Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of "Nickelodeon Guts," the sports competition series hosted by the network more commonly associated with slime, cartoons and a Friday-night programming switch to "The Munsters" and "I Love Lucy." "Guts" was one of several headliners of a strange turn the network took in the early part of the 1990s -- instead of welcoming kids home from school with cartoons, Nickelodeon aired show after show of children competing against one another in kind of a cheerful, consequence-free "Hunger Games."
Nickelodeon’s game shows were a staple of any child coming of age in the '90s, which might explain an awful lot about this generation. In honor of the debut of "Guts," here’s how the shows in Nickelodeon’s golden age stack up against one another.
Unranked: "Make the Grade," "Finders Keepers," "Get the Picture"
I'm not entirely certain these shows ever existed.
7. "Think Fast"
Weirdly unfocused. Best characterized by a fake-out round where a clown would rush through the studio and the contestants would have to answer questions about the clown. Clowns have no place in children’s entertainment.
6. "What Would You Do?"
Undoubtedly the best theme song of all the Nickelodeon TV shows, although it loses points for confronting the viewer with a horrific disembodied eye right off the bat. Loses even more points for not really being a competition. "What Would You Do?" was less of a game show and more of a Thing That Happened. Still, any show hosted by Marc Summers can’t be half-bad.
5. "Nick Arcade"
Oh man, I would have been so good at this show. I recently calculated that, over the course of my 27 years, I’ve extinguished the lives of (at minimum) several hundred thousand virtual characters. "Nick Arcade" started airing when I was 8, which would have cut down on the body count a bit but would have left me with the fast-twitch reflexes required to max out a first-level score on "Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts." The green-screened final boss level would have been somewhat daunting, but “jump over this thing that’s about to kill you” is platform gaming 101.
4. "Wild & Crazy Kids"
This is a serious question: Does anyone remember an episode of this show where one team had to pilot a tennis-ball-launcher-armed rubber battleship past a wall of players also armed with tennis ball launchers? I swear on my life that this actually happened, but I can’t find any evidence of it occurring on YouTube, which makes me worry that there are several things wrong with my long-term memory. Actual confirmation of the rubber battleship tennis ball war would kick "Wild & Crazy Kids" into the top spot immediately.
3. "Double Dare"
Marc Summers’ magnum opus. "Double Dare" gets big points for being the most confident of the Nickelodeon menagerie. This show was not messing around -- it used its first event as a cold open, which showed a respect for its audience (ostensibly composed of grade-schoolers and proto-hipsters) that you wouldn’t even find in a PBS documentary these days. This is because "Double Dare" wanted you to be a better person.
The final obstacle course required the team with the most points to dig through pools filled with slime or pingpong balls in order to find a flag -- once found, they’d pass the flag on to the next member of the family and the process would repeat until the final one was found. Oftentimes, the flag would be so covered in slime that it would be essentially invisible, and the team would wallow in public misery for minutes at a time before the final buzzer sounded. This seemed exceptionally unfair to me as a kid, but in hindsight, "Double Dare" was just being realistic. Sometimes you will achieve your dreams. Other times you will wander the muck for eternity, forever a failure. In the end, all you will have is Marc Summers, and that is perhaps enough.
"Guts" always struck me as the most serious of the Nickelodeon game shows. There was a real sense of consequence to the whole affair. It took place in a stadium, the events were only slightly goofy -- races, obstacle courses, bungee jumping, etc.-- and the whole thing ran on a meticulous points system. Later versions of the show expanded it to a worldwide audience, so a competitor would find himself or herself representing an entire country. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a kid. The prize was worth it, however; winners would take home a piece of the storied Aggro Crag, the daunting mountain on which the final race of each episode would take place.
Recent Internet rumors held that the piece of the Aggro Crag was a fake prize -- that kids would just take home a gift bag or something equally lame while the piece was reused to dupe future unsuspecting champions. At least one piece of the Crag has turned up online, however, so we’ll have to dispense with this ugly rumor.
1. "Legends of the Hidden Temple"
A quick aside: Before Wikipedia began getting really serious about cracking down on frivolous edits, "Legends of the Hidden Temple" had one of the most detailed and frankly terrifying Wikipedia entries of all time. For example, this 2006 version of the page includes the following information:
• Host Kirk Fogg’s choice of pants, noting a switch from shorts to blue jeans in Season 2.
• Comparative win percentages between all six teams over the show’s history. The Green Monkeys were first (surprisingly), with the Purple Parrots bringing up the rear (unsurprisingly).
• This paragraph, presented without comment: “In the show's first season, Fogg gave the instructions for the moat round and the temple games. In Season 2, these duties were turned over to Olmec, and many began to question the relevance of Fogg on the show. Nonetheless, Fogg stayed throughout.”
Today, the "Legends" Wikipedia page is a lot cleaner. Perhaps it’s for the best.
"Legends" gets the top spot over "Guts" for one reason: "Guts" might have been more serious and "Guts" might have been more challenging, but "Legends" is one of the few competitive game shows to actually have a narrative. There’s no reason for you to climb the Aggro Crag save for Being The Very Best, like a live-action version of "Pokemon," but "Legends" made you Indiana Jones. When Olmec the talking statue head gave contestants their final instructions, you could tell that these kids were totally focused on retrieving whatever historical artifact that was lost in the Temple’s depths. Making it up the Aggro Crag first meant you were the fastest, but a trip out of the Temple turned you into a legend.
Still can’t figure out why anyone had trouble with the Shrine of the Silver Monkey, though. It’s three pieces, guys! Feet, body, head, in that order. Not that difficult.