Video games and TV just do not mix. Aside from a few brave attempts coming out of the UK, I’m yet to see a show about games that doesn’t come off as juvenile, stale and boring as hell.
There will always, however, be a soft spot in my heart for Starcade.
Running from 1982 to 1984, Starcade wasn’t a show about two nerds sitting in a trashy bedroom talking about how dope the latest game is, or how rad the latest game is. Nor was it broadcast live from Korea on the internet, watched by a tiny but hardcore niche of people.
Starcade was a genuine television event, the best of 1980’s game show programming wrapped firmly around the concept that two people playing arcade games against each other could somehow be entertaining TV.
Despite the often stilted presentation, the awkward contestants and nerdy subject matter, Starcade was a relative hit, at least in terms of longevity, surviving four pilots to enter into production in 1982 and last until 1984.
A big part of its appeal was its brevity. Contestants were limited to between 30-50 seconds of game time, meaning the action was constantly changing and mixing it up, the show never falling prey to gaming television’s two key pitfalls of there being either too much boring playtime or too much boring chit-chat.
It was presented as a gladiatorial bout between only two contestants (or sometimes two teams): the show was split into three rounds, and at the beginning of each round, a trivia question would be asked. The person first able to answer correctly then got to choose from one of five arcade games and post a score. The second contestant would then try and beat that score.
At the end of three rounds, the winner would get a shot at another game, and try to beat an average high score. If they managed that, they’d win a prize, like an arcade cabinet or sometimes even their very own personal robot.
What’s interesting about Starcade (aside from the fact many of the contestants weren’t actually that good at playing games) is how it survived three years (its first pilot was produced in 1981) despite a litany of changes to show, including going through four hosts and having the misfortune of airing around the time of the great American video game market crash (which ultimately led to the show’s demise).
Starcade aired nationally across the United States during its lifetime, and aside from regular programming featured a few special event episodes, each built around a single video game. Those titles were Dragon’s Lair, Cliff Hanger and the original Star Wars arcade game.
By the time it was wound up, Starcade had aired 133 full episodes (plus the four pilots). You can download a good number of them from this excellent article on the show, or you could trawl through YouTube for a great collection of highlights (mostly pulled from the show’s early-2000’s re-airing on G4).
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.
Top photo courtesy of Dragon’s Lair Project