Monday, December 10, 2012


The golden age of video games witnessed the appearance of a handful of video-game-related television shows. Remeber the That's Incredible video game tournament with Eric Ginner, Darren Olsen, and Ben Gold? I won't be posting about that one today (though I plan on doing so later if I find more information). Today I'll be talking about the most fondly remembered show of them all - the video game game show Starcade. If you were aruond back in the day, you'll definitely remember this one.

Starcade was created by James Caruso and Mavis E. Arthur of JM Production Company who came up with the idea in 1981 while lying on the beach at the Caneel Bay resort in the Virgin Islands. At the time, video gaming's golden age was just getting into full swing. Gathering 24 contestants, Arthur and Caruso taped a pilot episode at San Francisco’s KRON studio. U.S. Hockey team captain Mike Eruzione hosted and Larry Wilcox, of C.H.I.P.S was brought in as a celebrity player. Games were supplied courtesy of Nolan Bushnell and a number of other manufacturers. The players were arranged in three rows of eight players and had 30 seconds to score as many points as they could on a given game, with each row playing a different game (Defender, Centipede, and Pac-Man). The winners from each group then squared off in a final game of Donkey Kong[1] with the winner receiving an Asteroids Deluxe arcade game and an Apple II computer (the winner also played a game against Wilcox for fun). After numerous delays (including an inexperienced host who kept flubbing his lines and a balky Larry Wilcox whose agent wanted him to leave) they finally put together enough tape for a pilot which aired on San Francisco's NBC affiliate KRON on Sunday September 13, 1981 at 6 P.M., winning its timeslot. The show was reaired in a few other local markets but failed to get picked up by a network.

Mavis Arthur and Jim Caruso, creators of Starcade

 Caruso and Arthur revamped the show’s format and redesigned the set then contacted NBC in Los Angeles and made an appointment with Phil Ross, VP of owned and operated programming. After they sat down, Ross pushed a button causing his office door to automatically slam shut  Caruso and Arthur began enthusiastically pitching their show, reading from the script and showing him the pilot. After three hours, Ross asked how they'd gotten into his office. When they told him they'd just called and made the appointment, he told them he admired their chutzpah and suggested they contact Alex Trebek to host a second pilot episode  They offered Trebek $5,000 to host three pilot episodes. Trebek, who was then out of work, readily accepted  and production was soon underway at San Francisco’s Bridge Studios. NBC sent a C&P (compliance and practices) lawyer as well as the VP of the C&P division to help with the legalities. When they asked Caruso and Arthur to obscure the names of the manufacturers of the games that would appear on the show, the two refused (they had already promised the manufacturers that they would show their names). Six more half-hour episodes were produced and shipped to NBC. While Ross liked the show, local station managers did not. Some were frightened away by the negative portrayals of video games beginning to surface in the media. Others wondered who would want to watch people play video games on TV. Caruso and Arthur still were not ready to throw in the towel, turning to producer Jack Rhodes, who suggested they put the show on cable. The duo liked the idea and soon landed a deal with TBS to produce 13 shows. Opting not to use Alex Trebek as host, they turned to another game show veteran, but one who had never hosted a show.

Alex Trebek - 2nd host of Starcade


Mark Richards, original host of the broadcast version of Starcade

            Mark Richards had actually been on six different game shows but as a contestant not as a host. On a whim, he started a school in San Diego to teach people how to get on game shows. He held a series of free seminars then handpicked promising attendees as students. He charged no admission fees but instead took 20% of whatever the students won if they happened to make it onto a show. Eventually the L.A. Times published an article on Richards and his school and the story was picked up by Entertainment Tonight, Real People, the CBS Evening News and others. The Entertainment Tonight segment led to a guest spot on the Phil Donahue Show in March of 1982. During the last 15 minutes of the show. Richards served as host for a mock game show starring Phil and two audience members. When the show was rerun in fall, Jim Caruso saw it and invited Richards to tryout as host for a cable-based TV game show based on arcade video games. Richards was skeptical (he didn't play video games) but figured if nothing else, he'd get a free trip to San Francisco. Richards made the trip and taped a demo, which was shipped to Ted Turner at TBS. To his surprise, Richards got the job. 
With a host and a sponsor (Parker Brothers), the team set to work interviewing contestants, building a set, and revising the games’ rules. Music was provided by Mindseed, a company co-founded by Ed Anderson, who also composed the show’s theme

[Ed Anderson] When we were at Namco, Jim Caruso and Mavis Arthur came in. They had an idea about doing the first video game TV show. Mr. Nakajima said to talk to Ed and Joanne so we got together. I was a representative for Namco for all the manufacturer’s association meetings and so was Joanne. They needed games from every game company as prizes, they needed permission to use them on television and they needed technical assistance so that we could sync the speed of the raster with the camera so you wouldn’t get that computer flutter on screen. So we went to the next manufacturer’s meeting and we brought Jim and lobbied all the manufacturers. The big 8 and everybody else agreed it was good for the industry so we got commitments from them and started filming . . . I wrote the theme song . . . I’m still getting royalty checks from Spain – Of course they’re only for $1.50.

There were also a number of technical challenges, the biggest of which was finding a way to “freeze” a player’s score at the exact moment time ran out. They eventually solved the problem by connecting a TRS-80 computer to the camera to stop the tape at the correct moment. Taping for the initial 13 episodes started on in early December and the first episode aired on December 27th. In March of 1983, with the initial 13 episodes done, Starcade rented a booth at the National Association of Television Programming convention in Las Vegas. Afterwards they filmed another 13 episodes. The show was broadcast on Monday afternoons, then switched to Saturday at 9 A.M. where it drew a respectable (for cable at the time) 7.8 rating at its peak.

Behind the scenes on the Starcade set - from Jim Bickman's article in GameRoom magazine, December, 1999

In May, Richards called Caruso for an update on the show. Caruso told him the good news - the show had been picked up for syndication. They had met with Ted Turner at the NATPE, who had liked the show and asked Caruso and Arthur if they could produce it daily, which would mean producing 133 episodes instead of 13. Then came the bad news - TBS wanted a more bankable name and Caruso and Arthur had hired veteran game show host Geoff Edwards to replace Richards. Edwards (who, as a reporter, had been present when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald) had previously served as host of Jackpot and the New Treasure Hunt. It's his work on Starcade, however, that many remember him for today.

The format for Starcade (under both Richards and Edwards) was different than that of the original pilot. Two contestants (or teams, as they were sometimes joined by their parents) competed in two rounds. Players were not all children or teenagers. Adults were sometimes paired against preteens (though the pairings were based on the players' performance in a warm up session).  Each round started with a video-game-related toss-up question (example: "When the mother kangaroo rescues her baby in the game Kangaroo, what song plays? Is it A) Happy Days Are Here Again or B) Oh, Susannah?"). The first player to answer correctly chose from among five available arcade games. After a description of how to play the game (by announcer Kevin McMahan), the two players played for 40 seconds (later 60, then 50). Another question and another game followed. The player with the highest total score in the two games then played "Name the Game", in which they were shown screenshots from four different games, which they had to identify from two given choices. Prizes were awarded for correctly identifying 3 or 4 games. Round two consisted of a third question and game (this time with less playing time). In addition, one of the five games was a "mystery game". If they player picked the mystery game, they won an additional prize. The round two winner played another "Name the Game" bonus round (though this segment was dropped once Edwards took over as host). The scoring from game to game could vary wildly. With some games, scoring a thousand points in the given time limit was a challenge while in others scoring several thousand was easy. While this could result in somewhat anticlimactic finishes, it also added an element of strategy to the game, since players who were ahead could pick low-scoring games (assuming they won the toss-up and knew which ones they were) in order to protect their lead.The player with the highest score over all three games advanced to the bonus round where they chose from the two remaining games and tried to obtain a specified target score within the 30-second time limit to win the grand prize - an actual arcade video game. In later shows, a "hotline" segment was added featuring interviews, gaming news, and more.Occasionally the show would feature a special theme episode (such as the two Dragon's Lair epsiodes or the Pac-Man family competition).

While Starcade was never really a hit in the ratings, it was a must-see for thousands of video game fans, many of whom dreamed of competing on the show. For some, it was their first and only chance to see video games that would never appear in their hometown arcade. Starcade aired on WTBS from 1981 to 1984 when it, along with the golden age of video games, disappeared (a follow-up show called The Video Game ran from September 1984 to September 1985).

            A similar program, The Video Game Challenge, never made it into production. Produced by Viacom and hosted by former teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman, The Video Game Challenge started with a competition on a game between two top players then followed with tips from arcade gamers, a review of the top ten home and arcade games, and reviews and previews of new games. In the pilot episode, Ben Gold and Eric Ginner squared off on Millipede but it appears that no further episodes were produced. 

            Video Game Previews was a planned weekly magazine format show produced by Vistar productions hosted by Mark Ganzel (formerly of Don Kirschner's Rock Concert), Teal Roberts, and Michael Leon with appearances by Nolan Bushnell. 25 episodes were planned for the first season, starting in October 1983.
For more information:


[1] Wikipedia reports that the final game was Berzerk. Caruso and Arthur claim it was Donkey Kong


  1. Actually The Video Game WAS produced. I should know - I was on it!

    My mom and I flew down from Napa to Six Flags in Valencia, where they were taping. I had applied to be on Starcade, and I had gotten a letter from JM Productions saying that Starcade was done, but their new show "The Video Game" was filming soon. The letter made it sound like if I came down, I'd be a contestant... but what actually happened was that we had to pay admission to Six Flags every day, wait in line with all of the other wannabe contestants, and hope we get selected, The Price is Right style.

    My mom was less than pleased since she had to foot the bill for all of this (I assume daily admission to a theme park wasn't cheap, even in 1983), and I was unhappy because every day I got dressed up and waited in line, instead of going on rollercoasters!

    Then on our last day in town, my mom told me look, dress how you want, go on some rides if you want... you don't have to wait in line to go on a show you're probably not going to get on. I spent half the day riding rides and then I convinced my mom to give it one more try. And wouldn't you know, I was selected out of the audience! My clothes were all nerdy and mismatched, but who cares? I MADE IT.

    Ended up beating the first contestant, won the bonus round, won the play off round and made it to the grand prize round where I whiffed horribly on Mr. Do's Castle, a game I had never played before. But I came home with a bunch of rare Colecovision games (Spy Hunter! Tapper! Up N' Down!) and an amazing all-in-one Casio boombox / tapedeck / KEYBOARD.

    I know the show was produced because we actually made a VHS copy of the show as it was broadcast locally. Unfortunately, I long ago lost that tape. There was almost a happier ending to this story: a little over a decade ago, I contacted JM Productions directly when they were looking for old Starcade contestants for their website. Jim Caruso personally sent me an email saying that they had my epsiode on file and would send me a copy of it. About a year went by, and I never heard back or received the tape. I contacted JM Productions again to find out what happened, and I was told that the tape was lost in a fire! So, sadly, I guess I'll never see my star performance.

    That's my story! Hope you enjoyed it. Love your site and I'm looking forward to your book!

  2. Thanks. Great story.
    So was the format basically the same as Starcade (toss-up questions, 2 contestants, play a video game for 30-60 seconds)?

  3. Nope, completely different.

    Like I said, contestants were picked out of the crowd, TPiR-style. They were picked based on pre-show screening. All the times I was well-mannered and polite while I was waiting in line, I was passed over when the show started; the one time I was all rambunctious and talkin' smack was the time my name was called.

    So once you were called, you ran down to a little desk in front of the stage and played a Commodore 64 game at the same time as someone else, and whoever got the high score went on to the next round. I don't how it was behind the scenes of Starcade, but The Video Game was a painfully low-budget affair. My opponent's C64 was behaving quite poorly as I played my game (I want to say it was one of Epyx's "___ Games" series - California Games, maybe?), and instead of them stopping filming to take care of his technical difficulties, I just ended up advancing to the next round!

    That next round consisted of the host (have NO recollection who that was) inviting me up on stage, onto the lit-up disco floor type of platform that was divided into a 6x6 grid. I had to step forward, backward, right or left onto the squares, either stepping on a white square (keep going), a red square (THE DRAGON, you lose) or a green square (THE TREASURE, you win). I stepped on a LOT of white squares before stepping on the green one, and I swear, while I was going from square to square, the entire board lit up for a split second to show me where the treasure and dragon were. I went from tentatively stepping on each square to making a beeline for the treasure! So now it was TWO events that I ended up winning due to glitches (I would have totally beaten that first guy though, I was, and still am, a huge gaming nerd. Then I had skills, nowadays... not so much).

  4. (part 2)

    Third event I am really having a hard time remembering, other than that it was a sudden death round of sorts, placing myself and the other two winning contestants against one another in a way that once again utilized the lit up stage. But this time the eye candy hostess was the one going from square to square. I think that's how it went - my memory is hazy on this part. But regardless, I won again, and I was so happy to be victorious that I threw my arms into the air, which they clearly edited into the footage of the show. It went from me walking over to the host to me back on the platform! Seriously, I can't help but wonder if all the footage of this show was "lost" due to how amateurish it was.

    Final round was me against the arcade game of my choosing. We chose the game we would want to play while we were waiting in line to get into the auditorium before the show. I had been practicing Donkey Kong on my Colecovision at home for weeks before we flew down to Valencia, in hopes that I would end up playing it. And it was one of the games you could choose from on the list! I really didn't see me getting on the show that fateful day, though, so I chose "Mr. Do's Castle". A game I had never played before, although I was a big fan of the original Mr. Do and Universal in general (Lady Bug >>>>> Pac-Man!!). And of course, that's the time I got picked.

    So in the last round, there was a board with flashing lights on the wall, with various scores listed. The light would randomly bounce around from score to score, stopping on whatever the contestant clicked his buzzer on. Well, I guess you live by the glitch, you die by the glitch... because I had definitely buzzed in on a low score, only for the light to keep flashing until it hit a higher one! The host even exclaimed how tough of a score that was going to be to beat, and I even hesitated for a beat to complain, but he just pushed me over to the Mr. Do's Castle unit that was waiting to make a fool out of me.

    I got trounced. I think I had about 2,000 points, and I needed to get over 10k. I even died once. They did the whole show the game, then show the player back and forth that they did on Starcade, and I know they caught me with my tongue hanging out of my mouth in deep concentration. It was embarrassing, but in the end, I don't think anyone but me and the families of those on the show watched it! It was nowhere near as awesome as Starcade was.

    But hey, I was on tv, on a game show, doing what I loved. While wearing purple and white gym socks, green shorts, and blue sleeveless tee. Went home with a bunch of great Colecovision games (how I wish I would've saved them - since this was right around the big crash, those games did not see wide distribution!) and an amazing boombox that I loved so much. Had I won it all, I would've taken home one of Nolan Bushnell's robots that he was making back then, and a dual-cabinet Vs. Baseball from Nintendo. There is no WAY my mom could have afforded paying the taxes AND shipping fees to send it back home to Napa! Yes, the show made you foot the bill on all your winnings. I knew taxes were one thing, but SHIPPING too?

    Thanks for giving me a chance to tell my story, Keith!


  5. Thank you for telling the story.

    As it turns out, there's actually a Wikipedia article on "The Video Game" that I somehow totally missed.

    There's even an episode posted on the JM productions website at

    I updated my post to correct the error.