This weekend, Nickelodeon will air a TV movie based on the ‘90s TV game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. While most attempts to turn nostalgia for games or toys into fiction sound awful, I’m pretty optimistic about this one—because despite being a game show, every episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple was its own epic adventure.
To understand the appeal of the show, you have to understand the game itself, which had a very complicated set-up. First, six teams had to cross a moat. The first four would then listen to a giant stone head tell a story and answer questions about the story. The first two teams to answer three questions correctly would move on. Then, the two teams had to compete in three challenges for “Pendants of Life.” The first two challenges gave half a pendant and the third a full one. The team with the most pendants would move on to the temple. The temple run was basically a hellish obstacle course where the team would have to get to an object, described in the story, and get out. In three rooms there were “temple guards,” random dudes who would grab children. A full pendant sent them away; anything else and the kid was done.
First of all, the complicated nature of the game was vital to enjoying it. Each episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple goes through six different games, making it feel like an actual adventure—and really hard to get bored. Also, because the rounds kept changing, you could totally imagine yourself being able to beat at least one of them.
The original idea for this show was apparently a haunted house filled with monsters rather than a temple and guards. The Nickelodeon executive who rejected the pitch and asked for changes deserves a medal because, without it, we wouldn’t have gotten Olmec, the giant talking head who turned a nondescript game show into an iconic one. There is a whole generation of history teachers out there who had to deal with kids who only knew that the Olmecs made giant stone heads because of this show. There is also a whole generation of kids who learned very bad history from it. The “legends” part of the title was stretched to its breaking point. I wish to god I’d had the internet when I was a kid because trying to figure out how much of what Olmec said was true and how much was a lie was a constant occupation of mine.
It’s really easy to make fun of how hilariously bad the prizes were, but no kid gave a shit, I promise. The point wasn’t to get something, it was to win. Watching it, I never dreamed of a Norwegian Cruise or a CD Player, I just wanted to dominate other kids. Or to be the person watching who picked the winning team. “I knew those Blue Barracudas, two kids I know literally nothing about, looked like winners!” Watching Legends of the Hidden Temple was exactly like watching sports is for adults, especially once you get to the temple run.
The temple run is practically a sport unto itself, except the game itself is the opposing team. Kirk Fogg, every overly enthusiastic camp counselor you ever had, provided play-by-play every bit as good and bad as you’d find at a baseball game. On the one hand, the game was so complicated you needed him to explain everything that was going on. On the other hand: “He’s going to have to go faster!” NO SHIT, KIRK.
And just like so many adults do when watching sports, you will spend the whole temple run yelling advice at the players and opining about how much better you would be. That’s why everyone of a certain age has a whole spiel about the Shrine of the Silver Monkey just waiting to be given. It’s the most famous room in the temple. It was three pieces of a monkey that had to be put together and I swear to god, how hard is this? The big square is the bottom piece! THAT’S THE HEAD, CHRIS, YOU IDIOT! WHO PUTS THE HEAD ON FIRST?!
I hated the sadistic assholes who put together the temple so much. It looks so exhausting, and the kids have already done a bunch of other tiring challenges by that point. The whole thing where the temple guards jumped out of nowhere and grabbed you is terrifying. No wonder kids burst into tears.
And, because the temple seemed like it was designed for the kids to fail, I wanted them to win more than anything.I picked my team, and I wanted the kids to beat the odds, goddammit.
All of this was loaded into a set that looked like the closest I would ever get to being an actual adventurer. It was, as so many people have noted, basically Indiana Jones: The Game Show. I’m frankly shocked the temple guards weren’t actually Nazis trying to beat you to the artifacts.
The thing is, Legends of the Hidden Temple is still fun to watch. It’s American Ninja Warrior but with an adventure theme, an elaborate set, a man in khaki and denim yelling encouragement, and a giant stone head. Open a theme park based on this and rake in the dough, Nickelodeon.
And while I don’t necessarily think the upcoming TV movie will capture all that, since it’s fiction and not actual kids risking life and limb for some roller blades, I’ll be content with 90 minutes of in-jokes and shout-outs. If I can yell at a child for messing up a maze, that’s a good time. And if it disappoints me, my screams will be heard hundreds of miles away.