This week’s forgotten game is a very, very special one. If you grew up in the early 90’s, as I did, then the show Nick Arcade should be more than familiar to you. It was GUTS for nonathletic kids, it was a huge marketing ploy for certain video game developers, and it had what — at the time — seemed like the coolest final challenge on television.
If you remember Nick Arcade, prepare for a trip down memory lane. If you don’t, prepare to see what you’ve been missing. Also, if nothing else, you can hit the jump and see a couple of videos of some of the stupidest contestants the show has ever had.
Two teams of two players each compete in a head-to-head trivia battle for the chance to win a grand prize that was always, without fail, a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando. Each episode began by introducing which of the three “Wizards” (evil bosses) the players would face at the end of the game. As the above video shows, those Wizards were Mongo (evidently, the writers were big Blazing Saddles fans), Merlock, and Scorchia. The ultimate goal was to answer questions and play games so that your team would make it to the final, fully interactive Video Zone. After making it there, you’d have to play through two short minigames before facing the final boss and winning the Orlando trip.
Most of the game took place on a game board divided up into grids, each with a different question or activity on it. The host, Phil Moore (whom I cannot find a reasonably sized picture of) started the game with a face-off round, where the two teams would compete against one another in one of eight custom-made video games developed by Psygnosis, the team that created Lemmings. The games basically boiled down to either shooting stuff (Meteoroids, Laser Surgeon), or dodging stuff (Post-Haste, Jet Jocks, Crater Rangers), or playing a Pong ripoff (Brainstorm, Battle of the Bands, Star Defenders).
The games, while primitive, were truly functioning and had better-than-average graphics considering the time period. I always wondered why Nickelodeon never released a package combining all eight minigames for the general consumer: the games were definitely playable, and the fanbase was large enough to make such a decision financially viable.
Anyway, after the initial face-off, the winning team got control of “Mikey, the video game adventurer,” and therefore control of the game board. Why the producers thought it was necessary to create a silent, personality-less character for the game board remains confusing even now. He served only to mark the player’s progression on the board, and never did anything else. In the realm of game show mascots, Mikey may be the single most useless one ever concieved (second only to The Whammy).
As mentioned earlier, each space on the board consisted of what Phil Moore frequently referred to as “The Four P’s”: points (automatically awarded points), puzzles (such as “Video Repairman,” wherein the contestant had to watch a scrambled music video and identify the artist), pop quizzes (trivia), and prizes (automatically awarded prizes). And, technically, Video Challenges, but evidently Phil Moore had no way of rephrasing the word “video” so it could start with a P.
The Four P’s were kind of cool, but for a video game fan in the 90’s, the Video Challenges were the real meat of the show. Each episode consisted of five different arcade-style video games with a score counter. After gaining access to the video challenge, the team chose which game they wanted to play. Each game came with an “Wizard’s Challenge” (later re-named “Expert’s Challenge” to avoid lawsuit from the Fred Savage movie), which consisted of a high score that the player had to beat within thirty seconds. One team member played the game while the other used a Magna Doodle (remember those?) to wager a portion of their points.
The Video Challenges used every home video game system available at the time (NES, SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx, Neo-Geo), though the quality of the available games was wildly inconsistent. Some episodes featured Sonic the Hedgehog and Monster in My Pocket, while others used Rockin’ Kats and Gun-Nac. The video challenges were more or less a Russian Roulette game of suck; sometimes the contestants had five awesome games to play, and sometimes the only halfway-decent title was The Addams Family for the SNES. The producers didn’t care, of course, because they were getting a metric assload of money from the game companies for featuring their titles. As entertaining as Nick Arcade was, it has since become readily apparent that the entire series amounted to nothing more than a huge circle-jerk between the Nickelodeon and the game companies.
Alternating between the Four P’s and the Video Challenges, the game would proceed until one of the teams successfully managed to move Mikey to the last square on the board. There was just one problem, however: this never f*cking happened. Not once, in the years I spent watching this show and its reruns, did I ever see a single team manage to move Mikey to the last square on the board. The board was too big, the show too short, and the questions too long. It was more or less physically impossible to make it to the end of that damn board before time ran out. Instead, Phil would always ask one final pop quiz question, and whichever team answered it correctly would immediately get the goal points.
The game board format was repeated for a second round, and the team with the most points moved onto the single coolest part of the show: the Video Zone.
Before explaining what the video zone actually is, it is necessary to describe what it felt like for a preteen in the 90’s.
After returning from commercial break, Phil and the kids are found standing in front of a huge, metallic-looking door with smoke eeking through the crack in the middle. After a recap of the prizes they have won and have the potential to win, Phil gives the kids a few words of encouragement. The doors open, and the kids run into the smoky darkness. A few seconds later, Phil walks over to a TV screen and we see that one of the kids is not just playing another Psygnosis-developed video game, but is, in this case, inside the video game: the actual kid is standing in a 16 bit world of enemy snakes and powerup coins. Each level consisted of three special things you had to activate or collect in order to proceed to the next section, whether it was magic gems or electronic panels that had to be turned off, or three elves you had to knock over with snowballs. After two solo levels (each team member competed on his own), the two members came together for the Wizard fight, which again required the team members to collect three special items (in this case, power orbs) that would ultimately destroy the Wizard.
Of course, as awesome-looking as the Video Zone looked to a child (it was the nerdy equivalent of the Aggro-Crag on GUTS), it literally amounted to nothing more than a couple of kids running around on a blue screen. As a kid, I used to wonder why the kids always seemed totally unaware of their surroundings: only now do I understand that they could only understand their position in the level by looking at a TV monitor and moving accordingly.
In much the same way that players never, ever reached the goal on the game board, few if any teams ever successfully finished all three Video Zone levels and defeated the Wizard, due mostly in part to the structure of the Video Zone itself. Each team had only 60 seconds to complete all three levels, without the opportunity to gain more time.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem were it not for the fact that many of the games, such as the Nile River Raft, were “on rails” and could literally not be completed within 20 seconds, or sometimes even 30 seconds. The contestant would have to sit and wait patiently for the necessary item to show up, instead of simply being able to go after it themselves (as was the case with some of the other games). By the time the players managed to complete the first two levels, they’d arrive at the Wizard level with only five seconds left — and the Wizard level took about three seconds just to boot up. The game’s unfairness never seemed to faze Phil Moore, however: as you’ll soon see, he always remained absurdly encouraging no matter how horrendously the players performed.
I do remember a few contestants beating the Wizard, but such occasions were very, very rare, and cause for personal celebration. Considering Nickelodeon wanted to make the Video Zone the most inhumanly unfair final challenge ever put on a game show, it was always fantastic to see an insanely lucky team finally defeat Mongo and win their Florida trip.
Oh, and here are two videos of some really lousy contestants.
Why it got cancelled:
According to Phil Moore’s Wikipedia entry, which is far too complimentary and detailed to have been written by anyone other than Phil Moore himself, the show’s cancellation came about due to a combination of lackluster ratings and some behind-the-scenes intrigue.
Moore was also a frequent guest judge on Figure it Out, another Nick game show that basically functioned as an overblown round of twenty questions. Kid contestants would come on with a special talent or attribute, and if the panel of five or six “celebrity” judges couldn’t guess what that talent was, then the kid won an all-expenses-paid vacation to Universal Studios or something.
According to Moore, who has a face that cannot lie under any circumstances, Nickelodeon was irritated that Moore frequently failed to correctly guess the hidden talents of the kids, and that as a result the show lost a lot of money due to his involvement. The show asked Moore to personally reimburse the show for some of the money it had lost, and when he refused, his contract was terminated and Nick Arcade was cancelled.
Now, is that story true? Maybe, maybe not. It seems illogical, first of all — if there are six celebrity judges on every game of Figure it Out, why would you only blame one? On the other hand, he is black, and Nickelodeon is known for nothing if not its virulent racism.
Either way, though, the show got cancelled and faded into relative obscurity. Its repeats still run on the Nickelodeon Games and Sports channel alongside one of the other great forgotten game shows of its time, Legends of the Hidden Temple.
All in all, they should seriously bring this show back: Phil Moore was a pretty cool host (even though, as a black man, he still somehow managed to out-white Wayne Brady), and the show itself was a hell of a lot of fun. As a child it was more or less my dream to be on Nick Arcade. Now that I’ve reached something approaching adulthood, I still can’t unequivocally say that it’s not my dream anymore.