“If Pac-Man, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark aren’t selling, what will?”
While High Score, Netflix’s documentary series about video games, does offer a lot of nostalgia for both hardcore and casual gamers alike, it unfortunately focuses more on things like the above question rather than on the development process itself. There’s plenty of interesting tidbits about concept creation and what goes on behind the scenes, but ultimately, it’s still how games are marketed and sold that takes center stage throughout every episode—and that’s something not even quirky pixel animations and the voice of Mario himself as the narrator can distract from.
Narrated by Charles Martinet, the documentary has six episodes, each of which focuses on a different era of video game history. The first, as expected, talks about how the industry came to be, with pioneers like Atari making their way into arcades and ushering in the age of token-fueled gaming. Audiences are treated to an inside look at how the creators of Space Invaders and Pac-Man came up with the idea for their games, with a hilarious tribute to E.T., aptly dubbed as the worst video game of all time.
Each episode also takes the time to tell stories about ordinary gamers who would join tournaments and make a name for themselves in the competitive space. Some are pretty inspirational, as games can be an equalizer of some sort for plenty of people.
“In games, we all start in the exact same place,” says Gordon Bellamy, fan-turned-developer for the Madden NFL series, “because we’re all playing by the same rules.” Bellamy will eventually introduce black athletes into the game—a revolutionary move at the time.
These segments, while they break up the narration in each episode into nice chunks, don’t really do much to help keep your interest at peak levels. On the contrary, they can be pretty distracting from the main narrative, because just as you’re heavily invested in a developer trying to solve a problem he’s encountered as he’s creating what would be one of the most celebrated games of all time, the episode cuts to something else and slaps on a “meanwhile” to jar you out of the experience.
Game Devs and Inspirations
I’m not exactly sure if my “Expectations vs. Reality” meter was just a little skewed as I was watching the whole thing, but I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the development process rather than a whole bunch of stuff about market reaction and corporate-selling tactics. Sure, you definitely can’t make a documentary on the history of video games without the business side of things, but I kind of wish we saw more of the former than the latter.
There are a handful of gems in the series that definitely piqued my interest and left me wanting more, like shots of Space Invaders designer Tomohiro Nishikado showing viewers his early sketches of the monsters from the game, and Yoshitaka Amano talking about how he came up with illustrations that would help build the world of Final Fantasy. Donkey Kong sound effects also got a share of the limelight, as well as King’s Quest designers Roberta and Ken Williams giving us an inside look at how they shaped the RPGs we all know and love today.
It’s pretty cool to see how the creators of a lot of the early games that revolutionized a genre began as passionate hobbyists hacking and modding existing games, or where the inspiration for in-game icons came from (Toru Iwatani’s Pac-Man was inspired by a pizza pie, while the gates from Star Fox were inspired by temple gates at the Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto).
It’s Just Business
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and butterflies. The series also shows the darker side of the industry, with court hearings on the violence of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter and lots of corporate sabotage. One episode even features Jerry Lawson, the creator of Channel F (if your immediate thought after that statement is, “Channel whatnow?”, you’re not alone). Channel F is the first cartridge-based home gaming console ever made, but of course, nobody really knows about Lawson’s story. All the history books have on record show Atari taking all the credit and glory for the system, which, like in any booming industry, is sadly pretty common.
Then the gloves come off with the feature on the Nintendo-Sega war, where viewers get to see how Sega managed to go up against an industry giant at the time all through the magic of marketing. While it’s interesting to see how the brilliant minds behind Sonic the Hedgehog tailor-made their character and game to appeal specifically to the teenage market (and effectively knock Mario and his 8-bit performance right off the speed rings), all it really does is emphasize the power of knowing your target market—again, a business strategy.
“Meet Sonic: the speedy hedgehog who would become Sega’s new mascot,” narrates Martinet. “And he wasn’t just all smiles—he was fierce and ready to attack.”
That quote alone once again frames everything as a business strategy. Just when I’m settling in and enjoying how Naoto Ohshima traveled to New York to study how people would react to a cartoon hedgehog (Sonic almost became an adorable rolling panda, by the way), the episode goes on to show clips of old Sega TV commercials dissing Nintendo—proving all the more that in the end, it’s really all about the business. It’s a shame, really.
Game Over or Continue?
While partly a nostalgic tribute to video games of old and how they came to be, High Score unfortunately focuses more on the business side of things rather than what goes on inside the brilliant minds of the games’ creators. The documentary is at its best when it shines a light on the design and development process and less on financial successes and public reception. It does its best to masquerade as a celebration of the artistic minds behind history’s most beloved games, but ultimately, it still boils down to revenues and how corporate measures a game’s “success."
Then again, for a documentary that’s titled High Score, it’s really no wonder why it’s still all about the numbers, isn’t it?