My freshman year of high school, I was a contestant on “Nick Arcade.” The game show, filmed at Universal Studios Orlando, which was located conveniently and directly across the street from my school, was no “Double Dare,” but it had its own particular attraction, given that kids, they love playing them some video games. And not only did the competing teams get to square off by answering trivia questions and performing video challenges, the winners, for the final round, did battle for the grand prize..inside a video game.
This was around the time that Central Florida was angling to become the Hollywood of the South, presenting itself as a cheaper alternative to filming in Los Angeles or New York. A lofty ambition, and obviously, one which didn’t work out as planned. Though, a few lackluster cable shows and movies did shoot there: “SeaQuest DSV” and “Swamp Thing” to name two. (I was at one point supposed to be an extra in the movie Matinee, but I came down with pink eye and stayed home.) What no one bothered to realize, or chose to ignore, is that Orlando has no distinct skyline, and could not in any realistic way sub for a major metropolis, unlike Toronto, say. Miami fared better, but still it’s hard to make Miami look like anything other than the Deco, sandy, flashy city that it is. Shooting on a sound stage was fine, but on location, there was no disguising the setting. It was not in Florida’s destiny to become the new film capitol, but it did as we know turn out to be quite the boy band factory.
But to the show. It was hosted by Phil Moore, affable proto-Wayne Brady, usually outfitted in jeans and screamingly bright, geometrically patterned shirts. Two teams of two players, Red and Yellow, were pitted against each other. The first challenge of each round was the Face-off, where one member of each team would get thirty seconds to score the highest number of points playing an arcade game that vaguely resembled a more popular one (I think ours was similar to Paperboy). As you played, aware of the clock running down and the gaze of the studio audience and the searing lights, Phil also hovered over you to give a running commentary. There following was the stock “meet the contestants” moment. I was let it be said introverted, and not really camera ready. I think I burbled on about my comic book collection, which speaks, you know, volumes! Also! Not only was I shy, I was no great video game virtuoso, nor did I excel in the category of physical exertion. Sure, I had my Atari and my Nintendo growing up, but unlike a lot of my friends, I never had the tenacity to obsessively play over and over, determined to “beat” the game. Also, my hand/eye coordination was underdeveloped. So this, being on the show, was a terrible idea. I should’ve really appeared on some sort of quiz bowl-type show, one whose only level of exertion was managing to hit a buzzer. But here I was, and there was no way out of the situation. My Red Teammate, Caroline, was someone I’d known since middle school. We were mostly in the same advanced classes. Agility wise, we were sub-par. But we had the smarts! We hoped it would be enough.
The majority of the game concerned manipulating a character called Mikey on a grid, wherein teams would encounter “points, puzzles, pop quizzes and prizes.” Scores rose and fell as various challenges were won and lost. (A full explication of the rules of engagement can be found on Wikipedia and also here, as they are intricate and I can’t rely on my memory alone.)
On breaks from the lengthy taping session we idled in the green room, where our parents were watching the proceedings on a closed circuit monitor. I was much star-struck when I encountered the actors from “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Hi, Honey, I’m Home!” The O-town A-list, I thought at the time.
To make a long blog post short, Caroline and I, through a combination of sheer luck and not-so-deft adversaries, made it to the final round
After another break to allow for the crew to set up the challenge, we reemerged, suited up in kicky jumpsuits with knee-pads and helmets to enter…the Video Zone. Through the use of bluescreen technology, we were immersed in the world of the game. It was tricky, because you had to like look at the monitor to see the effects around you, as you scrambled, climbed, ducked and dodged to avoid injury from the various pixelated foes. There were three levels, with only 60 seconds on the clock, and at the final one, a showdown with one of the three badass villains of the Video Zone. (We had to defeat Merlock, the white-bearded, menacing wizard.)
With the clock hovering at the final second, literally, we won. We beat! The Game!
And so that’s when we had to huddle around the host as our fabulous prizes were announced. Sweaty, awe-stuck, dazzled still by the studio lights, the announcer like the voice of God decreed our spoils: our cash winnings, which we were to split, a new bike for each of us, and…a trip to, and this is where the adrenalin of victory slowly drained, Universal studios Florida. There should have been a sad trumpet wah-wah. But of course we had to pretend to be excited, as kids across America were all holyshitwow I’d like to win that trip. Oh, little did they know. (Still, we both got park passes, and also a two-night stay in a hotel. That certainly trumped the parting gifts the losers received: a pair of British Knights and some candy.)
Somewhere in my parents’ house is a videotape of my triumphant episode moldering away. I should transfer it to DVD. Or destroy it?