Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Netflix’s High Score can’t settle on which history of video games it wants to tell

High Score
High Score
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
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One interesting thing about the video game industry is that its youth—as compared to film or television—makes it fairly easy to chart the timeline of major developments with relative brevity. First there was Pong, then Atari, then Nintendo, then Sega, then PlayStation, then Xbox, and now there is only Fortnite. Netflix’s new docuseries High Score , sets out to add some details to that path while also highlighting important video game events that are only important now with hindsight, but it ends up just being a bit confused about what kind of history it wants to tell.

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Every episode of High Score is made up of three elements: The first always follows a basic theme, like the rise of Nintendo or the fighting game trend in the ’90s. The second tries to shoehorn that theme into a segment about competitive gaming, which sometimes feels very natural and other times feels like an episode got cut and they needed to find somewhere to talk about eSports. The third element is a piece of the untold history of video games, showcasing people who made an impact but aren’t necessarily household names—assuming that, say, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins is a household name where you live.

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These personal and often unexpected stories are easily the highlight of High Score, and they’re occasionally the only thing that saves it from turning into the public school version of a video game history lesson. They’re often so much more interesting than the surface-level accounts that surround them that they sometimes feel like they could’ve carried entire episodes—if not entire documentaries—themselves. For example: One episode features a side story about a Black engineer named Jerry Lawson who was instrumental in the design of the Fairchild Channel F, the very first game system to use cartridges, but both he and that system are basically forgotten now. He basically invented video gaming’s equivalent of 35mm film, yet his story is reduced to a fascinating subplot here.

Another standout example is a segment dedicated to former Nintendo lawyer John Kirby, who gets to tell the story of how he fought off a lawsuit from Universal in 1984 over Donkey Kong’s supposed similarities to King Kong (there are many, let’s be honest). Kirby won that lawsuit and saved Nintendo—if not the entire industry—and he drops a funny line in the interview about how the company never got his permission to use his name for a certain pink puffball. He was also a civil rights lawyer in the ’60s who worked on the Voting Rights Act and helped personally escort Black kids into segregated schools, which doesn’t even get mentioned here. It may not be relevant to Nintendo history, as awesome as it is, but its omission is indicative of the series’ pattern of excessively condensing every topic it covers.

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The actual broad strokes of video game history are also not usually given their due (the episode on the SNES/Genesis console war ends with Genesis winning), but some of that could be blamed on what kind of access the filmmakers were able to get. Developers and creators who don’t physically appear in the doc don’t usually get much attention, so while it’s literally impossible to talk about Nintendo without mentioning the contributions of Shigeru Miyamoto, the fact that he doesn’t appear on camera means there’s no real insight into how he created Super Mario or Link or any of the other iconic Nintendo characters he came up with. You also might come away from High Score thinking Mortal Kombat was exclusively created by artist John Tobias if not for the casual mention of a programmer named Ed Boon—who happens to be the series co-creator and current head of NetherRealm Studios who is still creating new Mortal Kombat games to this day.

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s iHigh Score /ican’t settle on which history of video games it wants to tell
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
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High Score sometimes places a weirdly distracting emphasis on artists over developers and programmers. It’s not that they aren’t equally important in the process of designing a game, but crediting illustrator Yoshitaka Amano with the success of the entire Final Fantasy series—which has released almost a dozen mainline entries since he stopped actively working on them—is bizarre, especially when subsequent series artists like Tetsuya Nomura are just as important. You rarely see anyone in the series even talk about programming or coding; it’s all more mystical and expressive, with creators pulling out sheets of paper used to map out levels rather than actually showing on a computer how levels are mapped out. You don’t hear anything about how Pac-Man or Sonic The Hedgehog were actually made; you just see creators eating pizza or admiring the big loops on a roller coaster. It’s like video games are made by dreams and they just appear fully-formed after someone decides to put tennis shoes on a rodent.

The big exception is the mostly very good “Role Players” episode about RPGs. It features not only Ken and Roberta Williams but Lord British himself, Richard Garriott. If you don’t already know who they are, congratulations on being “cool,” though you will find out by the end of the episode because they get to tell their own very interesting stories about discovering the narrative potential of computer games or the brilliant decision to cast players as themselves to discourage them from murdering and stealing within the game with no remorse. The episode has its issues, particularly in the form of an extremely reductive definition of “role-playing game” that is absolutely not accurate (they say it’s about creating your own character, but that alone would disqualify most Final Fantasy games), but it is the one time where the conflicting visions for High Score actually work together well.

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In the final episode, High Score comes around to a thesis that puts some of the preceding disjointedness into focus: Video games, the series argues, are built on everything that came before them, whether it’s technology or people, so everyone’s video gaming story is part of video game history. It’s a nice idea, but coming so late in the narrative makes it feel tacked on. One thing that’s not tacked on and can’t possibly be praised enough, though, is the narration from Charles Martinet—better known as the voice of Super Mario. He is an absolute joy to listen to throughout the entirety of High Score, especially when he seemingly can’t pronounce his character’s name without saying it like Mario does (Maaario). It’s just a shame that the rest of High Score can’t live up to its best parts.

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