Feature: You Know What? The GamesMaster Reboot Is An Unexpected Delight

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GamesMaster
Image: E4

“I’m not alone in this attempt to destroy the nostalgic memories of middle-aged men,” quips Robert “Rab” Florence as he introduces the presenting team that fronts E4’s GamesMaster reboot. It’s the first of many lines from the Scotsman that will raise a wry smile during the subsequent 45 minutes, but it hints at the tremendous difficulty this new venture has; the original GamesMaster, hosted by the legendary Dominik Diamond, was as close as you could get to being a semi-religious experience for many gamers in their mid-30s, so it’s easy to see why Florence has reason to poke fun at the reboot’s chances of pleasing those same veteran players. It turns out that he needn’t have been so pessimistic – at least, that’s our opinion, based on the entertaining opening episode.

While this new GamesMaster comes from a different production team and retains little in the way of connective tissue with the original run (with one exception, which we’ll come to shortly), it’s striking how well the tone is struck. Florence deserves the most praise here; a self-confessed fan of the Diamond-led series, he effortlessly slides into the role that his fellow countryman made his own all those years ago, injecting just the right amount of playful humour while allowing his equally likeable co-hosts – Frankie Ward and Ty Logan – room to establish their own identities within the show.

Ward is especially watchable; she’s a font of knowledge for all of the challenges included within and assumes the role of the ‘expert commentator’ that was often filled by a random games journalist back in the ’90s version of the show. Logan, meanwhile, brings with him an infectious, youthful enthusiasm that’s clearly designed to pull in viewers who weren’t alive when the original show was broadcast, and he’s often tasked with patrolling the studio audience with a mic, fishing for opinion.

The challenges, of course, remain the focal point of GamesMaster – and in this opening episode, they’re 50% based on Nintendo games. Super Mario 3D World and Splatoon 2 are both given a large amount of screen time as a result, which goes to show just how popular the Switch is at the moment. However, as before, the show has other segments to break things up; Florence’s gushing review of Cruis’n Blast – filmed on the shores of the River Clyde in his native Scotland – is surprisingly effective, while the ‘Educating Grado’ feature – where the host attempts to explain aspects of video games to his clueless pal – calls to mind the gloriously inventive comedy seen in Consolevania, one of Florence’s previous gaming-related shows.

Florence deserves the most praise here; a self-confessed fan of the Diamond-led series, he effortlessly slides into the role that his fellow countryman made his own all those years ago

Another segment shows expert gamer Sam Tuff attempting an expert challenge on the VR title Beat Saber, while another sees the presenting team tackle the driving/puzzle game hybrid Can’t Drive This. With challenges focused on Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat – and the likes of Untitled Goose Game getting a few seconds on-screen – it’s fair to say that this new version of GamesMaster does a commendable job of showing the vast selection of experiences that are currently available in the world of video gaming, rather than just picking the obvious examples. It would have been nice to have seen some more retro-related stuff, given that a large portion of the target audience is one step away from claiming a state pension, but the series has only just started and we’d imagine we’ll be seeing some older games on display soon (oh, and celebrity challenger DJ Snoochie Shy describing the PlayStation version of the original Tomb Raider as “pixelated” made us bristle ever so slightly, we will confess).

If there’s one solid connection between the old and new, it’s the cameo appearance of Alex Verrey, better known to ’90s TV fans as Big Boy Barry, a fictional character on GamesMaster rival Games World. Verrey – who now runs his own PR firm – actually appeared on GamesMaster before he was on that show, showing off his skills on Sonic the Hedgehog. His role in the modern GamesMaster is to mentor the show’s new ‘expert player’, Little Lad Larry, who takes on Snoochie Shy at Splatoon 2 in this first episode. While the whole setup smacks of ’90s cheesiness, it somehow works – largely because Little Lad Larry is such a likeable character.

But what of the titular GamesMaster himself? Well, it’s fair to say that Sir Trevor McDonald is inspired casting as the video game-loving floating head. His delivery is perfect, and he’s given even more room for jokes than the late Sir Patrick Moore was in the original series. Alongside Florence, he’s responsible for much of the opening episode’s laughs, and we’d honestly struggle to think of a more suitable individual to play the role.

We dare say that a small minority of narrow-minded fans will find this take on the concept too ‘modern’ for their tastes (one of the challengers identifies as non-binary while the duo which plays the super-tough Call of Duty challenge are a same-sex couple), but times have most certainly changed since the 1990s, and it’s great to see GamesMaster become so inclusive and welcoming.

The GamesMaster reboot doesn’t try to reinvent the concept, and that’s what makes it work in our opinion – it’s very much a 2021 take on the original format of challenges, reviews and features, all held together by some excellent presenting and plenty of knowing humour. It’s a shame, then, that a show of this ilk has been pushed out onto YouTube rather than leading on TV; E4 has claimed the approach is ‘social first’ with a televised broadcast to follow, but with around 13,000 views in a day, the debut episode has hardly set the internet alight. Given the massive audience the original show could call upon, it seems to us that the decision to take the rebooted GamesMaster to the internet first was something of a misstep, but that doesn’t detract from this otherwise entertaining production.

Does this new flavour of GamesMaster live up to the glory of the original show? We think so, and it’s worth remembering that even the ’90s iteration had its bumpy moments, and perhaps wasn’t the perfect thing you so hazily recall in 2021, sitting there with two kids, a mortgage and all those years of repressed regret and bitterness. This isn’t the GamesMaster you grew up with – no show ever will be, to be honest – but it’s the next best thing, and on the evidence of this first episode, that’s still pretty good.

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