Monday, July 15, 2024

High Score review: Netflix’s story of gaming’s “golden age” is honestly solid


Enlarge / The series’ title is silly, but it’s actually such a good series that we found ourselves nitpicking its faults instead of feeling entirely embarrassed by it. In the gaming-media world, we’ll call that progress.

We at Ars Technica’s gaming section are flattered by High Score, the newest docu-series launching August 19 on Netflix. The easiest way to describe this gaming-centric interview series, split into six 40-minute episodes, is to give a shoutout our own War Stories video series.

For a few years, War Stories has been asking developers of beloved game series to explain how they overcame problems and got their eventual classics to your favorite PCs and consoles. Netflix’s new series does something very similar: it asks members of the game industry to stitch together a narrative of gaming’s so-called “golden era,” which, in their eyes, begins with Space Invaders in arcades and ends with Doom on PC.

All in all, I’m happy High Score exists. If you want to watch it uncritically, especially with people who don’t necessarily play video games, you can look forward to a mix of intriguing and all-too-familiar classic-gaming tales, told with high production values and clear storytelling throughlines. For the most part, the series is dignified, not embarrassing—a fact that delights the inner 12-year-old in me, who still has a chip on his shoulder about being a gamer “outcast” for most of my youth.

Parchment, magic hats, and “solace and peace”

Maybe it’s the War Stories bias in me, however, but the series’ biggest weakness is its desperation to stitch all of its interviews into a cohesive “game history” story.

In isolation, High Score has some of the best interviews with game-industry luminaries I’ve ever seen. The absolute highlight is an interview with Roberta and Ken Williams, the co-founders and architects behind Sierra Entertainment. Together, they tell the most detailed story I’ve ever seen on camera about their work on 1980’s Apple II game Mystery House. This includes Roberta pulling out a sheet of parchment to draw a facsimile of her original Mystery House design documents for the Netflix camera crew. I’ve maybe never seen a more beautiful “how it was made” demonstration of a game’s origin story.

Similarly thoughtful interviews play out over the series’ six-episode span, and High Score hits the ground running with Taito mastermind Tomohiro Nishikado telling the creation story of Space Invaders. We see him play with an ancient electromechanical “magic hat” machine; we see him imagine Tokyo overrun with massive, robotic spider creatures; we see him pull out pages of original concept art while explaining the design decisions driving what the final game’s characters looked like. As the very first story from the very first episode, it sure sets a tone.

This is followed by a refreshing conversation with legendary programmer Rebecca Heineman about her origins in the game industry: as a competitor in one of the world’s earliest examples of a formal gaming championship. This segment is rich with archival footage and Heineman’s insights, along with her frank admission that games were a crucial escape during her childhood struggles with gender dysphoria: “[Gaming] allowed me to play as a female. I’ve always identified as a woman. Unfortunately, my anatomy didn’t agree. So when I played video games, I was in this virtual world where I was mowing down rows of aliens and ignoring the world around me. It was the only place I was able to find solace and peace.”

The rest of this pilot episode nimbly connects other early ’80s dots, including a great story from the children of engineer Jerry Lawson. He’s largely credited with developing cartridge-based gaming while making the otherwise unsuccessful Fairchild Channel F console. Some of the episode’s stories—particularly that of Ms. Pac-Man‘s origin as a “speed-up kit”—won’t be news to savvier game-history fans. But they are at least told in polished, humorous fashion, and their montage sequences’ pixelated art are a clever touch.

Join the Nintendo Fun Club today!

But let’s get back to Heineman—her experience in the games industry, as far as High Score is concerned, is relegated to her victory in a Space Invaders tournament. The series makes no mention of Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, or even Heineman being hired as a 16-year-old game-studio programmer. And as the series rolls along, more lapses in game-history storytelling emerge.

The issue is that High Score lands quite a few formative interviews on its quest to tell a certain history of the industry. But if the crew didn’t score a particular interview, then the story in question barely exists. We only hear about Shigeru Miyamoto’s game design prowess when English-speaking members of the Star Fox team (Giles Goddard, Dylan Cuthbert) are interviewed about that project. Otherwise, Nintendo’s history is told almost exclusively by one of its American PR leads, who tells the story of Nintendo Power’s formation as a magazine. The story is told well in High Score‘s format, but it leaves Nintendo design luminaries like Satoru Iwata in the shadows (and, weirdly, pretends the Nintendo Fun Club Newsletter never existed).

Trip Hawkins and John Madden appear as pixelated characters in one of many montage sequences.
Enlarge / Trip Hawkins and John Madden appear as pixelated characters in one of many montage sequences.


And we only hear about one Electronic Arts series, John Madden Football, because that’s how High Score tries to explain Sega’s console-war dominance in the sports genre. This sports sequence drove me particularly insane. Madden launched near-simultaneously on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, so it was a terrible example to hinge this anecdote on. Plus, Sega’s bullishness about self-published sports games, usually with athletes attached, went completely unmentioned. At the time, Sega aggressively marketed Sports Talk Football with Joe Montana as a rival to Madden, but Netflix leaves that and other major Sega sports games unmentioned.

High Score includes one story of famous failure: ET for the Atari 2600, as told by lead designer Howard Scott Warshaw (the genius behind Yars’ Revenge). Yet Trip Hawkins, who guests on High Score to talk about Madden‘s development, doesn’t get the opportunity to talk about his own console-launch failure, the 3DO. Other notable gaming-industry failures go similarly unmentioned.

Some of the series’ lapses would be more forgivable if Netflix wasn’t so stuck on following winners of ’80s and early ’90s game tournaments. Heineman’s story is a gem. The same can’t be said for other episodes’ segments dedicated to the Nintendo World Championship and the Sega Rock the Rock Championship. If this were a longer series, an entire episode about early game championships might be lovely. But here, these stories suffer because they only interview one participant each, drag for far too long, and place far more cultural import on the tournaments than they’re arguably worth. (I know, the Nintendo World Championship was massive for my generation, but High Score‘s version of that story isn’t told with multiple participants, with Nintendo organizers, or even with a mention of tie-in film The Wizard.)

Don’t spoil things for gaming novices

Again, I must insist: if you want to enjoy the series uncritically and deal with a mix of storytelling delights and slower, “Guess I’ll check my phone for a few minutes” segments, High Score has enough good content to sit through. This is boosted significantly by Charles Martinet as narrator; you may recognize his voice as that of Super Mario and other famous Nintendo characters, and he handles his humorous-enough script with a gentle cadence. (No, he never sneaks an “it’s-a me!” into the series. Super Mario receives paltry lip service through the course of High Score, honestly.)

Just be warned that some uneven interview choices and leaps past significant game-history developments will leave anybody knowledgeable about gaming history yelling at their TV. Your favorite console, arcade, portable, or PC game from the era in question is, in all likelihood, not given enough time or coverage by Netflix’s filming crew. (I, for example, couldn’t believe how little was said about Tetris. Tetris!)

With that in mind, keep the whining to the minimum if someone has a pleasant time not knowing better and watching the whole series at your side. Once you’re done with Netflix’s take, our War Stories series will continue feeding you the game-history goods.

Ebenezer Robbins
Ebenezer Robbins
Introvert. Beer guru. Communicator. Travel fanatic. Web advocate. Certified alcohol geek. Tv buff. Subtly charming internet aficionado.

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