Long before reality TV took over,
actual reality of a different sort ruled the airwaves. Game shows, which went through a boom in the '90s, feature people just like you and me plucked from obscurity to compete for prizes in various mental and physical challenges. While some of these competition shows may still cross your mind occasionally, most of these 33 game shows from the '90s, you've probably totally forgotten about — and possibly with good reason. Some of them, like Studs and The Big Date are mildly updated versions of popular '70s show The Dating Game that add slight ribaldry, center-parted hairdos, and little else.
Others were Gen-X attempts to rebrand the game show for their
own generation — MTV "ironically" created so many game shows that they stopped being a joke and became a major feature of the channel. Singled Out, Trashed, Idiot Savants and webRIOT are just a few that make the list.
The shows for and involving kids were where the most creative leaps in the genre happened.
Legends of the Hidden Temple and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, with their winning combinations of mental challenge and savvy world-building, got an entire generation hooked on trivia.
Let's go for the challenge round and check out some of these lesser-known shows!
It seems like an over-the-top joke from a dystopian movie: in a world where the system is broken and there's no government regulation, three contestants with several thousand dollars worth of real-life debt compete on a game show to have it wiped out.
Based on the home game of the same name, this series offered a pre-internet form of interactivity, where for a mere $4.98 players could call a 900-number and play along using their touch-tone telephones, with the highest scorer winning a prize.
This dating game, where a contestant tried to match answers with one of three potential mates to win a date, is mostly notable for an early appearance by young Jon Hamm with a haircut that instantly dates the clip.
A squidgier version of
The Dating Show where siblings would try and find dates for each other. Losers were dropped dunk-tank style into trashcans filled with confetti.
Mark-Paul Gosselaar hosted this physical challenge show where two teams would vie in trivia and events for points to win....telescopes?
Jenny McCarthy and Chris Hardwick originally hosted this living
Guess Who-style dating game where choices would whittle down a pool of 50 dates to a handful, who would then compete to try and win a date with the person choosing.
'Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?'
Ok, OK, none of us forgot this trivia game show, based on the equally popular computer game. Each episode had contestants track down one of Carmen's criminal associates using clues, trivia, and skits, followed by trying to track Carmen herself, and maybe winning a trip to her destination.
'Legends Of The Hidden Temple'
Combining delightful nerdy history trivia with an Indiana Jones adventure feel, each episode centered around a specific artifact and led to a temple run that tested contestants' physical and mental prowess.
Fox's slightly racier version of
The Dating Game had two guys go on dates with three ladies, then answer questions to win little hearts — whomever had more would be the tiebreaker should more than one couple correctly choose who wanted to date whom at the game's end.
Exes were pitted against each other in a fake courtroom to decide who ultimately was responsible for their breakup. Each "client" was represented by a counselor of their own gender, though occasionally they'd step up for some karaoke to tell their own tale.
This promo pretty much explains it all: it's just like Jeopardy, but for kids! And if you get questions wrong, you might get doused from above!
Playground games and sports were taken to the next level in this Nickelodeon show that occasionally featured celebrity guests hosting games, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Hey, it was the '90s.
Nickelodeon's athletic game show pitted three teens against each other in extreme sports competition, culminating in a final climb on the Aggro Crag.
A combination quiz show and running game, contestants competed for time to run through a maze of mirrors, go blind with teammate guidance through a Honeycomb Maze, and finally head to the Chamber of Knowledge where they'd be asked questions by various Gate Guardians.
Real talk, none of us really forgot this shopping-centric show where contestants would answer questions and guess prices in hopes of making it to a final, literal supermarket sweep where whomever racked up the biggest tab won the game.
Marc Sommers hosted this pie-centric punishment game show, where contestants would watch pre-recorded segments that would be paused at specific points, whence the title question would come into play, before the tape was un-paused and the actual results were seen.
In Fox Broadcasting's answer to
Double Dare, two gender-segregated teams would compete against each other in messy mini-games and quiz questions to get a chance to run through the Fun House in the final round. The last season featured a celebrity ringer on each team, including a young Leo DiCaprio.
Predating the similar interactive quiz elements of phone game HQ, viewers who downloaded
webRIOT software could log on when the show began in their time zone, answer questions, win prizes, chat with other players, and even become contestants on future shows IRL.
A bit of a misnomer as the kids were
clearly toddler-age or older on this Family Channel show. Parents and kids would compete in a series of games straight from Field Day (including the scandalous for Family Channel 'Sit On It' where parents would build sandcastles and the children would, well, sit on them, for points).
This show aimed at pre-teens used a Magic 8-Ball to determine which category contestants would play on each turn, to advance on a life-size game board.
'Secrets Of The Cryptkeeper's Haunted House'
I'm not sure who thought the ghoulish Cryptkeeper from HBO's clearly adult series
Tales From The Crypt would be a perfect host for a kids' gameshow...but they were absolutely right.
It'd be easy to forget VH1's first game show, testing contestants' knowledge of celebrity scandal and music video savvy in three rounds. The show was cancelled after less than a season.
Wheel Of Fortune was given a '90s cyber-update with this version aimed at kids. In addition to the usual rules (spin the wheel, guess the letters), it also included physical challenges and mini-games.
This MTV gameshow had four contestants pick their "savant category" — something they were unusually well-versed in - and play through an entire week, with the winner of the day getting to play a bonus game and the winner of the week walking away with a grand prize. Questions were often framed as comedy sketches played by the show's writers.
Chris Hardwick hosted this show where stuff was at stake. Teams of two brought three beloved objects each from home, and if the opposing team beat you to the correct answers, smash went your CD player.
MST3K's Joel Hodgson and comedian Brian Posehn wrote and occasionally starred in question sketches.
'Win Ben Stein's Money'
Nothing screams '90s like Ben Stein hosting a game show with his own money on the line, with the current
Jimmy Kimmel Live! host as raunchy emcee/sidekick. Stein took the place of the lowest-scoring contestant in the show's second half, offsetting and negating the amount of his money contestants could win.
BET brought back this '80s classic and updated it to be more family-centric, with non-celebrity contestants from three generations of family winning points instead of cash, and coming back to compete until they lost.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? mainstay Greg Proops hosted this Family Feud-style setup, where the main gimmick was contrasting teams: Astronomers vs. Astrologers, Firefighters vs. Pyromaniacs, Vegans vs. Deli Workers, and Morticians vs. Clowns. Sometimes the "opposites" were oddly esoteric, like Nudists vs. Porn Stars, Mall Santas vs. Elvis Impersonators, or Bowlers vs. Marathon Runners.
A current couple is set up on dates with other singles, and come back to discuss the results. Though it seems odd to determine the fate of an existing relationship based on a lone date, each choose whether to have the titular "change of heart" or stay together. It's when the decisions differ that things get
This show was a precursor to professional gaming, with kids going head-to-head playing video games for points to advance to a maze of prizes. It also featured a catchy C&C Music Factory knock-off theme.
A very young Ryan Seacrest was one of the hosts of this internet-themed quiz show, which featured cyber-categories of mini-games like Sound Bytes, Instant Message, and Click Pix.
Video game trivia and blue screen technology combined to let one lucky team enter the Video Zone, where they live-action played three levels to reach the final boss, a Video Wizard. Before that, players competed in Mikey's World, where game-related trivia and mini-games moved character Mikey around a board.
This mash of random mini-games, combined with its intermittent air time, makes
Shop 'Til You Drop feel like some magical fever dream to those who recall it. Two teams competed, but only one got to the title round, where contestants would run around exchanging and grabbing prizes from different "stores," hoping to set up a total cost of more than $2,500 to win a trip; they got to keep whatever prizes they'd "shopped" regardless.
Whether they were goofy, goopy, exciting to watch or to play along, these shows helped define TV in the '90s.