I vividly recall the morning when my father's standard "Hey Kirk, wake up or you'll be late for school." was replaced with "Hey Kirk, they're making a TV show where people play video games for prizes." I leapt from the covers and hounded my dad for details, but all he knew came from some thirty second ad he had seen on TBS that morning (It was still WTBS in those days. Ah, the Superstation.). I got dressed in front of the television in hopes of getting a look at this alleged commercial. I ended up boarding my school bus utterly dissatisfied. Later that day one of my classmates verified my father's claim. However, the descriptive powers of a fellow fourth grader only caused more frustration. So I'll spare you additional suspense; the show was called Starcade, it was a game show where contestants competed by playing four different video arcade games. The grand prize was usually a real live freestanding video game.
Now you can watch entire episodes of Starcade on their official web site!
For most, watching other people play video games does not hold tremendous entertainment value (which is probably why the fools at NBC passed on the show) In truth, only about six minutes of the half hour was devoted to game play. While a vidiot like myself would have tuned in to just about any video game related entertainment, Starcade was exceedingly compelling because it played upon one of my wildest fantasies— to own a real video game. Vicariously living out this scenario was actually the only reason I ever used to watch Silver Spoons. The other big attractor of Starcade was the fact that new video games were often unveiled to the public on the air. And as if that weren't enough their Hotline segment was practically the only televised source of video game news. I did not miss an episode. I watched with a pencil in hand so that I could write down the names of any video games that were new to me. My ultimate, and failed goal was to compile a list of every existing game.
Starcade-watching events became the norm. We reacted to it with Super Bowl-like enthusiasm, and the moment each episode ended our only choice was to channel our ecstasy into the Atari 2600. The earliest airings of the show could generate quite a crowd of neighborhood kids, but after the novelty wore off only a few of us diehards stayed committed to the afternoon time slot. One such zealot was a pal of mine named Brad Felts. His house was an ideal Starcade hangout, forever stocked with Goldfish crackers and canned soda pop. (Their television set even sported what was likely our town's first-ever Betamax player.)
On a Spring morning Brad showed up to homeroom with the crazed look of inspiration on his face. He erupted into babble and I sensed that he'd been waiting many hours to unload his revelation upon me. It was something about Starcade, and a club, and titles and duties, and other foreign concepts. I patronizingly agreed to his wishes and I even signed something. It was a letter...
Two months later I was deeply thankful that I had gone along with Brad's mania. He informed me that his mother had used her superpowers of adulthood to mail our letter to the JM Production company, creators of Starcade. But not only that— they wrote back...
As indicated above, the honorable Mavis E. Arthur herself granted us the world's first and only Starcade Fan Club! Thus President Brad and I were bestowed our first-ever positions of authority. But what is glory without riches? In fact, the Starcade HQ saw fit to issue us official regalia...
To this day I've never worn a more prestigious uniform. They also included a small character called a Weepul bearing the Starcade logo. (Unfortunately it fell prey to the family cat. But you can take heart Weepul sympathizers, the cat is long dead now.)
So what do a couple of nine-year-old boys do with instant power and status? Well, after our prolonged boasting sessions were over, we found ourselves at a loss. Then it struck me that our new lifestyle would inevitably involve loads of privileged information followed by hoards of new enemies. We were in desperate need of a secret code. So I rose to the challenge and developed this devious little number...
Now, I realize that to the unrefined this document appears to contain nothing more than a series of arbitrary figures. Au contraire, my friend; what you're seeing is a sophisticated communications system in which each symbol represents a graphic from a video game that begins with its corresponding letter. So, K is a glove from Knock Out, R is a race car from Rally-X, X is an enemy from Xevious and so on. Now do you see why I was the Vice President? I thought so.
So with the code out of the way, the next order of business was assembling our army of fans. We collected pages of names of potential members. We gave all the local children reason to be very excited, and it felt great to be in the center of it all. The letter from JM Productions promised that each kid we reported would receive a free button and Weepul. But, you know, we had our spoils and I guess we were a bit too fourth grader-ish to follow through on actually mailing in the list. Nor were we effective enough to even update headquarters on our club activities as they had requested. In reality our only club activity was watching more Starcade. And with reruns and such, we even phased out of that. It's astonishing to recall how we so swiftly squandered our prized positions. Our attention spans had forsaken us, but worse was the way we forsook our people. I realize we were young, but in a very real sense we fell right into the common snares of authority— egoism and conceit, all while failing to fulfill the responsibilities that came with the job. Then we lost all interest before our term was over. We stuffed our pockets with Weepuls while ignoring the needs of our followers.
Just as the excitement of our achievement wore off, we got another letter verifying the date of our Starcade Hotline appearance (as well as another plea to send in names of our members).
On September 29, 1983 I raced home and nervously planted myself before the TV. Then it happened...
We went nuts. Of course there was immediate talk of reforming the club, but even in the face of TV stardom, we managed to fall back into basic fifth grade survival mode.
The grandest moment of this entire chapter of my life occurred many months (possibly years) after the shirts arrived and after our photo was aired. I was visiting the home of a friend whom I hadn't known during my stint as V. P. and I was shocked to find his entire family watching a syndicated episode of Starcade. Naturally, I piped up with tales of my fan club and appearance on the show. I was met with accusatory frowns from his parents and my friend's teenage sister verbalized what everyone was thinking "You are such a liar. Don't lie to us!" I felt frustrated and ashamed until minutes later when I showed up on their TV screen. Yes, it happened to be "my" episode! That afternoon, I learned the true meaning of vindication.
In February of 2001 my annual retro gaming fixation lead me to search the web for any mention of Starcade. As it turned out, JM Productions had recently built an elaborate online shrine to the show. I immediately emailed them, stating my place in Starcade history. Not only did James R. Caruso and Mavis E. Arthur remember me, they sent me a complimentary package that contained a new button, a video tape of my episode, color copies of all of our almost 20-year-old correspondence, and a new Weepul!! (Sadly, my second Weepul has since been destroyed by my dog.) This telling act of generosity (and crazy archiving skills) made me understand exactly why Starcade was and is so special. No wonder I was such a fan.
As they said on the show.. "See you next time, and until then, I hope all of your troubles get zapped."
Starcade Fan Club
(For the record, I didn't have to rely on Starcade to achieve the rank of arcade game owner. Several years after they were out of vogue I bought a Tempest machine from a church for fifty dollars. It towered in the corner of my bedroom like a guardian angel. I tell you there is nothing quite as serene as falling asleep by the soothing glow of a back-lit Tempest marquee.)