High Score–Netflix docu-series recounts the history of video games

Review by C.J. Bunce

Video game dabblers and players turn into game company entrepreneurs in Netflix’s latest retro fix, High Score, a documentary in the vein of shows like VH1’s Behind the Music and The Toys That Made Us.  Pioneer designers and creators like Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado, Nintendo’s Hirokazu Tanaka, and Atari’s Nolan Bushnell piece together a brief history of video games with an emphasis on home play in this new six-episode, limited series now streaming on Netflix.  The series goes through the development and rise of games moving from upright consoles to the television set, with Mystery House, Space Invaders, Star Fox, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Madden Football, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Doom rising to the top as the touchstones of this modern corner of history.

William Acks, France Costrel, Sam LaCroix, and Melissa Wood directed this series, which features narration by Charles Martinet, the long-time voice actor for Nintendo star Mario.  They take viewers back in time to the 1970s and the advent of home gaming, highlighting the biggest players: Atari, Nintendo, Sega, and Entertainment Arts.  They also offer up in most of the episodes a parallel tie-in that tracks the development of eSports via gaming championships from 1980 to today.  It stops at the advent of near-lifelike games like Assassin’s Creed and Gears of War, and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games or MMPORGs, like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and The Elder Scrolls, prime fodder for a future episode.

High points include the life of the Nintendo Gameplay Counselor as told by the man in the training videos, which provides an obscure look behind the curtain at a fascinating snippet of history.  Those who like the business history focus of The Toys That Made Us may appreciate a step-by-step walkthrough of the business case to bring Sega to the U.S. and move from 70,000 units sold to one million, told by former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, a formal Mattel Toys exec.  Anyone who has ever played Nintendo’s  Kirby’s Adventure will appreciate meeting the surprising real-life person behind the lovable hero character.  And if you missed it in other books and documentaries reviewed here at borg, you’ll hear the story of the worst video game and its designer.

Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado shows his original design sketches for his famous alien landers.

The series discusses all the key components of video games–the importance of sound, movement, speed, length, scoring, flow, player decision making, strategy, the value and availability of tricks via tie-in magazines, software enhancement kits and the idea of the Version 2.0, and marketing and design.  The series also emphasizes the outlying personality of the gamers and top players, and why the games were the perfect environment for them all to thrive in.

Viewers will see a flip in the typical tech industry story, where obvious grounds for infringements and lawsuits arose in games as in any industry, here the tendency when confronted with reverse engineering was toward forming partnerships and “win-win” deals in lieu of the courts to take advantage of new knowledge, no matter how it came about.  No single country dominated the history of these games, with U.S., Japan, and English minds adding equally to technological innovations.

In episode three, the series takes a step back to capture roleplaying video games, back to the 1970s game Adventure, and interviews fame developer Richard Garriott as he creates an early video game predecessor via school teletype machine called Akalabeth and discusses the original idea for the concept of the avatar as the person bringing himself and herself into the digital realm.  Separately the first video game with graphics is created by developers Roberta and Ken Williams, called Mystery House, played on the Apple II personal computer as game console.  Shifting from shooting at things and blowing them up to stories players could participate in is the history of Dungeons & Dragons intersecting with video gaming, another focus of this episode.  Note: Keep an eye out for familiar character actor Bill Smitrovich appearing in a clip from an old Atari commercial.

In episode five, the show touches on, but thankfully doesn’t languish in, government putting its hammer down on violence and the resulting ratings system as horror and martial arts changed the face of gaming.  And the final episode barely scratches the surface on PC gaming, with the impact of the Internet and the 1993 download release of Doom.  So another season of episodes is certainly possible.  If it doesn’t come to fruition, then it us unfortunate the first two episodes weren’t fleshed out more and broken up into a few more episodes.  You can form the basic building blocks of history with only a dozen games, but now someone needs to take the handoff and fill on the blanks, like player programming in the 1980s, Texas Instruments, VIC-20 and Commodore 64, not to mention so many other games that represented secondary innovations in the medium.  Tie-in movies like Tron could have their own episode.  Missing on the other end of the spectrum is the Wii game system, games like Pokémon, Minecraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and stepping stone video games like Oregon Trail, Solitaire, Chess, Mahjong, and Tetris (which gets only slight attention in the competition pieces).

Every generation of GenX onward should watch this series with their families.  Each person will have their own favorite episode and era, while learning what makes the other games, systems, and eras appealing to others.  Expect diehard game fans to argue with the directors’ choices, like baseball fans watching a baseball documentary.  Whether you find too much this or too little that, it’s still worth a watch.

Catch the documentary series High Score, streaming now on Netflix.

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