Retrocon 2024

80s Game Shows: Exploring the Glorious Decade for TV and its Evolution Since

Perhaps more so than any other era, the 1980s was one of incredible experimentation and, sometimes, outright craziness on TV. It’s why so many iconic television shows remain highly watchable to this day, even when mainstream TV viewers see lifelike dragons whipping around the skies every week. It seems fair to say that we’ll never have another decade of TV action as we did in this distinctly retro era.

One genre, which has managed to adapt and remain popular in every era of TV since its inception, stood out even more so in the 80s, with that being game shows. So many different formats, themes, and twists were put on the standardized formula, allowing people to test knowledge, family ties, skill, athleticism, and luck on 80s game shows. It was an incredible time for game shows, especially when you look at what’s come in the years since.

From trivia with a twist to muscle-bound warriors

One of the most iconic game shows of the 80s, building off of the fame established in the 60s and 70s, was The Newlywed Game. Presented by stalwart Bob Eubanks and later Jim Lange and Paul Rodriguez, it would pit couples against each other to test their personal trivia points. These revealing questions often ended in shock reveals, and in some cases, calls to divorce lawyers. So simple was the premise, and yet so telling, people across the country would play and practice at home.

Featuring a wall of celebrities on a tic-tac-toe board, when Hollywood Squares aired in 1980, 1981, and was revived in 1986, it leaned heavily into comedic angles, with celebs being fed jokes or bluff answers to see if contestants would be thrown off. Around this same time, in the late-80s, skill and athleticism game shows were on the rise. Win, Lose Or Draw saw two teams of two celebs and one contestant faceoff in a men-vs-women game of Pictionary, essentially.

While that game drew on one’s ability to draw and work as a team, Concentration’s final run (from 1987 to 1991) reduced the board from 30 to 25 tiles but was still based on the memory game, linking numbers to prizes. Battle of the Network Stars picked up steam throughout the 80s, putting TV stars in sporting challenges, but the most impressive athleticism-based game show was, undoubtedly, the 1989-launched American Gladiators. Here, amateur athletes had to best the show’s chosen champions in a set of physical challenges.

The best of 80s game shows

Many of the game shows that were at the top of the listings throughout the 1980s continued decades later, and some are even still going to this day. While it started in the 70s, it was in the 80s that The Price Is Right really hit its stride, with host Bob Barker becoming a national celebrity and face of the game show genre. The game is so beloved and simple that it continues to run today. Close behind is Family Feud. Another that’s still popular now, the trivia show pits two families against each other for cash prizes.

On the more inventive side of things, Jeopardy! returned to the spotlight in 1984 with Alex Trebek hosting and Johnny Gilbert announcing. Rather than the usual Q&A format, the show offered a range of answer clues that the contestant had to string together to land on the answer.

Still, few shows can stand up to Wheel of Fortune once Pat Sajak took to the stage in 1981. From 1981 to 1989, Sajak would titillate audiences around the country with his wit during the hangman-like game show.

Game show models adapting to the times

Around the US and in other nations where game shows are a big part of pop culture, such as in the UK, game shows can be seen as a reflection of their era – even those that stand the test of time, like Wheel and Family Feud. In a deep dive into game shows as a part of the zeitgeist in the UK, contemporary shows are noted as even being influenced by the persuasions of the government and how they encourage people to live.

It’s interesting to see, as there has been a swing from team and sports-based shows to individualized trivia. This has been further emphasized by the surge of online-based game show titles. While you are in a live lobby with other players and the human host of the game, you’d still be on your own in your living room, testing your luck on the games. Still, the sheer number of live game shows at the online casino indicates how popular this has become.

From Monopoly Live to The Greatest Cards Show, Cash or Crash to Deal or No Deal Live, it’s you against the game to try to win prizes. You can almost begin to see this trend on UK TV from the 00s when the producers caught lightning in a bottle with The Weakest Link. Anne Robinson is an absurdly mean host, pitting what should be mostly a team of contestants against each other, setting the trend for a one-vs-all mentality in game shows. Golden Balls had fun with this, too, making players secretly decide to split or steal the pot.

Game shows ran wild in the 80s, trying out some new ideas and going a long way away from the trivia format that underpins the genre. While still prominent today, four decades ago, game shows were in their prime.

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  1. Game shows have been a big aspect growing up and still enjoy to this day. Catching The Price is Right when off of school, or after wanting to see reruns of Scrabble or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego on Fridays. Those were a lot in the 90's leading to reignite the interest with Who Wants to be a Millionaire. One from the 80's here overlooked was Press Your Luck. Something fascinating with watching the Whammies and seeing how much the board would give. Maybe it was the popularity of Who Wants to be a Millionaire that sparked reboots of these older series starting at the turn of the millennium. And also my goal of collecting those games.


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