Throwback Thursday: Nick Arcade and Early Video Game TV

Who wants to watch someone else play video games?

In one of the first entries in this column, I wrote about Video and Arcade Top 10, Canada’s answer to Nick Arcade. Now, finally, it’s time to give that latter show its due.

I never saw as much of Nick Arcade as I did of Video and Arcade Top 10. I think it aired at an odd time on YTV, Canada’s cable channel for kids. But I was always excited to catch an episode and see Kids Like Me play some games on television, which was still a novelty at the time. Even more than Video and Arcade Top 10, though, watching Nick Arcade could be an exercise in frustration.

Set up like a traditional game show and hosted by Phil Moore, Nick Arcade pitted two teams of two against one another in a series of game-related contests. Each episode was structured around a custom-built video board game of sorts, with players maneuvering protagonist Mikey around a themed area and uncovering various challenges — these could be trivia questions, puzzles based on video footage, or prompts to actually play a video game.

The titles featured on the show were often Neo Geo arcade games, but also included some home consoles. Play segments were typically short and always involved players trying to beat a certain score within a time limit, meaning that the selection favored shoot-em-ups and other arcade-style games. Nick Arcade also featured some original games for the Face-Off segments, which determined who got to move Mikey.

Nick Arcade
Yes, that’s ‘N Sync member Joey Fatone.

But all of this was merely buildup to the real star of Nick Arcade — the Video Zone. The team which had the most points at the end of play got to advance to this segment, during which they faced off against a Game Wizard. Contestants had to navigate an obstacle course similar to those found on many Nickelodeon game shows of the time, but with a twist — they were being filmed on a green screen and had to look into a nearby monitor to see and avoid various game hazards and enemies. Watching at home, this could be an intensely frustrating experience, since it seemed like the contestants were total klutzes. Actually trying to carry out this bizarre balancing act, however, must have been magnitudes more infuriating.

Looking back, what strikes me about Nick Arcade is how overdesigned it was. The show had trivia questions, a video game board, and the weird “virtual reality” Video Zone to attract viewers, all seemingly because producers believed that nobody would want to watch kids actually play video games for more than a few seconds at a time. Video and Arcade Top 10, on the other hand, featured straight-up gameplay, breaking it up by having hosts discuss movies and music, drawing games into the pop culture of the time. Nick Arcade may have doubted that anyone would actually want to see video games being played on TV, but it was still an early step towards making them a major part of the youth culture of the 90s, and it’s still remembered fondly by many who watched it during its initial airing and its reruns throughout that decade.