- Movie Rating -

High Score (2020)

| August 19, 2020

Three years ago, at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, I got to see an intriguing documentary called The Lost Arcade, the story of how New York City’s last remaining video arcade, Chinatown Fair, created a sense of community among a group of young people passionate for old school video games.  It was not the most Earth-shattering movie ever made but it left you with a sense of the people who are drawn to video games and what fuels their passion.

If The Lost Arcade (which you can stream right now on Amazon Prime) saw the world of video gaming with a refreshing, rebellious spirit, then Netflix’s six-part docu-series High Score plays very much in the banal corporate structure.  It stays in line, plays by the rules and rarely rocks the boat.  Even its title seems to play by the rules.  Narrated by Charles Martinet – the voice of Mario since 1990 – the film would like to be a soup-to-nuts history lesson about the video game boom from its scratchy beginnings as a nerdist pipe dream in the early 70s to an ever-evolving billion-dollar industry.

As to the soup-to-nuts history lesson, the film misfires.  It is frustratingly episodic with regards to the narrative history and often feels like one of those static documentaries that shows up on The History Channel or Discovery at 3 in the afternoon: The 100 Greatest Video Games of All-Time.  Sadly, it is not even that focused.  It jumps all over the place, cherry-picks the highlights and rarely surprises us.  When there is something of genuine interest, it is mentioned and then quickly abandoned. 

A good example happens in the first episode when we are introduced to Becky Heineman who became one of the very first video game champions by mastering Space Invaders.  But even more significantly, she was born William Heineman and, later in her life, developed gender dysphoria, a condition in which his male body began changing into a woman.  Her role in Space Invaders, she says, was significant because it has no gender.  She could play as Becky and not William.  This is fascinating stuff.  Unfortunately, I had to find out most of this from an internet search because the documentary drops a little of her biography and then quickly brushes past it.  She could have been a documentary all by herself.  I can imagine what Errol Morris would have done with her story.

That’s the biggest problem with High Score.  It is more interested in the build-up to the development of a hit game than it is in the people who were really involved.  Yes, it is interesting that Tomohiro Nishikado took his love for “War of the Worlds” and turned it into “Space Invaders” and there is an interesting bit in which he pulls out his decaying old scrap book in which he we see the designs he envisioned drawn next to pixeled versions that would go into the game.  But that’s it.  The episode lays out pieces of information without elaborating on them.  Is it interesting that Toru Iwatani was inspired to invent Pac-Man after visiting a local pizza place?  Sure, but that’s all we’re really given.

Episode One, “Boom & Bust”, deals with how these visionaries turned their hit video games into the bustling home electronics market, and how it was all capitalized by the popularity of Atari.  But there is a misstep.  While the console was ragingly popular (and, really, the only game in town) it was brought down for reasons that the movie isn’t clear about.  We are told that the market for Atari games became so oversaturated with quantity over quality that players got frustrated and stopped playing.  But we are also given the information that Atari erupted thanks to the rushed release of the E.T. game – then and now, voted as the worst game ever made.  Okay.  So, which is it?

Episode Two, “Comeback Kid,” chronicles how the Japanese playing card company Nintendo picked up the ball that was dropped by Atari and reignited interest in home video games. 

Episode Four, “This is War”, deals with how Sega attempted to dethrone Nintendo’s hold on the market, and the result is the most interminable part of the series.  Established largely on the mission of Mark Kalinski to overtake Nintendo’s hold on the video game market, you really are forced to ponder just how much excitement can you really yield from watching a championship player retell the story of his victory.  Sure, Chris Tang’s victory at MTV’s Sonic the Hedgehog tournament at Alcatraz in 1994 might have seemed special to him, but how special is it to you?  I mean, really?  Would you want to be in that audience?  Why not interview the spectators who were there?  What did they draw from this?  What’s fun about watching someone else play?

Episode Five, “Fight!”, promises to be an exploration of the run-off from Sega’s mission to capture the teen and adult video game market that gave us hyper-violent fare like “Mortal Kombat” and “Night Trap.”  And, yes, there is mention of Joe Leiberman’s Senatorial hearings that led to the ESRB, but again it’s all talk about manufacturing and professional tournaments.  There’s no real insight here.  We see senators angry over the content, but so what?

The final episode, “Level Up”, purports to be about the revolution sparked by the launch of “Doom.”  It’s interesting, I guess, but the side-trip into the development of “Star Fox” was unnecessary to the larger story.  Plus, I was surprised that this is where the story ends.  Yes, “Doom” was significant but what about the revolution that it sparked?  Why does the series stop here?  Is there another installment still to come?

I’m not sure who, exactly, High Score is aiming to please.  If you’ve been on the sidelines of the video game revolution at any point in the last 30 years, then nothing here will surprise you.  If you haven’t, then the series persistent name dropping and build-up to the massive success of everything from Ultima to Madden ’95 to Street Fighter will be of no interest.  As a very casual gamer I was intrigued by titles I’d never heard of like Night Trap and Gayblade – the world’s first LGBTQ game in which the villain was literally Pat Buchanan.  But where are the true game changers like Tetris, Zork, Sim City, Age of Empires, King’s Quest, and Gauntlet?  Where is the story of Dragon’s Lair?  Added to that, where is the larger cultural story?  When you reach the (rather abrupt) end of the series, you’re left with a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of questions about what this meant to the millions who have been enraptured by it?  I’ll tell you where they are, they’re in The Lost Arcade.  Check that one out.  It’s shorter and loaded with way more insight, not to mention passion.

High Score is now streaming on Netflix.
The Lost Arcade is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized