'High Score': TV Review

High Score - Publicity still 2 - H 2020
Netflix
An entertainingly superficial glimpse at the history of gaming.
8/19/2020

From 'Sonic the Hedgehog' to 'Pac-Man,' Netflix's six-part docuseries looks at the games, consoles and creators that shaped a medium.

Even if you only watch docuseries, Netflix has probably kept you busy for the entirety of this strange five-month semi-quarantine, with offerings running the gamut from guilty pleasure (Tiger King) to inspirational hero worship (Lennox Hill) to arduous eye-opener (Immigration Nation) to appetizing heartwarmer (Somebody Feed Phil).

Netflix's latest non-fiction exploration is into the world of video games with the nostalgia-saturated High Score, from directors William Acks, Sam LaCroix, France Costrel and Melissa Wood. It's far from Netflix's best or most substantive doc — it's often rather superficial and full of gaping holes — but in terms of sheer bingeing ease, with six episodes, none running over 47 minutes, High Score is tough to top. It's light and fun and full of entertaining trivia, with a willingness to go just far enough off the beaten path that some of it will even be new for its core demo.

My initial instinct was that High Score was looking to take a 30 for 30-style approach to the world of video games, going deep on some lesser known gaming stories. Seth Gordon's frivolous but engaging The King of Kong or Zac Penn's Atari: Game Over or ESPN's own 30 for 30 podcast Madden's Game might be a template there. Instead, it's more of a soup-to-nuts history from the golden age of arcade gaming to the console wars to the evolution of role-playing games to first-person shooters to wherever the medium is today. And if you say, "Surely that's too big a story for under six hours," you'd be correct. High Score seems almost intentionally be be leaving doors open for another season or five.

Each episode takes on a nebulous, largely chronological chapter in gaming history. There's a solid split between covering the biggest stories of the period with the biggest creators, like Tomohiro Nishikado recalling the origins of Space Invaders or Toru Iwatani explaining the inspirations for Pac-Man, and looking at notorious-yet-beloved chapters in gaming lore, like Howard Scott Warshaw breaking down the failure of the E.T. game. Those are just the big names in the first episode. Stick around and you'll get John Romero talking about the creation of Doom, Naoto Ohshima going into how and why Sonic became a hedgehog and more.

A lot of the time, High Score features the actual franchise creators and that's extremely cool. But there are nearly as many times that the series goes hazy — centering, for example, the Japanese artist who didn't create Final Fantasy, but did some of the art for its earlier iterations, or John Tobias, whose role in co-creating Mortal Kombat is often neglected in official histories, but gets almost sole credit here.

But then there are lesser-known figures from the consumer end, like Becky Heineman, a game designer and programmer here recalling her experiences at the 1980 Atari Video Game Championship. Heineman, who ties her love of gaming into her journey toward affirming her trans identity, provides one of many stories meant to emphasize the inclusivity of the gaming world, even if they aren't stories that the industry has always pushed. We also get Karen and Anderson Lawson remembering their father Jerry's role in developing the video game console with interchangeable gaming cartridge and Ryan Best telling the story of the largely lost Gay Blade, an AIDS-era RPG in which the final boss had a striking resemblance to Pat Buchanan. I'd probably have preferred full episodes dedicated to these variably known figures, but I was glad to get these moments.

There are plenty of places that High Score could probably stand to be significantly wonkier when it comes to the technology. Seeing the early literal blueprints for experimental text-based role-playing games and getting some granular details on Nintendo's progression from 2D to 3D with StarFox are highlights of a series that mostly aims for accessibility while knowing that its core audience would doubtlessly be open to more hardcore nerdity. I've always been more game-curious than game-obsessed, so I'm certain that if I wanted more depth, true aficionados are bound to be even more impatient for the commentary to dig further.

But if High Score's goal is to be an enjoyable, colorful and whimsical overview, it at least delivers on that with some flair. There are entertaining 8-bit-style reenactments; nicely realized intersections of documentary and imagination where we see the world of the games bleed into the creators' visions of the real world; and amusing flashbacks with the interview subjects playing themselves in period garb (something Netflix's Fear City also did). There are enough vintage commercials to send any '80s or '90s kid back to weekends spent munching on sugary cereals watching Saturday morning cartoons. And tying it all together, you have a catchy credit sequence set to bleeps and bloops from Australia's Power Glove and narration from Charles Martinet, best known as the voice of Mario.

There are plenty of games and game-adjacent elements that either aren't mentioned at all or are mentioned in passing. The puzzle genre, for example, once dominated by Myst isn't even mentioned, nor are the evolution of different accessories like the PowerGlove (not the band) or several generations of consoles leading up to the Wii. Even with Trip Hawkins discussing how he got John Madden involved in Electronic Arts' Madden NFL series, there's still ample room to explore variably accurate sports games ranging from NBA 2K to Mike Tyson's Punchout. It isn't like Zelda or Tetris are left out completely, but if either game is meaningful to you, you'll definitely think they were given short shrift. And come on guys, how are you pretending like the ColecoVision never even happened? If the directors had concentrated on off-the-beaten-path stories and not structured it as an overview of the medium, these exclusions would have bugged me less.

Whatever reservations I have about High Score, I'm ready for the expansion pack.

Premieres Wednesday, August 19, on Netflix.