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‘High Score’ puts in its initials

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While there may still be those out there who happily dismiss video games as kid stuff or somehow niche, the truth is that anyone in this country born in the last half-century likely has some connection to them.

Obviously, gaming is big business in 2020, a multibillion-dollar industry that economically outperforms the music industry and the movie industry – combined. But it was definitely a rollercoaster ride of booms and busts along the way.

“High Score,” the new six-episode docuseries from Netflix, is an exploration of that ride, a look back to the early days of the industry evolved from the domain of a few into a world occupied by billions. Along the way, we hear the stories of assorted successes (and a few failures) as told by the people responsible.

By necessity, the filmmakers must pick and choose the people and places on which to focus. With just a half-dozen episodes – most coming in at around 45 minutes, give or take – it’s all about snapshots; there just isn’t time for a deep dive into video game history. But these glimpses are what makes the series work, looks at with the people involved, whether as designers and developers or simply players. Seeing their passion for the medium is what really makes “High Score” soar.

The first episode – “Boom & Bust” – zeroes in on the early days of arcade and home console popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We encounter such notables as the inventor of “Space Invaders” and the winner of the first-ever “Space Invaders” U.S. national championship. The story of General Computer Corporation and its accelerator boards is fascinating, as is learning about Jerry Lawson, one of the pioneering Black game programmers. Oh, and we get to see Atari’s “E.T.” debacle and the collapse of the industry.

“Comeback Kid” takes us into the world of Nintendo and that company’s rapid rise to prominence with the NES and the reinvigorated video game culture that rose with it. “Role Players” does a quick walkthrough of the history of the RPG genre, from text adventures to the ever-expanding “Final Fantasy” franchise.

After that, we get perhaps my favorite episode – “This is War.” In this, we got to bear witness to the rise of Sega as a competitor to Nintendo. By extension, we spend a lot of time learning about the origins of Sonic the Hedgehog and – be still my heart – the development of the now-legendary “John Madden Football” series of games. I’m not great at “Madden,” but I sure do dig it.

In “Fight!”, we run through the fighting game craze, looking at notable titles like “Street Fighter 2” and “Mortal Kombat” (as well as the now-quaint moral panic surrounding the latter). And finally, “Level Up” focuses on the shift from 2D to 3D, as well as the birth of online multiplayer gaming – unsurprisingly, John Romero and “Doom” are central to that conversation.

As a quick and engaging look at the early chapters of video game history, “High Score” works quite well. Think of it as Video Game History 101, a broad survey of sorts that hits a number of important touchstones while never going into a full-on deep dive with any of them. The hardcore gamers out there might find themselves frustrated by the largely surface-level treatment that these topics get, but for those not already steeped in industry lore, it’s a marvelous introduction.

“High Score” really cooks when it lands on some of the interesting characters of the industry, a collection of Ghosts of Video Games Past. High-level executives share the seeds of the ideas that blossomed into wildly popular games. Designers and artists talk about how icons like Pac-Man and Mario and Sonic came to life (though it should be noted that we don’t get nearly as much from the programming side of things – one assumes it is because the process of programming is more difficult to represent visually).

And a particular shoutout to the folks who won various video game championships – Rebecca Heineman (“Space Invaders” U.S. Champ), Jeff Hansen (1990 Nintendo World Champ) and Chris Tang (1994 Sega World Champ). Their segments – both in archival footage and present day – provide valuable context with regard to how we the people were consuming (and obsessing over) these games.

It’s an aesthetically interesting series as well. The filmmakers find some effective ways of incorporating the style and imagery of video games into the proceedings, folding period-appropriate graphics into the storytelling at various points along the way. This allows a sense of fun to more thoroughly permeate the episodes.

There’s a general lightness to “High Score” that glosses over some of the less savory aspects of gaming history. And there’s no denying that some vital contributors and contributions didn’t make the cut. Plus, the cutoff point is two decades ago. But hey – it’s history. That’s how history works.

As someone who came of age alongside the video game industry, I am 100% the target of this series. And as far as I’m concerned, it hit the bullseye. All told, it’s around four-and-a-half hours of well-executed memory evocation, a pixelated nostalgia trip that had me longing for those long-lost days of console wars and arcade excitement. These filmmakers should enter their initials at the top of the leaderboard.

Game on.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 August 2020 05:20

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