I have to say that Netflix has been doing a good job with some of their geeky documentary series. The Toys That Made Us is a cool series that gives a fair but detailed look into some of our most beloved toys, like GI Joe and Transformers. The Movies That Made Us gave viewers a neat insider look on how geeky films like Ghostbusters and Die Hard as well as a enthralling success story on how Dirty Dancing was made. Both of those series did a good job of peeling back the curtain and delving into the history of the topics at hand.
Now, Netflix is back with another documentary series, this time focusing on the history of video games. Did they hit this out of the park as well?
High Score is actually a little bit different from The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us. Instead of focusing on an individual product, High Score went in a different direction and focuses on specific time periods and genres of video game history. This does lead each episode to be kind of a mishmash of topics and games but told in a quasi-chronological order. For example, High Score’s first episode, Boom & Bust, talks about the early days of the arcade scene, the Atari home console and games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man. The next episode, Comeback Kid, focuses more on the success of Nintendo in the United States after the Video Game Crash. This does follow logical sense as those moments are specific periods of video game history.
However, High Score paints these moments with very broad strokes, leading to a lack of some truly interesting information not getting mentioned. It was odd that the producers of High Score only mention the Video Game Crash, a monumental period of time in video games as it made video games seem like just a fad and its 15 minutes of fame ran out. It’s also really curious that some episodes shines a lot of the spotlight on the competitive aspect of video games, such as the Nintendo World Championships and Sega’s Rock the Rock event. They do fit in the context of each episode but this time could have been devoted to much more important events and topics, like Atari’s competition and the glut of crappy video games leading to the Video Game Crash, the Game & Watch and even Nintendo and Sega going to war in the portable market with their Game Boy and Game Gear units.
Most of the information told in High Score will not be new for most video game enthusiasts out there. There are, however, a mishmash of both cool trivia and somewhat nonsensical items that, once again, the time for the latter could have been devoted to more prominent pieces of history. I really liked how they devoted some time to Jerry Lawson, the person responsible for creating cartridge based consoles as this was a revolution for the home console market. On the other side of the coin, I couldn’t figure out why they devoted a significant amount of time to GayBlade, a very little known RPG that was made for the LGBTQ+ market in mind. This was talked about heavily in Role Players, the episode dedicated to adventure and RPG gaming on the PC. I have nothing against the man nor the game. However, as the game isn’t widely known and, in turn, didn’t make a huge impact on the gaming world as a whole, I felt the time dedicated to GayBlade could’ve been better spent talking about game series like the Final Fantasy franchise or even the Dragon Quest series, which was the game that was actually inspired by Ultima.
I mentioned earlier how High Score is told in a “quasi-chronological order” and this is because, while the episode are told in historical order, the content of the episodes aren’t. Each episode has a tendency to bounce around from moment to to moment. This was done to facilitate interesting storytelling but, at the same time, the story being told isn’t all that good because of its odd nonlinear timeline. This problem doesn’t pop its head all the time. There are some episodes, such as its fifth episode, Fight!, that tackles fighting games and the birth of the ESRB, that does do a good job of following a logical progression. But that’s mostly because it had to. You can’t talk about the formation of the ESRB unless you talk about the violent content of games like Mortal Kombat. And you can’t talk about Mortal Kombat before you talk about how the fighting games exploded in the arcades thanks to Street Fighter II. The mixed up time sequencing is really bad in the first episode as they just bounce all over the place! At one moment, they’re discussing the impact of Space Invaders then, the next moment, they’re talking about the formation of Atari then back to Space Invaders or Pac-Man. It’s not confusing but it does come off as somewhat incoherent and directionless.
High Score does get some high profile creators like Richard Garriot AKA Lord British himself, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushness, Doom creator John Romero and former CEO of Sega America Tom Kalinske. However, it’s also fairly obvious that they couldn’t get the really big name video game personalities as well. They mention Shigeru Miyamoto but he’s mainly a quick blurb. They managed to get John Tobias but the lack of Ed Boon is very conspicuous. The most obvious non-mention are the likes of Daigo Umehara, Tokido, Justin Wong and the like when they talk about gamers playing fighting games on a professional level. They do talk to Takahiro Nakano AKA Nakano Sagat, former Street Fighter II Turbo champion, and his eSports team. However, as none of them are really known, it seems weird to talk to them and not the more prominent fighting game players of today.
If it sounds like I’m ragging on High Score a lot, it’s because I kind of am. I don’t mean to because, in truth, it’s a fine documentary series. I am impressed with how much content they managed to squeeze into those six episodes. Considering that each episode is just shy of 50 minutes, they did cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Also, as I mentioned, there are some factoids that even I, someone who has grew up playing video games since the early ’80s, didn’t know. I didn’t know who engineered the first video game cartridge and how Richard Garriot first plotted out Ultima. The most wide eyed moment I had when they discussed how a group of college student went in and modded old arcade boards of Missile Command to make it harder and how they managed to weasel themselves into a contract with Midway and, in effect, develop Ms. Pac-Man.
High Score does feel like it’s only scratching the surface of each topic because of the limited amount of time they can devote to them. There’s a ton of information here but they’re only nuggets on information on the specific games and a good amount of it does feel unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I kind of wish High Score copied the format of The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us in the sense they only focused on a specific game per episode. The documentary series would feel so much richer if it did. If High Score does get a second season, I do hope they do go this route.
Even with all of its flaws, I still have to say I would recommend High Score, especially to people who are just getting into gaming and just learning about the hobby’s history now. If you’re already familiar with the history of video games, you won’t get a crazy amount of new knowledge but the stuff that is in there is substantial enough. However, be aware that the entire thing does feel lacking most of the time if you’re really into video game history. It’s pretty short with only six episodes so it’s a neat little waste of time you can watch on Netflix right now.
Have you seen High Score? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!