Last week, Netflix began streaming a new 6-part documentary series on the history of video games, titled High Score. Immediately, my Twitter and Instagram feeds were filled with the impressions of my fellow gamers who were watching it. Of course, I checked it out too — I had to, it’s my duty as a gamer — so, how highly does High Score score?
The six episodes each focus on a major beat in the history of video games: the golden age of arcades and the Atari 2600, the NES, role-playing games, the Sega Genesis and the console wars, Street Fighter II, and Doom. Interviews with many of the original creators, developers, and executives are combined with archival footage, vignettes, and pixel-art animation to tell the story, and the whole thing is narrated by the voice of Mario, Charles Martinet.
The first episode features faces like Nolan Bushnell and Howard Scott Warshaw leading the charge on the Atari side, and Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado and Pac-Man’s daddy Toru Iwatani speaking about ye olden days in the Japanese arcades. Archival footage of American arcades, Atari commercials, and the infamous Japanese “Invader Houses” are a feast for game history junkies like me. We also meet the engineers who, when they were just kids, produced the Missile Command modification kit Super Missile Attack, and went on to create Ms. Pac-Man.
The Nintendo installment actually starts off with someone I did not expect to see. You would think this episode would immediately feature Shigeru Miyamoto, or Minoru Arakawa, but instead we visit with Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, the legendary sound designer and music composer for Donkey Kong, Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Mother. (I fanboyed when he showed up first, I’ll confess.)
Of course, we are taken from Christmas of 1985 through the launch of Nintendo Power magazine and the phenomenon that was Nintendo in the ’80s, including the Game Boy, Game Counselors, and the Nintendo World Championships. Gail Tilden is also a prominent part of this episode, talking about the rebranding of the Family Computer into the NES and her adventures in Japan trying to conceptualize Nintendo Power.
In the role-playing chapter, we do go back to the roots of computer RPGs with Colossal Cave Adventure and Roberta and Ken Williams’ formation of Sierra and their first game, Mystery House, and are treated to an audience with amazingly youthful Ultima creator Richard Garriott, who speaks candidly about his intentions in developing what would become the basic blueprint for video game RPGs to this day. We also visit with mega-famous Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano, and get to see him at work.
The classic story of Tom Kalinske being approached on a Hawaiian beach by Sega’s Hayao Nakayama is included in the Sega episode, as well as a lengthy history of the development of Sonic the Hedgehog. We are reminded that Genesis Does What Nintendon’t and the SEGA! scream, and spend a good amount of time with EA’s Trip Hawkins learning about John Madden Football.
Ryu, Ken, Chun Li and the gang battle their way into the series as we learn about Street Fighter from designer Akira Nishitani and art director Akira Yasuda, and America’s answer to it, Mortal Kombat, from John Tobias. We’re reminded that Mortal Kombat used to be controversial, of course, and that segues into the uproar over Night Trap, the infamous (and now considered fairly tame, if not flat-out goofy) Sega CD FMV game.
Finally, we make it to the doorstep of the 3D era with John Romero talking about Doom, and Dylan Cuthbert revisiting StarFox.
As would be expected of a Netflix documentary, the production values are excellent: beautiful cinematography and intriguing interviews make it a lot of fun to watch. The personalities interviewed are often put into environments and re-creations of moments in their histories to help bring their stories to life. Tilden walks through a Mario fantasy land while reading the story of Super Mario 2 from the first issue of Nintendo Power.
Nishikado looks over the Tokyo skyline as alien invaders descend upon the city, then shows off his original notebook containing sketches and ideas for Space Invaders — now there’s a relic that belongs under lock and key in a museum!
Nishitani, meanwhile, is shown in a Japanese bath house very similar to E. Honda’s classic SF2 stage. Garriott, in all his renaissance faire eccentricity, plays a pen-and-paper RPG with three more of himself, all in costume.
My issue with High Score is that while it does what it does very well, it doesn’t do enough. While each topic is well-documented, overall this is a history of video games in only the broadest of strokes. Ask anyone with a surface knowledge of video games about the timeline of the medium, and these are pretty much the bullet points you’ll hear about. Ralph Baer, who developed the original “table tennis”-type game which became the first home video game console in the Odyssey (and which Bushnell then borrowed to create Pong), is not even mentioned, which is a huge strike against the show right there. Bushnell’s partners, Ted Dabney and Al Alcorn (who really did the heavy lifting in getting Atari started) are nowhere to be found. Again they beat the old “E.T. was the worst game ever made and caused the crash” drum (it wasn’t and it didn’t — I mean, it didn’t help, but it didn’t single-handedly bring down the whole industry, as many would have you believe). But there is ZERO mention of competitors Intellivision, Odyssey, or Colecovision, and while we see the Atari 5200 and Vectrex in some of the vintage footage, they are not addressed. (We do hear about Fairchild’s Channel F, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
Moving through the series, we don’t hear a peep about the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 in the 16-bit era, or the Neo Geo and its major contributions to the fighting game scene. And HOW do you have a whole episode on RPGs and not even breathe a word about Dragon Quest?!
I mean, I get it — they can only cover so much in a limited time. I wouldn’t expect a super hardcore deep-dive into game history from Netflix. Those of us who already know this stuff are not necessarily their target audience. But I think they could have dug a little bit more and at the very least, included a little wider spectrum of companies and systems in the interest of educating viewers who only have that surface knowledge.
Which brings me to the inclusion of the Channel F. Why, in this series that totally ignores all but the most household-name consoles, do we see the Fairchild Channel F? Because it’s talked about in a touching scene focusing on the late Jerry Lawson, the engineer who created the concept of interchangeable game cartridges, which was implemented first on the Channel F — not the Atari 2600 — wherein he is remembered by his adult children, Karen and Anderson. This was a great segment, which was undoubtedly included not only because of Lawson’s game-changing (pun intended) innovation, but also because he was one of a very few African-American engineers in the video game business.
To that end, also, High Score includes strong LGBTQ representation. We hear from game developer and co-founder of Interplay, Rebecca Heineman, who was an Atari Space Invaders champion as a teen and went on to write for Electronic Games and program games such as Chuck Norris Superkicks before co-founding Interplay and working on Bard’s Tale, Out of This World, and many more. Also included is the story of Ryan Best and his hilarious and almost-lost PC RPG, GayBlade, which hopefully we can see more of now that the word is out.
As with the rest of this series, the surface of BIPOC and LGBTQ video game history is scratched, but really could have been a whole episode in itself, if they had called up engineer Ed Smith (who recently released an autobiography entitled Imagine That!) and Gorf developer Jamie Fenton (who was interviewed on the awesome podcast The Ted Dabney Experience), just to name a couple off the top of my head.
So in the end, as with most things, the story isn’t about the games. It’s about the people — those who created the games and brought them to us, why and how they did it, and those of us who gobbled them up like Pac-Man after a fresh quarter and his first Power Pellet.
My only other issue is really just about the title itself, High Score…really? After all the expense that’s clearly been poured into this show, that’s the most imaginative name you can come up with? There’s already a documentary called High Score, about the guy chasing the Missile Command record.
Anyway, is the show worth your time? Despite my high expectations and apparent disappointment with its lack of diversity in company and console inclusion, yes, actually, it is. As I mentioned, the ground it does cover is covered very well, and it’s so great to hear from luminaries like Nishikawa, Tanaka, Garriott, and everyone else. The production is beautiful, and I can never get enough of archival/vintage footage. The series is overall a fun watch, even if it is uneven.
Perhaps, like all hit games, we’ll get a sequel that expands into some of the areas they missed this time around. If they do, I will look forward to Super High Score II Turbo.