The Oddball 80s Magic Of "Battle Of The Video Games"

The Oddball 80s Magic Of “Battle Of The Video Games”

by Paul Freitag

Back in the early 80s, the boom in arcades and entertainment made icons of the likes of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Q*Bert. The popularity and novelty of video games was great enough to produce a fair amount of peculiar cultural runoff. If you grew up then, you may or may not remember watching cartoon series based on the likes of Kangaroo and Space Ace, or raunchy arcade-set comedies like Hollywood Zap and Joysticks (“More Fun Than Games!”). Some dubious efforts to translate the excitement of playing video games into different mediums also happened, as seen with the ill-conceived board game above.

There was even a game show based on the concept of watching people play video games: the TBS-produced “Starcade.” The whole concept behind the show was, basically, “hey, kids, how’d you like to have the feeling of hanging around an arcade without actually getting to play?” Yet somehow for video game-obsessed kids like me it was worth ditching cartoons for at least a half-hour on Saturday mornings to watch. But as a relic of that time, nothing may be as odd and mesmerizing as “Battle Of The Video Games,” a one-time special featuring Heather Locklear, Scott Baio and a bunch of other 80s stars. If for nothing else, it deserves recognition for leaving us with footage of Lynn Redgrave playing BurgerTime.

This was also the time when celebrity competitions like “Circus of the Stars” and “Battle of the Network Stars” were at the height of their popularity. On these shows, well-known TV performers would perform weird stunts, trapeze tricks and race kayaks in front of the cameras in order to raise money for charity, promote their shows and amuse millions. These shows were distinct from the celebrity reality shows of today in that (a) the actors actually had current shows at the time, and (b) they were specials, not series. So instead of watching Tempestt Bledsoe attempt to lose twenty pounds over an entire season, you’d just admire her as she did a quick tiptoe across the tightrope, and voila! Done!

Given the popularity of video games and shows like these, it’s not surprising someone decided to combine them to make “Battle Of The Video Games.”

This one-shot special was, in essence, the celebrity version of “Watch Someone Else Play a Video Game.” Produced by Los Angeles’ KTLA (Channel 5), it aired once, on a late summer evening in 1983 before the fall brought such gifts as new series like “Jennifer Slept Here” and “Bay City Blues.” Thanks to the magic of archiving and file sharing, however, the show has lately emerged for a brand-new audience to view with awe and amazement.

In style and format, the special was like a more youth-oriented version of the “Battle of the Network Stars” specials, gathering together a wide group of actors and celebrities to compete. But because KTLA was a local station and not a nationwide network, many of its stars were notably more second-tier than “Battle of the Network Stars” might have featured.

While set on a cheap-looking soundstage, the show was well-funded enough to have three (!) hosts: “Happy Days”’ Anson Williams (Potsie); model Jayne Kennedy (who would have been familiar to viewers because of her appearances on “NFL Today,” if they weren’t aware of her popular exercise videos or Playboy spread) and future game-show host Marty Cohen (“Super Password,” “The (New) $25,000 Pyramid”). Technically, Cohen was billed as the “commentator” rather than a host, as three hosts would have been silly, but the difference in roles seems to have mainly been that, as commentator, Cohen got to tell more bad jokes.

The contestants were about as random of an 80s grab bag as you could ever dream up: soap actors, Dynamite cover regulars and Lou Ferrigno. During the introductions, some performers were judged to be well known enough to be identifiable without a TV show credit (Scott Baio); some got the name-hint of their TV show being read after their name (Mindy Cohn from “Facts Of Life,” Todd Bridges from “Diff’rent Strokes”); and others, like Jenilee Harrison (Suzanne Somers’ replacement on “Three’s Company”), just got the vague “TV Star” descriptor. Watching it now, the actor whose presence seems most random is Lynn Redgrave, who was then hyping her (soon-to-be-cancelled) TV series “Teachers Only.”

Here’s how the battle worked: The celebrity players were divided into four teams of three. Across three rounds, a player from each team would come out to play a different video game (Ms. Pac-Man, BurgerTime and Frogger). After the third round, the two teams that had scored the most points sent up their best player for a rousing round of head-to-head Pac-Man.

Some highlights!

Scott Baio explains to his “Happy Days” co-star Anson Williams that he enjoys Ms. Pac-Man, but then quickly corrects himself, saying that he meant Pac-Man. Because Ms. Pac-Man is a girls game, silly!

Mindy Cohn (Natalie!) explained that she doesn’t date so it “doesn’t end up in the papers.” She placed a distant second behind Ms. Pac-Man hustler Philip McKeon (aka the kid from “Alice”).

Heather Locklear edged out Jenilee Harrison in Ms. Pac-Man. In her interview she talked about juggling roles on “T.J. Hooker” and “Dynasty” at the same time.

One would think Lou Ferrigno would be better at BurgerTime, but he placed last.

Deney Terrio, host of “Dance Fever,” talks about his new movie Ladies’ Night (later renamed A Night in Heaven.) He also kicked ass at Frogger, dominating the round.

Redgrave did amazingly well, and ended up playing BurgerTime, placing third! But in the final round, Todd Bridges faced off against Philip McKeon. McKeon, it turns out, was a bit of a ringer, as evidenced by his Ms. Pac-Man game, wherein he clearly had patterns memorized.

The McKeon vs. Bridges finale has to count as the most tense match-up between two sitcom stars playing a video game that the world has ever seen via videotape.

The show also featured a brief behind-the-scenes look at the making of a BurgerTime machine, in the Midway plant in Chicago, which served as an excuse to cut away from the single-set stage. Unfortunately, it was about as exciting as a 3M industrial film — who could have guessed?

It’s impressive that a local station like KTLA talked a dozen working actors into appearing on a show about video games, even if it turns out that watching people play arcade games isn’t exciting even when they players are B-list celebrities. But sadly, if I found a dozen more shows exactly like this, only with, say, William Conrad, Ricky Schroeder and the girl from “Whiz Kids” playing Donkey Kong 3, I’d watch them as well.

Paul Freitag writes regularly for Fine Print Magazine and Daily Grindhouse. He also owns a working Vectrex, and knows far too much about the cast of “Three’s Company.”