High Score Review: An Enthralling Look at the Video Game Revolution

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Rating:

8/10

Narrated by Charles Martinet

Directed by William Acks, France Costrel, Sam Lacroix

High Score Review:

Did you know that Pac-Man was concocted when a man named Tohru Iwatani discovered the character’s iconic design in a pizza he was eating? Or that Doom was written by a couple of metal-loving designers working endless hours in a garage? Or that Nintendo once had a hotline gamers could call to ask for help on titles like Zelda and Super Mario Bros.? If such topics pique your interest, or if you want to get a closer look at the faces behind all those credits listed at the end of your favorite video games, then you should definitely check out Netflix’s enthralling new limited series, High Score.

Part documentary, part love letter to the unsung geniuses behind pop-culture phenomenons such as Wolfenstein 3D, Final Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, and part tribute to gamers themselves — many of them reclusive individuals who found freedom behind their digitized avatars — High Score zips around the ’80s and early ’90s like a kid pumped full of pixie sticks to relay the story of the video game from the perspective of those who took part (or found joy) in its creation.

Pong, we’re told, started it all; and that simplistic concept of tapping a ball back and forth on a TV screen ultimately led to the creation of a global empire. At one point in time, arcades generated a profit of roughly $5 billion per year (or $12 billion in modern U.S. dollars), which is partially what attracted guys like Steve Golson, Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran to drop out of MIT to create enhancement kits for arcade classics like Asteroids and Missile Command, a feat that paved the way to the wildly popular Ms. Pac-Man.

Others eventually joined the video game revolution, including Roberta Williams and her husband Ken, who developed a field of graphic adventure games like Mystery House and King’s Quest despite limited computer experience; and Gerald Anderson Lawson, who was the first to develop the cartridge-based home video game console system — an idea “borrowed” by Atari. In the golden era of the video game, you see, every idea was a new idea and everyone was clamoring for a piece of the action. Truly, video games in this time were revolutionary in a way modern video games can’t quite replicate. Audiences were more intoxicated by the technological leaps made by Kirby in 1992 then they are with the latest Call of Duty or Resident Evil.

It’s weird to think that, at one point in time, a computer couldn’t match the smooth side-scrolling capabilities of Nintendo — that is, until John Carmack, one of the creators of id Software, cracked the code and used the newfound tools to develop 1992’s popular Nazi shoot-em-up Wolfenstein 3D (“We were just on the edge of technology!”) for the PC that in turn led to 1993’s amazing demons-caked-in-blood classic, Doom — a game that derived its name from Tom Cruise. Seriously.

High Score relays such fun tidbits of information, along with a lot of technobabble, across six different episodes; each dedicated to a specific video game concept — first-person shooter, RPGs, side-scrolling games, arcade games, etc. Occasionally, we detour to learn about a former gamer champion who took their nimble thumbs to tournaments around the world and crushed competition amidst thousands of spectators. Tellingly, there’s something magical about seeing a young kid cheered on by legions of fans simply for possessing the ability to play Tetris real good.

There are cool segments dedicated to the Sega/Nintendo wars that resulted in Sonic the Hedgehog, the violent (and controversial) Mortal Kombat and even Madden football. Remember those wild “Sega!” commercials? The doc touches on those as well and is all the more entertaining for it.

And yet, High Score refuses to address the more controversial aspects of the video game industry. Oh sure, we spend a few fleeting moments watching stiff political leaders discuss video game sex and violence, particularly in regard to Digital Pictures’ scantily-clad-girls-evading-mutant-zombies epic Night Trap; and the doc does touch upon the public reaction to Mortal Kombat’s crazy brutal gameplay, but such issues are dealt with in such a feeble manner (or purposefully contrasted against the more wondrous video game bits) they barely register. Rules/morals = bad. Video games = freedom. Get it?

High Score instead basks in the warm glow of nostalgia and celebrates video games and video gamers in a manner that feels slightly overindulgent. The series works best when it focuses on those tireless individuals who spent hours creating code all for our gaming pleasure, and designers like Howard Scott Warshaw, who found success with Atari’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and failure with the much-maligned E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The results are fun and quite fascinating, but a deeper dive into the pros and cons of the gaming industry might’ve made for a stronger feature.

High Score will begin streaming on August 19!