High Score review: Netflixs story of gamings “golden age” is honestly solid

Enlarge / The series' title is silly, but it's actually such a good series that we found ourselves nitpicking its faults instead of feeling entirely embarrassed by it. In the gaming-media world, we'll call that progress.Netflix

We at Ars Technica's gaming section are flattered by High Score, the newest docu-series launching August 19 on Netflix. The easiest way to describe this gaming-centric interview series, split into six 40-minute episodes, is to give a shoutout our own War Stories video series.

For a few years, War Stories has been asking developers of beloved game series to explain how they overcame problems and got their eventual classics to your favorite PCs and consoles. Netflix's new series does something very similar: it asks members of the game industry to stitch together a narrative of gaming's so-called "golden era," which, in their eyes, begins with Space Invaders in arcades and ends with Doom on PC.

All in all, I'm happy High Score exists. If you want to watch it uncritically, especially with people who don't necessarily play video games, you can look forward to a mix of intriguing and all-too-familiar classic-gaming tales, told with high production values and clear storytelling throughlines. For the most part, the series is dignified, not embarrassing—a fact that delights the inner 12-year-old in me, who still has a chip on his shoulder about being a gamer "outcast" for most of my youth.

Parchment, magic hats, and “solace and peace”

Maybe it's the War Stories bias in me, however, but the series' biggest weakness is its desperation to stitch all of its interviews into a cohesive "game history" story.

  • Roberta Williams recreates her original design documents for the game Mystery House. Netflix
  • Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of Space Invaders, demonstrates a "magic hat" machine. Netflix
  • Famed Final Fantasy series artist Yoshitaka Amano is the only representative for the famed series in High Score. Watching him draw and paint original characters is a sheer delight, at least. Netflix
  • Howard Scott Warshaw mulls his infamous legacy in the games industry. Netflix
  • Naoto Ohshima sketches Sonic the Hedgehog. Notice the emphasis on artists in this gallery? That's no accident. These sequences are visually striking to watch, but they lack a bit in terms of industry history. Netflix
  • Anderson Lawson and his son reflect on his father's legacy as an engineer behind the earliest video game cartridges. Netflix
  • Akira Nishitani offers a brief-but-cute anecdote about the Street Fighter series. Netflix
  • Richard Garriot hams it up. Netflix
  • John Romero is the sole representative to tell id Software's story, which is a shame; John's a great interviewee, but not having Carmack or other major staffers on board feels odd. Netflix

In isolation, High Score has some of the best interviews with game-industry luminaries I've ever seen. The absolute highlight is an interview with Roberta and Ken Williams, the co-founders and architects behind Sierra Entertainment. Together, they tell the most detailed story I've ever seen on camera about their work on 1980's Apple II game Mystery House. This includes Roberta pulling out a sheet of parchment to draw a facsimile of her original Mystery House design documents for the Netflix camera crew. I've maybe never seen a more beautiful "how it was made" demonstration of a game's origin story.

Similarly thoughtful interviews play out over the series' six-episode span, and High Score hits the ground running with Taito mastermind Tomohiro Nishikado telling the creation story of Space Invaders. We see him play with an ancient electromechanical "magic hat" machine; we see him imagine Tokyo overrun with massive, robotic spider creatures; we see him pull out pages of original concept art while explaining the design decisions driving what the final game's characters looked like. As the very first story from the very first episode, it sure sets a tone.

This is followed by a refreshing conversation with legendary programmer Rebecca Heineman about her origins in the game industry: as a competitor in one of the world's earliest examples of a formal gaming championship. This segment is rich with archival footage and Heineman's insights, along with her frank admission that games were a crucial escape during her childhood struggles with gender dysphoria: "[Gaming] allowed me to play as a female. I've always identified as a woman. Unfortunately, my anatomy didn't agree. So when I played video games, I was in this virtual world where I was mowing down rows of aliens and ignoring the world around me. It was the only place I was able to find solace and peace."

The rest of this pilot episode nimbly connects other early '80s dots, including a great story from the children of engineer Jerry Lawson. He's largely credited with developing cartridge-based gaming while making the otherwise unsuccessful Fairchild Channel F console. Some of the episode's stories—particularly that of Ms. Pac-Man's origin as a "speed-up kit"—won't be news to savvier game-history fans. But they are at least told in polished, humorous fashion, and their montage sequences' pixelated art are a clever touch.

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But let's get back to Heineman—her experience in the games industry, as far as High Score is concerned, is relegated to her victory in a Space Invaders tournament. The series makes no mention of Bard's Tale, Wasteland, or even Heineman being hired as a 16-year-old game-studio programmer. And as the series rolls along, more lapses in game-history storytelling emerge.

The issue is that High Score lands quite a few formative interviews on its quest to tell a certain history of the industry. But if the crew didn't score a particular interview, then the story in question barely exists. We only hear about Shigeru Miyamoto's game design prowess when English-speaking members of the Star Fox team (Giles Goddard, Dylan Cuthbert) are interviewed about that project. Otherwise, Nintendo's history is told almost exclusively by one ofRead More – Source