Before the mess that is today’s Internet, gaming fans were a bit more limited in where they could get their information from.
There were a variety of gaming magazines that came and went over the course of the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s… but one of the most enduring and memorable publications in British gaming wasn’t even printed on paper.
I’m talking about Digitiser, which ran from 1993 to 2003… and now it’s back as a joyfully chaotic show on YouTube.
Let’s start with a quick history lesson for those unfamiliar with Digitiser. Well, actually, before that, it’s important to reflect back on the medium through which Digitiser was originally published: the defunct, obsolete, pre-Internet technology that was teletext.
Teletext was invented in the early 1970s as a means of sending information using the same signal that was used to broadcast television. Specifically, it was able to send pages of text and rudimentary “pixel art” (actually created from “block” characters) to a user’s television. The technicalities of how it achieved this is a little beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say in the days before the World Wide Web and smartphones, it was a pretty widespread, common means of finding out information relatively quickly, whether you were after the TV schedule for the evening or the latest headlines. All you had to do was hit the “Text” button on your TV remote and you’d be away… as soon as the page loaded. Which could sometimes take quite a while, due to how they were broadcast in sequence rather than called up “on demand” like how today’s Internet works.
The way teletext services worked was tied in with the way the European PAL signal operated, and this was one of many reasons it didn’t find much widespread adoption outside of Europe. In the UK, however, it was extremely popular, with the BBC being the first to offer a consumer teletext service in the form of Ceefax, with the ORACLE and (capital-T) Teletext services complementing it on the commercial ITV and Channel 4 channels. Ceefax, ORACLE and Teletext all offered a variety of pages for viewers to enjoy, be it simple news headlines, sporting reports, interactive quizzes… or gaming magazines.
Digitiser launched on ITV’s incarnation of Teletext at the beginning of 1993 as the brainchild of Paul “Mr Biffo” Rose and Tim “Mr Hairs” Moore. The aim was to provide what was, at the time, “the world’s only daily game magazine”. In actual fact, the pages updated every day except Sunday for most of Digitiser’s lifespan, but compared to the paper monthly gaming magazines of the time, Digitiser provided pretty much bleeding-edge information.
Rose and Moore set out to deliberately produce something distinctive, with a bit of an “edge” to it — and claim they only got into it in order to “amuse [themselves] and get free games”. Many ’90s games magazines made irreverent humour part of their overall identity, but in many respects Digitiser is better known and more fondly remembered for its comedic elements rather than its gaming content. The pages became particularly renowned for their recurring characters, mock advertisements, clever use of the teletext “Reveal” button and their distinctive, idiomatic use of the English language. In many ways, they were considered anti-establishment — “punk” games journalism, if you will — and Rose in particular, who ran the pages pretty much single-handedly for the latter six years of Digitiser’s life after Moore was fired, frequently got into trouble with both Teletext’s own editorial team and the staff of popular paper magazines at the time. There was a particularly heated rivalry between Digitiser and Mean Machines.
Digitiser wasn’t just there to piss people off and/or make them laugh, however. It became well known for providing what were considered to be honest, unbiased opinions about current games, and drew particular praise for not being afraid to criticise big, popular, high-profile releases of the day. Rose and Moore had the freedom to do this because they weren’t beholden to advertisers in the same way as paper magazines; Teletext was primarily concerned with selling package holidays and air travel more than anything else, and it was unlikely Thomas Cook gave a shit about what Rose and Moore thought about the latest computer and console games.
Digitiser somehow survived until March of 2003 despite Rose’s frequent spats with Teletext’s corporate representatives; the company found it hard to ignore the viewing figures the magazine’s irreverent tone and surreal humour drew in — in excess of 1.5 million readers per day at its peak. Even when Teletext recruited a new senior editorial team in 2002, who demanded Rose strip the iconic character and humour from the pages, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to get rid of him and the brand altogether.
They quickly learned what a mistake their attempts to rein in Rose were as viewing figures plummeted and complaints rolled in; Rose handed in his notice in late 2002, but agreed to return Digitiser to its original format for his last four months, primarily to appease the fans who had been angered by the change to the formula… and to say “thank you” to those who had stuck by him. Digitiser’s final edition featured some pixel art of “Turner the Worm being sick”, clearly very specifically designed to look like a a big pink cock dribbling with spunk — one last middle finger from Rose to Teletext Ltd.
Following Digitiser, Rose wrote a monthly column in the UK’s Edge magazine between 2003 and 2008, and worked as a screenwriter for a variety of TV shows, including both children’s and adult comedy and drama. He also launched a Digitiser-esque website named Bubblegun, which remains online as an archive to this day, and relaunched the Digitiser brand in 2014 with Digitiser 2000, a website featuring gaming news, articles, humour and occasional guest contributions that Rose initially self-funded, but has since gained a fair amount of support via Patreon.
Despite his background as a writer rather than a filmmaker, it became clear that Rose was interested in the growing world of online video. In 2017, he successfully crowdfunded a gloriously bizarre fever dream of a YouTube video series called Mr Biffo’s Found Footage, and in early 2018 he again turned to crowdfunding, this time to raise money for the production of a full-on Digitiser “TV” show.
Rose’s pitch for Digitiser: The Show promised “the sort of gaming show we’ve always wanted, but which broadcasters are too scared to make — and that YouTube isn’t offering”. He drew comparisons to ’90s TV shows such as Bad Influence and GamesMaster, but that isn’t quite accurate; Digitiser: The Show is squarely aimed at people who grew up with shows like Bad Influence and GamesMaster, but who are now in their 30s and 40s. The intention was to create a “magazine format gaming show that puts the emphasis on never getting too serious, while still taking the time to explore the topics we think need addressing”.
Rose isn’t the first creator to want to do something like this. Earlier this year, Mark Bussler of Classic Game Room, one of the first ever gaming video shows on the Internet, abandoned YouTube in favour of Amazon Prime Video in an attempt to produce the sort of long-form, magazine-style gaming content he wanted to see — and to make. While Bussler struck out on his own and worked on his show pretty much solo, however, Rose recruited a number of other partners to work with him, drawing from a close-knit group of British YouTubers that mostly have popular “tat reviewer” and comedian Stuart Ashen as a common point of contact, and who have frequently collaborated on a variety of different projects to date.
There’s Paul Gannon, who once appeared on GamesMaster as a kid and got too trigger-happy, who plays a key role in Ashen’s side project Barshens (often by being the one responsible for devising the games and quizzes that don’t really work), and is one half of the successful (and extremely amusing) CheapShow podcast.
There’s Larry Bundy Jr (aka “Guru Larry”), probably best known for his Fact Hunt series on YouTube, which primarily consists of interesting and entertaining “listicle”-style videos about obscure gaming facts from the world of retro.
There’s GameplayJenny, a Let’s Player who prides herself on not being particularly good at any of the games she plays, but who makes her videos entertaining with a combination of self-deprecating humour and an interesting choice of titles to cover. And food.
And there’s Octav1us Kitten, an up-and-coming YouTuber who combines knowledgeable coverage of retro gaming (with a particular focus on European computers such as the ZX Spectrum) with entertaining, game-inspired skits similar to those that Pat the NES Punk built his videos around in his early days. And cat ears, those are important.
Between them, it’s a solid ensemble cast who complement one another well while having a delightfully irreverent sense of humour in common between them… not to mention that distinctly British tendency to exchange heinous insults with people you actually like a great deal. And Digitiser’s iconic sense of anarchic, chaotic and often surreal humour is present and correct; whether it’s the surprise appearance of “a beautiful boy” early in the debut show, cuts to Mr. T telling you to keep away from his bins between segments or peculiar fake adverts somewhat reminiscent of Mr Biffo’s Found Footage, the show remains energetic and amusing without going too over the top with the “zaniness”.
Rose clearly doesn’t want to hog the limelight, either; while he does act as the main host of the debut episode, he lets Gannon take the lead for an entertaining (if predictable) “Sega vs Nintendo” debate, there’s a fun segment where Bundy explains the appeal of the Vectrex, and in a sequence where Rose “interviews” perpetually recurring guest Ashen while the latter plays Dig-Dug, the focus is very much on Ashen having the opportunity to tell his story rather than Rose interjecting and trying to squeeze in jokes.
The format of the show is solid, with no individual segment outstaying its welcome and the total runtime being satisfyingly akin to what you would have from a “proper” TV programme. It’s particularly pleasing to hear retro gaming talk from a British perspective, since many of the most popular retro gaming YouTubers are American.
The only part of the show I didn’t personally care for was the final “physical comedy” segment based around the idea of “playing Duck Hunt for real” at the expense of Gannon’s dignity; for me, this just crossed the line into slightly too much absurdity, but that’s very much a matter of personal taste. (I have it in my head that Rose — or at least someone connected to the show — argued this sequence was intended to be an homage to the inevitably chaotic finale of legendarily terrible British TV show The Generation Game, but at the time of writing this I can’t find the relevant quote. I’ll update this later if I do happen to find it again. Until then, you’ll have to take my questionable word for it.)
The thing I like most about the show, though, is the fact it feels like a TV show from the late ’90s — the sort of thing you’d see on late-night Channel 4, specifically. For those not from the UK or unfamiliar with late ’90s late-night Channel 4, shows in these time slots tended to be produced on the cheap, feature provocative content and, in some cases, proved to be the springboard for future careers. These were shows that never attempted to hide their cheapness — they embraced it fully, and were all the more charming and honest-feeling for it.
Digitiser: The Show very much has that feel about it. It’s casual and easygoing, and there’s a strong sense that everyone involved is having a good time but, being British, they don’t want to make too much of a fuss about it. Its deliberately cluttered set festooned with a bizarre combination of gaming memorabilia, building materials and oil drums successfully “embraces the cheapness” and gives the show an immediately recognisable — dare I say it, iconic — look to it. Even the minor frame rate and sound issues in the debut episode — factors which Rose assures us will be resolved by the second and third episodes for sure — add to the charmingly honest, genuine feeling of “late night TV on the cheap”.
In short, while Digitiser: The Show’s first episode had an issue or two along the way, Rose and company are off to a very strong start, and I’ll definitely be checking out their subsequent episodes as they’re released each Sunday.
Several Teletext images in this article are courtesy of The Teletext Preservation Project.
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