Netflix nostalgia is in full bloom with High Score, a six-part documentary series about the early days of video games. Narrated by Mario himself — Charles Martinet — the limited series begins with 100-yen coins (or quarters for us silly gringos) clinking into arcade machines, then hops to consoles and RPGs and 3D games, highlighting the stories of entrepreneurs, developers and players of the 1980s and ’90s, some of them big names, and others, underappreciated innovators. Although Netflix’s MORE LIKE THIS recommendations include Babies and Pandemic, High Score has the cheery, uptempo tones of wistful and popular mullets-and-plastic doc series The Toys That Made Us. So will this new show offer fresh insights on gaming culture and business or just press our nostalgia buttons?
HIGH SCORE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A series of animated, pixelated images flicker and flash, coalescing into a rectangle containing the following words: PRESS START.
The Gist: It ain’t about ones and zeroes, it’s about “what’s going on in the head of the player.” So says Howard Scott Warshaw, one of the developers of Atari’s golden age. Then we get shots of a pixel-drawn E.T. falling into holes over and over again. We hear the words “worst game of all time.” Consider ourselves teased.
Now we meet Tomohiro Nishikado, the guy who single-handedly created a coin shortage in Japan after he created Space Invaders. He gets out an old tattered notebook with pencil sketches of alien designs — an octopus, a squid, a crab, all converted into pixels. The game was so popular and profitable, he says he once watched a truck’s back end sink slowly as bags of money were loaded into it. Next we meet Becky Heineman, who obliterated the competition in a Space Invaders contest at the local mall, winning a trip to New York City for the national tournament. The episode leaves us hanging for a bit, eventually returning to Becky’s story. Back then, she was known as Bill Heineman, and she again blew away the other gamers, becoming the first-ever competitive video-game champion.
Then there were these three guys at MIT whose early-’80s venture of buying standup video games, depositing them in dorm rooms and paying their tuition in quarters developed into a lucrative business of modifying Missile Command games to make them more difficult to play (and therefore more profitable). They sold $250,000 worth of their mods in two months. They dropped out, of course. Other career highlights included being sued by Atari, and developing a Pac-Man mod that eventually became something you may recognize, Ms. Pac-Man.
Speaking of Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani says he was inspired by a pizza pie, minus one slice, to create the game, which he theorized would appeal more to women than the macho blasting warfare of Space Invaders did. Of course, Pac-Man would become a breakfast cereal, Saturday morning cartoon, hit pop-music single and other somewhat embarrassing but insanely lucrative bits of pop-cultural flummery.
Then we’re introduced to the family of Jerry Lawson, one of the rare Black game designers in the early days of Silicon Valley. He created Channel F, the first-ever cartridge-based home gaming console — but Atari gets all the glory for popularizing such a system. Oh, and all the money, as Atari, a cool-as-eff place to work for all the developers and coders interviewed here, because it didn’t adhere to the usual stiff working-environment formalities. By 1982, the video-game boom was in full exploding glory, until Atari wizard Warshaw was given five weeks to design an E.T. game — something that would normally take six-to-eight months. He met his hero Steven Spielberg, he worked night and day, he nearly got into car accidents because he was mentally coding while driving, he hit his deadlines and he helped get the game in stores for Christmas, thus assuring the holiday-morning disappointment and frustration for the many kids who tried the play the goddamn thing. It was terrible. E.T. kept falling into holes, which became symbolic of the first wave of video-game popularity. E.T. sold poorly, and the boom was starting to bust.
Our Take: I think [hits oxygen tank] that about covers it? “It” being the four or five years of the video-game revolution? The first episode of High Score hits about a dozen significant points of early-’80s gaming history in 46 minutes, and its drive-by approach to defining “characters” and benchmarks of the era feels kind of like stopping to smell the flowers while leaning out the window of a Cessna. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in an era where the story of a fast-food contest scam is stretched into a six-hour documentary epic, but some of the figures and topics addressed here could be the subjects of their own docs — the Pac-Man and Space Invaders phenoms probably deserve 90 minutes each, Lawson could be the subject of a longish short film, there’s already a feature about the E.T. thing (the pretty good Atari: Game Over), etc.
So tame any expectations about in-depth socio-pop-cultural examinations of all things video games, and enjoy the slickly produced and reasonably entertaining nostalgia bath, complete with nifty pixelated animated graphics and other visual doohickeys. It disappoints by briefly mentioning the fascinating concept of “flow” — an “in the zone” psychological state experienced by gamers and athletes — then failing to expand upon it before zooming quickly to another subject.
However, it does focus on a few underrepresented peoples such as Lawson and Heineman (it’s a nice coincidence that the pioneering gamer champ is trans; it would’ve been nice to know without Googling that she’s also a career game designer and programmer), and a future episode on role-playing games touches on GayBlade, an early ’90s LGBTQ spoof of fantasy adventures. High Score maintains a genial and upbeat tone, which suits the uptempo, ricochet approach to the subject matter. If the series feels like an all-inclusive catchall for Netflix-menu-scrolling Gen Xers, well, that’s probably intentional, because getting all detailed and catering to the interests of a niche audience doesn’t seem to be the point here. So while enthusiasts nitpick, casual viewers, myself included, likely will acknowledge the series’ faults and enjoy its amiable whiz-bang storytelling style.
Sex and Skin: None. (Insert cliched cheap shot about gamers’ sex lives here.)
Parting Shot: A news report features a grey-haired white guy authoritatively asking, “If Pac-Man, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark aren’t selling, what will?”
Sleeper Star: Telling her story of Space Invaders glory in a bemused tone, Heineman is the episode’s most endearing character. You’ll want to know more about her — and the collection of vintage-game objets d’art on the shelves behind her.
Most Pilot-y Line: Warshaw explains his place in the infamy of the E.T. game: “Who wants to have done the worst piece of entertainment? So there had to be an identifiable face, and I think E.T. became that face. And I became the butt somewhere behind that face.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. High Score might not tell hardcore gamers anything they don’t know. But they, along with those of us who might’ve stopped at Spy Hunter or the Sega Genesis — and are susceptible to this type of colorful nostalgia — will binge all six episodes compulsively. Netflix knows a little something about flow, too.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.