Was UK TV Show Knightmare the Best Video Game of the 80s and 90s?

Forget Italian plumbers and blue marsupials, British TV show "Knightmare" was the video game all British kids wanted to play in the late 80s and early 90s.
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During YouTube’s Geek Week last week, you may have noticed a remake of a little thing called Knightmare which got us Brits all a-twitter. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, the recent YouTube episode isn’t that much different from how it used to be when it was in its prime 20 years ago: dodgy graphics, suspect scripts, terrible puns, the odd innuendo, and a slightly creepy host. But most importantly of all, completely hopeless players. 

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But between 1987 and 1994 it captivated a country full of children, running for a stonking eight seasons. But how could something so unconvincing in retrospect have had such a success? 

The answer: it was the best video game to have come out in the 1980s. 

“Video game? But it’s clearly a game show.” 

Yes, in reality it was. Some would also argue that it’s more a televised live action role-playing game than a game show. But when you break it down, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. 

But even so, there’s still many aspects of it that make it akin to a video game. It’s part platformer (jumping over pits and dodging obstacles), part puzzler (solving riddles and such), part dungeon-crawler (you’re in a dungeon), and part point-and-click adventure (or I suppose, point-and-poke. All of this is set within a computer generated/animated environment. To top is all off, it boasted the most dazzling graphics anyone had seen so far, with an added enormous animatronics dragon that you could ride on the back of. Beat that, Nintendo! 

“Dazzling graphics!” *snarf* 

You’ve got to bear in mind that the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System had only just been released in the UK the same year Knightmare was first televised: 1987. Therefore 8-bit graphics were the most advanced thing that British kids had played with. All of a sudden you’ve got this “video game” on telly that boasted the most convincing virtual environment and adversaries you’d ever seen. It shot Duck Hunt right out of the water. And with TV already being in the homes of the majority of British families, it was far more accessible, and cheaper. 

It was fraught with danger and peril too; the studio didn’t pull any punches to make it fluffy and saccharin for us young ones. If you go hit by one of the many circular saws or bladed pendulums, there’d be a splatter of pixellated blood accompanied by the deafening sound of some horrific knell. And then there was the bevy of skeleton warriors worthy of Harryhausen, giant spiders, and unforgiving wall-golems. The show was really scary for anyone under the age of 10. 

It was also incredibly difficult. Timing and wit then were just as important then as they are in Tomb Raider now. Very few teams actually conquered the dungeon, only to win a large medallion of worse quality than the graphics. But the pride and honor was unparalleled. Oh, to be one of those élite few. The success of the Italian plumbers and the blue marsupial paled in comparison of Knightmare’s popularity. It was the game every child wanted to play for almost ten years. 

A screenshot from the original TV series. Courtesy of Challenge TV.

“So, why isn’t it still going?” 

Well, after eight years, everything starts to lose its glimmer. Even Friends only managed to squeeze out an extra two seasons beyond Knightmare. But ultimately, home gaming systems caught up. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Mega Drive had seen a real leap in not just what graphics could do, but what gameplay could suddenly offer. And with the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 only just over the horizon, Tregaurd’s castle was loosing its allure as young gamers-to-be, who had grown up with Knightmare, started salivating over the prospect of polygons. 

The whole thing about its success, though, was that it was far before it’s time compared to anything else during that period. Now, it could never be that. What really confirms this was a pilot for a spunky new version in 2002. With £40,000 investment behind it, company Televirtual updated the show’s format to be played in full “virtual reality”. But even with slicker graphics more akin to what consoles like PlayStation 2 were offering, including a personalised avatar of the dungeoneer, it failed to charm, managing to look even more  lame than its predecessor. 

“Will it ever come back?” 

I doubt it. The revival for YouTube’s Geek Week is excellent, but it only really survives as a novelty more than anything else. It’s still good fun, but how can it ever compete with blockbuster games like Bioshock: Infinite for more than a couple of episodes? Video games have come on leaps and bounds, and there’s just no way Knightmare can keep up. 

But for the latter part of the 80s and the start of the 90s, it was the best video game there was, even if millions never actually played it.


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Image of Destrolyn.Bechgeddig
Destrolyn.Bechgeddig
Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*