The visage of one of television's elder statesmen, warped and distorted, greets a gamer and lays out a challenge. A Scottish presenter shares some pre-game jokes, while his co-hosts explain the game and hype up the crowd. Only success brings the coveted reward of a golden joystick. Gamers of a certain age will know exactly what this is – this is GamesMaster, the TV show that captivated British gamers between 1992 and 1998. Except it isn't, because GamesMaster is back for 2021, with the first episode going live on E4's YouTube channel tonight before it airs on the UK TV channel E4 this coming Wednesday. Trevor McDonald has succeeded the late Patrick Moore as the GamesMaster, with Rab Florence, Frankie Ward, and Ty Logan handling presenting duties on the ground.
Florence describes the revival as an “attempt to destroy the nostalgic memories of middle-aged men”. Ironically that displays a reverence for the original format – you could easily imagine former host Dominik Diamond saying exactly the same thing – and after watching the first episode, it's surprising just how little the format has actually changed, with a similar mix of studio challenges and outside features, as well as some more interesting reviews. But back in the Nineties, if you wanted to see a hot new console like the PlayStation or a grudge match on Mortal Kombat, you had very few alternatives to GamesMaster. Today we have a seemingly endless wealth of gaming content to watch online, from standard gameplay to technical analysis and special challenge runs. Does a format conceived nearly 30 years ago really have a place in the modern gaming environment?
The Golden Joystick
Florence, who has previously hosted Consolevania and VideoGaiden, doesn't see coexisting with Twitch and YouTube as a problem. “This is the weird thing, I'm not really into watching people play video games. I'm always wanting to grab the controller,” he says. “I think that these days, the audience is more attuned to watching people play video games than they ever were before. So it's a strange thing, maybe the format was actually a wee bit ahead of its time.”
But that's not the only thing that has changed, as streaming and social media have affected our behavior. “These days, there are so many people that are just TV-ready – they're ready for audiences, they know how to present themselves, they're super professional,” Florence continues. “Everybody talks about how funny Dominik was, and he was, but see that thing he did where he could handle uncooperative guests so well and make it work as TV? It was magic, so I remember thinking to myself, 'that's the main thing I've got to get right, when a guest comes on and they're nervous, and they're not saying anything.' And it didn't happen, you couldn't shut them up!”
For Ward, winner of Presenter of the Year at the 2018 UK Esports Awards, a lot of the appeal is in the stories being told. “Every challenge we have, there is a backstory, there is a contestant with some kind of history – I think that's a common theme with entertainment shows, you want to root for your Davids who are walking into that studio, regardless of whether you know the videogame or not.” She also highlights the breadth and variety of the show. “After a few minutes, the challenge is over. Even if the game doesn't appeal to you, hopefully, the contestants will, but regardless of whether they do or not you're going to move on to the next thing very quickly, and that's something that you don't get with Twitch or YouTube.”
Impressive gaming feats have always been part of the appeal of GamesMaster, as you'll know if you remember a Japanese gamer destroying 100 opponents on Virtua Fighter 3 or someone trying to play two arcade machines simultaneously, and that carries forward to today. The first episode sees Logan, best known for his Instagram comedy, visiting multiple world record holder Sam Tuff to check out his Beat Saber prowess. “He's something else, he's almost like a robot – he can't be real,” he tells us. To put it into context, a number of other players are shown trying the same song and most of them don't even reach ten seconds.
“I want people to try doing the challenges – they might watch it, see the challenge and think you know what, let me give it a go,” Logan enthuses. “Hopefully people will tag us or tag the show and say 'look, I complete the challenge!'” In that spirit, he even jumped into the action himself. “In one episode, I even ended up going against one of the contestants. Even though I'd never met the person before, it was like he was one of my friends and I was just getting on with him and having a really good time,” he recalls. “There was a lot of trash-talking going on,” adds Florence. As for whether Logan fared better than Dave Perry in his infamous Super Mario 64 moment, you'll just have to wait and see.
So ultimately, who is GamesMaster for in 2021? Everyone, according to the presenters. “If you can appeal to people's sense of nostalgia while also including their next generation of people that they're bringing along, I think that's always nice,” says Florence. “There will be a lot of cases, I think, where somebody my age who remembers GamesMaster when they were a kid will watch with their teenage kid or 12-year-old kid and they'll know one of these streamers or content creators, and be able to explain that to their dad or their mum. I think it's great that there's that kind of cross-generational feel to it.”
And if Ward gets her way, that will carry past the show. “I want to see people discovering games through the challenges, getting those games or similar, and then having a jolly old Christmas where they all play games together,” she says. “That's one of my favorite things about Christmas.”
Catch the first episode of GamesMaster on the E4 YouTube channel from 7PM GMT / 2PM EST / 11AM PST today, or on the UK TV channel E4 at 10PM GMT on Wednesday, November 24.