Stealth Pun to Polish the Turd every now and then:
    Buzz Bombers(TM). The coolest, meanest competitive two-player action space alien game yet created. You'll want to play it again and again, because you'll never lose!
  • Obvious Stunt Double: Dan and Biff, who insist that they look exactly like Penn and Teller despite having a completely different voice, body type, and face.
  • Overly-Long Gag:
    • Desert Bus. The entire point of the game is that it takes 8 hours to score one point, and you need to pay constant attention to keep the bus on the road.
    • In Smoke and Mirrors, calling the stunt doubles causes Penn and Teller to go take a break and eat pizza while the stunt doubles beat up everyone in their way. Once they are done, you are forced to watch an unskippable cutscene of Penn and Teller eating pizza.
  • Pinball Scoring: Inverted in Desert Bus. Driving the full, eight-hour route earns you one point. To further emphasize the point (no pun intended), the score is shown with eight placeholders, so after you drive eight hours, the score reads "00000001". note 
  • Plausible Deniability: The manual provides instructions on how to skip the normal Penn & Teller intro and skip to the intro for Buzz Bombers. If you fail to input the code to do so, Penn and Teller mention in their intro that the disc contains a demo for the game rather than being the game itself.
  • Practical Joke: The games aside from Smoke and Mirrors and Desert Bus are designed so you can play one on player 2. Even then, Desert Bus is also a practical joke... it's just one played on the player themselves.
  • Read the Freaking Manual: When going through the Owner Menu, the game repeatedly stresses that you need to read the instruction manual if you want to pull the scams off flawlessly.
  • Take That!: Several, including buzzwords like "blast processing" (Sun Scorcher with "thermographics"), perceptions of "realistic" video games (Desert Bus), and hyperbolic difficulty levels (the Impossible difficulty in Smoke and Mirrors).
  • Unbuilt Trope: Desert Bus deconstructed the idea of making video games painstakingly realistic years before trying to make games "realistic" became common.
  • Unwinnable Joke Game: In Smoke and Mirrors, hyperbole is not in any way involved in the naming of the "Impossible" difficulty level; Lou Reed appears and kills the duo, then tells the player:
  • Villain Protagonist: In Buzz Bombers, the protagonists are a pair of alien insects whose species destroyed the Earth.
  • What Could Have Been: In-Universe, Penn complains a few times about having to cut content due to memory limitations:
    • In the wax museum in Smoke and Mirrors, you see wax sculptures of Escapo and Balloono, two bosses. Another room contains sculptures of a Chinese magician named Fu-Ling-Yu and a fortune teller named Madame Claire de Voyant. As Penn said himself;
    Penn: Scarf an eye load of these guys, huh? Fu-Ling-Yu, Madame Claire de Voyant. Well, we could've beat them too if, uhh... Absolute had given us a larger memory configuration, and we'd fit them in the game!
    • In the intro to Buzz Bombers, Penn mentions some other planned games that had to be cut to invoked make room for BB at Absolute's demands, such as one where they guess your name and you win a million dollars if they get it wrong, one where they teach you how to build a nuclear bomb using some Noodle Implements, and one containing instructions on how to cheat at every video game ever released on a SEGA system.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Desert Bus


Desert Bus

As demonstrated by the Angry Video Game Nerd, the bus veers to the right requiring the player to steer left to keep it on the road to ensure that the player cannot cheat by clamping down the button to accelerate and leaving the game idle

How well does it match the trope?

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