I like video games. How daring and unheard of me, right? For as long as I can remember, I have always been able to find refuge from the troubles of life by sitting down and getting lost in gaming. And not just the latest and greatest games either; most of the video games I talk about and find myself playing tend to be at least a decade old. And I’ve always been like this. A lot of my earliest memories involve buying and playing video games for my Mom’s Nintendo Entertainment System, or playing the Sonic Classics collection on my Dad’s Sega Genesis (MkII) and I’ve always carried a love for the 8 and 16 bit generations because of it.
So High Score is the show just for me, right? It’s a 6 episode Netflix docu-series that runs through the history of video games and showcases the lives of some of the people it’s touched over the years. So it’s a match made in heaven… Right?
Well… Yeah, but no… But mostly yes? Just with some caveats.
High Score is a great show for people that have little to no familiarity with the history of video games. It talks about gaming’s humble roots in the 70s (or the wood-finish era as I like to call it) and how the medium changed and became the juggernaut it is today. It touches on a lot of the big moments in gaming between 1975-1995 and it does so with fantastic presentation as well as a number of primary sources that include game designers, composers and fans that grew up during this era of gaming and would go on to design or work in the games industry in the future. And for that alone, I consider High Score to be a great show that’s worth watching.
But, there are some weird omissions in the show that had me scratching my head a bit. There’s nothing glaringly absent in the documentary series that dampens it’s enjoyability too much, but rather some topics that I feel could have been explored in greater detail, if brought up at all. For example, I thought it was incredible how High Score brought up Fairchild’s Channel F in its premiere episode. The Channel F was the first home video game console with interchangeable cartridges and I was honestly surprised that it got a mention. But I was even more surprised that another Atari competitor from the era, the Magnavox Odyssey, wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the episode. Now, if I had to pick between one of the two systems, I would’ve gone with Channel F, but even just a passing mention of the Odyssey felt appropriate for the show.
Another thing that I had noticed with the series was, what I consider, an over-emphasis on the American video game scene. The series mentions that the US video game market crashed in 1983 and how the crash had never occurred in Japan, but it doesn’t really mention Europe or South America’s video game scene, which could’ve made for some fascinating television. The European market adopted DOS/PC based gaming ini the 80s a bit faster than we did in the US and, despite some time being put into talking about PC gaming in the show, the show never really explains what that was like for gamers on systems like the Apple II, the Commodore 64 or Atari’s line of computers. Likewise, despite having an entire episode dedicated to Sega, the series failed to mention how monumental its success in South America was. For reference, the Sega Master System and Genesis are still being manufactured for the Brazilian market. That’s right. You can still buy a new Sega Genesis in some parts of the world!
I’m sure that these facts were known by the team behind this Netflix Original; they’ve clearly done their homework here, after all. But I guess I was left wishing for a more definitive re-cap of video game history than what we got here. After all, we live in an era where gaming channels on YouTube can produce ˆbroadcast quality documentaries about the history of Tetris, why can’t we get a decent Netflix episode about it? I mean it makes for great television, what-with the involvement of the KGB and corporate espionage and all!
Now, critiques like the ones above can be made for just about any documentary. Documentaries are, as a professor I once had would often say, a genre conceived a bias. The decisions over what goes into a documentary are a deliberate choice and those choices are important in shaping its narrative.
But while I have issues with the narrative of this docu-series, there’s no denying that I loved most of what was in it. The series went to great lengths to show the impact that gaming had on the world, as well as how diverse the people responsible for gamings success were. And, while I am a massive nerd for retro game history that annually binge-watches web series’ like All Your History Are Belong To Us, Play Value, and Splash Wave, I genuinely did learn a lot watching this show. For example, I learned about Jerry Lawson, who invented the technology behind interchangeable video game cartridges as well as Ryan Best, the creator of a (lost) video game protesting the GOP’s anti-gay rhetoric in the 80s, GayBlade. And it doesn’t stop there! I learned a lot of other cool stuff too, such as how Nintendo of America’s Head of Marketing in the 80’s was a woman, and how the first graphical adventure game (Mystery House) was also designed by a woman! Who thought the history of gaming was as woke as it turned out to be? I love it!
And while I think learning about these sorts of things in a documentary is important, especially when it comes to a series about video games (which, let’s be real for a moment, still has a reputation for being a homophobic/misogynist breeding ground), that wasn’t even my favorite part of the series!
The part of the documentary that really stole my heart was the raw enthusiasm of it all! Each of the episodes takes time to follow an individual whose life was changed by video games and the level of love they exhibit for the gaming is delightful to watch. Even for the subjects that don’t work in the medium anymore, you can feel the way that their lives have been shaped by video games and I love it. I know that probably isn’t the best way to describe it, but I do. To try and convey/explain why I liked seeing/hearing from them so much, I think it stems from my relationship with gaming and how generally frustrated I am with the interactions I’ve had with the gaming community over the years. Because, while I love video games from the bottom of my heart, I often find myself thinking about how toxic and competitive gamers can seem from an outsider perspective. So much so that I recently discovered a love for single player experiences that I haven’t had since middle school, because I got tired of being harassed on GTA Online or booted from CS GO lobbies for not being as good as other players or just wanting to play casually. That’s my beast of burden, for sure, but High Score helped me remember how much escapism a good game can bring a person.
Overall, High Score is great. Yes, I wish it went into greater detail over a lot of things (how can you dedicate half of an episode to Atari and not bring up the Atari 2600’s successors, the 5200 and 7800?), but I understand that these decisions had to be made for one reason or another. The episodes come in at around 45 minutes a piece and have an A/B structure that jumps between two different, though related, subjects. And, despite its flaws, the show goes by fast. Like, Sonic the Hedgehog running down a hill in San Fransisco fast.
Check this one out if you’re at all interested in video games, and definitely check out some of the other shows/videos I’ve linked above if you find yourself wanting more video game history.