Documentaries are a dime-a-dozen on Netflix. From conspiracy theories to whodunits, the streaming giant never shies away from attempting to appeal the the largest market possible. In this case, the target is centered on classic gaming market and its history from the late 70’s into the late nineties though its latest series aptly named High Score.
Netflix advertises High Score as a docuseries that traces the history of classic video games, featuring insights from the innovators who brought these worlds and characters to life. There is truth to that, with surprising appearances from Nolan Bushnell, Tom Kalinske, John Romero, and more peppered throughout the episodes.
Any hard core gamer, and even some casuals should be familiar with some, if not all of those names.
Coming in at roughly 4.5 hours of total running time, High score tells its story through six episodes that last roughly around 45 minutes each. These are broken up with a theme per episode. For example, Role Player’s is one episode, based around (you guessed it!) Role Playing games, and Fight! is based around (surprise!) fighting games.
Reviews around the web have been mixed with Rotten Tomatoes currently sitting at a 50% user score and a 78% critic score. Metacritic is the polar opposite with a 9.7 total in user reviews and a core of 62 (out of 100) from critics.
In a private discussion, many of us who write for RetroRGB have been bombarded by well-meaning friends into watching this series, and we did, the question is, should you watch it? We can’t answer that for you, but we can give you our own impressions of it.
Here are our takes on High Score:
As someone who has collected and enjoyed classic gaming for decades, this series should have resonated a lot more with me than it did. I won’t say that it’s bad, since it’s not, but it’s also not great. The series falls short of what could have been promised greatness and drops the ball on several occasions. It’s like they had all of the ingredients for a great meal but decided not to read the recipe instead opting to wing it. Most of the issues stem from the uneven pacing and random directions that the episodes go. It feels like some of them should have been their own separate documentaries but were shoe-horned in and cut to fit a particular narrative. I did enjoy the interview footage with the industry people who contributed a lot to the hobby that I have enjoyed for decades, but the documentary just falls flat. If names like Tom Kalinske, John Romero, & John Carmack mean something to you, then you may enjoy this series, at least in part. I will admit, that it was nice to see Jerry Lawson (Creator of the Fairchild Channel F) get some recognition. That said…
Honestly, if you’re going to watch something named High Score, then go watch High Score Girl (no relation, also on Netflix) instead.
That series is pretty amazing, and will rekindle nostalgia for older gamers while introducing younger gamers to what our childhoods were like.
Overall, you can find a lot of what is on High Score on Youtube done more coherently and with far more passion for the source material.
I’ll start out with positivity and say that I think they picked some great people to interview. I can listen to Roberta Williams and John Romero talk about games 24/7 and never get bored. While I think other documentaries have done a much better job telling the same stories, this one is good enough for people who are just getting into the subject. Also, all episodes tie in a common theme that I really appreciated: No matter how different you may feel, you’ll always “fit in” playing a video game you like. They didn’t shove that viewpoint down your throat or shift the focus to be about that, they just made sure to remind you in every episode. As someone who’s never really fit in anywhere, my entire life, I appreciated that they added that, both to tell younger people and remind older people of how important that was.
I’ll be honest though, there were a few minor things about it that annoyed the shit out of me. First, why does every single documentary these days use fake scanlines when talking about “the past”? I just saw a documentary that showed footage from 2018 that used them!!! It actually gives me a headache to see light lines over video that way – Either take the time to get a true CRT overlay, or don’t bother at all.
Next, they took the effort to add tons of production, video effects, on-location shooting and restoration of older footage, but they didn’t take the time to get quality shots of CRT’s!?!? I often complain about how bad my CRT footage is and how I can’t get rid of the moire pattern…but their CRT footage was worse!!!! I’ve also been working on a docuseries (totally different topic) that I’ve put on hold because I thought adding quality footage that gives the true feeling of what it’s like to use a CRT would really add to it. I guess they didn’t feel the same way, or maybe even understand that was a problem.
And lastly…and I’m sure this will offend a lot of people, but I’m going to say it anyway: High Score felt like a documentary made by people who were hired by Netflix to make a video game documentary. Not once in the entire series, did the writing, structure or narration give me the impression that the creators loved what they were doing. This is the opposite of a docuseries like My Life In Gaming’s Analog Frontiers and while that series has a completely different focus, anyone that watches it can truly feel the love they have for the topics they talk about. If given the same budget…and heck, even the same script, I’d imagine MLIG would have created a version of High Score that felt more like something
I can’t fully chime in since I only watched the first 2 episodes. The only thing I can add is: for someone who got into gaming during the last decade or so and would like to expand his/her knowledge about the history of it all, High Score could be an okay place to start since it covers a decent range of topics. One could probably pick any topic of interest and then expand on it through research.
I recently sat down and binged watched the entire series. I should preface the fact that I really do not watch T.V., Movies, or documentaries outside of YouTube. So my background on these sort of things will be a bit different. This being said, I feel like many of the bases were covered with this documentary. It had a cool Intro with some great Synthwave that always gets me in a good mood. I appreciate that more attention is being drawn to video game history and the areas that so many of us are passionate about. This really warms my heart and kinda helps to validate why so many people put in the hard work they do.
With regard to the content. I really appreciated the the documentary going after some of the lesser known individuals behind the development scene. The Fairchild Channel F was a great example here. I knew prior to viewing this documentary that the Channel F was consider the first console as we perceive it in the modern sense but there was actually more to the story that I did not know. Being a constantly studying historian myself. It made me realize that I am neglecting this era of gaming as I often tend to draw the line at the Commodore 64 and I really should do better to learn from technology that is even older.
I also really like this documentary took time to cover the competitive gaming scene from a time during gaming’s infancy. I almost felt like I was watching a ClassicGamingQuarterly where I was taking back in time to see things in the perspective of that exact moment in time and not through rose tinted glasses necessarily. This is important because there more to video gaming then just its development. A video game is nothing without a player to play it, and I am happy that we got to see how video games were celebrated. As well as its controversies from the past. The message though, was very clear. Gaming is for everyone. Sadly I was also reminded that I want my M.T.V… ;D
A bit of criticism. This whole series is entertaining and may show you some things you never knew about the early days of gaming but it is by no means a great video game historical retrospective. It cover the very basics while leaving out several big hitters like Commodore and many of the other Micro Computer competitors that set the table for consoles like the N.E.S. Of the well known historical figures presented here. Some have very short screen time and a chance to really talk about their roles in the shaping of gaming.
The High Score series (as of Season 1) is over all entertaining but really lacks in several key areas. It could be supplemental to other great historical video game documentaries and works done on platforms like YouTube, but sadly this is not. Good entertainment for those uninitiated to retro gaming and is even good for those who are and would like a good bit of nostalgia. Though I often thought about Bob the entire time watching. Thinking he would be yelling, “Why are you capturing it that way”, or “That’s not the correct aspect ratio”. Maybe some of these points will get changed in Season 2 if there is one???
Please bear with us as we experiment with this new multi-review format, and by all means, if you like it (or hate it!) then feel free to leave feedback.