High Score, a new documentary series on Netflix covers the history of video games from the early days of the arcade video games, through the console wars of the 1990’s and onto the next level of graphics and gameplay.
The series offers a variety of interviews you don’t normally get from a video game documentary. It not only delves into the design aspect of games, but also the art and music needed to create the entire experience.
Each episode covers a different level in video game history, starting with the development of the first video arcade games all the way through the mid 1990’s and the birth of 3D graphics.
As good as the series is it has one power-up that puts it over the top, the narrator. The series is narrated by Charles Martinet, while you may not know the name, you certainly know the voice. Martinet is the voice of Mario! Having him narrate the series is a true bonus!
Below is a review of each episode. I’ve tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.
Episode 1: Boom & Bust
The first episode starts with examining the growing popularity of video games in the early 1980’s. There is a great interview with Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of Space Invaders. He talks about the process to create the game and the aliens. The episode also features an interview with Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man and the godfather himself, Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari.
There’s also a good interview with Howard Scott Warshaw, the man behind the Atari game, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It’s worth watching just to hear him tell the story about the games creation!
There’s a brief (very brief) segment on Jerry Lawson, the man who created the video game cartridge.
One of the more interesting interviews is with the founders of General Computer Company. Doug Macrae, John Tylko, and Kevin Curran were MIT students who modified the game board for Missile Command and called it Super Missile Command. As they were working on a mod-kit for Pac-Man, Atari sued them for copyright infringment to teh tune of $3 Million!
GCC fought the Atari lawsuit and Atari ended up settling out of court. Atari also used the Pac-Man mod-kit to make a new game that is still popular today…Ms. Pac-Man!
Episode 2: Comeback Kid
Episode 2 covers the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985. This episode remains focused on the Nintendo without needing to stray to other subjects. It covers the creation of the console and has an interesting interview with Hirokazu Tanaka. Tanaka isn’t a game creator, he’s a music composer. He was the composer and sound effects designer on the arcade version of Donkey Kong 3 and has created scores for iconic Nintendo games like Metroid, Kid Icarus and Super Mario Land.
There is also an interview with one of the original Nintendo Game Counselors. I didn’t even know this was a thing. The Nintendo Game Counselors were a group of people paid to play and master the games Nintendo created. When I struggling player was stuck in a game, they could call a 1-800 number and reach a Game Counselor, who would offer tips and tricks to get unstuck. What a great idea! It would only work in the days before complete guides were posted on the internet.
The episode also covers the creation of Nintendo Power, Nintendo’s official magazine for news, game updates and strategies. There’s a good segment on the winner of the 1990 Nintendo World Championship and his journey to the title.
One of the final segments deals with John Kirby, a lawyer who defended Nintendo in court when Universal Studios sued them over Donkey Kong. Universal claimed Donkey Kong was a copyright violation of their movie King Kong.
Episode 3: Role Players
This is the episode I was looking forward to the most. I am a huge Role Playing Game (RPG) fan. Like most in the early 1980’s I started out playing the table top RPG, Dungeons and Dragons. Computer RPG’s were a great step forward. Playing an entire party and not needing a dungeon master was fantastic. Playing with friends is always the best, but sometimes they aren’t available at two in the morning to help kill a band of orcs.
Episode 3 covers the beginning of RPG’s, when it was all text based games, like Zork, and you could only use two word commands. Get Torch, Go East, Climb Down. I played those games constantly. Then along came Ken and Roberta Williams who introduced graphics to adventure games. Their company Sierra Online would create some of the best RPGs in the 1980’s; King’s Quest, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry to name a few.
There is also an interview with Lord British himself, Richard Garriott, the man who created the Ultima series. He talks about the initial game Ultima, it’s inception and creation. The interesting part of the interview is his creation of Ultima IV. He decide to put a moral code in Ultima IV; in-game actions would have consequences for the player. Kill a peasant and you are a wanted man, steal from a merchant and they refuse to do business with you.
It’s a great aspect to the game play that is prevalent in most(maybe all) open world games today. Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto; all have this built into the games.
Episode 4: This is War
One word says it all. From the creation of Sega and their effort to surpass Nintendo, which spawned the ‘Console Wars.’ The Sega Genesis was launched with a whimper in 1989, completely over looked due to the release of Super Mario Bros. 3. Sega was undeterred and kept pushing the Genesis, coming up with their own flagship game and character to rival Mario.
The character is the supersonic Hedgehog, aptly named Sonic. There is an interview with Hirokazu Yasuhara and Naoto Ohshima, the designer and artist of Sonic the Hedgehog
The interview with SEGA of America CEO, Tom Kalinske is excellent. Tom is no slouch when it comes to marketing to kids. He worked at Mattel from 1972-1987, ending his tenure as the CEO. During his time at Mattel he revitalized the Barbie and Hot Wheels brands and was instrumental in launching the Masters of the Universe toy line. In his interview he explains his plan to take down Nintendo and win the Console Wars.
Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts tells the story of how he was able to get John Madden on board for a computer football game, John Madden Football.
Not to be outdone by Nintendo, Sega also launched a game competition. The winner of the 1994 Sega World Championship describes his journey to the top.
Episode 5: Fight!
Fighting games have been around for a long time, but the early 1990’s took them to a new level. A level that many people, mostly parents and old guys in suits, weren’t comfortable with. Fighting games started out simple enough, Karate Champ in 1984 was a pretty benign fighting game, then came Street Fighter which added a bit more violence.
Then in 1993 a game came out for the home console that pushed all the boundaries, Mortal Kombat. It’s depiction of violence and gore earned it the title of “Most Controversial Game of 1993.” There were Senate hearings on the impact of Mortal Kombat and games like it, which led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The rating system for video games.
Mortal Kombat not only pushed the boundaries in violence and gore, but also in the game design. The fighters in Mortal Kombat were real people, filmed doing the various moves and digitized into the game. A new concept in video game design.
The creators of Street Fighter II, Akira Nishitani and Akira Yasuda, sit down for an interview detailing the development of the game.
If you like fighting games and are interested in the video game rating system this is the episode to watch.
Episode 6: Level Up
The evolution of video games was quick, every year something new and revolutionary was coming out. And in the early 1990’s 2D graphics were getting stale, 3D was the rage. Nintendo started working on a 3D game for the console and for the emerging personal computer market. With the help of a British teenager they were able to solve the hardware problems to launch the first 3D video games for the Super NES, Star Fox.
The development of 3D graphics leads nicely into the expansion of first-person shooters (FPS). An entertaining interview with John Romero, the creator of Doom, outlines the development of the game and FPS’s. Romero also discusses how he and his partners developed the first online multiplayer version of Doom. I can’t imagine playing an online multipayer game like Doom on a dial-up modem!
I played Doom for hours and hours when it was released. I was in college and one of the required courses for Computer Science majors was a Microsoft Windows class. Windows 3.1 was still mainstream. It was a total throwaway class, teaching us how to resize windows, open files and other mundane things you could learn in about 5 minutes. I sat at the back of the class with another kid and we played Doom the entire semester! The most fun I ever had “earning” an A in class.
Overall High Score is a good series that doesn’t just focus on the video game industry and the popular games. Interviewing lesser known people in the industry, like Nintendo Game Counselors, World Champs and the artists behind the games adds an extra level to the series.
I highly recommend sitting down and watching this series.
If you’ve seen it, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.