High Score: A Review and Retrospective on the Netflix Series

Recently, Netflix launched High Score, a new documentary series on the history of video games.  I thought it was entertaining enough that I wanted to discuss and review it here on this blog.  So here’s my thoughts on the six episode series!

But first, keep in mind that these are my opinions only.  Any thoughts I may have on how to improve the series, or what I would’ve liked to have seen, are just personal preferences only.  So don’t take what I have to say TOO seriously.

One interesting thing about this series is that it was narrated by Charles Martinet.  He’s probably best known among gamers as the current voice of Mario.  I met him at E3 once.  I’m glad he doesn’t use his ‘Mario’ voice in the documentary, though.  I’m not really a fan of Mario’s high pitched squeaky voice.  For me, the voice of Mario was always Captain Lou Albano from the old Mario cartoon.

One other thing I noted about this series is that I knew pretty much everything in it already.  But I don’t consider that a problem because that would be just a lot to expect from the documentary.  I mean, I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old.  And I’ve been working with the video game industry in the media field for more than 20 years.  Heck I’ve even done volunteer work at a video game history museum!  Still bitter they never hired me, especially since I live ten minutes away!  So I really couldn’t expect this Netflix series to have too much new information.  But even though it was stuff I already knew, I still found it entertaining to watch.  So let’s take a look at what’s in the six episodes!

Episode 1: Boom or Bust

The first episode covers one of my favorite times in video games: the early arcades of the 70’s and 80’s, up to the video game crash of 83-84.  They featured the creators of Space Invaders and Pac-Man.  The Space Invaders guy had a notebook with his original design sketches of the aliens in it, which were based on seafood!  I swear that notebook he had looked like it was about to turn into dust!  I hope they put that notebook in a museum someday.

Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, was also featured.  He doesn’t work at Namco anymore, but teaches classes on game design.  They showed him in his class with a LEGO wall of the Pac-Man maze.  You guys may know how much of a Pac-Man fan I am, so can you imagine how awful I’d be as a student in his class?  “Hey Mr. Iwatani, can I have that LEGO Pac-Man wall when you’re done?  Can I have that Pac-Man plush on your desk?  Can I pack you in a box and take you home with me to have in my Pac-Man collection forever and ever?”  Oh, and they also showed footage of people putting together Pac-Man arcade machines in a warehouse, and I swear it’s the same footage I remember watching with my dad on the news a LONG time ago when I first saw a Pac-Man arcade machine.  I was so little that I didn’t even know what they were.  I thought they were drink vending machines or something.

One interesting story that I knew about already, but I didn’t know all the details about, was how Ms. Pac-Man came to be.  I knew it was made by hackers, but I thought it was interesting in the video how they got that far.  A group of MIT students rented dorms and put arcade games in them for students (not sure how they got away with that), and that’s how they made money.  They noticed the Missile Command machine didn’t make as much money after a while, so they modified it to make it more difficult and called it Super Missile Attack.  Atari sued them, but they settled out of court.  But Atari made them promise that they tell companies of games they modify.  So they had to tell Midway about their Pac-Man modifications, and that’s how Ms. Pac-Man came about!

They also talked about the video game crash, and one of the factors that caused it: the E.T. Atari 2600 game!  They even featured the guy who made it!  Honestly when I was a kid, I don’t remember a video game crash.  Only thing I remember was about that time, I was able to get games for my newly acquired Atari 5200 really cheap, so I was happy about that.  The show also featured an African American technician who was on a team that made the very first cartridge-based video game: the Fairchild Channel F, so that was interesting.

Right away I did have a few problems with this series that you can see in this first episode.  I didn’t like how they went out of order for things.  They’d be like, “This happened on this day, but five years before, this happened, so let’s take a look at that later.”  So it was a bit jarring at times.  And maybe it’s because I’m not a very competitive person, but I felt they focused too much on video game competitions in the episodes.  I know they did that because eSports are so big now, but I would’ve still rather heard about other things.

I also felt the series tried too hard to be politically correct, and feature contributions from minority groups even if they weren’t as significant of a contribution.  Or maybe let me put it in a better way, maybe those contributions were significant, it’s just the show didn’t convey it as being as important as they should have been.  The way they portrayed some things, they might as well also talked about someone who has been legally blind his whole life, and yet has still been able to review games for more than 20 years.  I wonder who that could be?

Episode 2: Comeback Kid

The next episode is all about Nintendo, and how they brought back video games from the crash in the US, and how they rose to fame in the NES era in the late 80’s.  I’m really glad they featured Gail Tilden, the head editor of Nintendo Power magazine (apparently she makes her own wine now).  Sure Nintendo Power was propaganda for Nintendo, but I think it also did a lot of game journalism firsts and was very important regardless.  It inspired me to major in Magazine Journalism in college (which looking back, was probably a mistake, but it was a good idea at the time).  In fact, Nintendo Power editors even helped me with one of my college assignments and made it a lot easier, so I have a lot of respect for them.  This episode also talked about Nintendo’s Game Counselors.  Back before YouTube, GameFAQs, and the Internet in general, you could call a hotline and get game tips if you were stuck on a game, and this episode focused on the people who took those calls!

They also talked about the Nintendo World Championships 1990, which I actually went to.  They called it Nintendo PowerFest in the video, but that’s only because they changed the name in the middle of the tour.  I even wrote an article about my experiences with that event here.

One last interesting story in this episode is how Universal Studios sued Nintendo over copyright infringement of King Kong with their Donkey Kong arcade game.  The lawyer who won that case for Nintendo was named John Kirby, and in honor of him, Nintendo named their round pink character Kirby after him!  It was cool they interviewed John Kirby, but at the end of the video they said he passed away in 2019, so that was pretty sad.

HOWEVER, that’s not the entire story about how Kirby got his name.  His name came from other factors, too.  Like the vacuum cleaner company of the same name, since Kirby sucks in and spits out enemies.  Also, the Japanese found it humorous that a soft, pink character had such a harsh sounding name.  In the video, they said that Kirby also got his likeness from the lawyer, since John Kirby had a bald, round, pinkish head.  But that’s not true at all.  Kirby was originally a placeholder character for the first game he was in, but the team liked that design so much they just kept it in the game!

Episode 3: Role Players

The next episode is about the beginning of role playing video games.  They talked about the guy who started Ultima, a.k.a. Lord British.  They also featured Roberta Williams from Sierra On-Line.  They didn’t talk about her more famous series like King’s Quest very much, but mostly about her first game, Mystery House.  When they talked about how these RPGs evolved into what we have today, Final Fantasy was the main game they featured.  I’m glad they talked with Yoshitaka Amano, the artist of many of the FF games, especially the early ones.  I don’t like the way Amano draws humans, but I love how he draws monsters!

Episode 4: This is War

The next episode is all about the console wars in the 16-bit era, and how SEGA was Nintendo’s first real competition with the SEGA Genesis, and even surpassed them in popularity for a while.  They talked about SEGA’s strategy to beat Nintendo, and there was even a SEGA Genesis competition I never heard of.  But then, I was a SNES man back then, so that may be why.  One of SEGA’s success strategies was better sports games on the Genesis, so as a side they talked about the history and origin of Madden games, too.  So that was interesting.

Episode 5: Fight!

Next is an episode all about fighting games!  Especially Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.  They talked about yet more competitions involving fighting games, and how violent games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap sparked the first video game violence court hearings in the 90s and the beginning of the ESRB.

One thing I like about this episode is they warn viewers when violent scenes would be coming up.  Most of the time, this documentary series is great for the whole family to view, but this episode does have some parts that parents may not want young kids to see.  Speaking of which, I wish I would’ve waited to watch this series with my family, like my dad or younger brothers.  I think it would’ve been great to watch it with them and discuss topics with them like I am now.

As far as problems with this episode goes, I wish they would’ve shown more about video games that are helpful instead of all violent.  There are so many good non-violent video games out there that are great for the whole family, I think they could’ve made a whole episode on that.  And maybe other ways that parents can learn about video games aside from the ESRB.  Like, I dunno, maybe GamerDad.com?  Just a thought.

Episode 6: Level Up

And the final episode is about the rise in 3-D gaming.  At first I thought I wouldn’t like this episode, because in the preview, it looked like all they were going to talk about was 3-D shooters.  And while they did talk a lot about Doom, they also went over Star Fox as well.  They interviewed some of the team from Argonaut, makers of Star Fox.  But they didn’t talk about the rumored happenings on how Nintendo screwed them over with Star Fox 2 and such.

And that’s all the episodes!  Overall it was a good series.  I do have some ideas for future episodes, which they certainly could do if they wanted to.  How about an episode on educational and family friendly games?  And even though it seemed the episodes limited the scope to just the early 90’s, I would’ve loved to have seen an episode on the rise of the PlayStation, as I find that very fascinating how it first started with Nintendo.  And aside from competitions, what about other video game events such as trade shows like E3 and PAX?  And if they wanted to play the politically correct card, how about more info on other minorities and groups in gaming besides women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ crowd?  I’d love to learn more about gamers with disabilities, or maybe other minority groups who have impacted the industry.  Like Latinos or other countries. I will say that if you like High Score and want more, I’d suggest checking out The Gaming Historian on YouTube.  Very informative stuff and the main host speaks very clearly and cleanly.  And the video on the history of Tetris feels like it could almost be a movie!

You know what the coolest thing is that I took away from the High Score documentary, though?  It made me very thankful that I have been able to experience nearly everything in the episodes in my life first hand, in one way or the other.  I was a little kid in the early days of arcades, and an older kid during the NES heyday. I even got to go to the Nintendo World Championships then.  Later as a teen, I was able to get into RPGs more, experience the SEGA vs. Nintendo console wars, and I was old enough to understand and follow the video game violence hearings.  I also saw how fighting games rekindled interest in arcades.  I owned Star Fox and even though I wasn’t into Doom, I live in the same town that Doom and Wolfenstein was created, so it was at the forefront of hot gaming news then, too.  I feel very lucky that I was able to experience all this, and with my connections in the video game media field, I’ve been able to experience much more, like going to E3 and PAX and such.  I hope I am able to continue to do stuff like this in the future, too!

So if you love video game history and haven’t watched it yet, I recommend viewing High Score on Netflix.  See if you can watch it with your family and friends, too.  I bet you’ll have some great discussions!  I might even watch a few of the episodes again with my family at some point, too!  Later!  –Cary

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