High Score: Netflix’s Woke History of Gaming

By Tab Olsen

Hello, all you gamers! (And even if you’re not.) Have you seen the Netflix documentary, High Score, about the early history of video gaming? This docuseries premiered on August 19, 2020, but somehow I missed it until now. To be honest, the series seems to be geared more to the casual viewer rather than serious fans of gaming.

High Score was created, developed, directed and produced by France Costrel. She previously produced of 8 Bit Legacy and Dark Net. In High Score, she looks back on the creation and development of video games in the 1980s and 1990s, when computer pioneers and visionary artists were lucky to be on the cutting edge of a new medium.

Here’s a description of the documentary shared by 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, MADDEN NFL, and beyond.

It was a monumental era, one that defined video games as a place to get lost, a place to become someone different, and go to far away lands. But most importantly, it defined that any player could be a game creator.

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.

The show’s catchy, albeit cheesy, intro sequence is animated in a colorful pixel art-style similar to early video games and includes numerous references to past games. The series is narrated by Charles Martinet, voice actor for Mario.

In High Score, general facts and trivia are intermixed with personal stories and interviews with some of the developers, creators, and players, providing entertaining insights into the making of video games. As one game designer said, “it’s not about what I’m putting on the screen and it’s not about what’s in my design. It’s about what’s going on in the head of the player.”

Retro gaming enthusiasts may be disappointed that High Score does not tell a full history of video games, but a drastically simplified version. Costrel limits it to select games from a certain time period and cherry-picks the highlights, supposedly to focus more on those stories that would be of superficial interest to all types of viewers, not just hardcore gamers.

Costrel began with the onset of arcade and console games to bookend one side of their story, and opted to end with 16-bit consoles, barely touching on the transition into 3D computer graphics. Notably missing are Zork, Dragon’s Lair, Tetris, King’s Quest, Sim City and Age of Empires – not to mention Commodore and Amiga.

The biggest problem with High Score is that while omitting some major happenings in video game history, it makes a point of including irrelevant segments just for the purpose of diversity, not for their technological or creative break-throughs. It’s obvious that the series was forced to be shaped around Netflix’s diversity mandates, instead of just sticking to the subject that the series is supposed to be about. This emphasis on “wokeness” takes much of the fun out of watching.

There are interviews with female players, players of color, a transgender video game tournament champion, and the developer of the first role-playing game with a gay character. I’m sorry, but these people didn’t have a significant impact on video games. And yet they left out Dona Bailey, the female programmer behind Atari’s Centipede, who actually did make a great contribution to the industry.

If you can tolerate an incomplete “woke” history of video gaming that pushes a political agenda over the innocent nostalgia of a simpler time, I’m sure you will learn something from this series that you hadn’t heard before. High Score includes plenty of fun trivia such as:

  • Tomohiro Nishikado took his love for War of the Worlds and turned it into Space Invaders.
  • Toru Iwatani was inspired to invent Pac-Man after visiting a local pizza parlor.
  • The title for Doom was inspired by something that Tom Cruise said in “The Color of Money.”

High Score talks about iconic video games from the past that only a few of today’s gamers will remember or be aware of, but it’s a fun-to-watch series for people of all ages – gamers or not. If you can overlook the lame emphasis on identity politics, it’s an amusing way to pass the time on a lazy summer day when you have nothing else to do. But if you’re seriously interested in retro games and gaming history, you can find fan-made content on YouTube that is more researched and informative.

High Score consists of six episodes, each running about 45 minutes. Here are the episode descriptions:

  1. Boom & Bust – Covers the early growth of arcade games and home video game consoles in the late 1970s and early 1980s until the 1983 video game crash. Featured interviews include Tomohiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders; Rebecca (William) Heineman, winner of the first Space Invaders U.S. national championship; Doug Macrae, Steve Golson, and Mike Horowitz of General Computer Corporation that made accelerator boards for arcade games; Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man; Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, Inc.; Karen and Anderson Lawson, the children of Jerry Lawson who created the game cartridge for the Fairchild Channel F; and Howard Scott Warshaw, the developer of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – known as one of the worst games of all time.
  2. Comeback Kid – Covers the introduction of Nintendo into America after the 1983 crash through the arcade game Donkey Kong and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and its marketing pushing through the 1990 Nintendo World Championship, the use of Nintendo Game Play Counselors to help with struggling players, and the creation of Nintendo Power. Featured interviews include Hirokazu Tanaka, music composer for several Nintendo games; Gail Tilden, Nintendo of America marketing director that helped to market the NES and Nintendo Power; Jeff Hansen, the winner of the Nintendo World Championship; Shaun Bloom, one of the Game Play Counselors; and John Kirby, the lawyer who represented Nintendo in Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.
  3. Role Players – Covers the creation of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventure games and computer role-playing games (RPGs) from their primarily computer-based roots with text-adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure, to graphical adventures like Mystery House and the Ultima series, and into the console RPGs like the Final Fantasy series. Featured interviews include Roberta and Ken Williams, creators of Mystery House; Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series; Yoshitaka Amano, artist for Final Fantasy; and Ryan Best, the developer of the LGBT-themed RPG GayBlade.
  4. This is War – Covers the “console wars” of Sega’s aggressive push to outsell Nintendo in the United States via the Sega Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog and John Madden Football. Featured interviews include Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega of America; Hirokazu Yasuhara, gameplay designer of Sonic; Naoto Ohshima, character artist for Sonic; Chris Tang, winner of the 1994 Sega World Championships; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts; Joe Ybarra, producer of John Madden Football; and Gordon Bellamy, developer for the Madden NFL series.
  5. Fight! – Covers the creation of fighting games including Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, which set the basis of modern eSport competitions. It also covers the controversy that Mortal Kombat generated that, along with Night Trap, led to the 1993 Congressional hearings that pushed for the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Featured interviews include Akira Nishitani and Akira Yasuda, designers of Street Fighter II; John Tobias, co-creator of the Mortal Kombat series; Takahiro Nakano, winner of the 1993 Street Fighter II Turbo Championship in Japan, and current owner of Nakano Sagat eSports team; and Jim Riley, creator of Night Trap.
  6. Level Up – Covers the transition from 2D to 3D computer graphics in 1993 by Nintendo on consoles with Star Fox, and for computers – Wolfenstein 3D popularizes the first-person shooter format; Doom by id Software raises the stakes with the introduction of networked gaming over a modem. Featured interviews include John Romero, creator of Doom; Dylan Cuthbert and Giles Goddard, who helped to create Star Fox; and a final retrospective by Nolan Bushnell on the development of Pong from Spacewar.

You can watch High Score on Netflix at this link.

If you want a more comprehensive write-up on video game history, check out the book The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steve Kent.

Have you seen High Score? Tell us what you liked or didn’t like about it in the comment section below.

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