RETRO REFLECTIONS: Nick Arcade

If you grew up watching Nick Arcade, odds are that you're a pretty cool adult now.

Nick Arcade
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“Behind this door is the video zone, a place between our world and the video dimension.”

A cherished gem from my childhood, I remember looking forward to Nick Arcade on weekend afternoons. Like many kids my age, I shared the dream of journeying to Nickelodeon Studios in nearby Orlando, Florida as a contestant and vanquishing the video wizards. That unfortunately never came to pass and they eventually moved the studio out to California. Forgetting about that for a moment though, I want to bring everyone to a simpler time in the early ‘90s when a creative team made an ambitious show that seemed light-years ahead, but embraced something like Starcade that came before it.

Developed by James Bethea (who would later work as an executive producer for UPN on shows like Star Trek: Voyager) and Karim Miteff, the original idea for the show was a more general version of Nick Arcade’s (stylized as Nickelodeon Arcade for much of the promotional material) final segment. The finished product, however, added a quiz show element mixed with video game challenges, and their new bluescreen technology that put contestants inside the video game world. It looks dumb now, but was incredible for the time. The program not only imposed someone onto a digitized background, but tricked the computer into registering the player’s body parts as a mouse or other device. This forced a rudimentary form of hit detection and is an obvious precursor to technology like the Sony EyeToy and Microsoft Kinect.

Two teams of two would play an opening game that was designed specifically for Nick Arcade, usually something simple in concept like a basic shooter (Meteroroids, Laser Surgeon), driving / walking game (Post-Haste, Jet Jocks, Crater Rangers), or Pong imitators (Brainstorm, Battle of the Bands, Star Defenders) that were re-skinned. Each of these were created on Amiga computers by Psygnosis (Alundra, Lemmings). For the time, these were good considering the hours probably put in. This opening challenge establishes who goes first, and now the real game begins.

“Hey, Andrea, where is Mikey floating to this time?’

Now contestants take control of Mikey, the Video Adventurer, a cartoon protagonist we don’t know much about, just that he has a girlfriend named Peggy and can’t move diagonally because he hates geometry. No really, it was a mechanics thing but that was the excuse they gave. Each episode saw Mikey traveling to a different world and being represented on a grid where he would journey in the four cardinal directions against a themed background.

These boards follow some general gaming themes like space, fantasy, pirates, and westerns with sillier names: Camelittle, Cape Cosmos, Creepyville, Forgotten Desert, Mikey’s Neighborhood, Pirate Cove, Slurpy Gulch, Specific Ocean, Time Portal, Volcano Jungle, and the We Got’em Mall. Each square on the board causes something to happen, but backtracking will create a Time Bomb square. The bad spaces result in an enemy stopping Mikey and the other team gaining control of him.

Cartoonish enemies like giant smooch aliens, a hammerhead shark, a dragon, or witch doctor felt a bit boring, but more characterization was given to Blackboard the Pirate, a local bully called Game Over, or a literal baby cowboy known as Silly the Kid. Each of these would need to be avoided to get to the goal, which was hard with the time limit and number of spaces.

Each square unlocks one of the four Ps: points, puzzles, pop quizzes, prizes, and of course the video challenges. A points square granted a free addition to the team’s score, pop quizzes were questions in some form, and prizes were items automatically granted to the team that landed on them, win or lose. It is so odd to me how many cameras, mountain bikes, and British Knights shoes were given away at that time across all of the Nickelodeon game shows, but I’m guessing they were ordered in bulk. There is a funny story about why the show gave away so many Space Camp packages to the winners, apparently because they accidentally ordered too many.

The puzzles for the show were usually video based, things like Credit Crawl, Fast Forward, Flash Frame, Hidden Camera, Hyper Channels, Instant Replay, Mixed Signals, Robot Vision, Split Screen, Video Text, Video Repairman, and What Was That, were all altered video clips that would move or adjust until a team could guess the answer. A majority of these clips were filmed in studio, but a good portion came from MTV, featuring several music artists.

The exciting part was the video challenge, though. The team that landed on this square would select one person to play the game while the other decided how many points of their total to risk. If the chosen player managed to beat the challenge on the selected game they would receive those points, but defeat resulted in losing that wagered score.

Bethea and his crew not only did all the animations but also created arcade cabinets for the video challenge portion of the show using 8 and 16-bit consoles like the NES, SNES, Genesis, TurboGrafx 16, and Neo Geo. These cabinets had two systems inside them, one left at a certain starting point in the game for the challenge and the other running a demo or attract mode to look good until it was needed. In most cases the original controllers were used for the games and I’m guilty of laughing at the kids who kept accidentally hitting pause. Bethea also supposedly kept one of the cabinets after the show ended as well, making me even more jealous of him.

Once a game was played, contestants were no longer able to select it from the row of cabinets. There were some great titles on the show, as I remember being exciting seeing kids play Battletoads, King of the Monsters, and Super Adventure Island. There were some that I’m still curious about, like El Viento, which appears in eleven episodes but was never picked. Nick Arcade also featured an early prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and they received an early copy of Star Fox 2 (which Behtea also kept according to Phil Moore) but never used it. I have to wonder if that game would have had a better chance to come out with that kind of exposure—probably not.

Once all of the squares have been explored, challenges beaten, and the goal reached (or time runs out and Mikey teleports to the goal, which happened more often), then it is time to send the winning team into the Video Zone to face to face that episode’s Video Game Wizard: Merlock, Scorchia, or Mongo. To the audience at home these players were now living the dream, fighting their way through jungles, alien moonbases, haunted museums, mines, or navigating snowball and food fights. Whether the contestant is riding a magic carpet and dodging genies or in a city avoiding UFO beams, there are a ton of random obstacles to avoid that take away from the health bar, and defeat means having to press the start button again as well as costing valuable time. The team only has so long to get through the first two levels and then the final boss encounter with one of the aforementioned wizards.

For the contestants though, they had the tough task of having to help bring that game world to life by running around on a blue background while trying to awkwardly pay attention to monitors that showed the action. This was made harder by the fact that many of the directions Phil was calling out were actually the opposite of his commands, so anyone who has trouble with their left or right will find it even harder to navigate. Seeing how it really worked killed the illusion a little, and I’m sure it wasn’t quite as fun for them either, but it used to look amazing.

Let’s be honest with each other and say that this last segment looks a bit goofy now, but not too much more than some of the Kinect games that are available. Nick Arcade was meant to be accessible to people who loved video games and those merely curious about them. I think it also worked for anyone who just liked this era of game shows as well, but what really sold it for many was the energetic host.

Phil Moore brought Nick Arcade to life by being genuinely excited in what he was doing and engaging with every part of each episode. A comedian prior to Nick Arcade, noticed while doing audience warmup for other Nickelodeon shows. The humor shines through in his responses, improvisations, and energy. Moore constantly came out in some of the wildest 90s appropriate shirts and even donning a Geordi LaForge visor at the beginning of one episode. The most memorable thing to me was how he would sing random lyrics to the incredibly catchy tune that Nick Arcade played in between segments, as well as doing funny voices. The improvised singing came about when there was a technical issue and Moore had to fill several long minutes keeping the audience entertained.

After Nick Arcade he hosted another show for Nickelodeon called You’re On and eventually moved to various networks to fill the same role, but transitioned into writing mostly and a few other behind-the-camera responsibilities. I wasn’t shocked to see he worked for G4 as he seems to genuinely love video games, but have to admit I wouldn’t have guessed he had done so much for HGTV and Style Network. In the end though, I don’t think Nick Arcade would have been nearly as memorable without its passionate master of ceremonies.

Most of the contestants were usually younger and began the show with Phil Moore stating an interesting tidbit about their interests or hobbies and what they want to be when they grow older. They impressed me with some of these answers, like knowing that Danny Glover is in Predator 2. I know we’ve all watched certain movies at a way-too-young age, but him knowing the name stuck out. There are times though that they also make me cry.

“What movie begins with these words appearing on the screen: a long time ago in a galaxy far far away?”

“Space Track?”

I always enjoyed the celebrity guest episodes, where members of the casts from various Nickelodeon shows like Clarissa Explains It All, Welcome Freshmen, and Salute Your Shorts appeared. There is also a surprise appearance from a young Joey Fatone long before his time in N’Sync, but his team failed to win.
Sorry, Joseph.

There was an unaired pilot episode to test the show that had a different host and a set that looked like it was from several cannibalized older game shows on the network. Neil Sherman, a Promotional Producer for Nickelodeon, took on the role of host and gave it a solid shot, but it is no surprise that he was replaced, for the better. The gaming cabinets looked very different too and notably featured an early prototype of the first Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. 3, which somehow the latter tragically never made it into an actual episode.

Nick Arcade was the first show in America to integrate live action and animation via bluescreen. It also helped bring video games closer to the masses and managed to make many memories for those who watched it. Being filmed in 1991 and airing in 1992, the show remains as an interesting time capsule of what video game shows could be with available technology. Though it only ran two seasons (84 episodes), Nick Arcade had enough staying power to last in reruns until 1997, mostly on Nickelodeon GaS (Games and Sports for kids).

I feel like there is a serious lack of game shows like this being released on physical media, because I would have bought these seasons on DVD in a heartbeat. Currently though, seasons one and two of Nick Arcade are available to purchase digitally on Amazon Prime for $5.99 a piece, and that is not a bad offer.

The original team did try to bring back the show with something called Enthlevel in the form of a crowdfunding campaign, but it was not successful. There was also supposedly an impromptu episode of Nick Arcade at SUPER BitCon 2016 where it was slightly resurrected for one day with host Phil Moore, but without the incredible Video Zone.

Looking back at Nick Arcade, I have to wonder why we don’t have something like it now. The show itself can’t and shouldn’t be reduplicated, but fans like myself want something. I know many are cynical about a show that highlights the video games of today, where kids would most likely play Call of Duty, Minecraft, or Fortnite on the show, but under the right team I do believe something good would happen. With half of Phil Moore’s passion, there could be a show that gives a chance for video games to shine on television again like they did with Nick Arcade.

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