The Game Is Very Simple – The Great American Telephone Trivia Game (1990)

The dawn of the cable infomercial and the pay-per-minute 1-900 telephone business opened up some pretty suspicious scam opportunities. TV psychics could tell your future, you could spend quality time with a pre-recorded Corey Feldman or a myriad other celebrities, and of course you could find some foxy company for the night – all delivered very slowly for an insane amount of money per minute.  I wasn’t aware of 1990’s The Great American Telephone Trivia Game until today, but this scam might really take the cake.

This “show” features original “Jeopardy!” host Art Fleming at the helm of what appears to be a standard trivia game show, but there’s an amazing futuristic twist. Thanks to the miracle of cable tv and telephone technology, viewers can now call in and play the trivia game as well.  If they answer 9 questions correctly, questions similar to the ones the contestants are answering, they win $100!

The scam is clear: the contestants on the screen are getting softball questions (“In what city does ‘Cheers’ take place?”) and the ones on the 1-900 number are much more difficult.  What’s more, I’m willing to bet that the questions are delivered very slowly and you don’t know whether you answered any of them correctly until all nine questions are completed.  At one-minute per question and $1.95 per minute, you’re in for at least $20 on this call – and that’s assuming there’s no lengthy intro or outro sucking more more time, which was another common 900-number tactic.  So best case scenario you’re up $80 assuming the questions are really just as easy as the ones on the screen. Which they’re not.

Fleming also rubs the prizes that the studio guests will win in the viewer’s face, amazing prizes that the viewer will never be able to win or afford. 

Spoiler: BOTH CONTESTANTS WIN. It’s beautiful in its terrible awfulness. Here it is, with some strange formatting that I can’t explain. What a find.

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Super Mario All Stars VHS Promo Video – 1993

Imagine going to pick up your pre-order of Super Mario All Stars for the Super Nintendo in 1993 and receiving a bonus VHS containing twenty minutes of Mario celebration along with reviews of  other contemporary SNES games, all hosted by Lister from Red Dwarf.

Are you imagining it?

This video is simultaneously an awesome pack-in for a video game, a huge bonus value, and a cringeworthy commercial that tries so hard to be cool that it comes off as like when the chaperones try to dance with the students at the school dance.

Craig Charles hosts from a very Dwarf-esque control center, narrating a brief history of the Mario series before rolling through some talking points on the bigger SNES games of the time like A Link to the Past, Mario Kart, Starwing (Starfox here in the US) and Battletoads.

The video also oddly rates its own games? Why would you present the game that you’re trying to sell to kids as anything other than 100%?

Lister then “beams down” to meet the Nintendo hotline headquarters representatives. While it would have been easy to portray the hotline headquarters as a futuristically lit gaming lair featuring loads of slick actors paid to look like savvy gaming know-it-alls, Nintendo made the bold choice to portray the hotline headquarters as a futuristically lit gaming lair featuring the actual hotline representatives who aren’t necessarily camera friendly and have no formal on-camera training.

The video then doubles down on this strategy, giving the representatives the chance to review Aladdin, Mario Paint, and more, in obnoxiously over-effected segments.

An educating but disappointingly dry five minute segment on how a video game is made leads into a run of game cheats. This is arguably the only valuable part of the entire tape.

The valuable part lasts only so long until the segment turns into a commercial for the SNES Score Master and the Nintendo Scope. I’m not sure ‘buy this accessory to play the game better’ counts as a tip.

Lister throws a few snarky one liners and the video is over.  Like I said, this is simultaneously a great bonus item for a game and a terrible video. But adorably terrible.  Here it is.

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Commodore Vic 20 Print Ads

Selling a computer in 1982 had to be pretty tough. For one thing, they were super expensive. For another thing, you had (at least) two different types of customers. On one side, there’s a really informed audience that wanted to know what specs your company brought to the table that made you better than the other guys. On the other side, you had an increasingly interested consumer base that knew nothing about the technology and needed to know why they needed a computer in the first place.

This set of Commodore Vic-20 ads does a good job illustrating the differences in marketing to each group. In this first ad you’ve got 1980s Geek-Jesus William Shatner running through detailed spec comparisons and software offerings in a very busy layout.

And for the know-nothings, a clean and elegant ad that throws just enough jargon out there to get a few polite head nods and a consideration at getting this instead of an Apple.

Which one speaks to you?

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Shoot Some Diseases Into The Castle – Game Players Game Tape, Vol 1, Tape 6

The sixth in what must have been an exhaustive series of overpriced VHS tapes designed to milk ’80s gamers out of their hard-earned dollars in exchange for broad suggestions on how to play select games competently, this Game Players Magazine tape actually has some visual merits to it.

The frustrating part about the content is that these are games that actually need tips; the video covers Ultra’s TMNT, Metal Gear, Defenders of the Crown, and Skate or Die – pretty tough games.

The TMNT “tips” are frustrating in their broadness; “use Donatello against Rocksteady” doesn’t really constitute a tip. Also, 90% of the TMNT tips are “use Donatello”.

There’s an odd appearance/interlude by “the Creator”, a creepy hype man for the games featured in the video. Sort of a circular internal commercial for the games included in the video that you bought to help you beat the games that you already bought.

Metal Gear’s tips consist of “hey, recognize this screenshot and do the vague thing we’re telling you to do here”

If the flaming tips included in the video weren’t enough, there’s also an ad for a hotline to give you even more secrets for who-knows-what games! Seriously, you don’t know until you call, and at that point you’re at least two dollars deep.

Skate or Die’s tips include taking advantage of a turbo controller and getting a buddy to mash buttons while you get air. Sweet exploit, I guess. Another hot tip: be sure to land right, or you’ll fall. Money well spent, here.

Insert an odd ad for a wireless NES Advantage rip-off that is nothing short of amazing.

The tips for Defenders of the Crown are, at this point, predictably awful. “When jousting you want to hit your opponent, but not his horse.” Thanks!

A disappointing offering but hey, that’s the eighties for you. Silver lining: the video quality is fantastic.

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Phil Hartman Sells The CD-i: Friday Followup

Who could be a better pitchman for the CD-i than perhaps the best SNL cast member of all time, Phil Hartman? Whoever wrote these ads really put Phil through the ringer, but he does more in thirty seconds than Sid and Ed did in thirty minutes.

It’s also worth noting that the CD-i had dropped from its initial price of $700 and its price cut around Sid and Ed time to $500 down to $300.  This must have been near the end.

Man, I miss Phil Hartman.

 

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1995 Philips CD-i Infomercial: A Pothole On The Information Superhighway

The Philips CD-i was a system slightly ahead of its time. It tried to do it all – play top-of-the-line games, play movies in the best quality available, use all of the CD-ROM resources a PC had at its disposal, and also provide casual internet access in the living room. In the early-to-mid ’90s, a device that could do all of this at a reasonable price was a pipe dream. That’s why this thing initially cost $700, with expensive add-ons if you wanted the full capabilities it promised. It was also a “jack of all trades, master of none” as a device, being outperformed in gaming by gaming consoles, outmatched in PC functions by PCs, and so on.

Spoiler alert: it ultimately failed.

Philips made a decent go of trying to get this thing off of the ground, though; a licensing deal with Nintendo (good move) led to the independent non-Nintendo development of some Zelda and Mario titles (bad move).

They banked on non-traiditional, digital media (good move) by developing unique interactive kids content (good move), game shows and workout videos (good move) and interactive music CDs that let you rearrange the music (bad move).

They also advertised on cable (good move) with a full length infomercial (good move) that creates a weird narrative and tries to humorously portray middle-class lifestyles and provide solutions to those exaggerated lifestyles (bad move).

It’s that last one that we’re talking about here, a 30-minute infomercial called “A Day with Sid, Ed and CD-i” that aired in late night cable in the mid 1990s.  There’s a rivalry between a CD-i representative and an electronics repairman that, for some reason that we’re not privy to, exists. Sid, the CD-i guy, listens in on Ed’s repair calls and poaches them, getting there first and giving them a CD-i and a full library of games and peripherals so that they don’t need Ed’s services by the time he gets there.

He gives them the CD-i’s.  Gives.

It’s a pretty clear way of breaking out the CD-i’s advantages in different multimedia scenarios. In the first of three segments, little Timmy’s destroyed the family PC and it’s unrecoverable.  Sid shows up and marches right in. Mom’s okay with this. He hooks a CD-i into the television, telling them they don’t need a computer anymore. Mom’s okay with this.  He suggests kid-friendly games to Timmy. Mom’s okay with this.

In a few short minutes, Sid’s sold Mom and Timmy on the CD-i. Well, not sold.  Again, they didn’t buy anything.  But they now have a CD-i, so I guess that’s a win in a future, attach rate, sense? 

Part two: some believably rad dudes hanging out together playing video games, reading comics, and dancing to rock music on headphones all at the same time, all independent of each other. Headphones dude trips over the video game cable, destroying the console.  A quick call to Ed’s repair results in Sid barging in and, again, giving a CD-i console to the dudes along with a run through of the amazing games available.

Burn:Cycle was a pretty solid game, as are Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, but the rest don’t even look that good by 1990s full-motion-video standards.  Sid hangs out and games with the dudes, then moves on.  Sid’s about $2500 in the hole at this point, considering that he’s given away two consoles and who knows how much software.

Part three: date night.  Peter and Gina are watching a “Forrest Gump” VHS in full daylight when the tape gets eaten by the machine.  Cue Sid and his free CD-i to extol the virtues of digital media.  It’s worth noting that Sid has used “Four Weddings and a Funeral” as a selling point of the CD-i to all three groups at this point. Peter and Gina get more of an overall taste than the other groups do, as a run through the system’s digital board games draws out Gina’s murderous tendencies. Hilarious! I’d be interested in checking that “Clue” title out, though.

The “Feature Presentation” screen, a direct lift of a VHS copy, is the real highlight of this segment.

Ed, throughly defeated at this point, gets on board with CD-i.  He and Sid team up, equal partners in Sid’s unprofitable nightmare of a business.

Each segment is punctuated by wonderful infomercial hard-sells, run-throughs of the system’s features, 800-numbers, and payment plans.

Here it is.  So bad, so good.

 

 

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Friday Followup: Gambit (UK)

While the US was Vegas-ing up its Gambit reboot in 1980, our friends across the pond went with a more traditional approach.  The British version of Gambit is as quaint as you’d expect, with a kicky stop-motion intro.

The set design trades in the Vegas glitz and glamour for… something resembling a Grateful Dead album cover.

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Cash and Prizes: Las Vegas Gambit (1980)


Gambit
, the blackjack-themed game show, has a sort of complicated history. Originally premiering in 1972, Gambit was an instant success, beating out competing shows Sale of the Century and a pre-Trebek Jeopardy! In 1975, though, a hot new show called Wheel of Fortune came on the scene and pretty much obliterated Gambit in the ratings, leading to its cancellation in 1976.

Cut to 1980. Failed daytime talk show experiment The David Letterman Show was pulled off of the air and the idea was to revive Gambit to take its place. The Gambit 2.0 twist came in the form of a live show from the Tropicana in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas Gambit was born.

And then died again a year later, but whatever.

Wink Martindale hosted both iterations of Gambit.  Is Wink Martindale the poor man’s Chuck Woolery, or is it the other way around? Wink’s game show career started earlier, making him the incumbent. However, Woolery’s first game show gig, the aforementioned Wheel of Fortune, spelled the original Gambit’s demise.  Woolery’s got the more impressive resume: while Wink had some solid shows including Tic Tac Dough! and Debt, Chuck’s got Love ConnectionScrabbleThe Dating Game, and (a personal favorite) Lingo.  Personally, I’m going to give the point to Chuck.  Wink’s got an unsettling way of talking to the audience, to his contestants, and to women in particular. I’m not saying he’s our reality’s Randall Flagg, I’m just pointing out that he’s never been in the same room as Randall Flagg.

There are a few things about Las Vegas Gambit that are special – first of all, the set is a fantastic tribute to Vegas-style gaudiness.  Covered in gold and rich in font treatments, the first part of each Gambit match is a trivia round with correct answers rewarding cards which are then built into a blackjack hand.  Two teams compete, the first team to reach as close to twenty-one as possible without busting moves on to the final round.

The final round, the Gambit Galaxy is some sort of casino from the (1980s) future, boasting a wall of screens and a single craps table.  The contestants roll oversized dice, using the resulting numbers to clear out the screens. If they can do so, they win it all.

The other noteworthy thing about Las Vegas Gambit is the enthusiasm. Part of this is thanks to the era; these were the days of Let’s Make a DealPress Your Luck, and the original The Price Is Right, and contestants in general were just generally more amped-up than they are these days. Still, though, it comes down to whoever’s job it is to pick contestants picking good contestants, and Las Vegas Gambit got that part right.  In the below episode, this lady’s life changes.  That’s significant.

Speaking of this episode, it’s a real roller coaster. I recommend watching the whole thing.

By the way, Las Vegas Gambit had awful ratings and was cancelled in 1981.  Sorry, Wink.  Speak more considerately to all genders next time.

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Friday Followup – 1982 Parker Brothers Game Catalog

Here’s Parker Brothers’ 1982 announcement of their entry into the videogame market.  You can tell they’re proud of their Star Wars license, and they should be! Their Empire Strikes Back game was really solid. But outside of four minutes spent on Star Wars and one minute spent on…Frogger… there’s not much else here to announce.

It’s interesting that the video makes the case that the videogame market has “barely been scratched”. In 1982. A year before the massive videogame crash in North America in 1983. Still, you’ve got to appreciate the confidence. And they came out with some good stuff!

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