Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Today’s generation has it made when it comes to gaming. They never experienced the struggle of not being able to play a Nintendo game unless you blew into the cartridge just right. Nor do they have to tell mom to keep away from the console because it is paused. Once the console is powered off, it’s back to the main menu and starting from scratch. Now kids have online gaming, multiple save points, and don’t need a cheat code to get an edge.
The gaming industry has become more profitable than movies and music, so it is surprising that we only have a few quality examples of gaming in documentary form. The best revolve around competition (THE KING OF KONG, for example). Some software developers have done their own making-ofs in exploring the creative process of a singular work. Places like YouTube and Twitch have allowed gamers to share their experiences and make money in the process. That’s the now.
HIGH SCORE is the then: A Netflix limited docuseries that explores when the arcade was king, and how gaming has come a long way since the days of inserting coins and mashing buttons.
As someone who grew up during Nintendo’s dominance of the 1980s, Sega bringing forth the console wars in the 1990s, and the renaissance of arcades, HIGH SCORE is my childhood.
Told across six episodes, each with a distinct topic, the series covers the golden age of gaming in less than five hours. Not an easy feat, and yet time moves faster than Pac-Man eats fruit.
Inside this video game waltz down memory lane are interviews with some visionaries, software developers, and a few expert gamers. They open up about their difficulties, inspirations, the need for holistic change, and why Atari’s 2600 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is the worst game ever made.
Who better to take us through the key points of gaming history than Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario. While the interview subjects and archive material do most of the work, we follow Martinet down a drainpipe that doubles as a warp zone to other parts of the world. Even better are the reenactments the creators incorporate to support an interviewee’s memory of a past event – when photos and videos are not available. Things get animated. 8-bit animation, to be specific.
The first episode, “Boom & Bust,” revisits the arcade boom of the late 1970s with Space Invaders and Pac-Man, and how a series of mod-kits for existing arcade games led to the creation of Ms. Pac-Man and the technology for cartridge-based gameplay. Ataris sold like hotcakes as disco was dying, but just as soon as the music stopped, video-gaming hit the skids. Too many bad games on the shelves caused sales to cool. Then arrives a game based on the box office smash, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Atari needed a hit game by September (to meet the holiday rush) after they secured the gaming rights that July. Five-and-a-half weeks to make a game – what could go wrong? Its creator humorously describes the comedy of errors.
“Boom & Bust” plants the seeds of gaming culture and how games are meant to be enjoyed by all. That seed grows and blossoms by the time we reach the end of the journey. And what a journey it becomes. Episode 2’s “Comeback Kid” is the history of Nintendo. The star of the episode is Shaun Bloom, a former Game Play Counselor. Before message boards and FAQs with detailed walk-throughs, there were call centers where gamers could get operator assistance in finding hidden objects and past difficult levels. Hearing how Bloom made it through the entrance exam makes it even funnier.
Fans of role-playing games (RPGs), the “Role Players” episode is for you. Featured interviews include the couple behind the first PC adventure game with graphics (Mystery House) and the developer of Ultima, both of which have a process of structured decision-making, with the latter introducing the concept of choice-based consequences. The rise of the RPG establishes players’ concept as avatars and the ability to be whatever you want. And Ryan Best, the creator of the early ‘90s LGBTQ RPG GayBlade, proves how video games can be an inclusive experience as he discusses his game.
“This is War” is a crash course on the console wars that erupted in the early ‘90s. I was a Nintendo guy until the Sega Genesis arrived. The episode shows the five-step battle plan businessman Tom Kalinske devised as the CEO of Sega of America in the early ‘90s. One of the steps was to popularize sports games. Enter Trip Hawkins, Electronic Arts, and how signing a contract with football coach John Madden would change not only the sporting landscape but break the color barrier in video games.
With home consoles becoming a staple in children’s bedrooms, arcades were losing customers. Then, a renaissance took place as fighting games grew in popularity. Capcom’s Street Fighter II and Midway’s Mortal Kombat made arcades cool again, and an easy way to blow through a week’s allowance in an afternoon. While both games have a similar design, Kombat is spelled with a “K” for one reason in particular: the ability to kill your opponent. As fighting simulators become a hit, another fight brews in Washington, D.C., as congressional hearings in 1993 over video game violence.
“Level Up” is about making the jump from 2D to 3D animation. John Romero and Tom Hall of id Software, the company behind Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, feature most prominently, and their anecdote in creating the games in the dead of night reminds me of Bill & Ted jamming out in their garage. Crank up the music and see what happens. As they were developing first-person shooters for PC, Nintendo was getting into 3D gaming with Argonaut Software and the development of the Super FX Chip. Though few games would be made with the chip, it broke the two-dimensional barrier for home consoles, leading us to a new gaming age.
HIGH SCORE is best enjoyed by those who grew up with 8-bit consoles, hard-wired controllers, swore allegiance to a certain side during the console wars, and developed calluses from playing too many games. Hopefully, it’s not game over after these six episodes; there are so many worlds and topics to explore. Until then, stop looking for power-ups, find a save point, and enjoy a series that both educates experienced gamers and exemplifies why we play in the first place.
HIGH SCORE is now available to stream on Netflix.