Ah, 2020. The year of staying inside and bingeing entertainment, because going outside puts lives at risk. Luckily, there is plenty of media to consume online—the perfect distraction from the impending apocalypse.
But even so, it can feel like you’ve run out of good things to watch sometimes. This is how I felt in early August. It was the sixth month of isolation. I’d gotten used to wearing masks and gloves every time I had to leave my apartment. I’d immersed myself in my favorite hobbies, like reading and playing games, and even started new ones.
But the itch of boredom was setting in. I had read more than two dozen books and finished a handful of games, like Paper Mario: The Origami King. I didn’t have any new games to play, and I wasn’t feeling drawn to any television shows.
And then, I saw a Netflix announcement about an upcoming video game docuseries called High Score. Set to release on August 19, 2020, it promised to cover early video game history.
It’d been a while since I’d seen a good video game documentary. Would this save me from boredom? And is it worth watching? Let’s find out.
The Road Less Traveled
High Score is a six-episode documentary series covering the video game industry from the late-1970s through to the mid-1990s. When I first read that description, I was a little worried. Most gamers have heard this period of video game history told over and over again. Would High Score have anything new to say about it?
While the series hits on many of the big events in video games during this time, it takes some compelling twists and turns along the way. For example, the first episode starts with a discussion around the infamously bad Atari game, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Many blame it for the crash of the gaming industry in 1983. But instead of stopping there, High Score goes out of its way to interview the developer behind the game, Howard Scott Warshaw.
This interview showcased a fresh perspective. It was a light, humorous take with a healthy dose of humility. I found it fascinating to learn about the development conditions that led to the publishing of the game, and I appreciate that High Score brought us down that path.
Throughout the docuseries, High Score continuously veers off the main road to explore the back streets of video game history. While it treads on familiar territory, it gives us new angles and uncovers new stories.
Highlighting Underrepresented Figures
Within these new stories is a diverse group of figures in video game history who haven’t had the spotlight before.
For example, episode three features an interview with Ryan Best, the developer behind GayBlade, the first LGBT-themed RPG. GayBlade is an important piece of video game history and social commentary, but few copies of it remain. By bringing attention to the game, the creator, and stories like these, High Score is ensuring that these important perspectives are included in the records of video game history.
We also hear the stories of Rebecca Heineman, the winner of the first Space Invaders national championship; Jerry Lawson, the creator of the game cartridge; and Gordon Bellamy, a game developer who worked on introducing black athletes to the Madden NFL series. Their stories play important roles in the tapestry of gaming history and deserve to be told, and I’m glad High Score chose to shine the spotlight on them and others.
In doing so, the series broadens its legacy and narrative. By the end, I had learned quite a few bits of trivia, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about many of these stories for the first time.
Is High Score Worth the Watch?
While High Score is definitely not a comprehensive history of early video games (and doesn’t claim to be), it’s still a fun and fascinating docuseries. If you love video games, especially from this era, it is worth the watch.
Better yet, the series doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Each episode is around the 45-minute mark, so you can binge the whole thing in a day and not feel too guilty. It’s also narrated by one of the most beloved figures in gaming: Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario. His enthusiasm is contagious, and the whole retro presentation of High Score will leave a smile on your face.
I would love to see a continuation of this series one day. There’s a lot of rich history in the following two decades that deserve exploration. Here’s to hoping we get more eventually!
Stay safe and healthy out there, and enjoy the show.