?When you get down to it, most game shows are, at heart, exactly the same. Trivia questions, excitable crowds, hosts with bad hair, pain, humiliation. That’s why we need to appreciate the few that dared to do something different, even if this is the only time you ever hear about any of them. The average television viewer might have scoffed at a game show that contained, say, alien dragon creatures, but the memory of these innovative programs lives on in the hearts of cult-ish viewers everywhere. So what if some of them weren’t actually, you know, that good: you can’t fault these entries for ambition.
The shows on this list account for nerdiness in different ways: some have ornate and complicated rules, others involve time travel. Almost all of them were aimed at children, but they tended to be surprisingly difficult, and definitely made nerds out of quite a few of us. As you traipse your way through, try not to think about how more viewers are willing to watch D-level celebrities try to dance than some of these classics. Oh, and before you ask, Japanese game shows exist on a whole separate level of insanity, so for the sake of brevity, let’s just keep it to North American and British programs.
7) Legends of the Hidden Temple
For many, this 1993 mash-up of Indiana Jones and Discovery Zone needs no introduction. A giant talking foam head and the remarkably laid-back Kirk Fogg guide teams of kids through a series of games to determine who is worthy of entering the titular ancient ruin. Every stage had its own challenges: there was the chaotic crossing of the Temple Moat, the incredibly boring Steps of Knowledge, and the face-off events that could win a team an invaluable Pendant of Life. It all led up to the final run through the temple itself, a maze of tunnels, pits, and puzzle rooms, including the uber-creepy Dark Forest and the “Shriiiiine of the Silver Monkey.” For some reason, this last one seemed to take kids forever, and believe me, there are few things more frustrating to an 8-year-old than watching another 8-year-old fail to put three pieces of a statue together. Christ, don’t even get me started.
6) Who Wants to Be a Superhero?
Calm down, everybody. First of all, although it may be a “reality show”, it still belongs on this list. Secondly, remember we’re not grading on quality so much as the overall nerdiness of each show. With that as our guideline, we can’t not include this terrible but embarrassingly entertaining chunk of television history from 2006. I guarantee any one of the grown up Spider-fans who tuned in to support Uncle Stan could have come up with better superheroes than Fat Momma, Cell Phone Girl and the interminable Major Victory, who continues to make the internet that much more painful of a place to be. What’s more, the fact that these guys and gals were willing to shame themselves so much just to be featured in a comic book and a SciFi original movie has got to count for some sort of nerdy cred, right? Right? Oh, nevermind. Let’s move on.
5) Video Power and Nick Arcade (tie)
Here we have two quintessential examples of early ’90s gaming goodness. While not as infamous, Video Power was the earlier of the two, featuring a requisite obnoxious teenager host named Johnny Arcade. There were trivia questions, challenges, and the prestigious prize run, which sent each Velcro-clad constant through a maze lined with video games, including a special game that would win the lucky bastard something extra. Depending on the day of the week and whether or not it was a special tournament show, there might even be a Neo Geo in the mix. Score! Personally, I get a kick out of how Terry (the Randall Flag-esque announcer in the blue jacket) obviously knows little to nothing about Mega Man.
Nick Arcade was altogether different, and although there were legit video games on display here, the show was more dedicated to some executive’s abstract idea of what video games might be. Players moved a character named Mikey around a board for a couple of rounds before earning the right to move into the video zone to battle that episode’s evil video wizard (although one of them was actually a sorceress, but nevermind). The video zone itself was a green-screen setup that must have been phenomenally hard to interact with in real life, because it looked amazingly easy from home, even to a second-grader.
4) Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?
Oh, everyone remembers this show’s predecessor Where in the World?, and some even fondly recall the animated series Where on Earth?. But as far as I’m concerned, this is the nerdy Pavarotti of the Carmen Sandiego trio. From Lynne Thigpen’s glorious technobabble-laced opening speech, you knew you were in for something altogether different and (if you were a time-travel obsessed middle-schooler like myself) certainly more awesome.
The general format was much the same as World, except for the final round: instead of racing around a giant map like an asshole, contestants had to face the Trail of Time, a series of doors from different historical eras. Failure to answer each gate’s trivia question meant the player had to open it manually, which took time, but not necessarily enough to cost them the game. That is, if you were in good enough shape to do so, which, chances are, you weren’t.
3) The Crystal Maze
This show may have been a smash hit once, regularly scoring between 4-6 million viewers during its mid-’90s run, but its sorry lack of availability means it is beginning to fade from public memory. For shame! Players were led by original Riff Raff Richard O’Brien through the various zones of the Maze, which included a chemical plant, a sunken ship, an Aztec jungle, a Medieval castle and a computerized “futuristic” facility.
It’s a bit of a wonder this show was only an hour long: not only were there four different zones to compete in, each zone had four different types of games available (contestants were also required to travel between each zone upon completion, a mini-challenge in itself. If a player failed a game, they would become trapped, forcing the team to give up a crystal to set them free). These games earned the players crystals, which would then be used to buy time inside the final zone, known as the Crystal Dome. The object here? Collect floating gold tokens (but not silver tokens) and stuff them into a plastic box. 100 gold tokens won the game. The ultimate prize (“something completely…ordinary”) would be a weekend in the Alps or something similar, probably not nearly worth the trouble.
Eventually, O’Brien was replaced by Ed Tudor Pole, who had great costumes but tried a little too hard. Regardless, the fact that there are no DVDs of this is inexcusable. On the plus side, there is at least a neat iPhone app to fiddle with while we wait (and even rumor of a new series).
2) The Adventure Game
It may be somewhat awkward to watch, it may be chock-a-block with bad jokes and dated effects, but this long-running ’80s seriesremains one of the most creative game shows ever devised for television. Contestants took on the roles of space/time travelers trapped on the planet Arg, whose inhabitants were shape-shifting dragons “with a regrettable sense of humor.” In order to regain their ship’s stolen power crystal and escape, players had to solve various types of puzzles, many of which were mathematical in nature and quite challenging.
Case in point: the climactic “Vortex” game, in which players were challenged to walk across a gird suspended in space. Also on the grid was an invisible Vortex moved by another player: the Vortex could not move onto the contestant’s space, but if that contestant walked into it… they would vanish in an orgy of video effects and the smug-ass vortex controller would win. In addition, there were also more open-ended “room puzzles” which required players to think their way out of a situation.
Like many British shows, there were significant changes made for each season. New characters were introduced, including an Australian who spoke backwards and Arg’s plant ruler (operated by erstwhile R2-D2 Ken Baker!), who would give rewards if pleased. There’s a kind of gentleness here that you don’t see much, even on children’s TV, as if the competition doesn’t really matter — well, except when you’re dealing with the Vortex. I’m willing to bet that thing ended more than a few friendships.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty sure my childhood self would have stabbed someone to get on this show. Four awe-struck kids meet up with bug-eyed dungeon master Treguard in a castle-esque TV set. One dons a vision-obscuring helmet and enters a green-screen enhanced dungeon, while the other three watch on magical CCTV and give their friend commands to guide them. The rest is too amazing to describe in words, so I’ll let the clip do the talking; no wonder it ran from 1987-1994. Just keep in mind: as far as I know, there was no real prize for completing the quest, which few ever accomplished. For the true nerdling, Knightmare must be its own reward.