Videogame Nation: saluting a great UK gaming TV show

After a shaky start, Challenge TV's now-cancelled Videogame Nation grew into a pretty perfect gaming magazine TV show...

At 10.27 a.m. on the morning of Saturday 4th June 2016 gaming enthusiasts across the land screamed in a collective wail of distress as it was announced that the following week’s episode of Videogame Nation was to be its last ever.

For fans of theUK’s only weekly show devoted to games it was a hefty blow. Yet another television programme centred on the world of videogames was meeting its demise after 4 series and an impressive 106 episodes. The outpouring of disbelief across social media was immediate. Fans who felt that the show had finally landed on a fun, winning formula for gaming TV were doubly dismayed.

As emerged in the days following the announcement, Videogame Nation was a victim of circumstance. Challenge TV chose not to renew the series as it is moving to becoming a ‘game show only’ channel (what this means for the reruns of Fun House, Finders Keepers and Knightmare that used to follow Videogame Nation, I don’t know) and production company Ginx TV is also changing its output. It is possible that another channel may pick up Videogame Nation in time, and the protests its cancellation attracted will hopefully go some way to making that happen.

So what was it that made Videogame Nation work so well and created such a devoted following?

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The show premiered on Sunday 30th March 2014, though it’s fair to say that in its original incarnation it was, well, a bit rubbish. Fronted by two presenters who displayed only a passing interest in gaming at best and downright contempt for those viewers foolish enough to e-mail the show at worst, it looked cheap and was mostly awful. It seemed to make the cardinal sin of mocking those it was presumably hoping to attract as an audience and most thought it’d be consigned hastily to TV hell. Episodes were plagued with lists not celebrating the best in gaming but the worst in certain genres. Surely it was better to be recommending games to viewers rather than wasting their time with ‘The top 10 franchises that just need to die’?

All was not lost though. Lurking like a shining spectral presence on most of these early episodes was a weekly segment featuring comedian John Robertson of interactive gaming related, live show The Dark Room. Famed for his catchy greeting of “Hello television friends, hi-def, high-five” before slapping imaginary flesh with his audience, Robertson was really the only reason to watch the show at this time. His manic presenting style was highly enjoyable but above all else, John Robertson was a gamer and it showed.

The producers of Videogame Nation obviously thought so too, as in August, Robertson was the sole survivor of the tsunami which swept through the current version of the show. Wiped away was the condescension, the barely concealed scorn and left in place was a totally restructured show which got everything right that its previous incarnation had managed to get so wrong.

Anchoring Videogame Nation mark 2 was Dan Maher, former content co-ordinator for X-Box Live amongst other gaming websites. Maher was instantly likeable and, much like Robertson, his passion for gaming was very clear. The show’s new format opened with a Game of the Week feature in which Maher provided an in-depth review for a recently released title. Some games received better reviews than others but even when he was faced with a game that hadn’t come up to scratch, you always got the impression that Maher wanted it to be great and that he took no pleasure at all in finding the week’s chosen title a disappointment.

John Robertson would occasionally take over main presenting duty but more often than not he’d pop up in another of new formula’s mainstays which was to look back at titles of a similar vein to the Game of the Week in a portion that was always informative and even funnier when delivered by John. Gone were the Top Five Worst lists and instead we had a segment that was chock-full of life and celebration.

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Joining Maher and Robertson as the show’s third main presenter was Eurogamer’s Aoife Wilson. She’d present the main bulk of the show on occasion but could usually be found rounding it out with interesting features on gaming’s place in the world. When The Order: 1886 came under inspection, Wilson bookended the show with a lovely piece on London as a setting for games, a segment that was actually much better than The Order: 1886. Her slower and more laidback style sat well in contrast to Robertson’s high-speed manner.

When a game lent itself to it, the show would often conclude with a challenge between the three presenters, sometimes roping in one or two of the talking head gaming experts who’d appear most weeks. The challenges were one of the most fun aspects of Videogame Nation. Anyone expecting highly polished controller mastery was in for disappointment as the three would often shout and die repeatedly while completing a section of the week’s feature game, much in the same way many of us play at home. Perhaps the most memorable challenge was when the hosts played Alien: Isolation. A terrifying game at the best of times, it’s probably made considerably trickier by having someone dressed as a life-sized Xenomorph prodding you in the shoulder, as happened here.

Peppering each episode of the show would be the Videogame Nation talking heads who’d offer their opinion on a subject or question related to the theme of the week’s episode. Stand-outs among this revolving line up were the consistently funny Ellie Gibson from the Scummy Mummies podcast, Steve McNeil, who came with sky-high levels of good natured sarcasm, the fountain of gaming knowledge that is Kotaku’s Kezza McDonald and show producer Chris Bond’s lovely Scottish-toned observations. The dropping in of these titbits was another reason the show’s new format worked, as again every one of them seemed like they were genuinely excited to be talking about their subject.

Videogame Nation evolved over time into a perfect magazine show for gaming. It may sound clichéd but it became a show made by gamers for gamers. Moving the show to a Saturday morning and sandwiching it between TNA wrestling and Pat Sharp’s mullet probably helped too, but Videogame Nation attracted its following because it never talked down to its audience and it kept the programme quick and interesting. The range of games covered by the show was also quite wide reaching. Alongside tent-pole titles like Destiny, Uncharted and Street Fighter V, Videogame Nation also had episodes centred on much smaller games such as Firewatch, Life Is Strange (probably my favourite ever episode) and Kerbal Space Program as well as shows devoted to looking at Kickstarter’s influence on gaming and specials on E3 and other gaming events. Whatever kind of gamer you classed yourself as, Videogame Nation had something for you and it’s a massive shame that the show is no more.

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Of course, Videogame Nation is only the latest in a long line of gaming shows to feel the hangman’s noose around its joystick.

Undeniably the most famous gaming show in UK TV history is 90s Channel 4 offering GamesMaster. Presented by Dominik Diamond, a man with a name that sounded like he should have been a Super Mario villain, and a digitised Patrick Moore, GamesMaster exhibited many attributes that Videogame Nation would successfully emulate – a mixture of reviews, challenges and trivia, only with a truckload of joystick-is-penis jokes thrown in.

Coming off the back of the popularity of Sega’s Megadrive console and the likes of the Amiga, GamesMaster managed to last seven seasons between 1992 and 1998, suffering the axe before Sony got in on the act with PlayStation and the internet boom. Diamond oversaw six of the show’s runs, only sitting out the third series when Dexter Fletcher took a turn as host after, according to the show’s explanation, Diamond had allegedly burned to death in an oil rig fire at the end of season two. To get around this plot twist and bring back Diamond for the fourth season, the producers chose to set that series in hell before choosing heaven as the locale for season five followed by Atlantis, which had mermaids and a desert island.

GamesMaster certainly laid the way for any gaming show which has come since. The celebrity guest list reads like a who’s who of the 90s: The Shamen. Dani Behr. Let Loose! They were all here. It also gained credence from the gaming journalism world by using many established magazine reviewers to pass opinion on games on the show, though its most memorable moment is arguably not when a pre-pubescent Simon Amstell appeared in a challenge but when UK gaming champion Dave Perry threw a monumental strop after claiming he’d been “set up” during a Super Mario contest and remained sulking on camera whilst his victorious colleague frolicked with mermaids.

GamesMaster and Videogame Nation present two impressive bookends in the spectrum of UK gaming shows. There have been numerous stabs at creating TV shows related to gaming in the intervening years but the results haven’t been anything to write home about.

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It was reported towards the end of GamesMaster’s time that Dominik Diamond was keen to take the show in a more adult-orientated direction. This really meant just cramming in an overload of eye-rolling sexual innuendo, as we would find out when Diamond returned in 2004 with When Games Attack on the Bravo TV channel. The one and only series opened with Diamond manning a fruit and veg market stall and fondling a couple of pears. I think you can see where this was headed.

When Games Attack largely featured Diamond comparing games with the aid of a couple of stuffed toys that would reveal him to be a pervert, footballers playing football games on a couch and the host trying unsuccessfully to chat up glamour models with little apparent interest in gaming. The show also featured Caroline Flack in a segment called, wait for it, When Flack Attacks, in which she wandered around Japan looking at weird stuff.

When Games Attack was a far cry from GamesMaster and was symptomatic of many of the things that Videogame Nation was doing wrong to begin with. Top Five Worst lists – yep, present and annoying.

Another misfire in the gaming TV world was 1999’s Games Republic. Set in Egypt and hosted by pants-swingers Trevor and Simon, Games Republic was more of a gaming game show where contestants would answer questions to earn the chance to take an actual videogame challenge which would allow them to win prizes and advance in the series tournament. When taking the challenges, players would be given advice by a hooded figure known as ‘The Pundit’. Under the hood was a pre-Black Mirror Charlie Brooker, who probably doesn’t mention this gig all that often in conversation.

Looking back at some of the dross that gaming television has served up since the turn of the century makes Videogame Nation’s termination all the more infuriating. A games-centric TV programme is clearly not the easiest thing in the world to get right but Videogame Nation did it after a shaky start, made it look effortless in the end and now it’s gone.

The final Videogame Nation broadcast was a touching celebration which featured the show’s creators casually talking about their favourite moments, the upset at their cancellation still very clear. John Robertson conveyed best what we were all thinking – ‘why is this happening?’ – with a heartfelt monologue about how Videogame Nation has changed his life, before bidding us a final goodbye with one last, tear jerking hi-def, high-five.

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There are games that will never receive the Videogame Nation treatment. Personally I would have loved to have seen an episode devoted to new online shooter Overwatch, arcade racer Trackmania, which could have had a classic challenge segment, and the upcoming, space exploration game No Man’s Sky.

So to Dan, Aoife, John and the whole Videogame Nation crew we can only say thank you for making our Saturdays that bit cheerier. We will miss you. Maybe someone will hit the respawn button but for now, game over VGN, game over.