GamesMaster HD
Image: Cyberpunk Studios / GamesMaster HD

When GamesMaster began in 1992, I devoured that first series. I was 14 and I lived and breathed video games, practically glued to my Sega Mega Drive, yet I had no aspirations about winning a coveted Golden Joystick for myself. When I received my GamesMaster Club pack in the post, the application form inspired me to audition for the reviews section, since I enjoyed talking about games as much as playing them. In the space marked "favourite style of game" I wrote "arcade adventure", which was true, but I secretly hoped it might grab their attention, being so specific given my age.

I did not expect to hear anything back, but one evening at the start of the school summer holidays I came home to some news from my older brother.

"You had a phone call,” he announced. “The guy left a number and wants you to call him back. It’s about GamesMaster.”

I was gobsmacked. "He asked if you were keen,” my brother went on. “I told him you'd videoed every episode and have just about worn the tape out already."

It was true, I had. I called the number and went through a short audition over the phone with the researcher, Ian Ross. Ian asked me to describe the last game I bought, which was Kid Chameleon as I recall, and what I liked and disliked about it. I muddled through this, superficially dropping in phrases I had learned from magazine reviews, but it must have done the trick because a few days later, I received a letter from Hewland. I had been chosen to appear in Series 2!

The enormity of this took a while to sink in. I was going to be on TV, and not just any old show; the one everyone was talking about! I had never been "in with the cool kids" at school, far from it, but surely this would change everything. Bragging rights aside, if I did a really good job, this could potentially pave the way to a career in games journalism.

Application Form
The fateful application form that started my adventure... — Image: Dan Tootill

My brother kindly drove me to the filming; I had never been to London before but there was no time for sightseeing. We found the studio where we were met by Ian, who led me down a long staircase into the basement room below. This was a music recording venue (the historic former Trident Studios in Soho) with the camera set up in the acoustic area and the tiny glass-fronted control booth served as the green room. A bench running along the left-hand side of the booth held a huge rats’ nest of computers, consoles and games, perhaps the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

"I won't get to meet Dominik though?" I grinned, as it was obvious that only reviews were being filmed there. "Actually, yeah,” Ian muttered as he gestured towards the door. "He's one of our producers." I peered through the glass and there he was, absorbed in the planning stages of the day’s shoot.

"That’s… that’s Dominik Diamond!" I stammered. I had just walked straight past him without realising, and as the booth began to fill with people there were more familiar faces popping up. Ed "Radion Automatic" Lawrence was standing to one side of me, laughing with someone about the upcoming Game Boy version of Lemmings. "How’s that going to work?" I heard him say. "Just single pixels moving along?!"

I noticed a man in a leather jacket leaning against the wall, leafing through a magazine. It was Jaz Rignall! I giddily approached him, wanting to express my appreciation for his work ever since Zzap! 64. I have no recollection of what I said, but he seemed pleased to hear whatever it was. This was all so surreal; it was the first time I had been around adults going about their day, for a start. I felt a bit of an imposter around all these industry bigwigs, but utterly thrilled to be there.

Dominik himself was clearly a busy man, but he seemed more than happy to chat with everyone. In contrast to his on-screen persona, he was unshaven, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and could even be overheard dropping the occasional F-bomb. I was in awe of him. What really hadn’t come across on TV at that point was that Dom really did love video games. At one point, he burst into the green room ranting "This guy just slated my favourite game, Madden '93!" and proceeded to stage a mock walk-out, laughing and muttering "I’m done."

There was an amazing atmosphere and despite moments of chaos, everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun. One straight-faced journalist summed up the game he was reviewing as "long enough, just not very hard", sending the whole room into fits of giggles. Coming back from lunch, Dom mentioned that he’d been to visit the people handling the graphics and seen what they’d been doing to Patrick Moore's face. I hovered, fascinated by these little insights, trying not to get in anyone’s way but during a discussion around rival show Bad Influence, Dom turned directly to me.

"Daniel, what do you think about that show?" he asked. I was not proud of my answer; I was there to review video games for TV and in a moment of panic, I had just described Bad Influence to the whole crew in one rude word. A timely reminder that I would need to be a tad more articulate once the cameras were rolling.

I was already familiar with both Another World and Prince of Persia having played them on other formats, but nobody knew anything about the mysterious Flashback. Later, a lady from U.S. Gold arrived with an EPROM board containing an early build of the game for the Mega Drive, under strict instructions not to let it out of her sight. We were asked to review it as the Amiga version, as the Mega Drive port hadn't even been announced yet. I believe this was the first time anyone outside the company had seen it, and I was there! I didn’t catch the lady’s name, but she was very nice to me, even though I kept confusing U.S. Gold with Virgin Games.

When the time came to film our reviews the professionals went first, which made filming mine harder as I risked regurgitating their views in lieu of my own. I felt incredibly nervous when I first sat in front of the camera, but the crew gave me plenty of jumping-off points, so I soon settled in. I had plenty to say about all three games, Flashback in particular as it had blown me away. I remember comparing it to Impossible Mission on the Commodore 64, just to show that I'd been gaming longer than most kids my age! I felt a great sense of relief when it was over, but I was pleased with what I’d done. The end of the day was nearing, so with nothing more to do I hung around the green room playing an import copy of Street Fighter II until my brother collected me.

Dom Autograph
I got this signed 'thank you' from Dom after attending the second recording session — Image: Dan Tootill

"I hope I did okay today!" I said to Dom as I was leaving. "Oh yeah," he replied. "The kids we had in today were the best so far… you included." This was exactly what I wanted to hear. "But I was so nervous I thought I might pass out," I confessed. Dom shook his head reassuringly. "Didn’t show," he replied. What an amazing experience this had been, and I was still buzzing for several days afterwards. However, the euphoria would be short-lived, because along came an unexpected call from Ian.

"The lighting set-up was all wrong, not just for you. Everyone," he sighed. "We can't use any of the stuff we filmed. Any chance you can come back next week and redo it?" I knew this was impossible; school was starting again the following week and my family would all be at work. It was great to know they would have me back just like that, but with a very heavy heart, I had to decline.

"We might fit you into another episode later in the series," Ian added, which I took as merely an attempt to cushion the blow. The 'arcade adventures' segment was reshot with a different panel and ended up in Episode 9. I have a theory that some of the footage they shot that day did make it to air.

I was soon back at school and GamesMaster, now a big-budget affair, was back on our screens. Having told everyone that I would be appearing in the shiny new series, this recent twist seemed highly suspicious. Stories about a crew member pointing a light at my face and somehow getting it completely wrong didn’t seem very plausible, but that was all I had. Inevitably, many of my schoolmates assumed I had made the whole thing up and being called a liar and a fantasist hit me hardest of all. But my luck was about to change once more.

Headshot Me
I can blink, honest — Image: Dan Tootill

Out of the blue I received a call from a different researcher, Stephen Carsey, with some fantastic news. They wanted me back to review some "god games" the following month, and possibly film an additional episode at the same time! I would be reviewing mostly strategy games, my least favourite genre, but I didn’t care about that.

My mum was able to get time off work and had me released from school for the day, so she took me back to London on the train. I felt more confident this time around, having been through the process before and been given a ton of encouragement from Stephen. I would indeed be covering two shows and had been told the latest viewing figures were in the region of six million, so that confidence would need to go a long way. Dom was in attendance as before and I greeted him by saying how much I was enjoying the new series, especially the dummy opening with the old titles before the big reveal. "Oh, we loved doing that!" he laughed. "We've got a few more surprises like that coming up."

Stephen gave me as much time as he could to play all six games, but we only had a couple of hours and several of them had a steep learning curve. Luckily, I had already played both Gods and Populous II thanks to my Amiga-owning friends, but Mega-Lo-Mania was new to me, and I found it unfathomable. After half an hour I still had no idea what I was doing, so I felt I would just have to wing it. As I recall, I didn’t get chance to play Utopia at all due to some technical problem, but the crew assured me that someone would tell me what to say.

There were a couple of platform games under the loose theme of each segment, so at least I could review those with some gusto. Joe & Mac felt good to play but the poor contrast pretty much ruined it, even on a full-size TV through a Game Boy demo unit. I was relieved to find that I could give Lost Vikings an even more passionate review, because I hated it.

Me At 15
A rather more 'normal' photo of me from the same time — Image: Dan Tootill

As I feared, I struggled to find enough to say about the three strategy games during filming. I desperately wanted to do a good job, but the pressure got to me and I don’t remember saying very much at all. I felt a bit deflated when it was time to leave; worse still, one of the other kids was having his photo taken with Dom and I had forgotten to bring a camera! At least I remembered to get his autograph this time though.

It would be 11 agonising weeks before the first of my two episodes was broadcast. My renewed claims of being on the show were met with increased scepticism around school, but I was sure I would have the last laugh. However, nothing could have prepared me for the moment "god games" aired. I watched in horror as my own face stared out from the screen with impossibly wide, unblinking eyes, like I was trapped in a haunted mirror. This wasn’t how I normally looked; even my own mum used the phrase "rabbit caught in the headlights" as the segment ended and Gordon Burns walked on. It wasn’t just bad, it was horrific! They had also misspelt my name in the caption, but that was the least of my worries.

Before filming, my only concerns had been how many spots I had (there was no makeup department or anything) or that my hair might be sticking up. It never occurred to me that I might have been pulling a weird face the whole damn time.

Predictably, the backlash from the other kids at school was relentless. I couldn't walk from one lesson to another without at least one kid leaning into my face and yelling "Hello GamesMaster!", peeling back their own eyelids for effect. I was not cool; I was a laughing stock, and I only had myself to blame.

This is me today. You'll all be pleased to learn that I've finally mastered the art of blinking — Image: Dan Tootill

When my second episode aired, I looked marginally more human and even blinked a couple of times, but the snarky tone of my Lost Vikings review didn't sit well with my persistent, boggle-eyed gurning. Some footage also skipped ahead at high speed (an effect used throughout the series) so the schoolyard taunts extended to "Ha ha, you got fast-forwarded, because you were so boring" and such. I just had to take it on the chin until I left school, then I could forget about it, as well as any hopes of breaking into games journalism. For at least the next 20 years, no-one who knew me would see or speak of it again, as the chances of my workmates catching a rerun on Challenge TV were slim.

Fast-forward to the mid-2010s, I had told my wife about the experience, but she had never seen the episodes. Curiosity got the better of her and with minimal Googling she found them on YouTube, thanks to someone mentioning my name in the comments. Some of those comments echoed the ridicule I had faced years earlier, but most revolved around the same old question "what’s going on with that kid’s eyes?"

The answer is… I don’t know either! As I had sat there staring into the darkness, anxiously trying to think of interesting things to say, I must not have thought about what I was doing with my face. That’s it. I had not had my eyelids removed. I had not found a load of cocaine in the studio toilet. I was just out of my depth, tired, and far too nervous.

Thanks to revived interest in the show in recent years, I was involved in two livestreams with RetroUnlim, several guest spots on Under Consoletation: The GamesMaster Podcast (much love to Luke and Ash for being so nice about it all) and a short piece for the 30th-anniversary book GamesMaster: The Oral History. I still can’t help wondering what might have been if I had looked remotely natural on TV, but life has been good to me and I have no regrets.

GamesMaster had such a huge impact on my generation, it is an honour to have played a small (if slightly infamous) part in its history.