Wednesday, April 21, 2010
A while ago I participated in the SelectButton podcast on videogame depictions in television – and it was mentioned that in the US they had very little experience with televised videogame shows. Videopower was mentioned, but there wasn’t much else. The UK in contrast had 7 seasons of Games Master for a total of 126 episodes, 4 seasons of Games World for a total of 800 episodes, plus shows like BITS, Bad Influence!, Movies, Games and Videos, plus at least half-a-dozen others which I can’t remember the names of.
British TV was at one time saturated with televised videogames. Of the first two, Games Master was broadcast on national TV at a prime time (around 6pm I think), and Games World on satellite TV, and both focused on competitive play between individuals. Imagine the serious Japanese arcade tournaments you hear about mixed with the camp extravagance of a show like Gladiators. The trophy you see above is mine, from when I ranked as a weekly champion on Games World season 4, and this is my story. At the end I make an appeal for anyone who has a video cassette with a recording of my victory – I will pay for a copy of this!
Violet Berlin from Bad Influence.
Before I describe my own experiences, I want to point out that despite the kitsch décor on some shows, they were at times very good. One episode of Games Master had taken Japan’s national Virtua Fighter champion, flown him to the UK, and pitted him against 100 British hopefuls. Most were awful players, young children, or both. But still, he won 100 consecutive matches and it made for fascinating viewing. Really astounding stuff.
Another time they had Martin Mathers, former editor of N*Revolution magazine, currently working for Future Publishing, playing through Virtua Cop on one credit. Other videogame-based shows also featured reviews, previews, hints and tips, behind-the-scenes features, and some really cool (idiotic) stuff. One even had a section where you needed to record the show because in the middle they’d broadcast text-pages of the latest news, where you’d had to then pause the tape afterwards to read them (remember, this was all before the internet).
Diane Youdale, the Games Mistress from Games Master, helping young men with their joystick problems.
While such shows have long since died out, and will probably never return, there’s a satisfaction from being a part of that era and having seen these productions. For all their flaws, and there are many, they were entertaining and they at least existed, exposing the mainstream public to the world of games. A brief history is here.
Games World also had a spin-off magazine
The following events occurred way back, probably in 1998, so my memory is hazy at best and a lot of facts are probably made up.
Reading through a videogame magazine of the time (possibly N64 Magazine) I found an advert requesting contestants for the latest series of Games World. I’d seen it a lot before and knew the routine and so, like any game-playing teenager at that age, desperately wanted to participate. I recall you either had to write in or phone and request an application from, after which they invited you to an audition.
The form asked ridiculous questions like who would you NOT want to be stuck in an elevator with (a Pokémon fan), which celebrity would you like to date (Anniston), do you have any distinguishing marks (the mark of a world leader), and so on.
It also asked you to list three gaming achievements. I couldn’t think of any particular high-scores I’d achieved, so I quoted my Super Metroid speed-run time (about 4 hours), the fact I’d collected 100% of everything in Final Fantasy 7 (oh god, why am I admitting that when I hate the game?), and I forgot the last thing – maybe my highest score on Axelay or some other SNES shmup.
The entry bar wasn’t very high because despite writing complete rubbish for every answer I was still called in.
The audition took place in Soho, London England, some weeks later. The drive was long, parking difficult to find, and the city generally grimy. I don’t remember the walk over there, but it was down some alley and into a courtyard and then through a half-hidden door and up some stairs into what looked like a converted apartment. It was a little shady. Once inside we sat in a waiting room enjoying free hot beverages while I listened to two men in their 20s lamenting the slow death of the Sega Saturn.
Soon I was ushered into the gaming room and was given a short interview. Some woman in a suit asked me questions about my form: “So it says that besides videogames you like anime and manga – what is anime and manga?” I would have assumed that anyone with an understanding of videogames would have an understanding of Japanese animated films and comics, but this woman didn’t have a clue about any of the above. I think she was mainly vetting the applicants to remove anyone who could embarrass the TV company.
Next I was moved over to a TV where guy was running a PlayStation. First up was Gran Tourism: “This has only just come out in Japan, so you probably haven’t heard of it.” – I actually had a chipped system and imported quite extensively, but I didn’t have the courage to cut him to down to size verbally, mainly since he appeared to be like 7ft tall. I played the night-time stage and did reasonably well – at least I didn’t crash too much.
Next up was Street Fighter Ex, me playing as Dhalsim and him as... I forget. I think I won both rounds, but he wasn’t exactly trying. I forget if we played anything else, but we chatted about games and was then told that if successful they’d call me. After the audition my family went to Yo! Sushi and ate from those little plates on conveyor belts. Overall a good day.
Some time later I got a call requesting I go on the show, which works like this: five episodes were broadcast Monday to Friday, with an omnibus on Saturday morning, on Sky Satellite TV. The first four episodes are knock-out rounds, eliminating people until one is left. This season of the show had a weird Aztec theme to it (part 2), where you’d sit on polystyrene chairs made to look like stone, and then they’d call your name out along with the game you’re playing on. Later they’d edit it so that it appeared as if a small dog had run on to the stage with a bone in his mouth, and the announcer would pick it up and inside would be the contestant and his challenge. I never saw the dog on stage once.
Long before this you’re actually told what you’ll be playing, and you have about 30 minutes to practice on said game – since it doesn’t make good viewing for people to play hopelessly badly. We all sat in the games room with a TV each and a copy of our respective games. When called up you have a chance to spout some posturing nonsense (one guy did a velociraptor impression, which was pretty funny), trash-talk your opponent, and generally play up to the crowd for laughs.
In the final weekly episode the surviving player goes up against two of Games World’s “Videater” champions – basically a Video Gladiator. Each of them has some wacky set-up, from Secret Agent to Kung Fu Master to overweight genius Big Boy Barry.
Big Boy Barry now works in videogame PR.
Actually, Martin Mathers was at one point a videater on Games World, before becoming a games journalist and editor. In this final round the champion plays a scoring game to win currency, then bets this on the two rounds against videaters in an attempt to score high enough to be placed on the leaderboard. At the season’s end, the top five duke it out for prizes.
The first time I went on the show I actually lost. The first round I had to collect a certain amount of coins in Mario 64, which was easy. It was all score challenges. Another guy had Skull Monkeys, Einhander, Raystorm, and other games which I forget.
Round 2 was the beat-em-up stage, two lots of 2 Vs 2, then a loser’s match to knock em down to three. I lost on Soul Blade and then Virtua Fighter, since beat-em-ups are not my thing. Then it was a racing round (Snowbro Kids), then more score challenges for an intense one-on-one round four.
My problem then, and now, is that in competitive play I get a serious case of the yips and freak out. At Retro Reunited I was winning 9-4 in Space War and ended up losing 6 games in a row because I went over the edge. PvP competition is not good for my nerves. After losing on Games World, two half-naked bodybuilders pick you up and throw you into a giant Aztec pit. It’s actually 2ft deep and filled with crash mats, but they do fancy things with lighting and smoke to make the crowd cheer.
That was it, except that two weeks before the grand final the TV company wanted a week-long tournament featuring people who climbed out of the pit – a second chance set of episodes. They obviously liked my absurd style (oh god, the nonsense which I said to the camera), so I was asked back. Which meant another long drive down to London, though I did get to skip school for that day, which was awesome (sorry chaps, down to London for filming, doncha know?).
Round 1 was again Mario 64, which proved to me they either wanted me to win, or they didn’t organise it very well. Beat-em-up round I played some kid at Star Wars Masters of the Teras Kasi and won easily.
Third round was a PS1 rally game (possibly Colin McRae), and my top time won out. Next it was me and this kid, who had ironically gone out in the first round when I was on last. So it was two old adversaries duking it out. First game was score-attack on Wave Race 64, which I was a demon at and had even been listed on N64 Magazine’s national high-score leaderboard for it.
An easy win. Next was... I honest to god forget what the second scoring game was. But the third stage (if there was one) of our head-to-head was that athletics game on the Sega Saturn.
I was beating him marginally and racked up a high score on my first three games, and then it was his turn. He was behind, but still had a chance if he aced the final javelin challenge. He freaked out at the last second and scored zero though, which put me in the final round.
In the final round everyone starts off on this home-coded Slapparama game, where you used a mouse-ball to slap the videators. Previous seasons of the show featured a homebrew game where you had to punch robotic insects in the face, and looked to be a lot more fun (I swear at one point they had a slapping game based on Spice Girls, but I can't find any internet evidence for this, so might be imagining it). After some technical difficulties with the mouse ball I earned a reasonable opening score, but not enough to put me on the leaderboard. First round was a fight against some guy on Tekken 2.
I knew I’d lose so bet only the minimum. I lost. Next was Parrapa the Rapper, a game I knew, but wasn’t an expert on. AND HERE IS WHERE I MADE MY MISTAKE. For some baffling reason, I did not bet all the coins I had. I didn’t want to end up with zero if I lost, to bet only 90% of them, or something. Which was stupid, because I had nothing to lose.
Well, on to the stage walks the Secret Agent videator, and we were told to fall around as if a giant bomb had gone off somewhere, to which the secret agent says something like: “Yes, I’ve just blown up London.” Or something like that. So we play Parrapa, and I decided to try showboating, and somehow I win. He plays badly. Like impossibly badly. Like badly in a way which no one would play unless they wanted to. But I win and am placed 5th on the leaderboard. Two Amazon-esque babes in bikinis hand me my trophy and kiss my cheek, and then I have to wait to see what score the champion on the final week would achieve. There was only one week left, so as long as he didn’t make it on to the leaderboard, I’d come back for the final week, where everyone wins some form of prize.
Turns out he made it on and I ended up ranked 6th out of a 150 – at least I think that’s what I was told. I was in the top 5, and then off the top 5. I often think that if I’d bet all my coins I would have had a higher final score and would have ranked 5th. But I can’t be sure since I never saw the final episode. I never had satellite and so never even saw the shows which I won. A friend of my fathers recorded some episodes, but he only managed to get the ones where I lost, since the ones where I won ended up appearing at some strange times due to Sky screwing around with the programming schedule. But! At least several kids at school had satellite and saw when I won, so I do know it was televised.
If anyone, by chance, has a video featuring the week where I went on and won, please post in the comments or email us. I’m not interested in the week where I lost, since I have that already, but there are PayPal funds waiting for anyone who can prove they have tapes of my victory.
Games Master in LA
Games World Season 3 (good explanation of how the series works)
World Season 4