On paper, there is nothing not to love about High Score, a new Netflix six-part documentary series produced by Great Big Story about some of the critical moments in earlier video game history. It combines delightful retro gaming subject matter with the slick Netflix production values to which we have become accustomed, with dramatic and creative visuals to punctuate ideas. For instance, the first episode inserts some ominous, War of the Worlds-like CG robots into a real-life cityscape in a somehow not-hokey way to talk about Space Invaders.
The individual stories recounted within High Score are, for the most part, all enjoyable in and of themselves as well. The problem lies in how it’s all put together. High Score feels distractingly disjointed, juxtaposing and jumping back and forth between different people’s stories that don’t always feel like they belong in the same episode. Or maybe one person or game’s story is so great that it accidentally undercuts and trivializes another person’s story. And in a wide majority of cases, I was left wishing the series had delved into greater depth on any given topic or wondering why something important had been skipped entirely.
In general, High Score has a hard time deciding what it wants to be.
High Score can be deeply entertaining, almost in spite of itself
In fairness, High Score was always facing a Sisyphean challenge. It would be quite difficult to properly discuss all of the key events in the first two-to-three decades of video game history within a series 30 episodes in length, to say nothing of six episodes. The documentary is forced to pick and choose one plate’s worth of history from a veritable buffet; it would be impossible not to leave viewers hungry for more.
And High Score makes a more than admirable effort to highlight stories from both the United States and Japan, the centers of early game development. For instance, the first episode offers up Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado, who shows off the extraordinary original design documents for the game within the show’s first six minutes —a definite high note to begin on.
It also presents a briefer segment with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, though he tells the incomplete version of Pac-Man’s origin, settling for “the pizza story” without mentioning the rest. This same episode also tells a longer story of the American college dropouts who would modify Pac-Man into Ms. Pac-Man and convince Midway through mildly devious means to sell it officially.
Most episodes of High Score don’t slant heavily Eastern or Western, trying to focus (sometimes clumsily) on overarching topics like “role-playing games.” That particular episode invites, among others, the eternally colorful Richard Garriott to discuss creating Ultima and his evolving approach to morality in the games. It also invites artist Yoshitaka Amano, tragically all too briefly, to discuss the origins of Final Fantasy.
There are many instances like that of Final Fantasy, where you wish the documentary had an extra hour to spend on one specific game, but that is again not High Score’s fault. What is peculiar though is how, even within the topics it chooses to discuss, sometimes large elements of the story are completely ignored for the sake of creating the appearance of a complete story out of the scraps actually presented. For instance, I don’t think I ever heard Yuji Naka’s name mentioned during the episode about Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog, though critically important Naoto Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara are interviewed directly. (Also, the creation of Super Mario Bros. is barely covered at all.)
Adding salt to the wound is the fact that not even all the things the documentary chooses to focus on seem critically important. There is one small section in episode 5 that basically amounts to a weird advertisement for a small-time Japanese esports team. High Score also spends large amounts of time recounting the journeys of winners of competitive gaming events like 1994’s MTV Sega: Rock the Rock.
The competitive stories are almost always entertaining and do vaguely succeed at elucidating how video games factored into greater American/Japanese culture in different eras. However, again considering that the documentary is only six episodes, are these stories really more valuable than just, well, talking about some more classic video games and companies instead?
That’s a sincere question on my part. The initial synopsis for High Score was frustratingly vague to me, being a show about an unspecified “golden age of video games” and “the story of the brains behind the pixels and how their unmatched innovation built a multi-billion dollar industry — almost by accident.” The actual series is equally ambivalent in its approach to storytelling. It can’t pick one type of thing to focus on, and it can’t always give a terrific reason for the things it has ultimately landed upon. It just feels like a collection of stuff about video games.
But ultimately, despite my many grievances, there’s no getting around the fact that what High Score does present is pretty entertaining to watch. It’s another fun Netflix documentary series. It’s not especially satisfying or well thought-out, but having Mario voice actor Charles Martinet narrate in-between the venerated Gail Tilden describing the origins of Nintendo Power is pretty awesome anyway.
High Score is an inexorably watchable disappointment, and I hope Netflix decides to give it another season.
The six-part documentary series launches on Netflix on Aug. 19. You can watch its trailer below.