Way back at the end of the 70s and the early 80s, there were two interesting trends. One was the arrival of the micro-computer. And with the arrival of the micro-computer came games. Screw work, hey?
Most important of all the new computer games, given the graphics of the time, were adventure games. These were commonly text-based: you got a load of text chucked at you – "You are in a small room. In the room is a chest of drawers" – to which you typed in a load of two word commands – "OPEN CHEST" – in order to solve all sorts of puzzles that had been set for you.
At the same time, role-playing games were taking off. In these, you had someone read out the words – "You are in a small room. In the room is a chest of drawers" – to which you responded as some kind of made up medieval character/spaceman/whatever "Doest the chest containeth anything usefuleth?"
Some people got a bit tired by that and decided they’d do it for real – imagine Michael Douglas in The Game or Steven Dillane in The One Game, except with someone rolling dice as you wandered round a deserted lunatic asylum dressed as a wood elf.
And then someone had a cracking idea. "Why," asked TV producer Patrick Dowling, "don’t we do something like that on tele for kids?" And thus, The Crystal Maze was born.
Hang on. That’s not right.
No, wind back a decade or so and switch channel. Because back on the BBC, someone had the idea of something more cerebral and a touch more sci-fi, in which celebrities and brainy members of the public would travel to a far off planet (the BBC studios), interact with shape-changing dragons, and try to solve puzzles that would allow them to go home.
It was The Adventure Game, it lasted for four series. It’s never been repeated or released on DVD. It’s a Lost Gem. Which is ironic because the pesky dragons kept nicking the gems every week.
Here are the titles to get you in the mood.
The basic set up for The Adventure Game was simple, although the details varied from series to series. Three contestants, usually celebrities of the time like Fred Harris, Noel Edmonds or Paul Darrow, would turn up on the planet Arg, which was populated by dragons who liked to mess about with visitors. For the contestants to get home, they’d have to solve a series of adventure game-like puzzles, some physical, some mental, some verbal.
For example, they might get asked "What is the question?" and the only clues they’d have would be two pencils, one with an elastic band tied round its end – the answer’s at the bottom of the entry if you’re stuck. A common problem was working out how the values of the different ‘coins’ of the multi-coloured, polygonal Argon currency, or how to get an object from inside a container they couldn’t get into. If you’ve ever played a computer adventure game, you know the form.
A more Dungeons and Dragons-esque touch was to include the dragons in the puzzles. If the contestants looked like they were doing too well, one would turn up and start interfering; if the contestants were especially stupid, the dragons would drop hints ranging from the subtle to the very very obvious, depending on whether they’d ever be able to get the show into half an hour or not.
From series two came the much-remembered Vortex, a game that involved crossing a grid without stepping onto the same point as the vortex. Here’s what happened if you did.
Very BBC Micro, hey? Usually, this just involved carrying things with you then throwing them onto squares to see what would happen.
Also joining in series two was Lesley Judd as the Mole. Pretending to be one of the celebrities, she was secretly working for the Argons and would try to mess things up for the others without their noticing.
Did the memory cheat?
Well, of course it did. Everyone who remembers The Adventure Game does so fondly. They remember the Australian guy who talked backwards, the butler who needed glasses to hear properly and the talking aspidistra. They may even remember Moira Stuart as one of the dragons in the first series.
What they forget was that it could be a little slow and complicated at times. Here’s the main puzzle from the first episode*:
Do you honestly see any celebrity or anyone else for that matter being able to solve that in half an hour? Of course not. In fact, it might be quite fun to stick Chantelle and anyone else who was on Big Brother into a remake, just to watch them squirm.
So the producers had to cut it a lot. They don’t even try to hide the cuts between parts to cover up the fact the celebrities have been at it for three hours before they had rumbled what was going on.
Things sped up a bit in series two though, with shorter easier puzzles that could be done in parallel rather than in order and the dragons got a bit livelier. The show was more fun as a result, even if it could be accused of dumbing down, and sometimes additional games had to be added if a particularly bright bunch of celebs managed to solve the puzzles faster than normal.
All the same, it’s quite interesting as a show. We have actors having to improvise lines and interact with people like it’s a murder-mystery weekend. And we have celebrities having to use their brains. For brighter kids, it was great, too, since they had a series of puzzles they could solve each week.
There were four series of The Adventure Game. It’s never been repeated. Want to know why? Because, typically the BBC wiped it. Doh! There are bad VHS copies doing the rounds and not all the episodes have survived either. So chances are, it never will be released on DVD. It’s a true Lost Gem.
Next time: It’s The Adventure Game for adults and without the sci-fi – it’s Bernald Falk and Now Get Out of That.
The answer: What is the question? To Be or Not To Be – that is the question. Or if you prefer, 2B or knot 2B.
* It’s worth noticing that even though the ‘dragons’ all had names that were anagrams of ‘dragon’ (the king was the Rangdo, for example), there’s so little quality control going on here that one of the actors calls the other ‘Charmaine’ – her real name.