They just don't make Maya and Aztec-based semi-historical adventure children's trivia game shows like they used to. I know what you're thinking, "I could name dozens!" Well, I admire your commitment to progress, but unfortunately none of them hold a temple torch to the original. And when I say original, I mean original. Well, except for that whole Indiana Jones thing, but hey, this show had a big talking stone head. Totally different.
These days, so many forms of children's entertainment are all too grounded in some realm of reality. Children's television network executives just aren't going out on a limb any more for completely nonsensical show premises. This show was not only immensely complex in its structure and execution, but was also featured incredible details in is design. Sure, its educational value was convoluted at best, but where else where we supposed to learn about such pertinent artifacts as The Mysterious Manuscript of Mary Shelley or The Jewel-Encrusted Egg of Catherine the Great?
Legends of the Hidden Temple featured six boy-girl teams with names that are instantly recognizable to any former enthusiast: Red Jaguars, Orange Iguanas, Purple Parrots, Green Monkeys, Blue Barracudas, and Silver Snakes. Sure, the animals and the colors didn't necessarily match up, but we needed to identify these kids at a distance by colored t-shirt alone. Looking enviably cool in their bright yellow helmets and mouthguards, the teams began their challenge by crossing the mighty Moat. Alright, so it was a long narrow swimming pool with lane dividers, but they used cool things like rafts and swinging ropes. Plus, they got to bang a big gong at the end. We were mixing cultures a bit, but that's nothing in comparison to the legends that were to come.
The four teams who were first to finish the Moat challenge went on to the Steps of Knowledge. Finally, they get to hang with Olmec! Olmec was...well, an Olmec, but as kids we didn't know too much about the cultures of Precolumbian Mesoamerica, so it was all good. Our revered Olmec was a giant animatronic talking stone head who shared with us the wisdom of legends that we can only assume were somehow associated with this Hidden Temple we kept hearing about. The legends were generally historically based, but almost never were tied to the general Aztec/Mayan theme the show had going. For years I thought The Golden Pepperoni of Catherine de' Medici and The Levitating Dog Leash of Nostradamus were in some way associated with preclassical Central American cultures.
Olmec would share the legend, always with a catchy all-caps title generally verging on the ridiculous and irrelevant. His stone-faced (sorry, I had to) seriousness made us all believe in the power of The Golden Cricket Cage of Khan or The Very Tall Turban of Ahmed Baba. Following the brief storytelling, Olmec would ask questions from the preceding tale and teams would buzz in to respond and subsequently progress down the Steps of Knowledge with each correct answer. The first two teams to the bottom were the winners! Hooray! Onto the Temple Games!
The Temple Games were played for the coveted Pendants of Life. Obviously whoever was on the LoHT naming committee deserves several gold stars for both creativity and liberal use of capitalization. The Temple Games were sort of like GUTS physical challenges, only temple-themed. The team with the most Pendants of Life advanced to the ultimate and indubitably coolest round, the Temple Run.
Distinctly less cool for the contestants who did not reach the final round was the truly deplorable state of the consolation prizes. If you thought the Carmen Sandiego parting gifts were mildly questionable, you would be begging for a basketball globe once you realized the best thing a non-final round LoHT contestant could take home was a pair of Skechers sneakers, a Looney Tunes Watch (valued at $9.99!), or a VHS copy of a made-for-television movie. Yes, really.
Only slightly less lamentable were the prizes available for those who actually made it to the Temple. For those who made it through the first Temple round, they could win something in the range of a tennis racket or skateboard. There was usually some form of decently desirable electronic prize for second-rounders; we're talking something like a Casio My Magic Secret Diary here. For those who made it out of the temple unscathed, artifact in hand, they could win a trip to New York City or NASA Space Camp. However, it should be noted that kids who willingly participate in this type of thing would probably love NASA Space Camp, so it's probably not a bad deal.
The Temple Run was by far the most impressive and tension-filled portion of the show. Would they encounter a flamboyantly dressed sentinel temple guard? Those guys always scared the bejeezus out of me. What sort of desperate out-of-work actor brings his headshots to a casting call with the description, "Tall, dark, frightening; experience with child-grabbing preferred"? If you were lucky enough to still have some Pendants of Life, you could buy them off and escape unharmed; there's nothing like teaching children the values of bribery to get their way.
The Temple was a fairly complicated labyrinth composed of a dozen or so rooms, some locked, many of which included some task for the contestant to complete to continue on. The contestants would dodge temple guards, whiz through The Shrine of the Silver Monkey, haphazardly assemble the monkey statue to open the Temple doors, grab the artifact from Olmec's legend and find their way to freedom/space camp.
The show was immensely popular in its heyday and continues to maintain a 90s cult following. We appreciated the show in its quirkiness; where as children we accepted at face value that this was just the way the show worked, as adults we have the perspective to see that this show was outlandishly complicated in design and creativity.
So for those of us still yearning for our run at Space Camp or at least a Skechers-sponsored savings bond, strap on those helmets, bite down on those mouthguards, cue up the youtube, and let yourself be swept up in the mystery of why locating The Walking Stick of Harriet Tubman is your ticket to the NASA non-gravity simulator.