I loved Squid Game, the twisted Korean thriller about desperate contestants trapped in a life-and-death game show, when it came out in 2021. I watched it with the same shameful intensity as my dog devours a marrow bone. But even though I felt grubby watching, and enjoying, something so patently tawdry, I was far from alone: with 1,650 million watched hours, it is Netflix’s most successful series ever. Which made it inevitable that there would be an attempt to cash in on the show’s viral success, hence the appearance of Squid Game: The Challenge.
To understand Squid Game: The Challenge, you first need to understand Squid Game. In the original show, contestants participate in a series of deadly reimaginings of childhood games. Red light, green light; marbles; honeycomb: all run the risk of killing you or carrying you closer to a jackpot of 45.6bn South Korean won (£28.2m). As social commentary goes, it was an incredibly heavy-handed critique of the country’s issues with income inequality; as a sickly compulsive viewing experience, it was unparalleled.
It should be noted that the stakes in Squid Game: The Challenge are different – lower, you might say. Rather than being killed by the masked guards, eliminated contestants are shuffled off screen, never to be seen again. But the money provides the same incentive. Each elimination adds $10,000 to a $4.56m (£3.66m) prize pool (said to be the largest in reality TV history). And that’s enough to motivate the contestants. “I don’t come from old money,” one announces, “I come from broke money.” Another states that people “do a whole lot worse for a whole lot less”, which is hard to argue with. For all that the ghost of its Korean cousin sticks in the mind, this is little more than a combination of The Traitors and Takeshi’s Castle.
Battle royale reality games don’t tend to have a particularly large field of contestants. For reference, Survivor and Big Brother both have 16, and I’m a Celeb… has 12. Mirroring the original, Squid Game: The Challenge has 456 players. “I really thought I was going to make it all the way,” laments one eliminated contestant. Why? With such a vast array of contenders (plucked from all around the world: there are several Brits, who seem, generally, more practical than the Americans), the odds are never in your favour. After “red light, green light”, the famous first game, the field is winnowed from 456 to 197. But it’s really not until the “glass bridge” that the cast list starts to solidify.
This is where Squid Game: The Challenge most interestingly deviates from its forebear. Squid Game, the drama, was one of the most egregious victims of a trope known as “plot armour”. Essentially, the protagonist, alongside the other recognisable characters in the 456-person cast, was predestined to reach the final stages. They were protected by the needs of the plot. In Squid Game: The Challenge, big personalities drop out at any moment, for the most luckless reasons. Don’t get too attached to anyone, even those with seemingly established roles. “Are we trusting the villain now?” a lady yells during the honeycomb game – ppopgi – when a “frat boy” muscles in. But, unlike in the original, his villainy isn’t allowed to last long.
The show makes a series of predictable tweaks. A game like “tug of war” clearly favours the young, athletic male contestants (whatever Squid Game might have claimed) and so is replaced by “battleships”. The honeycomb challenge is cleverly adapted for a group of participants who understand that the umbrella is a death sentence. And many additional tasks, resulting in eliminations, are introduced. But the classics are all there, and the show is a stunning replica of the sets from the original, complete with bunk beds that reach the ceiling of an aircraft-hangar-sized room, along with the Escheresque multicoloured stairs.
“This is like an acid trip, and I’ve never even done acid,” notes one of the more sheltered contestants in wide-eyed wonder. If you were impressed by the job that YouTuber MrBeast did in creating his version of the show (and it’s hard to believe that the producers of this reality TV adaptation weren’t influenced by the video, which currently has 523 million views), get ready to be amazed.
The fear of death and anti-capitalist themes may have been replaced by a rabid consumerism (an apt metaphor for modern America, if not an intentional one), but Squid Game: The Challenge is obviously an epic of its genre. Like most epics, it’s overlong, overblown, and thinks it’s much smarter than it really is. But as a showcase for human desperation, and an illustration of the random brutality of chance, it just about sticks the landing.
‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ streams on Netflix from 22 November