In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
If there’s one thing TV has failed to understand, it’s videogames. In the early 90’s, the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo saw a popularity boom as ‘the kids’ found idols in Mario and Sonic instead of the Mattel endorsed cartoon heroes. The shift in children’s programming was noticeable; slower paced dramas were dropped in favour of instant gratification. Not including the obvious franchise tie-in’s like Sonic The Hedgehog or Earthworm Jim, the influence of videogames could be found in game shows like Knightmare and especially Reboot. Nowadays, if you watch kids’ TV, there is always some kind of gaming influence going on to keep the child’s attention. Ever since that boom in the early 90’s, Children’s’ TV has struggled to understand gaming appeal. You can see the same thing recurring with music channels and the recent boom of You Tube.
Sporadically, TV has tried to cater to videogame fans by using its one advantage over print – moving image. Before the internet, most of us had to rely on watching these shows to see games in action. But these shows almost always missed the mark in trying to appeal to ‘the kids’. In the 27 years I’ve been alive and subjected to these monstrosities, I’ve never understood why most keep making the same mistake of trying too hard to be cool. But then again, that’s the media for you; completely unwilling to take risks and treat its audience with some respect. Over the years, there were some decent attempts at magazine shows, but someone has to go screw up the formula down the line (for better or worse). So let’s have a look at the ones that tried and the ones that failed. Then hopefully see how their influences resonate with home-made internet programming like Angry Video Game Nerd, Consolevania and [i]The Spoony Experiment[i].
Oh and yes, this is mostly a British view. Don’t get upset if I don’t mention the US stuff.
BAD INFLUENCE (1992-1996)
This was probably my first memory of a games magazine show. I know there were more adult orientated shows before it, but this was the one specifically aimed at a younger audience. It was hosted by the morbidly lifeless Andy Crane and the happily lisped Violet Berlin. I always thought Violet had the worst hair for a woman ever to grace TV screens. It was like Dolph Lungdren’s hairdo in Rocky IV transplanted on an eternally chirpy Ecstasy abuser. She was kind of like a midget Bridgette Nielsen if she was strangely attractive (in a couple of shots of whiskey kind of way). Actually, to be fair, Violet’s genuine enthusiasm for videogames constantly shone through the horrible set design and made even the most trivial of gaming news enjoyable. Andy Crane, however, was a man way out of his league. He understood the technology but didn’t really care for it since he just needed the presenting gig. Somehow, this dour, sullen man who masked his life's unhappiness with fake smiles ended up presenting a lot of children’s TV in the 90’s.
He was probably last seen eating out of some bins.
Anyway, the show took place in a large ITV studio with kids littering the place like a day-care centre that had been hit by a terrorist attack, with Violet making the best of a bad situation and Andy resembling a perpetually stressed out boss who wondered how he was going to explain this all to the parents. Bad Influence established a long ignored rule in games TV journalism – don’t ask the kids what they think of the games. Stilted monosyllabic answers and the constant repetition of ‘the graphics is good’ still haunt my dreams. They had children do talking head reviews and I presume they were all from TV workshop or had parents working for ITV. Nobody cared what they thought (or were told to think), since we’d all be talking about the visuals behind them in school the next day.
Despite the stagnant remains of 80's ‘yoof TV’ as a show structure, there were on-location features involving the development of upcoming games and technology. Sega and Nintendo were only too happy to get the prime-time visual exposure, so we saw a lot of behind-the-scenes footage in the UK and US. A trivial fact for you - Violet proved so popular with Codemasters at one point, that they made her into a character for the Micro Machines games.
Note how they didn’t care much for Andy.
What really made Bad Influence interactive and popular was the fact they’d have a guy come on called ‘Nam Rood’. Nam looked a neo-Nazi skinhead out of a Mike Leigh film, but was friendly enough to give out cheats from some kind of pirate radio shack. He was eternally annoying (and quite creepy to be honest), but since he was the holder of the cheat codes, you kind of tolerated him until you found them printed in a games magazine. It was a crude sort of TV interaction as he gave you the codes and you wrote it down with pen and paper. I’m pretty sure this show featured an interactive element where you recorded the credits and you’d get a ‘data-burst’ that could only be read if you paused the tape. A nice idea on paper, but ultimately annoying since my VCR skipped frames with every press of the play and pause button. Not to mention I had to deal with the awful and fiddly tracking dial.
Looking back, I guess Bad Influence wasn’t all that bad. It was original for its time, but it was offset by the obvious PR antics of Sega and Nintendo, who enjoyed the best time to influence kids (oh the irony of the show's title!), the necessity to be ‘down with the kids’ by featuring said kids and the presence of one Andy Crane. Then again, it did open the doors for this kind of magazine show. But the real question was 'how to perfect the formula?'
GamesMaster was everything Bad Influence wasn’t. There was no room for cutesy-down-with-the-kids escapades. Granted, there was a teen audience, but the whole thing was sly, knowing and full of innuendo that went over the younger viewers’ heads. It was presented by the perpetually sarcastic Scotsman, Dominik Diamond. He wasn’t the GamesMaster though. No, in a bizarre bit of casting, Channel 4 somehow snagged astronomer and late night TV legend, Patrick Moore.
Yes, the Patrick Moore, presenter of long running astronomy show The Sky At Night. As the show became hugely popular in the evenings, Moore went on record to say he had no idea about games at all. A statement that makes his appearance even more perplexing since he was the guy who issued challenges, told monosyllabic kids how to defeat Bowser and activate the Konami code and had poorly scripted chin-wags with an argumentative Dom. Seriously, the bits where he interacts with dead-eyed children asking how to defeat such-and-such is some of the most painful pieces of television ever commited to screen. Especially if you resepected Patrick Moore as a famous astronomer.
GamesMaster didn’t really care much for being just a magazine show. Each week, a celebrity or your average teen would have to complete challenges on a new game (free PR obviously) to win the converted Golden Joystick; a decent joystick that I owned in real life but painted gold. If they won, Dom would be sarcastically happy for them, if they lost, he’d unleash his inner bastard. The games featured commentators in the form of games journalists (all from the same publishing house apparently), the most famous of which was bandana loving Dave Perry. Apparently, the egotistical and mouthy Dom really hated the equally egotistical Perry and it showed, with Perry being eventually phased out along with just about every game journalist who appeared on the show.
There were many revamps in the show’s history, with one disastrous series fronted by Dexter Fletcher. Eventually, Dom came back with an even more vile pseudo-bastard personality but it wasn’t the same. Patrick Moore was still there to the very end, as the show concentrated mostly on the challenges issued by his talking head segments. Without the support of the games journalists, the in-house audience and a majority of the content now shifted to the spin-off magazine, all the show had left was Patrick, Dom and Dom’s ego. The show became edgier (even going so far as making a late night episode dedicated to controversial titles like Doom and Night Trap[/]), but it was clear nobody cared anymore since games magazines were offering demo discs and trailers by this point. No longer was there a need to wait for the show to come on and give you the visual game content. [i]GamesMaster was unique and popular since it didn’t really have people talking down to the kids and had the opinions of real journalists (a pre-podcast idea that still resonates today).
GAMES WORLD (the 1993-1995 era since I stopped watching after a while)
Not content with missing out on GamesMaster’s popularity, satellite channel Sky One opted to get in on the ratings with their own Games World. It was a mess to watch despite a decent audience share. Sky didn’t really understand games at all, so they adopted GamesMaster’s challenges (oh look, it’s Dave Perry again), downsized the journalistic aspects and put Bob Mills in as a presenter. Bob Mills was a likeable guy who used to present a late night TV show called In Bed With Me Dinner; a series where he’d find old documentary footage in ITV’s archives and then riff on them. While was good at poking fun at the self-importance of media types, he wasn’t really a gamer (he was far too old for a start). The only thing he could do was treat the whole thing like a cheesy daytime TV game show, complete with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
Somehow, it produced an obscure non-entity celeb in the form of Big Boy Barry. He was a ‘Sega Champion’...whatever the hell that is. He ended up on a few ITV programmes that featured some kind of gaming and was virtually unbeatable; probably because I suspect he was really a games journalist who had access to all the games before filming, thus rightfully trouncing all child noobs. Correct me if I’m wrong though. Still, the sight of fat 20-something windbag absolutely crushing a 10 year old child naive ability to navigate Sonic The Hedgehog's harder levels was an endearing image to behold.
Sky didn’t really have access to the kind of PR Channel 4 must have acquired, so it was all about the challenges. At one point, viewers could call in and play specially created games with a touch-tone phone. I never saw the appeal of these games and they always reeked of a phone scam. Usually they were fast paced games that required the player to control a character avoidding obstacles on screen. The tone recognition was awful and you could hear viewers frantically hit the keypad as the character failed to move and die. I suspect there wasn't any sort of tone recognition software back then; just a guy trying to figure which number the player pressed from the various tones on the keypad.
‘Aw sorry Big Boy Barry, you died and you didn’t win anything. Thanks for playing.’
This kind of scam featured on Saturday morning shows like Live and Kicking and What’s Up Doc? and yet they proved bizarrely popular. Probably because parents hated the idea of kids playing games in the morning and subsequently banned Sega/Nintendo playing time. But I guess they didn't mind playing a game on TV, because it would keep the kids quiet for a while. God knows how much the phone costs were, but I know you got charged even if they didn't pick you. If they did, you had to hold on that line for a while. Ker-ching, huh?
Games World eventually changed formats and reduced its production cycle (it was originally on 5 days a week). Personally, I hated it because it was a prime example of a TV network unsure of what they were doing. I mean at one point there was a Carry On-esque strip poker session every Friday. What the hell did that have to do with gaming?!
Come back soon-ish for Part 2, when talk about how games shows moved to later time slots and eschewed ‘the kids’ in favour of being creative and almost Gonzo-like in their approach to journalism. Be warned, I will be talking about BITS and Consolevania like they were the greatest things ever created...ever. It’s not pretty. In the meantime, enjoy this piece on the evolution of games and videogame TV shows by the God-like genius that is Charlie Brooker.