Why People on Twitter Are Still Asking This 90s YTV Host for Video Game Help
Remember Nicholas Picholas? We asked the former Video & Arcade Top 10 host about pre-YouTube speed runs, N64's heavily-guarded release, and the show's later efforts to be "less stabby."
'Nicholas Schimmelpenninck' didn't have the same ring. Still via Youtube
Ten years on from the rise of YouTube, the passive game-watching experience has become almost as ubiquitous as the act of playing itself. For those just looking to zone out on the couch, it might even be the norm. Just try doing a quick search on vintage Super Mario Bros. games or updates for Gears of War and you'll find hours' worth of footage from self-appointed specialists offering anything from tutorials and tips, to speed runs and overly in-depth reviews. Scrolling through the volumes of content can be overwhelming, not to mention boring. Back in the 90s, though, there weren't too many options to see the newest, hottest games, unless you tuned into Video & Arcade Top 10.
The Toronto-made weekly show on YTV was a televised godsend for young Nintendo Entertainment Systems obsessives, where a group of acid wash-and-flannel-clad pre-teens got to test out punch-em-ups and flight sims in front of a studio audience, often before they hit the market. Hosting it all from a seemingly subterranean, chain link-lined clubhouse full of consoles was Nicholas Picholas (born Schimmelpenninck), a curly-haired, cherub-faced guy in a Public Enemy baseball jersey. When it premiered in 1991, the idea of kids wanting to watch kids playing video games seemed weird, but from a marketing standpoint, it was a major breakthrough for the industry.
"I didn't think about it as watching people play, I thought about it as you're seeing a game that you haven't seen before," Picholas told VICE from his home in Buffalo, where he currently works as a morning radio host. "I think at the time, you'd go into a store, a video retailer, and you'd see the cover of the game and either it looked good or it didn't. That's how you made that judgment. This was an opportunity to see someone play the game and see what the next levels were... I guess that was fun."
While Picholas ultimately became the face of the show, he wasn't the first. The debut season was hosted by Gordon Woolvett, a Hamilton-born actor who'd later be cast as a regular on sci-fi show Andromeda. Picholas, then a DJ for Toronto's CFNY, was first picked up to talk about new music in between game segments. He'd take over in season two, a position held until the show went off the air in 2006.
Retaining the anything-goes quality of other YTV shows, Video & Arcade Top 10 was filmed live with a studio audience on a shoestring budget. Filming days were intense and played loose, with up to six episodes banked at a time. There could be up to 12 games played in a single day. Filming in excess of 700 episodes, Picholas admits to having learned a lot of the game-specific jargon on the fly. Though he says that some players weren't as successful at picking up the basics for their first-time experiences.
"The games were so new that our players didn't know how to get past the first level," the host recalls. "They're sitting on it for the first time, maybe they get a half hour to play it in a practice room setting. You know, you're playing the game for the first time: you don't know what to do, where to go, how to move on."
In order to push the tapings along, he explains: "We would sometimes help them. We'd have someone, an assistant, help them move on to the next level so they wouldn't get stuck." But while there was a serious learning curve on certain episodes, Video & Arcade Top 10 wasn't afraid to bust out the favourites multiple times, from Mario Kart racers to Zelda games across the various consoles.As the show evolved, so did gaming technology. Over the years, they covered 8-bit classics on the NES, moved to the Super Nintendo, and hurtled towards higher fidelity with the N64 and more. Of the latter, Picholas recalls with a laugh that the mid 90s system was heavily guarded when it first entered the studio, for fear of a security breach.
"When N64 came out, they treated this thing like it was gold. The people from Nintendo would come with security. I imagine they were just very afraid of anybody taking the system, or copying it, or getting into it before it's allowed to be released."
While the show started in a simpler time of space shooters and side-scrolling adventures from world famous plumber Mario, times got tougher as trends skewed towards violent head-to-head combat games, or more adult-themed narratives. Being on a youth-geared network, Picholas says that the show's later years compensated by trotting out E-rated pablum.
"Once the games got more violent and the internet came alive, which happened during the span of the show, it became more and more difficult to do the show. We'd have to tell the kids, 'Hey, don't pick up the knife, we don't want you stabbing the guy.' We were on YTV, a youth network that's trying to keep [its programming] less stabby—you wanted to stay away from any of that stuff. I remember at the end it became difficult, we were playing children's games—toddler, single digit kids game—because you couldn't play anything else. Everything else had this intense violence."
After the show wrapped in 2006, Picholas put the focus back on his radio career. He currently co-hosts a morning show for Buffalo's Kiss 98.5, does a series of local club gigs as a DJ, and spins songs at Buffalo Sabres and Bills games. A busy father of three, he's not gripping a joystick the way he once was, but he admits he's been keeping an eye on the gaming world. He was blown away by the summer explosion of Pokémon Go, noting that he saw waves of "very zombie-esque" players flocking to Buffalo's Canalside district to catch 'em all. He's also been keeping an eye on the ongoing development of the still under-wraps Nintendo NX console, but admits he's a bit more excited about the about-to-be-released NES Classic Edition, a miniature system pre-loaded with vintage games like Metroid, Mega Man, and, of course, the Mario series.
"I'm curious to know if they have any appeal to someone that doesn't know it," he wonders about the nostalgic, antiquated graphics of the retro Nintendo system. "If I give it to my kid, is she just going to look at it and say, 'Dad, are you kidding me?' and hand it back to me?"
While his kids may or may not be getting some insider tips on the classics any time soon, Picholas does encounter the odd fan over Twitter.A few years back, cable channel GameTV picked up a block of Video & Arcade Top 10 reruns, which led to a handful of gamers tracking the old host down on social media to get some choice advice.
"I started getting these Twitter messages like 'Hey, I need help with whatever game' and I'm like 'hold on...' I can't tell if this is someone being funny, or a legitimate gamer watching the show, thinking it's fresh and wanting codes. You know how you can profile someone's social and see if they're for real or if they're messing with you. I didn't know what to do with that. I'll tell you what I can remember?"
With Picholas having had plenty of experience working the original NES, it may be worth tracking him down online this winter once the NES Classic Edition hits. For anyone who was there back in 1986, figuring out how to put together the Legend of Zelda's original Tri-Force can be pretty tricky.
Follow Nicholas Picholas on Twitter.
Follow Gregory Adams on Twitter.