If I have to watch another reality TV show ever again I’ll probably end up tearing my eyes out much like Sam Neill in Event Horizon (haven’t seen it yet? Tis one for the family..). There’s no getting away from it, television these days is awful but back in Nineties Britain it was far, far worse. Especially being a poor kid limited to four measly channels, constantly baited by my Simpsons-watching, Sky-loving “chums”. I’d go home after school, watch CBBC or CITV until Neighbours came on at half five and after that finished? Nothing. From 6pm onwards television appeared to do a Back to the Future (when Marty goes back to 1955), completely lacking anything for kids to watch bar the amazing Crystal Maze (see what I did there?). And then there was GamesMaster.
The music from the opening sequence still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I had missed the first episode (probably due to playing Galaxy Force too much) but the playground ensured that I didn’t miss the second! Come the Monday morning there was talk of only one program, “Dylan, did you see GamesMaster?”, “Games what now?”, “GamesMaster! You are laaaaaaaaaame!” – or similar type conversations carried on during the day. The first ever program on British telly about computer games and I missed it.
GamesMaster (the show) ran for seven series, from 1992 to 1998, but I believe its golden era existed from 1992 to 1995 (Dexter Fletcher nonsense aside – more on that later) which just so happens to coincide with the 16-bit era. Created by Jane Hewland for her company Hewland International in response to her son’s love of video games (thank you Master Hewland), GamesMaster combined reviews, tips n cheats, and challenges all in one lovely 25-minute pot. Waiting around for next week’s episode was pure torture! How on earth did it work? Let me explain.
As some of you may know, I was an avid Sega Power reader, to the point where all other non-Sega consoles blurred into one mystifying non-entity. I had picked up the occasional CVG, but, and sorry fellas, it just wasn’t good enough to hold my attention. GamesMaster covered everything relevant at the time which was no mean feat, given you had the 8-bit/16-bit consoles along with PC and Amiga games. The first challenge on the show featured Super Mario Bros 3 and subsequent episodes other NES titles such as Duck Tales and Megaman 2. For someone who couldn’t own a NES, this was the next best thing and I used to gaze in wonder at what the other 8-bit console could do. The show, in essence, was a games magazine that numerous writers from Sega Power and similar would appear on, either commentating or reviewing. As Dominik Diamond once put it, “for those of you too cheap to buy a magazine” – hang on mate, I was only 10 and pocket money was a bit harder to come by!
Ah, Senor Diamond. The concept seemed strange at the time but retrospectively worked really well. The gothic church, theme music, scary looking Sir Patrick Moore (R.I.P) seemed off to a juvenile self. All this being pulled together by a fresh-faced Scot, despite all the challengers coming from London, just seemed plain weird. Given that a lot of games at the time featured dungeons, dragons and the like, the gothic theme made sense.
What also made sense was combining magazine reviews spoken by its reviewers in the short (but sweet) review sections. When GamesMaster first started out, all the reviewers were journalists and this worked well. What did not work was asking children to contribute. I can safely say that young viewers looked up more to the experts rather than snot-nosed rich kids resembling deer caught in headlights.
The Consoletation (still loving the play on words) section featuring those massive Virtual Reality headsets brings back fond memories. Sir Patrick delivered every tip and cheat with such conviction, you’d forget that he actually hadn’t anything to do with video games. I’ll be honest, the section didn’t help me personally and Zelda was on there a bit too much for my liking. But having said that, it was still a great watch, especially when he’d reduce kids younger than me almost to tears. Yes indeed, that kid should have gotten past the second stage of Spiderman by now, he needs to put in more hours… And what on earth was Kevin Keegan doing on there! Okay, it was to plug the undesirable Kevin Keegan Player Manager and was in the endorsement-laden third series, but I enjoyed it anyway. And thanks for pointing out the secret room in Zool where all the gems spelt out “GAMESMASTER”.
In addition to console-deprived kids such as myself, the “features” section brought many developments to the fore that hardly anyone saw coming. It was the first time we’d seen the Chaos Engine, Sonic 2 and the naff “Workboy” to name but three. The end of the first series featured a snippet on the upcoming Super Nintendo. It’s this accessibility that established GamesMaster as the leader in its field, although an honourable mention goes to “Bad Influence” which was one of many rival shows GM spawned. Although Violet Berlin had her own character on Micro Machines 2, I don’t see any other shows having their own special rooms in games or levels designed for their challenges.
Which brings me nicely to the “meat” (or “nut loaf” if you’re a vegetarian) of GamesMaster – the challenges. 60% of the show is based around them and despite the dullness of a lot of the competitors (where on earth did they get some of these guys from!), they’re enthralling to watch. And who didn’t want one of those golden joysticks! In retrospect I feel a bit sorry for the dad who whooped his kid at something or other, and then got disqualified for being too old. But this is evolution from the producers who realised that more kids were watching than the demographic had suggested. Dominik Diamond’s innuendos continued though, challengers being advised to “waggle their joystick a bit more”. This even filtered its way through to Jet from the Gladiators who remarked, and I quote, “the finger power just wasn’t there” followed by a big smirk. I’m pretty sure during a section on Speedball 2, the commentator refers to the action as “beating the s**t out of each other” and Mick Brown did a “wanker” sign before his grudge match with Pat Sharp, which I’m sure he’ll deny.
In addition to Kevin Keegan and aforementioned celebs, GamesMaster featured a celebrity challenge every week. And despite Channel 4’s apparently pithy budget, most of the guests they invited were relevant to UK popular culture at the time. Whilst the first season featured celebs like Pat & Mick, John Fashanu and Eric Bristow, the second season kicked it up a notch with the Gladiators (I’m still not over the Jet thing), Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Take That when they were at the height of their fame. The first season also saw Archer MacLean completely dismantle a bemused competitor on his own snooker game named after Jimmy White who was commentating. There are landmark televisual moments and then there’s that. The list goes on, with a lot of it (admittedly) contributing to my libido: Jet; Annabel Croft; Cathy Dennis; Ulrika Jonsson; Dani Behr and East 17, although the boys from Walthamstow didn’t really do it for me. Another surprise for young Dylan, adult celebs can actually play computer games! Most of them put up a decent fight (if they didn’t win) apart from poor Emlyn Hughes who clearly hadn’t read the pre-show brief “Practise Emlyn, please practise, just a little bit” and was subsequently trounced 5-0 or something at what might have been his own game.
Using a radically different set every series was another masterstroke. The beginning of the second series started as the first has finished. For about thirty seconds. I honestly thought there was something wrong with my TV, especially when the picture of sheep appeared with the “normal transmission will be resumed” banner at its foot. Cue new opening sequence introducing the Holiday Oil Rig and that ludicrous red blazer. I must ask Dominik if he’s still got it… The format of the show never really changed, it didn’t need to, as long as the content was fresh and relevant. What was not relevant, was Dexter Fletcher.
The Oil Rig was trashed at the end of series two and series three began with a shouty Fletcher hinting that our beloved DD had perished in the fire. I don’t remember much of series three, probably due to the stress that DexFletch on me and seemingly everyone he came into contact with. Whereas Big Dom (let’s see how many nicknames I can come up with for him) was calmness personified, D.Fletch was Taz Mania in comparison. It didn’t work, and I’ve never truly forgiven McDonalds for this. All parties resolved their issues and the Dom-bot thankfully returned in series 4’s “Hell” set, clearly pissed off at being “killed” and with sarcasm equaliser turned up to 11.
Other personal highlights include: the sporadic features about the mythical 24-bit monster the Neo Geo; Robbie Williams acting like a twat when he beat the other members of TT; the appearances of the lovely Jane Goldman (damn you Ross!); being able to hear what Dave Perry sounds like (after reading about a million of his reviews); the Mortal Kombat episode (one of the few good things about series 3); and Vinnie Jones kicking Andy Townsend’s backside (not literally, alas).
The first and the greatest, GamesMaster will never be bettered by any of the shows that it has spawned. Tis a shame that GamesMaster didn’t run longer. But it’s no wonder that in a world where video games are becoming more serious and life-like, a show that once embodied everything charismatic and fun about video games ceases to exist.
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