‘High Score’ is an Informative Gaming Docu-Series Worthy of Your Time – Review
Netflix’s new gaming documentary covers a lot of ground. From the height of the arcade era in “invader houses” to the revolution of online multiplayer. High Score tells the story of the innovators and rebels that made gaming what it is today. Episode topics include the rise and fall of Atari, Sega’s inception, legal fights and some creators outright bluffing to make their dreams of future come true. The six-part docu-series is no Last Dance, but it is certainly worthy of your time (especially if you’re a gamer).
Some of the biggest games from around the planet are featured. Mario gets a big spotlight in episode two as the series dives into the dominance of the Nintendo entertainment system. An excellent coin flip comes in the next episode with a full dive into Sega’s plan of attack on Nintendo, the creation of Sonic, and how they became the cooler console with 16-bit graphics. High Score has sections dedicated to Pac-Man, Madden, Doom, Street Fighter, Star Fox, Tetris, Space Invaders, Mortal Kombat, Ultima, and much more. One of the joys of the series is sitting back and saying “no way” when the origin of a game is revealed. It would be a crime here to reveal too much, but know that each game’s background is a delightful dive all its own.
High Score makes one thing clear for the jump, games have always been about the winners. The entire series has a strong through-line of competition. We’re talking the first Nintendo Championships and a former champ driving to multiple cites to qualify. We see behind the scenes of Sega’s “Rock the Rock” event, a game competition hosted by MTV DJ’s on Alcatraz (no joke, MTV rock music, playing on The Rock). There are multiple episodes with sections devoted to gamers facing off. One of the later entries highlights eSports teams and their training, not only in the game but also in real life. Training to beat your opponent in Street Fighter isn’t only about strategy and techniques, but also mental fortitude and physical endurance. Who could have known?
One of the parts that struck me most was the tales of color in the series. One story highlighted the hustle and persistence of one Black EA employee to not only get hired but push for Black players to be included in madden for the first time. Clearly a highlight and something that never entered my mind. Before 1995, Madden only featured white avatars for people to play as in a sport with a majority of minority players. Another story that stood out was the tale of Gerald Anderson Lawson the Black man who created the video game cartridge. Before this doc, I had never heard the name and that’s a shame. From your Switch to your N64, Gerald is responsible for interchangeable gaming and a reason we are where we are today. Thank you, Mr. Lawson.
If this limited series teaches anything it’s that you should always ask for forgiveness and not permission. The Star Fox team got hired by Nintendo because they illegally modded the Game Boy to do 3D. The creators of Doom got their fluid frame rate from reverse engineering a Super Mario cartridge. Mrs. Pac-Man is a fan mod that got legitimized off of a lie and a court case and on and on. The collection of creators in the series did whatever was necessary to get their vision on a game screen or on a store shelf. The games industry was much freer then, Atari was a bastion of creativity and expression until they sold to a bigger company and it snuffed out their rebel spirit.
There are so many wonderful parts of the gaming industry that are overturned in High Score, far too many to cover in one review. There are odd tales like one man trying to find his long lost creation GayBlade (the earliest LGBT-themed video game). Another is the court case won by John Kirby that saved Nintendo and arguably made gaming what it is today. All along the saga of game makers are a set of intelligent rule breakers that keep putting quarters in the machine till they win the game. High Score get’s top marks for bringing these tales to the front, they could have done six episodes on Atari alone.
The series left me wanting more and I hope the creators re-team to tell more stories in the gaming space because for an outsider, this was an excellent fuel for my gaming fire.