While watching the murderous, violent, scary Squid Game, did anyone think, “Man, do I wish this were real!” I, for one, did not. In fact, I was grateful to be safe inside my home, watching 455 people die for the chance to win some cash on a fictional show instead of watching this chaos unfold in real time. I’d like to think most people who watched Squid Game weren’t imagining what would happen if the games ever became reality. Alas, at least one person was, because the competition has become an actual reality show on Netflix called Squid Game: The Challenge—and 456 real people are participating.
Although Netflix’s reality-TV recreation of the drama goes against the entire point of the original Squid Game—that it’s sick to not only pit people against each other to earn a living but to gamify the situation—something about Squid Game: The Challenge is so dark, but simultaneously engrossing. Kicking off Nov. 22 with new episodes streaming weekly thereafter, it is as well-produced and enthralling as the 2021 Netflix hit, and better yet (no shocker here), none of these real contestants die. Instead, when someone is eliminated, they’re smacked with black paint and forced to keel over, playing dead. The rest of the competition is almost exactly the same as the K-drama: 456 players, a gargantuan prize of $4.56 million ($10,000 per player), and games that were originally meant for children.
Squid Game: The Challenge opens on Red Light, Green Light, naturally, in a sequence that feels almost like a carbon copy of the original show—except for the fact that, because no one is dying, the contestants don’t experience the wild shock of, “Oh my goodness, everyone around me is being killed.” Still, from the start, the new reality show is able to amp up the thrills, even without kills. It does the same with other returning games from the original show, like the Dalgona and marbles challenges, adding new flair to make up for lower stakes.
We won’t spoil those twists, though, nor will we ruin the fun of the new games Squid Game: The Challenge uses to fill the absence of plot in its recreation of the tournament. The old games are a good time, but this fresh batch of puzzles is perhaps even more exciting. More childlike contests are brought into play, and they’re blown up into bigger, splashier sets. Imagine your favorite board game Squid Game-ified, minus the death—sounds like a good time, right?
In the original Squid Game, a lot of the action happened between rounds, not just within them. Contestants murdered each other to get ahead in the game, which isn’t really something Squid Game: The Challenge can allow. To make up for this, the reality show offers ingenious mini games in between the main events that call on the contestants to eliminate fellow players, as well as win advantages and other rewards. Though revealing the exact nature of these mini games would be another spoiler, we can say that these are a welcome addition—if not the best new part of the growing Squid Game Universe.
Another obstacle The Challenge must overcome is developing likable characters, something that Squid Game was able to do with a defined script. Because there are so many people playing—most reality shows usually have no more than 20 folks in the cast—a lot of the contestants fall to the periphery right off the bat. Squid Game: The Challenge hones in on the most interesting two dozen or so participants, like a mother-son duo, and a woman who wrote a thesis on puzzles in college. Sometimes, these cast members are eliminated immediately after we meet them. Others last longer, giving us time to get invested in who we want to win and who we loathe.
There are more folks in the latter category, somewhat to the show’s benefit: people who either have terrible strategy or egos the size of the giant glass ball holding the $4.56M in cash that looms above the players at all times. In the first five episodes provided to critics out of the 10 in the entire first season, I didn’t find myself emphatically pulling for anyone, but I did enjoy rooting against some of the bullies. When the games begin, it’s soothing to see these hotheads face their demise—similar to the way Squid Game took care of its villains.
And yet, there are no Players 067, 001, or 456, like in the original—no captivating all-stars who, from the start, demand we keep our attention on them at all times. Perhaps this is because the producers can’t seem to figure out who to follow at first, as hundreds of players are eliminated in each of the preliminary stages. You won’t find your next favorite reality star here; rather, the games themselves are the reason to watch.
But with so many contestants and no clear focal point, even the games are sometimes dragged down by the hefty player count. We often have to see separate batches of games over and over again, as the show darts between different groups of contestants. In the Dalgona round, for example, we have to watch four groups of players carve shapes out of biscuits in a row. This happens in a handful of different games, and it gets tedious to watch more than one or two times. The series does its best to make each new group interesting to watch, but there’s really no easy way to perfectly delegate screen time to 456 separate players.
Netflix can fix that for Season 2, should the streamer be smart enough to squeeze more content out of this brilliant concept. Squid Game: The Challenge presents itself as fully aware it’s a hokey reality show capitalizing on pre-existing content, and it doesn’t try to be anything more than that. But it still manages to stand up to the original show, with new twists that match up to Squid Game’s intrigue—which is saying a lot, considering how thrilling the original was. While the controversies around its treatment of players are valid concerns, and pushback against its premise is warranted, so too is the popularity this masterful reality series will likely garner.