But there were moments throughout that year that are seemingly replaying before our eyes in 2022: The Bosnian War. Black Wednesday. LA Riots. Ruby Jubilee.
It was a transitionary year. With the USSR having (more or less) collapsed the previous July, we started to see battles in the West over freedom of speech (Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’), challenges to the liberal, Christian way of life (church burnings in Norway) and the revelation that once revered institutions could harbor the most depraved types (Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on American TV). These battles would represent a malaise within the West and lead us into the sense of disaffection and disarray felt in 2022.
Less celebrated, but equally important, was the debut of GamesMaster on Channel 4.
As Ellie Gibson once wrote:
It was the first time a television programme dedicated to video games had appeared on British screens. The show was a massive hit. This was the golden age of Sega and Nintendo, and the viewing audience loved the mix of live challenges, gameplay tips, interviews, reviews and jokes about cocks.
In many ways, it was the perfect time for such a show: the previous year had seen the introduction of the Super Nintendo, leading to the “16 Bit Wars” between it and the Sega Mega Drive. There was concern in the media over violence in games like Mortal Kombat (therefore giving gaming a subversive edge it had previously lacked) and arcades were still big business up and down the country. Coupled with the setting, which made it look like a rave in an abandoned church, it seemed (to a six-year-old me) seditious, cutting edge and futuristic. They even had one episode that could only be shown at 11pm due to the gore and nudity on display!
Over seven series, every serious development in gaming culture was covered (the console wars, the burgeoning internet, the emergence of the PlayStation) as well as some now legendary releases and the much-coveted Golden Joystick quickly became an icon of a nascent gaming world that is now a multi-million-dollar business in 2022.
It has the potential to be a fascinating story and, thankfully, host Dominik Diamond has taken the time to pen this book, with the help of other contributors.
With a chapter devoted to each season, we get a thorough and revealing look at not only how the show operated on a day-to-day basis, but also the internal politics and ego clashes that make for great product. As expected, Diamond is a witty, astute, and engaging narrator who lays out how his insecurities and desire to “make it” on TV helped form the persona we saw on the show and also laid him down the inevitable path of drink and drugs in the Britpop 90’s.
One thing that does come through is just how much the show metamorphosized from being solely about games into a solo vehicle for Diamond which had games in it. This push (moving with the times and embracing elements of lad culture) and pull (being a show about games for games) works perfectly in the fourth season (generally agreed as being the best run) but Diamond wins out in later seasons and, unsurprisingly, those are the ones that he’s the most proud of, whereas the fourth season is dismissed.
I must admit to having mixed feelings about this: viewing these aforementioned seasons at the time as a young kid, it seemed ‘grown up’ and ‘adult’. Watching back, it comes across as a tad shallow. Of course, GamesMaster wasn’t designed to be rewatched in thirty years’ time so it’s a little unfair to criticise it for doing such a thing. On the other hand, it meant sidelining Patrick Moore’s GamesMaster (the icon of the show) and scrubbing segments like the Consultation Zone (which viewers like me tuned in for to see if any cheats for a particular game would come up that week).
All of which suggests that Diamond wasn’t aware of what truly made the show work but it does help explain the foundation for his feud/rivalry with reviewer/co-host Dave Perry whose “Games Animal” schtick, coupled with gargantuan egos from Diamond and Perry, would result in the infamous Super Mario 64 incident, which remains one of the most entertaining pieces of TV I’ve ever seen.
Thirty years on, it’s good to see GamesMaster get the respect it deserves with this beautifully produced and entertaining tome. Yes, it was a product of its time. But it took gaming seriously and pissed off your parents. Respect is due. As well as that, it functions as an epitaph for the 1990’s: a period where broadcasters were willing to take risks, with the payoff being millions of viewers and the chance to document and nurture a culture that now takes in at least $70 billion globally.
That’s all for now. I’m off to tell kids at boarding schools that their parents hate them.
Dominik Diamond, 2022, GamesMaster: The Oral History. Thames and Hudson Ltd, ISBN-13: 978-0500025918
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.