TL;DR – It tells birth the history and the human stories behind the rise, fall, and rise again of video games
Video Games might be considered the newest form of mass media, but they rake in billions of dollars a year outgrossing all in their wake. Since the 1970s, they splashed into this world and raked in first quarters and then dollars and then more and I should say that I been known to pass on much my hard-earned coins to the industry. However, it is old enough that those who started have started to retire and pass on. I have seen a couple of attempts at documenting this history, and they had skewed to being too dry, to being too focused on entertaining, or even built with an agenda in mind. So to see a documentary to walks that line and succeeds is a joy to watch.
So to set the scene, we start back with the first big wave of video games with the rise of the arcade machine in the 1970s beginning in Japan and exploding across the world. We get introduced to this world through Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of Space Invaders. It shows how quickly the industry can rise, shift, and fall. From here we cart the history of video game up to the Nintendo’s N64 with hints of where it would go in the future.
Each episode starts with a central premise; for example, This is War charts the rise of Sega and its conflict with Nintendo over market share in the US. But within that framework, each episode takes time to explore different facets of the story in more detail. Such as the rise of sports video games, the first examples of moding, a lawsuit over a famous video game character, and more. Each episode also dives into a more personal story to take these abstract concepts and then bring them back home. In Boom & Bust, this is Becky Heineman’s rise to being a Nintendo champion. The episodes also interject these animated sequences that harken back to those old 16-bit style video games. All of these components create episodes that are as engaging as they are informative.
At the core of this documentary is interviewing the people who were there on the ground as it was all going down. We get to see the eccentricities of Richard Garriott, the creator of Ultima, the original drawings of Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders, and John Romero one of the creators of Doom, to name a few. Those tangible moments where you get to see history laid out before you exploring those things that might be familiar like the controversy around Mortal Combat and those that are not, like the history behind Ms Pacman. Some moments just dragged me back to my childhood and also made me feel so old. This was highlighted in the final episode Level Up, which finally dived into the world of PCs and I got taken back to my childhood a world of floppy and not so floppy disks, getting shareware games delivered by mail. There is like only two seconds of Commander Keen, but it was still a wave of nostalgia, the sound of a dial-up internet connection was less so.
Where the documentary series holds itself back a bit, is in its narrow focus. It is so focused on that first generation of consoles. It does not give itself the scope to get into the weeds of some of the important issues. Did it need to have a whole episode about Sega and Nintendo’s war with Sonic and Mario facing it off, probably not? Indeed hidden in that very episode is a short section on sports video games that were far more interesting but felt cut down to squeeze it in. The two best episodes are those that delve into a genre like RPGs, and that would have been a better focus for the show. Also, there were times when they went out of their way not to pick a side went they probably should have.
In the end, do we recommend High Score? Absolutely. If you are a fan of video games, then this walk down memory lane is almost required viewing. There are a couple of areas where they get a bit bogged down, but at least it is always interesting. If for nothing else, the personal stories that give everything context make it worth the price of admission alone.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of High Score
Directed by – William Acks, France Costrel, Sam Lacroix, Melissa Wood
Production/Distribution Companies – A Great Big Story & Netflix
Featuring – Charles Martinet with Tomohiro Nishikado, Rebecca ‘Becky’ Heineman, Doug Macrae, Steve Golson, Toru Iwatani, Mike Horowitz, Nolan Bushnell, Anderson Lawson, Karen Lawson, Howard Scott Warshaw, Hirokazu Tanaka, Gail Tilden, Jeff Hansen, Shaun Bloom, John Kirby, Ken Williams, Roberta Williams, Richard Garriott, Yoshitaka Amano, Ryan Best, Tom Kalinske, Naoto Ohshima, Chris Tang, Trip Hawkins, Joe Ybarra, Gordon Bellamy, Akira Nishitani, Akira Yasuda, John Tobias, Takahiro Nakano, KojiKOG, Sakagami, Reaper, Jim Riley, John Romero, Dylan Cuthbert, Giles Goddard,
Episodes Covered – Boom & Bust, Comeback Kid, Role Players, This is War, Fight! & Level Up