High Score is well-produced but struggles to find its audience
High Score is a flashy new documentary series from Netflix that aims to tell the early history of video games. The short series traces the major developments of the 80s through the 90s. Episodes cover Atari, Nintendo’s entry to video games, text-based adventures, Sega, all the way through to Doom, and Nintendo’s pioneering of 3D technology with Star Fox. The format focuses on longer-interviews, and this is where the show is at its most interesting. The format and presentational choices are highly polished but they also show the series’ main flaw; it’s not really for people who are already interested in the history of gaming.
High Score takes a broader look over the industry but keeps its episodes more thematically relevant despite this. It would be far too broad to attempt to tell the history of an entire medium that’s both an art and a sport within a six-episode series. So the relative focus here is definitely a plus. What is covered often feels restrained by who was available for an interview at the time. Nintendo’s early years are covered with frequent cuts to images of Miyamoto, since only composer Hirokazu Tanaka seems to have been accessible to the show.
Topics are limited for those with the easiest anecdotes and most recognizable mascots to talk about. Across the board, the show is well presented but it too often a shallow and unadventurous depiction of its subject. High Score is at its best when it briefly gets into the more untold stories of gaming history.
Competitive Gaming in the Early Day
One element of High Score that stands out is its commitment to finding and elevating stories about competitive gaming. Mixed in with interviews with the developers themselves are the stories of those who played the games. The series takes on a number of competitive events, but most notably it talks to participants in the Nintendo World Championship and the Sega equivalent.
The Nintendo event is pretty well-known thanks to the cartridge in use becoming a serious collector’s item. The heavily memed movie The Wizard based around that exact same marketing stunt has also helped to cement the Nintendo World Championship as a pretty well-known event. The show taking the time to detail the players who succeeded in these events is still interesting though.
High Score elevates the early examples of competitive gaming to the same importance as the developers and companies behind the games. These early events were just marketing tools in the console wars. However, the narrative of the roots of competitive gaming is a compelling one. The main downside to these segments is one of production rather than content; the lack of B-roll. The amount of reused clips is a good testament to why today’s biggest Esports tournaments are so heavily filmed! This reliance on cut always can become tiresome and shows a lack of trust in the audience to follow what’s happening.
High Score’s Attention Span
The series is very nicely produced. Each interview scene consistently cuts away to animated segments, recreations of key moments, at times even the interviewer playing dress-up. One interview subject who worked as a Nintendo Game Councillor acts in a weird approximation of a training video. The recreation is relatively humorless, and frankly, you come away wondering why they didn’t show any of the actual contemporary Nintendo training videos.
This approach is part of why the show grabs your attention, but it exposes a larger problem. High Score jumps around from subject to subject, moving before it finds any real depth. The narration cuts in at every chance, over-explaining what was just said. The show seems constantly terrified of losing your interest and jumps every 10 seconds or throws in some voiceover to force an overly-scatological non-joke. The production company behind High Score has primarily made videos for social media, and it is telling in their attempt at something long-form.
High Score’s expects little of its viewer’s abilities to focus on something. This is a shame, but the actual meat and potatoes of the stories that they’re telling are compelling. The interviews themselves shed a lot of light on interesting areas of gaming, if only the documentary would actually let you spend more than 30 seconds listening to them.
Who is High Score for?
The series cutting, jumping, and talking over itself contributes to something important to note about High Score, it’s probably for a more casual crowd. Those with an interest in retro gaming have likely heard the stories about Nintendo and Sega’s battles before. High Score picks the topics t which have been the flashpoints in retro gaming’s story for a long time.
A good example is the Atari E.T disaster. This is an incident so notable a recent documentary went out to the desert to physically dig up the landfill where the game was dumped. High Score documents some elements of the game production. Then it takes the easy route of pinning the blame for the video game crash on this terrible title, and moves on. This is a story that has been told a thousand times before. While E.T is a cautionary tale the crash is a bit more nuanced.
The documentary chases the available anecdotes and the most popular topics in retro gaming. Where it goes outside the box is where it is at its most interesting. The segments on competitive gaming that were previously mentioned include a competitor in a Sega event. This is something considerably less well-documented than the Nintendo World Championships. There’s the story of the RPG developer behind GayBlade and interviews with lesser-known figures in the early days of EA sports. These segments provide a lot more value compared with the basic narrative of how video games got what they were today. Unfortunately, the series cuts back to the more well-trod ground pretty quickly.
High Score is Worth the Watch, but It Isn’t the History That Video Games Deserve
Despite these flaws, High Score is still worth a watch. Its constant cutting can be irritating. But it does its job and the show doesn’t linger on any subject too long. You may have heard the anecdotes before. Although, looking at lesser-known figures and the overall production value can still make these stories interesting.
It isn’t the full-on exploration of video game history that some might go in expecting. The show overs topics most will have seen covered by online content creators in a lot more detail. If you have only a passing interest in the early days of games or are looking for a starting point though, then High Score might be the most user-friendly way to actually get into this world.