By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Generally considered to be the first (American) TV show devoted entirely to video games, Starcade technically debuted in 1981 when its original pilot aired on a few syndicated stations across the country. That first show was hosted by Olympic hockey player Mike Eruzione, who had scored the game-winning goal in the legendary “Miracle on Ice” gold medal game in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The show featured 24 contestants in groups of 8 each playing three arcade games – Pac-Man, Defender, and Centipede – simultaneously, with the high score winner from each facing off for the high score in Berzerk. The overall winner earned an Asteroids Deluxe arcade machine and an Apple II computer.
Thankfully, that convoluted setup didn’t survive beyond that first pilot – but neither did its celebrity host. In 1982, the show was retooled for three more pilots for NBC, this time featuring another host who would eventually become a minor celebrity himself – Alex Trebek, two years before he began his three-decades-and-counting run hosting Jeopardy! Check out a clip from one of those pilots right here.
The NBC pilots’ new format would continue on through the show’s official beginning as a proper series in 1982 on WTBS (with new host Mark Richards, though he too would be replaced halfway through the show’s initial run by the more experienced Geoff Edwards). In it, the contestant count was now pared down to just two players (or two teams), who would first be asked a video game trivia question. The player/team who buzzed in and answered correctly then had to choose one of five arcade games set up in the studio and were given a set time (varying from 40 to 60 seconds throughout the show’s run) to earn as high a score as possible, at which point the opposing player/team was tasked to beat it. After a few rounds played in this manner, the player/team in the lead was shown four screenshots and had to identify the games in at least three of them. In the “Bonus Round,” the player (or a player from the winning team) would be able to choose one of the arcade games that hadn’t been played yet, and had to beat the score of 20 other players who had previously set high scores for that game. If they did this, they would win the show’s grand prize. There were three special episodes that were based entirely around a single arcade title: Star Wars, Cliff Hanger, and Dragon’s Lair. A clip from the Dragon’s Lair episode was among the special features of the DVD player version of the Dragon’s Lair game.
This initial run of shows ended in February of 1984. Reruns ran on TBS and in syndication through 1985.
The Video Game (1984-1985)
TBS followed up Starcade with the short-lived The Video Game not long after the former’s cancellation. Filmed at California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, three kids were selected from the studio audience and became the show’s contestants. The show’s announcer was veteran actor Christopher Kriesa (pictured above), who if you don’t think you know him, IMDb him and you’ll see you’ve probably seen at least a dozen movies he’s been in. Like Starcade, they would have to answer trivia questions and compete in high score challenges in arcade games. However, The Video Game also featured more physically demanding challenges that included a large maze that the players had to navigate, searching for secret treasures and avoiding “monsters.” Later in the competition, the “Res-Off” round tasked players to make model Karen Lea – basically The Video Game‘s equivalent of Vanna White – move around that same maze in a simplistic game of human chess, where the spaces on the floor would turn from white (safe) to red, which would cause the player to “de-res” and be eliminated from the game. The final round had the leading player play an arcade game for 30 seconds and have to beat a score that was randomly chosen. If they succeeded, they’d win an arcade game.
Unlike Starcade, The Video Game‘s cancellation wasn’t followed by any extended syndication reruns and the show quickly faded into obscurity. No clips or even screenshots of it are known to exist anywhere online.
Video Power (1990-1992)
When Video Power debuted in 1990, it wasn’t a game show at all. It was a cartoon featuring characters from various Acclaim franchises (think Captain N with Z-list game stars), bookended by live action segments where host Johnny Arcade would give viewers the latest video game news, reviews, and hints. However, after that version of the show’s first season, the format was completely overhauled into a high-energy game show. Original host Johnny Arcade stayed on board, but his hosting duties were now shared with Terry Lee Torok, as well as an in-house band lead by the keyboardist from the classic 80’s MTV game show Remote Control.
The first round of the show was called “Johnny on the Spot,” where Torok would ask four different audience members video game-related questions in hopes of stumping Johnny. Those same four quizzers then became the contestants for the remainder of the show. In the second round, the players would have to play a video game – usually NES – and the two who reached that game’s selected goal the fastest would advance to the next round. The goal varied by game, from a basic high score to more specific tasks like picking up X number of items in the game.
Round 3 was a quiz round, where players were asked multiple choice trivia as well as more advanced – and higher-scoring – tasks like identifying a game based on hearing a clip from its soundtrack. The players would wear Velcro vests and helmets, and game-related objects like mushrooms were stuck to their outfits to indicate how well they were doing. The fourth round was another game-playing round that played out much like round 2.
The final round had the day’s top player run through a maze where prizes were stuck to walls via Velcro – did they sponsor this show or what? – and the player could grab anything they wanted and stick it to their vest and helmet, and whatever was stuck to them if they made it through the maze before time ran out was theirs to keep. Winners from each weekday came back and competed on Friday’s show for a grand prize, which was a trophy, a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and $10,000 in scholarship money.
The game show phase of Video Power also only lasted a single season, and the show was cancelled in 1992.
Nick Arcade (1992-1994, reran until 1997)
The last of the golden age of videogame game shows (in the U.S. anyway) was, fittingly, the most creative and ambitious. Debuting on Nickelodeon – hence the “Nick” in the title – in 1992, Nick Arcade had video game trivia just like its predecessors, but that’s where the similarities (and simplicity) ended. Beginning each round was a playable video game created especially for the show that the contestants faced off in. Granted, they were basically just clones of existing games like Pong and Missile Command, but it was still impressive to have unique, playable video games programmed just for a TV show in 1992. Nick Arcade also had players competing in video game-based challenges, but the hardware was much more varied than previous shows, covering the NES, SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and Neo Geo. The custom games, coincidentally, were built on Amiga computers.
The trivia itself wasn’t limited to video games, as various challenges involved identifying the artist of a music video clip being played, or naming the actors in a TV show. In fact, the style of questions and challenges in the trivia portion was extremely varied even for a non-video game or non-kid-focused show. Just a few of the many different types of challenges were: “What Was That?”, where a clip is shown of an object being destroyed – in reverse – and the contestant has to identify the object; “Mixed Signals”, where audio of an activity is played alongside video of a completely different activity, and players had to identify the activity being performed in the audio; and “Robot Vision”, where players had to identify what was happening in a thermographic version of a video clip. In a fun detail that further serves to put a time stamp on the show, in one of the games players had to write their answers on a Magna Doodle toy.
The star of the Nick Arcade, however, was the game’s final round, “The Video Zone.” The contestants – from the home viewer’s perspective, anyway – entered into a life-sized interactive video game world. The player(s) would navigate the game’s levels, avoiding enemies and obstacles, grabbing power ups, and throwing projectiles. It basically looked to people watching the show as if the contestants were moving through a 2D, side-scrolling video game. Few things on television in the 90’s blew the minds of young kids everywhere like watching other kids actually being inside a video game.
As it seems to go with videogame game shows, Nick Arcade only had two seasons, but as both a sign of its popularity – and perhaps to help recoup what had to be a fairly sizable production budget – reruns were shown for a full 5 years after the show stopped airing new episodes.
A sad epilogue to Nick Arcade‘s legacy was an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign launched last year by the original creators of the show to make a spiritual successor called Enthlevel. It received a mere $3,053 of a $350,000 goal. There are currently no announced plans to proceed with production of the show.
What About Non-American Shows?
This article only focused on U.S.-produced shows of the 80’s and early 90’s. Other countries had a few notable videogame game shows, including the U.K.’s GamesMaster and Bad Influence!, both of which ran for a number of years in the 90’s. Unfortunately, U.K.-exclusive television exceeds my knowledge base, so I didn’t write about them. But I still wanted to mention them so our readers across the pond didn’t think we were forgetting about them, and so the curious can look them up if they are interested. And please, if anyone reading this is familiar with them, tell us all about them in the comments!