In the mid eighties, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who had not played an arcade game at least once. Both of my parents would tell you that they did not like arcade games in the least, but they would also tell you that they both had played Pac-Man a few times and smiled while they played.
In my hometown, arcades really took off and became extremely popular. On weekends there was always a line to play the most popular games. If you wanted to play Dragons Lair on a Saturday afternoon, you had better get there early or else you would be standing in line to put you fifty cents in. Luckily I enjoyed pretty much all of the arcade games, so if what I really wanted to play was’n available, I was perfectly fine playing the diamonds in the rough such as Frontline, or Ladybug.
Soon, arcade fever took such a hold that kids began skipping school and going to the arcades during the week. My favorite arcade, Aladdins Castle soon started having an actual weekday curfew where you were not even allowed to enter the arcade on Monday through Friday during normal school hours if you were of school age.
Arcade mania truly swept the world in the mid eighties. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Space Invaders were everywhere. You may remember the famous Pac-Man Fever album from Buckner and Garcia, which was the epitome of just how crazy for arcades the world became. Kids were trying to find ways to keep the gaming fever going during the week days when they were not allowed to be in the arcades.
Ted Turners TBS cable channel was the first to jump on the arcade bandwagon with its hit TV show Starcade.
Starcade was the ultimate show for anyone who loved playing video games. Starcade showed two opponents, typically teenagers who were clearly familiar with their local arcades and all of the games in them, squaring off against each other in a couple of ways. First a series of two questions would be asked to the contestants, one question was simply a trivia question about a video game (what were the names of the ghosts in Pac-Man?), and the second question would often be a television screen playing a game and the contestant would have to name the game being played.
Points were given for answering correctly and after the two questions were asked, the player with the highest score would then get to choose an arcade game to play from the row of arcade games that were sitting on the main stage. There were usually 5 games on the stage to choose from and they were always the latest, greatest, and newest games in the arcade. Here is an example:
I’ll break into this article here for a quick story. I actually took it upon myself to send in a self addressed stamped envelope to Starcade to try to become a contestant. My parents knew nothing about it. As luck would have it, I was chosen to be a contestant on the show. I went out to the mailbox after school one day and there was this amazing gold envelope addressed to me from someone in California. I opened it and there was this letter in the envelope which read, “Congratulations! You have been chosen to be the next winning contestant on Starcade – The Ultimate Video Game Show. There are a few things we need for you to do in order to finalize your appearance on the show.” I was absolutely beside myself when I read this! My dreams had come true. I ran inside and showed the letter to my Mom, whom I thought would have been as amazing happy as I was. Nope. My dreams = 0, Reality = 1.
Mom let me know quickly that while my heart was set on being the next Starcade champion, that just was not going to happen. Why? Well neither of my parents could get the time off work to fly to California for two days. Airfare from home to California was way too expensive as well. My dreams were absolutely dashed and Mom could easily tell. The happy ending to my story is, Mom surprised me by taking me the next night to the mall where she gave me $20 in quarters and sent me to the arcade to go crazy. Afterwards we went for pizza and while eating she surprised me with four new video games for my home systems! That turned my frown upside down real quick!
Now once the contestant chose which game they wanted to play, they were given one minute to score as many points as they could and those points would be added to their total overall score. So for example, if the contestant had 200 points from answering questions, and they chose Popeye and really were horrible at it and only scored 300 points, then their new total overall show score would be 500.
After the first game playing round, the contestants would then go back to their podiums and be asked two more questions. The player with the highest overall score at that time would then get to choose another game to play and have those points added to their total score.
Finally the player with the highest score would then win some prizes and then get a shot to choose a final game to play. If they beat a certain score on that machine, they would then actually win a full sized arcade game for themselves!
There are some interesting facts about the show that set it apart. When the show opened you saw the contestants and the show host in this huge room filled with video games and the contestants would be playing them and the host would look like he was talking to them. The announcer would announce the show and then the contestants and the host would run into the studio. Quite a unique opening for any game show.
The contestants would be given 2 hours to play as many games as they wanted before the show they were on. The show had 3 hosts in it’s lifetime, but only two of them ever made it on television. The first host was said to not know enough about video games to be a great host. Who was this host? Take a look at him here:
Yes Alex Trebec shot the pilot for Starcade but was deemed unworthy of the arcade game world. Their loss and Jeopardys gain.
The contestants would actually be able to ask the show host for tips and tricks to play the games, and it turns out the host who stayed the longest, Geoff Edwards shown here:
He was a huge video game fan and actually had some world records on some games at that time. His advice would turn out to be valuable for many of the winning players.
Most people felt they would really kill if they got on the show, but you have to remember that getting far in the games was not the point. For example finishing game boards on Donkey Kong would not ensure you would win. The player who would spend their time just jumping barrels would score much higher than someone who completed the board in a minute.
Starcade lasted for 3 seasons and then, like the arcade scene it was based on, slowly faded from popularity and soon was cut from the TBS network. You can still catch some episodes on Youtube today. The easiest one to find is the Dragons Lair episode.