Celebrating the UK adventure game TV show

The Crystal Maze, Cyber Zone, Fort Boyard... We look back at the UK game shows that dared to ask more than just quiz questions...

If the idea of yet another TV game show with an uninspiring presenter and ever so slight spin on the tried and tested Q&A formula fills you with apathy, you’re not alone. Although TV quiz shows often rake in the viewers for a relatively low production budget, hence their popularity with TV studios, the whole genre feels a little stagnant. Perhaps it’s the rise of the Internet, a general change in viewer culture, and the changing tastes that come with it. While many shows of the past delighted audiences with images of shiny new appliances, cars, and holidays to far-off destinations, today’s shows mostly award cold, hard, and boring cash. Great for the winner, but not too interesting for the viewer. Give us the 80s and 90s The Price Is Right any day. Better still, you can’t beat a bit of Bully!

Game shows have changed considerably over the years. Where there once appeared to be a genuine effort to create new and interesting shows, such as The Golden Shot, Catchphrase, The Krypton Factor, and even Blankety Blank, eventually novelty and gimmick gave way to dull trivia.

During the late 80s and 90s, experimentation was perhaps at its high-point, and the traditional game show was invaded by a new breed – the adventure game show. These programmes, which were presented in much more ostentatious ways, were often lacking in any decent prizes or actual tests of knowledge, and instead focused on physical trials and entertaining puzzles. They also reflected the change in general media of the time, especially the rise of computers, video games, and a growing embrace of technology.

Mouth organ

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Perhaps the most famous, and most successful of all of these shows is the legendary The Crystal Maze, which debuted on Channel 4 in February 1990. Initially fronted by lovable eccentric Richard O’Brien, the show challenged a team of people, seemingly thrown together at random, to overcome a series of puzzles and physical tests. These mini games would award successful contestants with a crystal that would account for five seconds of time in the end game, the Crystal Dome. Games were supposedly chosen from one of four categories, mystery, physical, skill, mental. I say supposedly, because often Richard O’Brien (or a producer shouting in his ear) would pick any old game, regardless of the challenge within.

The games themselves were often the cause of much viewer ridicule of the contending team, as many were so blindingly basic it was hard to imagine anyone failing them. In fact, most will fondly remember the show due to the apparent idiocy of some of the contestants, who were unable to figure out the most basic of challenges. This lead to the oft-joked about challenges of making a cup of tea, or changing a light bulb. In fact, one real game in the show tasked players with simply wiring a standard (if oversized) household plug, which, to much hilarity, many contestants had no idea how to do. There was even a game where the contestant simply had to connect two wires to a battery, and this also caused plenty of confusion. We all watched in equal parts amazement and frustration as contestants bumbled their way through seemingly simple puzzles, and that was half the fun. Not only did it make us feel smarter, but it gave us a change to vent, and laugh at the escapades onscreen.

Then there were the games that courted the ridiculous and sadistic. Games that were so tricky, they were clearly designed to make fun of those competing. Take the infamous Aztec spinning pole game. Here the challenge was to simply walk along a pole that was suspended above water to retrieve a crystal on the other side. The trick? This had to be done with a long, hooked pole that could reach and carry the cage holding the crystal, on a pole, which seemed to be large and sturdy, that spun around, and only got worse when it got wet. Obviously, this led to much calamity as contestants flailed wildly trying to stay dry and on the pole, mostly with little success. Yes, the game’s producers certainly had a mean streak, and we loved it.

The setting of the maze was one of the most striking features. The whole set was built within an aircraft hanger in North Weald Airfield (from season 2 onward), and was one of the largest ever built for such a show. The four segments, or time zones of Aztec, Industrial (later replaced with Ocean), Medieval, and Future were a joy for the younger viewer, and made the show so much more interesting to watch. The time zones also affected the style of games in each zone.

Challenges were timed, and some were the dreaded lock-ins, where too many mistakes could end up in a player’s incarceration for the rest of the game, lest the team buy them back out with a hard-earned crystal, sacrificing time in the Crystal Dome end game.

This end game was always a bit of an anticlimax for me when compared to the ingenuity and entertainment of the preceding games. It was basically a money grab wind chamber, with money replaced by gold and silver tokens. The team needed 100 gold tokens after the deduction of any silver tokens to win various prizes. These usually involved adventure holidays or other lifestyle days out, and were mostly pretty lame. This didn’t matter, though, as the journey was what made The Crystal Maze so good.

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In fact, it was so good it ran for six seasons between 1990-1995, excluding Christmas specials, of which there were five. Eventually, after season four, Richard O’Brien stepped down, and was replaced with the even more eccentric Ed Tudor Pole. The show is popular to this day, and can be found in re-runs on various channels, as well as its revival as a live experience.

Special difficulties

The success of the Crystal Maze was not lost on TV producers, and clones of the show were inevitable. For me, the most memorable of these had to be the so-bad-it’s-genuinely-amazing, Scavengers. This was ITV’s stab at Crystal Maze, and it was similar in design, albeit much more about physical challenges. It was like a mixture of Crystal Maze and Gladiators.

Scavengers was set in the future, and saw teams embark on a journey through space to the derelict space hulk Cyclops. Led by a fearless commander played by ex-Blue Peter presenter, John Leslie, they had to play a series of games to earn salvage. The team with the most salvage earned a higher place on the show’s leaderboard.

Like The Crystal Maze, Scavengers featured a series of time-based mini-games that lead up to a finale, which was a larger-scale physical challenge. Games were a mixture of heavily physical activities, often involving climbing, water, or crawling through tight spaces, and there were a few puzzles and dexterity challenges thrown in. The games were interspersed with some truly terrible ‘acting’ sequences featuring Leslie trying to portray a tough and gruff space marine. Obviously, he didn’t do well, and his scenes were more wooden than the inhabitants of Tracy Island. There were also some shoddy special effects and alien costumes used to try an establish the show’s setting as sci-fi and hostile, and not just a load of scaffolding in a TV studio – honest!

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Despite its cheese and cheapness, I loved the show when it was on. I was younger then, of course, but it was just so different to any other show of the time, and it was set in spaaaaace! Sadly, it would seem most people didn’t agree, and it was axed after only two very short seasons and a championship episode.

Jack, the door!

Another attempt was Fort Boyard, originally a French show that pre-dated The Crystal Maze and was one of its main influences.

Fort Boyard was set on a strange, isolated fort in the ocean. This is a real place off the west coast of France, not a TV set. Oh, and in the end-game, the contestants were under the threat of being fed to tigers if the time ran out. Yes, really. Well, no, not really, as that would have been a bit of a legal and moral nightmare, but tigers were involved.

Games were a mixture of puzzles and physical challenges, but Fort Boyard wasn’t afraid to stray into the gross category, and had challenges involving spiders, insects, and other nasty surprises. It also had the pleasure of being graced by multiple stars presenting it, including Leslie Grantham (Boyard), Tom Baker (Captain Baker in season 5), and Melinda Messenger.

Fort Boyard was actually very successful, and range for multiple seasons across different TV channels. It’s also had many more variants other than the French and UK incarnations, with over 30 different language variants.

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Salute Cybernauts

Straying from the physical and real world to the virtual space, we move to one of the most obscure game shows ever, and that’s the it-could-only-have-happened-in-the-90s Cyber Zone. Fronted by Craig ‘Awoooga’ Charles, this show made use of the then-hot subject of Virtual Reality.

Players donned Virtual Reality googles, and made use of the 90s VR tech that appeared in some arcades to play various VR games. These were actually custom-made for the show, and weren’t just standard, already-existing titles. The whole thing was overseen by the virtual being, Thesp, who lived in the virtual world and taunted challengers on their efforts in his domain.

The games were pretty basic, as you can imagine, and less than impressive, even back then, but the novelty of a VR game show was still intriguing, especially for younger audiences who were interested in anything video gaming related. The show made use of 90s VR’s various hardware, including the full-body tracking rigs, and although it was show lived, axed after a single series, many fondly remember it. With VR making a big come back, maybe the idea of Cyber Zone will too.

Step boldly forwards

This brings me to perhaps the most successful and downright fantastic virtual adventure game show of all time – Knightmare. Yes, how on earth could it be anything else? Knightmare is a show that any child of the 80s and 90s will fondly remember, and it was quite unlike any other show of the time.

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Presented by Hugo Myatt, who brilliantly portrayed Treguard, the Dungeon Master, Knightmare placed teams of children into a fantasy world, with three sat in Treguard’s chamber guiding the fourth, who donned a blinding helmet and wandered through the virtual world. In truth, they simply walked around a green screen studio filled with boxes and furniture, but to the viewer it was a fantasy epic, filled with evil creatures, traps, and quirky personalities like Folly the Jester, Brother Strange, Cedric the Mad Monk, Sylvester Hands, and the range of question-spewing wall monsters to name but a few.

Knightmare‘s premise was simple – the team had to guide the blindfolded ‘Dungeoneer’ through the game’s world, avoiding danger, finding items and clues, and answering riddles. This was to reach the end of the dungeon and find the item they were questing for.

This was far harder than it sounded, and few ever completed the game, with most crashing out early on. Knightmare, for all its charm, was a fairly unforgiving game show. The young teams were often left floundering if they missed a key item or failed a quiz challenge, and some of the riddles asked were actually pretty tough, even for adults. Then there’s the simple fact that they were guiding someone who couldn’t see anything (both due to the blindfold and the fact nothing was actually real) by barking orders like “Side step left! Walk forward 3 steps! Stop! Turn 90 degrees! Go Right, NO, left!” and so on. Never before have you seen so many people unable to tell their right from left.

Knightmare was a perfect kids show for the time. It rode high on the constant growth of video games, but also embraced already existing hobbies like D&D and various other media, like cartoons and movies. The high fantasy setting was irresistible, and as the show went from season to season, the tech behind it evolved past the vanilla chroma-key, and we got more elaborate 3D visuals and a mixture of real first person footage and third-person renders. The lore was expanded, with such antagonists as Lord Fear serving as the enemy of Treguard, and the whole show grew, until its final episode in November 1994. In all, there were eight seasons that ran from 1987 to 1994, and it remains a major cult classic, with a strong following and its own live revival even today.

End of adventure

The move to a fictional, fantasy setting was one of the main reasons Knightmare was so appealing, giving the younger viewer who was obsessed with fantasy and adventure what they wanted, all the while making it highly relatable as the heroes of the show were just kids too. This approach, in turn, is what made the other shows listed here appealing. Even though their quality may vary, the fact each show was set in some form of fictional location or era helped to enhanced the entertainment value, and it was much more entertaining to watch than people simply stood at wooden podiums in a TV studio.

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Sadly, the formula died down, with a move to a more Gladiators or slapstick style. Shows like Takeshi’s Castle, Ninja Warrior, and Total Wipeout became more popular. Lower costs and broader audiences were, and always will be the bigger driving force, with creativity and quality taking a back seat. With past efforts like Scavengers failing so badly, it’s not hard to see why studios might be hesitant to invest in such large scale, or specialised programs.

Occasionally some do surface. Robot Wars for example, also fronted by Craig Charles, quickly became a popular show, and children’s TV has often embraced the more elaborate game show, a trend dating back to Knightmare, and other old classics like Pat Sharp’s Fun House. These shows didn’t have the same elaborate scope of adventure shows like Crystal Maze, but they dared to push the boundaries, offering something different.

With today’s better technology and ability to create ever more impressive TV content, it’d be great to see what an up to date iteration of Crystal Maze or Knightmare could entail, and it’d certainly brighten up the TV schedules, easing the mighty weight of traditional quizzes and reality TV dregs. However, I detect a complete temporal disruption approaching…