Netflix's 'High Score' Doc Series Recalls Video Game History and Shines a Light on Lesser Known Pioneers and Players

There are numerous video game documentaries out there. But the problem with a lot of them is they’re either not so easy to find on streaming services or physical media, aren’t very well-produced, or they only focus in on one small sector of the gaming world (though those can also be very good). Netflix is here to solve all of those problems with their outstanding new limited documentary series High Score.

High Score is a six-episode documentary series that takes a look back at the golden age of video games from the 1980s through the mid 1990s. Stretching from arcade classics to console hits and computer breakthroughs, the series shines a light on the milestones and innovation that spanned the first couple decades of video games. But the series really takes off when it shares the spotlight with some of the lesser known pioneers who haven’t gotten much glory for their contributions to the industry and the players whose lives were changed by video games in more ways than one.

We’ve reached a point in video game history where an entire generation of kids knows next to nothing about classic arcade games or the groundbreaking consoles from Atari, Nintendo and SEGA that paved the way for the video games they know today. High Score is a documentary that both taps into the nostalgia that adult gamers have for the classic games they grew up with and also aims to educate a younger generation who may be unfamiliar with the games and technology that preceded the likes of PlayStation and Xbox. While it makes cheeky references to these classic games that children of the 1980s and 1990s will love, it also takes the time to explain obsolete technology, such as arcade cabinet circuit boards and dial-up internet.

With episodes clocking in anywhere between 37-47 minutes, this is a breezy, captivating watch that keeps you entertained in a variety of ways. Talking heads are spiced up by cuts to old school, pixelated animation reenactments that take cues from the very video games being discussed. Video game elements are amusingly injected into the real world as the origins of games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Final FantasySonic the Hedgehog, Madden NFL, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Doom and more are meticulously recalled. Even the locations and execution of the interviews shakes things up beyond the usual documentary style. Milestones of video game history are also remembered, including the rise and fall of Atari, the boom and bust of arcades, the battle between Nintendo and SEGA for console supremacy, the controversy surrounding the rise of violent video games, and more.

These are the stories that fans of video games already know for the most part, but they are told again in an engaging manner with a variety of amusing and fascinating anecdotes from those who were literally gamechangers. It’s fascinating to see the original grid drawings of the creatures from Space Invaders, early sketches of Sonic the Hedgehog, and the incredible artwork that inspired Final Fantasy. But High Score offers much more than a cookie cutter look into famous video games and the stories behind them that have been told several times before.

Where High Score really leaps ahead of most other video game documentaries is how it celebrates the lesser known pioneers of the video game world. For example, even though video game cartridge technology is most closely associated with Atari and Nintendo, the documentary points out that it was a Black man named Jerry Lawson who designed the Fairfield Channel-F (or Channel Fun) console which made it possible play multiple video games on a single machine. Elsewhere, Ryan Best talks about creating a cult favorite role-playing game called Gay Blade, one of the first video games geared towards the LGBTQ community. You’ll also meet Gail Tilden, Nintendo’s marketing manager who founded their wildly successful magazine Nintendo Power. And there’s Gordon Bellamy, a young Black man who found difficulty connecting to real world sports due to his homosexuality, but took solace in sports video games where he was put on the same even playing field as everyone else. He would go on to become a game creator for EA Sports, introducing Black players to Madden ’95. These kind of stories branch out from the less diverse roster of stories that have dominated video game history for so long, even in an industry that has significant origins in Japan.

It’s not just video game pioneers who are given the spotlight either. High Score vacillates seamlessly between video game history and the people who made it and some key players who had their lives changed by video games in a variety of ways. The documentary looks at the Nintendo’s Game Counselors program, where players were hired by Nintendo for a video game hotline that would guide players through difficult parts of games. It also speaks to a variety of video game champions who felt a much-needed sense of belonging and achievement thanks to their love of video games and the outlets that allowed them to showcase their skills. Throughout all these conversations, you realize that some of the biggest innovations in video games came from players who only wanted to improve the video game experience for themselves, and it led to the next step in the evolution of gaming.

From tech renegades to awkward teens and from blocky Space Invaders to Doom‘s 3D deathmatches, High Score is one of the most sleek and satisfying historical accounts of the early decades of video games, even if it’s not a definitive, comprehensive account of the ups and downs of the industry as a whole. This look back at classic video games is educational, entertaining, and surprisingly heartwarming. It even has a catchy 1980s video game theme song by Power Glove that will keep you from hitting the “Skip Intro” button when you’re making your way through this series.

High Score is directed by William Acks, Sam LaCroix, France Mostrel, and Melissa Wood, with the latter two also working as executive producers with Courtney Coupe, and they all knocked it out of the park. I can’t remember the last time I saw a video game documentary this good, and the fact that it’s readily available on Netflix makes it even more satisfying. If you’ve ever picked up a video game controller, you’ll have some fun with this documentary series, and you’ll almost certainly learn something.

High Score arrives on Netflix on August 19.

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