Netflix had some good video game documentaries for a while. It was where I first watched Game Over: The Story of Atari and for fun they also have the original anime Hi Score Girl (which I would definitely recommend if you like anime) and recently Netflix released their own video game documentary series. High Score. It’s a limited series thats only 6 episodes that are about 45-50 minutes long. As a video game history fan I loved this series, this series really takes different looks at major moments in video game history and highlights some of the smaller moments as well. The fact that the series is also narrated by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario and Luigi is also one of the biggest pluses for me.
One of the biggest things this show does that I find different isn’t what the show has, but what the show doesn’t have. It does begin with the early 70’s but not with Pong or with the Magnavox Odyssey, but with Space Invaders and E.T. There actually isn’t any mention of the Magnavox at all, the only thing with a Magnavox logo on it is a computer monitor we see later on in the show. Truth be told, the Magnavox Odyssey isn’t truly the first video game console, the Fairchild Channel F is. The reason being is because the Channel F had interchangeable cartridges which meant more games than the ones the Odyssey had. Thats one of the best things about this documentary is that it tells you things that could have been lost to history forever, like the Channel F and the man who created game cartridges, Jerry Lawson. I knew about the Channel F thanks to Evan Amos’ book The Game Console but to have Netflix bring to light a system that hardly anyone knows about is great. It also give credit where credit is due to Jerry Lawson, because without him we wouldn’t have game cartridges and the video game scene could be so different today than it is now. His children speak for him in the show and they say once the Atari 2600 came out it eclipsed the Channel F and their father’s work was almost completely lost to history. Almost. However, it was awesome to learn more about the game Space Invaders, and how the creator Tomo Nishikado drew inspiration from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
The documentary doesn’t just dive into how games became the juggernaut but it also highlights the people who played in video game tournaments as well. Becky Heineman who was the 1980 Space Invaders Champion (the first video game tournament ever held so she’s also the first champion). Jeff Hanson was the 1990 Nintendo World Champion in the 11 and Under category. Chris Tang, who won the MTV Rock the Rock SEGA Tournament, and finally Tadahiro Nakano who was the Japanese Street Fighter II champion. Out of all these winners, Nakano would eventually help create a eSports team that would become one of the best in the country. The show doesn’t shy away from eSports, in fact its the most modern thing mentioned throughout the show minus some screen shots of modern games. Thanks to home video and old broadcast footage we’re also able to see Hanson and Tang play in their perspective tournaments which is very cool to see. Listening to Heineman talk about her experiences playing in the first every video game tournament in the United States was great. I was too young when these tournaments were taking place so seeing how people played in them really makes me want to play in one. Also on a side note the champions all got really sweet jackets and I would love to see those make a comeback.
Like with other video game documentaries you get to see interviews and hear behind the scenes stories from the people who were there. Mostly it’s the people directly responsible for the gamed the producers but what High Score does a little differently is who they talk to. Of course you get to see Howard Scott Warshaw talk about E.T., but you also meet Hirokazu Tanaka, who created some of the most iconic video game sounds ever for Nintendo. Or one of my personal favorite artists Yoshitaka Amano, the character designer for Final Fantasy. The show goes into their experiences in a way that we don’t really get to see and I really enjoy that. The show also dives deep into a game that I feel is a bit overlooked when discussing the creation of the ESRB, Night Trap. Of course Mortal Kombat is heavily featured but that wasn’t the only game Congress had their sights on during the hearings. It’s a game that gets overshadowed a bit in other circles but here it gets to share the spotlight. Even if that spotlight was for a poor reason.
Now without giving too much away the show does end at a very peculiar point for me. It effectively ends right when the Super Nintendo is released and how the Super FX chip helped make Star Fox what it is. Now thats around 1993 and there’s still so much more gaming history to cover. For a limited series the show already packs a ton of content but just ending it with the SNES? It’s not a bad thing but I really hope there’s more in the works because there are so many things that came out right after Star Fox that changed the course of gaming, both games and hardware. Effectively the show does cover a good 25 years of video game history however this is billed as a limited series so who knows if there will be more? If they do decide to keep it a 1 and done I would be bummed but I also get it. This show covers the early years of gaming and if that was the point then they nailed it.
As a whole I love this show, the things I knew about I was happy to see, like the episode on the SEGA/Nintendo war, the creation of E.T., and the rise of Nintendo. I was also loving the bits I didn’t know, such as the story of Jerry Lawson, Gordon Bellamy, and how John Romero helped create DOOM. There are some giant omissions from the show, like the Magnavox Odyssey and even some big games like how Tetris came to the market, but what is there is nice. The omissions don’t bother me too much, probably because I’ve known about them for years, but people who are just diving into the subject may feel a little cheated. The way people talk about the games you could feel the passion and the little pixel art scenes that play during certain sections of the show are fun to watch. I particularly loved the pixel recreation of Wharshaw’s pitch of E.T. to Steven Spielberg. Is this perfect? No, its not, but it certainly is worth your time if you love video game history and want to learn something new about video games.