Bad Influence!

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[GamesMaster Part IGamesMaster Part II]

I simply couldn’t cover GamesMaster without looking at its opposite number, CITV’s Bad Influence! “I have observed, Millard,” you sniff, “the exclamation point denoting your wild excitement. I’d venture we’re in for quite the thrill ride?” Please be aware, you idiot, that this punctuation is not an endorsement, but part of the show’s title; like Airplane! or That Darn Cat!, in reference to the shrieking moral panic around videogames in the early 90s. With this ‘owning it’ reclamation of the medium’s bad-boy rep, it seems like the two shows got their identities switched, with Bad Influence! sat in the post-school, pre-Home and Away slot, right after the cartoons, while its rival was held together by Dominik Diamond’s barely-even-single entendres about firing spunk from the end of his nob like a WW2 anti-aircraft gun.

But despite the title, it shared more with Tomorrow’s World‘s puff pieces about a toaster that tells you it loves you than it did its cultural sister-show on C4, and feels like it would’ve ran and hid in the stationary cupboard when it heard GamesMaster coming, for fear of getting another dead leg. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We must start at the beginning, with episode one, airing on October 29th, 1992, nine months after GamesMaster‘s debut. After being poisoned by that show’s unending stream of filth, I must keep reminding myself this was aimed squarely at children, literally airing on Children’s ITV. But it’s still jarring to go from Diamond to Andy Crane, who’s got the vibe of a hip youth pastor, handing out photocopied celibacy pledges for everyone to sign before the pizza arrives (plain cheese; one to share between everybody).

01

Credits open on Andy and co-host Violet Berlin playing a game — rather like people do in EastEnders, wrestling the controllers up by their faces — before jumping into the screen, with Andy holding his head like he’s going to be sick. The in-game characters are human-dinosaur hybrids which function as the BA! mascots — referred to as ‘humanasaurs’ — a pair of Poochies in American college jackets, one with an afro, the other a rockin’ mohawk and shades. Like almost everything in 2020, the cool-dude dinos have been ruined by the knowledge that putting up so much as a screengrab is inviting certain corners of the internet to start tugging themselves over it.

While Violet Berlin is an avid and outspoken gamer, Crane admitted in later interviews to have not been fussed. I’m not saying he lacks the expertise to front a techy show, but in his introduction, he brags “this is the only place you’ll be able to see moving screenshots of the latest games.” Moving screenshots? Do you mean… video? With jorts over red leggings and a bleach-blonde Guile haircut, Berlin was the crush of every nerd boy watching at home, with the inevitable heartbreak of discovering she’s married to How 2‘s Gaz Top, forming the true British 90’s power couple, one rung above Posh and Becks. In research, I fell down a Gaz Top rabbithole, and found he’s spent the last few years appearing in a stage production about Tommy Cooper.

02

Bad Influence! was shot in the studio that housed 3-2-1 and Rising Damp, and they’ve given it an airy, open-plan feel, brightly lit and full of kids stood playing random consoles like the demo stations in shops. It was one of the first shows to be broadcast in surround sound, so early adopters could have the sensory thrill of Andy Crane’s voice in various positions around their head. The pacing’s strongly of that era producers were convinced children would change the channel if the conversation lingered on a single topic for longer than 0.5 seconds, and flits back and forth between segments like, as my mum would say, “a fart in a colander.” Andy blows dust off an old BBC Micro, as I flash back to being seven years old in our school’s ‘computer room’ (computer singular), and my hands instinctively begin typing 10 print willy, 20 goto 10. He asks a girl on a Quickshot Supervision what she’s playing, and she mumbles a response, though it appears not to be switched on. The Quickshot is just the first in many examples of dead-tech and vapourware, with the series devoting more time to abandoned or forgotten consoles and speculated releases than the boxes everyone was playing Sonic on.

Violet runs us through the incredible innovation of Deluxe Paint, with about 24 colours to choose from, painstakingly writing her name with a mouse in a way that’s unfathomably quaint, and must look to modern kids; casually posting intricate greenscreen videos on TikTok; like a caveman bashing a line of bloody handprints against the rock. “I don’t think Rolf Harris has got too much to worry about,” says Andy. Oh, I don’t know. Talking of men who’d be locked away from society, we periodically pass over to a shed, where cheat-code guru Nam Rood lives. His bits are cut in with static like he’s hacked the broadcast, surrounded by piles of cables and sticking level select codes to his forehead on long strips of card. Rood’s doing a kind of shaven headed, pre-watershed Rik Mayall, in red waistcoat and fingerless gloves, and you can tell he’s an anarchist, as he’s got his boots up on the desk.

03

‘Nam Rood’ is Door Man backwards, as in, he’s giving you the back door to games, and he refers to viewers as “furtlers.” This all plays on that 90’s idea of computers as a secretive underground world with its own hidden language, a concept which sold stacks of books in the early days of the internet, to parents navigating the slang of dial-up, such as ‘LOL’ or ‘my wife is seeking BBC’. The review sections are handled by kids, unscripted and wittering on with insights like “I like the graphics, this is a good game,” while one lad gives a thumbs down to Battletoads —I’m not that keen on it, it’s just gratuitous violence.” And today’s kids are snowflakes? BA‘s odd house style splits the scores into separate ratings for boys and girls, I guess figuring there’d be a gender split between cutesy graphics and shooting at shit, but generally the scores are identical.

Transatlantic tech reports come from a teen with the impressively irritating name of Z Wright, clearly meant to be one of those cool Americans that impress British viewers, like kids skateboarding in adverts for yoghurt or Dexter Fletcher’s accent in Press Gang. They even cue him in by heading “stateside,” which nobody has ever said outside of handing over to Ross King for naff Hollywood gossip. Z’s taking a virtual reality tour of the Seattle skyline, with pan pipe music over horrible 90’s VR so jerky I went though two birthdays between every frame. He shows off futuristic VR equipment, like the Data Glove, which looks like something Michael Jackson would use to molest the characters of Skool Daze, and signs off with “Z Wright for Bad Influence in Seattle… SORRY — in Cyberspace!

04

One thing in Bad Influence‘s favour is the refusal to pander to companies who’ve given them a look at new games or gear. If something’s shit, they’ll let you know, and the pair bring up how real VR’s not that impressive when compared to Lawnmower Man. Yeah, that movie where a guy webs a woman to the floor with cyber-cum during their gyroscope computer-sex; bet your audience of 10-year-olds loved that bit. But all arguments about virtual reality are put to bed by renowned tech aficionado, Andy ‘Guy Goma’ Crane — “take my opinion, it’s excellent.” Fair enough.

The show comes to an end with a warning to standby for the Datablast; a gimmick where pages of fast-moving text are packed onto the credits, and can only be read with the decade’s most judicious use of a VHS pause button outside of watching your Eurotrash tape when mam was out doing the big shop. Lee and Herring would do something similar a few years later with the credits on Fist of Fun, and decrypting info like this gave kids the feel of being a super hacker, although it’s only now, decades on, that it can actually be viewed as intended, no longer hidden behind the terrible track-lines and lucky draw pausing that rendered it unreadable at the time. The bulk of it’s news, cheats and game reviews, but excitingly, all the way down on page 48 is “Bad Influence jargon,” with the following invaluable resource for time travellers finding themselves trapped back in the nineties, hammering on Andy Crane’s door for help like he’s Doc Brown.

Jurassic — Excellent

Triassic — Not So Excellent

Turnip — A nasty tasting vegetable

Ream — better than Jurassic

Many — no way man!

05

We skip forwards to an episode from September of 1993, opening the second series with trendy Andy, shirt tucked into his jeans, promising more of our old favourites, “including some phat reviews!” What we need, he tells us, “is one of those new personal computers you can write on. [terrible American accent] Right on!” Oh, Andy. The Amstrad PenPad supposedly learns your handwriting and translates it into text, though when Andy writes his name, it comes up as AnGr CrAnO. Judging by Alan Sugar’s tweets, he’s still got his hooked up to the Wi-Fi. In a further dig, the end credits are all in misspelled gibberish, having supposedly been written on the device. Sugar must’ve been bladdy fuming.

In this new series, Rood’s taken on more of a pallid complexion, sickly-skinned with dark, junkie circles drawn under his eyes, and the studio’s filled with flannel-clad teens and tweens just wandering about, chatting amongst themselves. There’s a real vibe of a youth club night, the chaperones and leaders attempting to cajole surly kids into a game of pool, but they’re all off by the bins tying to talk girls into swapping a cigarette for a quick feel. Any time one of the background kids realises they’re on camera, they give a scowl before turning their backs and returning to more important business. Andy calls Z the Z-Man as he bigs up the 3DO, while Violet hypes up CDs, erroneously stating a single CD can hold as much info as 800 floppy disks.

06

The review kids are just as mopey, with a monotone destruction of the Jurassic Park game (or in BA-speak, Excellent Park), as “an average platform game hyped on the back of a major film license,” or “overrated, just like the film.” One girl moans about Soccer Kid because “I found the title misleading… it was not a sports game.” In the scoring, Cool-Guy Crane surfs in with “the girls gave it a PHAT 4/5,” but then over-eggs the righteous pudding — “and the boys gave it a PHAT 4/5 too.” Even Violet’s at it with the next game, which gets another “PHAT 4/5.” Sorry, but I only play games whose score is THICCC.

At time of airing, the coming weekend saw the home release of Mortal Kombat, which Andy plays (no doubt after a quick couple of puffs on the inhaler), randomly smashing the buttons as he talks and barely taking a sliver of health from his AI opponent before dying. The big story at the time was a gore code which added digitised blood, to which Andy addresses the camera, “take it from me, it doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, bear this in mind before you part with your hard-earned.” Violet, meanwhile, rages; “once again, videogames have been put under the spotlight and given bad press by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about.” By now, the Datablast is expanded to 98 pages, but the font’s massive, and it’s mostly stuff they’ve already covered, barring a news section that claims Arnie’s going to make a comeback in Terminator 3 (which was still a decade off), with a profoundly 90’s joke of misspelling his name as “Arnold Schwartzomeaba-ger.”

07

Finally, it’s forwards another year, to the series 3 opener in September of 1994. There’s a markedly different feel, with new opening titles which ditch the humanasaurs for an industrial look; all early CG machine parts, and screens showing images from (or ‘inspired’ by) Rise of the Robots, one of the worst games ever. Clearly they’re trying for a slightly older demographic, with a clanking industrial remix of the theme, and even the studio’s darker, opening with Andy promising “amazing new titles, fantastic new sets!” Christ, is this going to be like GamesMaster, when Dominik went from cheeky chappy to serial killer? Is Andy gonna spend the whole show harping on about pushing things right up inside his pale bottom? Thankfully, he’s quickly lifted in the air by promotions actors wearing a rubber mask and lampshade hat, dressed as Mortal Kombat characters, and squealing in a way that marks him as the same old lovely soy-boy.

Nam’s been moved from the shed to the basement, with half his dialogue now consisting of Rik-like noises, and the game-reviewing kids are noticeably older. One would definitely get served in pubs, and looks like he knows his way round a flick-knife. These, says Violet, in a rather barbed statement, are experts, and unlike games journalists, they actually buy games. Plus Bad Influence‘s new rating’s system doesn’t give a fig about graphics or sound, focussing purely on playability; in an early vanguard for “actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”

08

The rest’s more of the same; Z in So-Cal meeting the man behind Earthworm Jim; Violet at a computer trade show looking at more VR headsets which’ll never get released, and Andy demonstrating a word-processor that types what you dictate to it (very, very slowly) through a headset mic, losing massively in a race against a secretary using her fingers. I always dread having some kind of accident to my hands where I have to use one of those, where anyone passing by the window will hear me yelling about Noel Edmonds cleaning out Mr Blobby’s litter tray or whatnot. We close on a deeply embarrassing ‘interview’ with Rayden from Mortal Kombat, who keeps shoving Andy to the floor, before Violet sends him packing. Rather impressively for 1994, there’s an email address over the end credits, though it’s a string of 10 random numbers @ Compuserve, and the Datablast’s gone too. It’s probably for the best, as with this new harder-edged attitude, you’d just be freeze framing through Andy Crane’s self-penned erotica about a man who sees a lady’s ankle.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on December 2, 2020.

5 Responses to “Bad Influence!”

  1. You gonna do a piece on Davro again?

    • Probably not, as I don’t like returning to stuff I’ve already covered. But I’m moving more into video essays next year, so he might feature in one of those.

      Although if Rock With Laughter ever shows up online, I’ll be all over that.

  2. Sincerely, Thankyou for doing this. – I somewhat randomly remembered to myself, “That chap who stuck the cheats on his head in bad influence” and I’ve really been enjoying looking it all up, and I stumbled on your piece about it, which was the icing on said cake. “Nam Rood” – I genuinely think, (looking back) he must have been one of my earliest punk icons. – And I just noticed, (or I THINK I did) a rather obvious drugs joke with his “Christmas crown” in a compilation on the ‘yoo-toob’. – but to be perfectly honest, I don’t mind at all. (Even if I never actually had any of those games at the time) – Oh to be young…

  3. […] [GamesMaster: Part I — GamesMaster Part II — Bad Influence] […]

  4. […] with 1996’s WOW!; a true forgotten example of the genre, even carrying the excitement of the Bad Influence! exclamation mark, and with the added urgency of caps implying its title should always be shouted. […]

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