Whether or not you lived through the Golden Age of Gaming, Netflix’s new documentary High Score is for you. The six-part series not only revisits the late 1970s and the rise to dominance of arcade machines, it also tracks their ultimate downfall amidst the battle to keep the coin-operated games viable against stiff competition from the burgeoning market of home-based PCs and consoles. From the fashion and fads of the 1980s to the extreme marketing of the 1990s, this might as well be a time machine for those of us who lived through the era, or at least a very fine time capsule to show off what it was like for those who haven’t.
High Score revisits the highs, lows, and unexplained pitfalls of the video game industry over the better part of three decades, featuring candid interviews with personalities you may or may not have heard of (depending on your level of video game nerd cred). It’s got courtroom drama, cutting-edge tech, inspiring examples of savvy business acumen, personal life-changing stories, and a strong nostalgia factor that’s going to make you want to pick up that old controller and dust it off.
Narrated by Charles Martinet, and featuring episodes from directors William Acks, France Costrel, Sam LaCroix, and showrunner Melissa Wood, with executive producers Costrel, Wood, and Courtney Coupe, High Score is pure candy for video game enthusiasts out there. But that’s just on the surface. Much like the colorful artwork decorating the sides and marquees of arcade cabinets, along with the signature music and sounds, draw your attention to a game, High Score‘s high-concept premise and catchy, Easter egg-filled intro sequence promises that a good and entertaining time is about to be had by all. But what I love more than all the pixel art and MIDI music is how High Score highlights the important contributions of folks in the industry whose names you might not know.
Some of those names include Gordon Bellamy, “a Black, Queer kid who grew up in Virginia” who had a major part to play in bringing Black athletes to the formerly all-white players of the Madden NFL video game franchise; former Nintendo Game Play Counselor Shaun Bloom who gives viewers an inside look at the past profession; early Nintendo of America hire Gail Tilden who earned her the nickname of “The Dragon Lady” by butting heads with the company’s Japanese executives, all while spearheading the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the U.S.; Atari game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was a game designer who rocketed to success with Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark, before crashing hard with the game based off the hit movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; that’s a story that simply cannot be missed.
And that’s just a small sampling of the many bits of lore pulled from decades of the video game industry’s existence that are explored here. Others of not include a visit to an early Atari competitor known as the Fairchild Channel Fun, or simply Channel F, a console designed in part by engineer Jerry Lawson whose pioneering work on video game cartridges has long been unheralded. There’s also quite the exploration of the fandom side of the 80s and 90s video game industry, from low-key competitions, to grand tournaments, to full-blown marketing explosions; this was a real trip, especially for fans of The Wizard.
The series strikes a solid balance between the cultural and the corporate natures of the video game industry. High Score may not be the most in-depth or lengthy documentary series you’ll ever see, but the curated interviews from folks with compelling stories and charismatic personalities bring a personal touch. Nostalgia does the rest. And we’re here for it.
Here’s more of what you can expect from each episode!
Episode 1 / Boom & Bust:
Video games burst into the mainstream in the early 80s, with kids spending quarters faster than PacMan could eat fruit. But the nascent industry wasn’t without its share of lemons. After a few bad ideas and a lot of bad press, everyone was saying that video games were done.
Episode 2 / Comeback Kid:
Just when everyone thought video games were toast, Nintendo led a comeback. It took a fight in the courtroom, some tears in the boardroom, and a team of teens ready to sacrifice their mullets for the brand to find success. By the end of the decade, they’d be on top of the entire industry.
Episode 3 / Role Players:
Nintendo and Atari may have been household names, but lesser-known visionaries were revolutionizing the way we played. In the shadows of giants, these developers would open us up to new worlds and identities and transform the home computer into the world’s next gaming device.
Episode 4 / This Is War:
Throughout the 1980s, video games found their artistic, narrative and technical strides. By the early 90s, no one could call them the provenance of dorks. The suits started to realize that video games were big business—the kind that warranted marketing campaigns, cut-throat tactics and all out [console] war.
Episode 5 / Fight!:
Nintendo’s Mario vs. Sega’s Sonic raged on, but it wasn’t the only battle going. A new fighting game had hit the market—one so epic, it sparked an arcade renaissance and established a whole new genre. Rival games followed, becoming so convincingly violent, they threatened to topple an entire industry.
Episode 6 / Level Up:
By 1993, the big-money industry built by rule breakers and risk takers was about to enter another dimension, thanks to a new generation of rogue nerds. Combining new technology and a burgeoning platform called “the web,” gaming would never be the same.
Here’s the official synopsis for High Score, now streaming on Netflix:
High Score is a documentary series about the golden age of video games, when legends – from Pac-Man to Doom – were brought to life. Through ingenuity and sheer force of will, computer pioneers and visionary artists from around the globe spawned the iconic worlds of Space Invaders, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog, John Madden Football, and beyond. Without rules or roadmaps, players and innovators alike pushed the limits of money to be made, rivals to be crushed, and hearts to be won. This is the story of the brains behind the pixels and how their unmatched innovation built a multi-billion dollar industry – almost by accident.
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD