The Wackiest Kids Game Shows From Back In The Day
Now that we’ve all survived the nineties, it’s time to take a look back at the toughest, craziest, and weirdest kids’ game shows from the ’80s and ’90s, as well as two recent successors that carry on the tradition.
I’m Telling! (1987-1988)
If you were one of the weird kids who kept watching Saturday morning TV after the cartoons were done, you might’ve caught an episode or two of NBC’s “I’m Telling!” — which was universally described as “like ‘The Newlywed Game’ but with siblings.” That’s easily the creepiest pitch for a TV series ever made, but it could get even creepier when kids inadvertently revealed worrisome stuff about their home lives and their parents’ discipline. Fun fact: a young Paul Walker once appeared on the show with his sister Ashlie.
Fun House (1988-1991)
This show was Fox’s answer to “Double Dare”, with bigger sets, crazier challenges, and foxy identical twins. Infamously, “Fun House” also featured the Slop Machine, which introduced kids to an unpleasant new game show element: random chance. After host J.D. Roth pulled the lever, three out of four contests would be slime — oops, not slimed, somebody else owns that — slopped with horrible goo, thus “losing” a contest based on pure luck. That’s the fun of Fun House, kids: you have no control over your fate, a rudderless ship adrift in an ocean of uncertainty!
Putting a bucket on somebody’s head and shouting confusing instructions to them as they navigate an imaginary dungeon sounds like a fun thing to do (while drunk, maybe) but it was also the premise behind the cult British TV show “Knightmare“. Combining blue-screen effects with hand-drawn animation, CGI models, and scene-chewing overacting on the part of host Treguard, “Knightmare” challenged one British kid to don the “Helmet of Justice” while his or her teammates issued instructions and read out magical spells. It turned out this was a lot tougher than anyone expected, as out of 112 episodes only 8 teams successfully beat the game.
Nick Arcade (1992-93)
Some of the less gifted contestants on “Nick Arcade” may have been frustrating to the audience (seriously, who’s so bad at video games that they screw up the first level of Sonic the Hedgehog?) but that’s nothing to the level of frustration posed by the final rounds in the infamous “Video Zone”. Based on the same sort of chroma-key technology used by “Knightmare” and TV weathermen, the “Video Zone” differed in two major ways: instead of low-pressure systems it portrayed fire wizards, and instead of the help of your teammates or the experience of veteran newscasters with months of green-screen experience, it had kids who had been tossed into the situation with basically no time to practice. To add insult to injury, they had only two tiny TVs on either side of the set to let them see what they were actually doing.
Legends of The Hidden Temple (1993-1995)
Combining a few physical challenge portions with a laughably easy multiple-choice memory game, “Legends of the Hidden Temple” seems like it should have had more than just over a quarter of its episodes end with a win. That’s because people fail to take into account the baffling Temple Run and its randomly-appearing Temple Guards, who could and did scare contestants so much they would occasionally have to stop filming to console sobbing children. While a burly stagehand in a fake feathered Aztec mask may not seem so intimidating to us today, consider that these kids had been spending most of the day in a bizarre, high-stress environment before being shunted into a Styrofoam maze and given confusing instructions by a giant stone puppet. In that situation, some guy leaping out of a bunch of foam peanuts and taking away your chance to visit Busch Gardens could be pretty hard to take.
Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991-1995)
You wouldn’t expect a wholesome and funny PBS TV show to expose children to anything more stressful than near-toxic amounts of acapella music, but the final round of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” took what was once a simple geography and history quiz show and ramped it up to an insane test of athletic and intellectual skill. Kids had to place seven weirdly tall and awkward markers on the correct country on a giant unlabeled map, all within 45 seconds. Sounds doable? Sportswriter Jon Bois once compared it to the NFL Combine’s “shuttle run” drill, a test of rapid acceleration and agility, except that while the shuttle runner has much less time for the drill, the geography kid had to cover more distance, change direction more often, carry something about the same size as his or herself, and during all this correctly remember where, say, Namibia was. Also, don’t forget the game show awesome-ness of the doo-wop group Rockapella.
Finders Keepers (1987-1989)
Combining the dreary chore of hidden-image puzzles with the panicked frenzy of rooting through a crumbling house to find valuable objects, “Finders Keepers” was one of Nickelodeon’s few game show misfires. If a team successfully circled enough things on a telestrator, they got the chance to enter a giant prop house full of garbage and traps, searching through the collapsing rubble to find a hidden object that the host described with spoken clue, but if they found the wrong object, the prize money would automatically go to the other team. Despite not being particularly popular, the show produced a staggering 260 episodes during three seasons.
Nickelodeon GUTS (1992-1995)
Hosted by American comedian Mike O’Malley, “Nickelodeon GUTS” would have been an ordinary exhibition of standard athletic events except for one thing: bungee cords. Whether the cords were added to provide some measure of safety in the extreme events or in the hopes that it would make things more exciting, they mostly just proved to sling kids around in entirely random directions, turning a standard one-on-one game of basketball to a confused tangle of limbs and ropes. Nickelodeon later retooled the show as My Family’s Got GUTS, providing an entirely new way for your parents to embarrass you in front of your friends.
BBC’s haggis-flavored adventure game show “Raven” is considered by some to be the spiritual successor to “Knightmare” for one, it’s hosted by a ridiculous man with an amusing accent, and for another, it’s almost entirely impossible, owing to the difficulty of the physical challenge “Way of the Warrior”. Players swaddled in thick padding must waddle quickly through an assault course composed of dozens of tricky mechanical traps that either eliminate the “warrior” on touch or just knock him or her off the path, often into realistically cold and murky Scottish water. Over the course of 200 episodes, only four contestants have actually beaten the “Way of the Warrior”, and amazingly, none of them actually won the show afterwards — failing some other mental or physical challenge.
My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad (2008)
Not strictly a kids game show, but this single-season family-friendly sports show gets included just for the guaranteed emotional trauma it could inflict on the three kids on each show who would inevitably learn that their dad was provably NOT better than other dads. Most of the challenges fell to the dads, with the kids acting in a secondary role (the “My Dad Is Smarter” trivia round had the kids buzz in but their dads answer, “My Dad Is Stronger” had the dads swing their children into a massive dartboard, etc.) which turned out to take an unexpected physical toll: during the third episode, front-running dad Al Gaines began visibly struggling to roll balls up a hill, and by the end of the round he was rushed to an ambulance to treat a heart attack. No word on whether he got the consolation prize of an Xbox 360.