High Score

Dept. of Bits and Bytes


When it comes to the portrayal of video games in other media over the years, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. For those of us old enough to remember the period covered by Netflix’s new documentary High Score, we always had to deal with a certain level of cringe when our hobby turned up on our TV screens. GamesMaster, Bits, or Games World were beloved but they always had the air of trying just a little bit too hard to be cool, something the makers of High Score, manage to avoid, thankfully

This six part documentary series from Netflix, tries to do for video games what The Toys that Made Us and The Movies That Made Us did for the toys and movies of the 1980s and 90s. Casting their net wider than any single toy line or film, High Score attempts to weave a narrative through the early decades of the video game industry, from the late 70s to the mid 90s, with some success, taking on some unexpected perspectives.

Now You’re Playing With Power

Like those two other slices of Gen-X catnip, High Score mixes archival footage and present day interviews with some of the players involved (“players,” geddit?), and with reconstructions of some of the major events of the time. Where those other shows used actors to reenact famous moments like say, the birth of He-Man, High Score instead uses delightful 8/16-bit animations.

Narrated by the voice of Mario himself, Charles Martinet, it’s an enjoyable and informative ride, with plenty of fun anecdotes, even if the subject may be a little too broad for a six episode limited series to really make a dent in.

The first two episodes unfold mostly in a chronological manner, documenting the initial rise of the video game arcade, the boom and bust of the home console industry in the early 80s, and its following resurgence with Nintendo’s Entertainment System. Later episodes, however, digress to cover topics like Role Playing Games, how Sega’s Mega Drive (ok, ok, Genesis) took on Nintendo at their own game, fighting games, the congressional hearings into video game violence, and the rise of 3D gaming and the First Person Shooter.

It’s an approach that can feel a little scattershot, one that is compounded by the list of interviewees. Despite sitting down with the likes of Nolan Bushnell of Atari, former head of Sega Tom Kalinske, or John Kirby, the lawyer who successfully defended Nintendo against a copyright suit brought by Universal Studio, and the apparent inspiration behind Nintendo’s pink fluffy cloud… thing, you get the feeling, that sometimes, the show is built around who the show-runner’s could get, rather than to follow a planned narrative.

Console War Games

While mentioned often, there’s no interview with Shigeru Miyamoto about Donkey Kong  and Mario. Instead we get Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, the sound designer on the game. John Romero is interviewed about the birth of id Software’s iconic shooter Doom, but there’s no word from his partner in code, John Carmack.

With so many areas of interest, perhaps it’s to be expected that High Score focuses almost exclusively on the American video game market and experience, with side trips to Japan mostly providing background for games that became huge in the US.

The Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear handheld consoles get only cursory mentions. Hopefully if the show is a success they could dedicate a follow up episode to the various handheld gaming consoles. Personally I’d love to see anything on games on the “Personal Computers” of my youth, the Commodore 64, Amiga, and Atari ST, and the vibrant scene in the UK.

A Challenger Appears

Anyone who knows their Champion Edition from their Turbo: Hyper Fighting, won’t find anything too surprising here, but High Score does manage to bring to light a few stories I’d never heard before. Like that of Jerry Lawson, the African American engineer who pioneered the use of game cartridges in home systems in the Fairchild Channel F, or Ryan Best, creator of a satirical Role Playing Game Gay Blade.

Admittedly, it’s also a lot fun to hear from the winners of some of the early large scale video game competitions. Considering the breadth of Rebecca Heineman’s experience within the gaming industry itself, it is slightly disappointing to only hear of her Space Invaders days as a child.

On a similar note, how can you interview Lord British himself, Richard Garriot, creator of the Ultima series of games, about role playing and morality and NOT ask him about the experience of having his supposedly invulnerable avatar murdered in Ultima Online!

While High Score is a pleasant trip down memory lane for many older gamers, I’m not sure how interesting this would be for younger generations. Who exactly is it aimed at anyway? While the show takes the time to explain the difference between 2D and 3D games, it also refers to 8 and 16 bit consoles, but never really explains the difference.

Insert Coin to Continue?

If High Score has whet your appetite for more “serious” video game related content, we have some recommendations for you.

Top of my personal list is Noclip, the video game documentary channel on Youtube. Hosted by former GameSpot journalist and fellow Irishman Danny O’Dwyer, Noclip have produced slick, entertaining multi part series on how games like Rocket League and 2016’s Doom, came to be, as well as a fascinating look at  how the MMO Final Fantasy XIV Online was basically rebuilt from the ground up after a disastrous launch.

In the UK, Chris Bratt and People Make Games do something similar with informative videos on whether you can stop Fortnite from stealing your dance moves or how Neopets was sold to Scientologists.

Check them out.

If there’s any piece of video game history you’d want passed down to future generations it would be the awesome Mortal Kombat ads, but despite plenty of time spent on the game they never show up!

We’re DOOMed!

With probably too much material to draw from High Score does well to present a coherent look back at the industry. While it might not be to everyone’s taste (I could have done without the time spent on Nintendo Power magazine) it’s a fun show that nicely captures the early days of video games, and more importantly, the people who made them.

Seeing as former Nintendo lawyer John Kirby sadly passed away since his thoroughly entertaining interview was filmed, it’s more important than ever to capture these stories now.

High Score 
Netflix, 6 episodes
Executive Producers: France Costrel, Courtney Coupe, and Melissa Wood
Cast: Charles Martinet, Nolan Bushnell, and Rebecca Ann Heineman

High Score is currently streaming on Netflix.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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