Ahhh, video game TV shows. Remember them? I’d tune in almost every week to GamesMaster in the hope that the digitally disfigured head of Sir Patrick Moore would tell me how to do Babalities in Mortal Kombat, and watched enviously as ordinary gamer kids just like me (dead-eyed and focused) played games to the cheers of a high-pitched teenage audience.
But with YouTube now the favoured domain for incisive, dedicated gaming shows, the need for them on TV has diminished. More recent shows like Playr and Videogame Nation have been canned, leaving us to wonder whether there will ever be a place for video games on the venerable platform of traditional television.
Enter Go 8-Bit, a new comedy panel show all about video games. Hosted by affable comedian and veteran panel show host (not to mention avid gamer) Dara O’Briain, with games journo Ellie Gibson as right-hand woman/games guru, and the creators of the original Go 8-bit live show Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilion as team captains, it offers some of the few things you can’t find on YouTube: big-name adult comedians and great production values. There’s something wonderful about a video game show that looks just like popular panel shows such as Mock the Week or Never Mind the Buzzcocks, albeit with a stage that rotates 180 degrees so the panellists can face a giant screen to play games on.
To the sound of a catchy 8-bit tune, the intro sequence shows pixelated versions of Dara, the two team captains and Gibson running through scenes inspired by vintage games like Mario Kart, the original GTA, Tetris and Donkey Kong. It’s indicative of the show’s nostalgic tone: expect plenty of old games to be played, top-shelf comedic banter, and video game stories and anecdotes from well-established funny people over the age of 30.
Along with Dara, Ellie and the captains, the first episode starred guests in the form of former England goalkeeper David James and Scottish comedian Susan Calman. The format is simple. Two teams compete against each other in five games that, in Dara’s words, “represent the very best of gaming history” (so feel free to smirk snobbishly when I say that Star Wars: Battlefront was featured, among respected retro offerings including Tetris, Chuckie Egg, Tekken and Bust-a-Move). Each game is given a little intro by Gibson, who deftly delivers her lines with a balance of comedy, hard facts, and well-researched trivia.
To spice things up, some of the games are played with a twist. Tetris saw one person blindfolded and holding the controller while their teammate barked orders, and Bust-a-Move was bizarrely played by the panellists tapping the heads and hands of people dressed as famous video game characters. David James slapping away at an octogenarian Chun-Li and Dr. Robotnik, with commentary from Dara O’Briain and Ellie Gibson? Of course, why’d no one thought of this before...
Go 8-Bit is, first and foremost, aimed at people who enjoy British panel shows like Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You, and Would I Lie To You? (future guests will include plenty of familiar faces from those, including Russell Howard, Ed Byrne and and Holly Walsh). If you like video games, that’s a definite bonus, but the show does a deft job of never feeling in-jokey or game-elitist. You’d expect no less from O’Briain, who is his usual comfortable self in the host’s chair, capable of delivering a game-related joke one second before broadening out to make a nicely inappropriate jab at shamed sex offender celebrity Rolf Harris. The average viewer doesn’t feel alienated, gamers get the gamey jokes they were hoping for, and everyone’s happy.
As a fan of both video games and panel shows, I find it strangely gratifying to see games given the same platform and comedic gravitas as current affairs, music and sport. From Susan Calman, who between delivering her typically excellent, self-deprecating jokes regularly broke down in fits of laughter (such as when her failings in Chuckie Egg were replayed over and over again), to Steve McNeil’s semi-euphoric stress as he found himself beating a focused David James at his own game, Tekken, it was a great showcase for the everyday joys of gaming.
I’d like to see future episodes show games that aren’t strictly nostalgic or, well Star Wars: Battlefront. Given that games on a 2D plane work best as a spectacle for a show like this (watching the contestants swishing and swooshing lightsabers at each other in Battlefront was an eye-sore), it’s a great opportunity to exhibit some of the great games that have graced the indie scene in recent years (the kind of game that, totally coincidentally, usually feature at Kotaku Game Nights). Off the top of my head, games like Nidhogg, Mount Your Friends, Divekick or Towerfall: Ascension would fit the format perfectly.
If they want to have some 3D games, why not enlighten people about the joys of Rocket League? There’s an opportunity here to show TV audiences that there’s more to modern games than guns, violence, FIFA, and Star Wars cash-ins.
Whether my modest wishlist materialises or not, Go 8-bit is in the right hands to be a success. O’Briain is the perfect face for the show; he's familiar, comforting, and humble enough to ensure that the rising comedy talents of McNeil, Pamphilon and Gibson get to flaunt their stuff and divvy up the limelight. The show is in the spirit of all great British comedy panel shows, albeit with the added silliness, squealing and heightened emotions that games are so good at evoking in even the sternest of adults, let alone this merry band.
Should Go 8-bit fail to rake in the viewing figures to satisfy Dave’s demands, it’ll be sobering. If a show as warm, funny and professional as this, with all the backing of big-name comedians, can’t do it, then that could well mark the end of the lukewarm relationship between video games and broadcast TV.
Should that happen, then it won’t matter much to gamers (who, if they want to be really mean, can always just say ‘Whatever, traditional TV’s dead anyway’ as they head back to their favourite YouTube channels). Either way, I'm all aboard for this novel ride over the next five episodes, while remaining cautiously aware that my eternal enjoyment in watching funny people regress into giddy gamers when handed a controller might not have the same lasting appeal for mass audiences.
You can watch Go 8-Bit on Dave at 10pm GMT Monday nights, or stream it on-demand on UKTV Play from the UK. UKTV has a YouTube channel, so hopefully it will be available to watch there eventually for international audiences.