Netflix’s High Score – Boom & Bust Review8 minute read

Does this new docuseries really hit the high score or does the dust need to be blown from the cartridge?

High Score is a new docuseries from Netflix that aims to shows the deep and rich history of the video game industry. In episode one, the viewer finds out how “Space Invaders and Pac-Man lead an arcade craze, while Atari’s cartridge system dominates home gaming until a high-profile failure sparks a downfall.” However this episode falls short of originality and enough information to truly achieve a high score.

This review contains spoilers

Episode one of this new docuseries by Netflix begins by explaining how the TV, which has been a previously passive medium, had now been taken to new levels. The motivation behind developers was to concentrate more on what is inside a gamers head whilst playing. This was instead of concentrating on what is on the screen or within the code itself. Upon opening the episode we are greeted with the voice of none other than the creator of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the game which has often been cited as that which caused the video game market crash of 1983. Yes, that voice is that of Howard Scott Warshaw. Immediately it is clear that this docuseries is going to be a celebration of video games, warts and all.

This episode takes the viewer on a minimal voyage through video game history. With interviews of many legends of the market, such as Tomohiro Nishikado and Rebecca Ann Heineman.

Space Invaders achieved international success in 1978

Space Invaders was created by Nishikado, and became Japan’s first arcade blockbuster. The history of development around Space Invaders has been documented on many an occasion. Netflix shows us original sketches for the characters, showing an insight into design stages which were all completed by one man. Then we learn of how Atari soon became interested. The very first console bundle for Atari was subsequently launched, which included Space Invaders.

I have the skills to clear level one, but not level two. Rather embarrassingly!

Tomohiro Nishikado on Space Invaders

But this pretty much ends the lesson we learn from Nishikado. They fail to tell us about the difficulty becoming harder when more aliens were destroyed. This was a hardware issue which has been documented in various other documentaries. The timeline of development is also missed, as well as how the game was originally sold to possible buyers. The mythology of Space Invaders is represented, but not the finer details.

Rebecca Ann Heineman, the founding member of Interplay, talks about Space Invaders and the impact on the gaming industry. She shows how it’s the first game to require a player tactic via its patterns. Rebecca explains how she managed to get into the industry via the Atari National Video Game Championship in 1980. This was a tournament which, was not only the first of its kind, but also one that Rebecca won. Interesting as this is, it is not the video game history that was expected from this series as it is not a defining moment that shaped the industry.

Rebecca Ann Heineman

Some interesting sidenotes are laid out over the 45 minute episode. We learn that Space Invaders was the first game with a high score, and it drives people to play and challenge themselves and others. That drive, which causes the state of mind to beat these scores, allowing the player to forget the world around them, is called “flow”. The narrator proceeds to explain that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the founder of this state of mind, and that athletes and musicians get flow as well as gamers. But once again this topic of flow is but a mere snippet in an episode which flits around severely from subject to subject.

We hear of other highlights such as Doug Macrae and Steve Golden devising enhancement kits that modified the software in arcade cabinets (initially Missile Command) to make the games harder (and thus keep people paying quarters). Mike Horowitz joined Doug and Steve to attempt a modification of Pac-Man, during which Atari tried to take them to court over their changes to Missile Command – a move that would eventually see them getting employed by Atari, and also sidelining Japan to Midway in America to sell their new modifications – eventually leading to the creation of Ms Pac-Man.

Toru Iwatani explains how Pac-Man was made a reality after a slice was removed from a pizza they were eating in a local restaurant, and how the game was initially marketed towards female gamers. Again – this is not new information, and the leisurely manner in which the episode explains video game history shows that it has an expectation from the viewer to already know enough to fill in the gaps. Pac-Man is much more than it’s cheese-topped origin story.

One two, one two! And through and through. His vorpal blade went snicker-snack! And with it’s head, he left it dead. He went galumping back. That’s my mic check.

Nolan Bushnell, The Godfather of Video Games

Nolan Bushnell makes an appearance and speaks of how he built Silicon Valley start up with a prototype technology, which would then lead to the creation of Atari. We learn of the normal “board meetings in hot tubs” and “pot smoking in the halls” that we have learnt from other documentaries such as Atari: Game Over.

Nolan Bushnell

Eventually Howard Scott Warshaw makes his full appearance nearing the end of the episode. Howard talks of the same information widely available in Atari: Game Over and many publications. He explains games taking six-eight months to develop, and himself only having five weeks for a Christmas launch of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. The launch of the game, which had near 5 million cartridges made, was a flop. It was also released near the disappointing home-console version of Pac-Man. These, and the saturation of the market (quantity over quality), ultimately led to the video game crash of 1983. This is not new information, nor does a four minute excerpt go into enough detail. An entire industry plummeted to its doom for crying out loud.

One moment of amazing history was how video game cartridges revolutionised home console market – and this alone deserved the entire 45 minute schedule.

Previously consoles just had one game, such as Pong, and there was no way to add any further content into the box. This is where we learn about the only African-American in the market at the time. Jerry Lawson is introduced to us by his family, showing how he was obsessed electronics and computers.

Jerry Lawson – innovator of the video game cartridge

Not only did he have the struggle of being the only African-American in the industry, which at the time surely came with hurdles I could only imagine today, but he is probably the biggest innovator for the home console market – and I have never heard his name until now. Jerry Lawson built his own arcade cabinet in his garage and soon gained attention from his bosses. They put him to work to make a new technology on their home console development project. This is where he created the technology of the changeable cartridge system. Not only have I never heard his name, but I too have never heard of the Channel F console. This was the first console to have games on separate cartridges and a true game-changer.

Overall this episode falls short of anything truly imaginative or new. Other than hearing about the legendary Jerry Lawson, its rather uninspiring. There have been much better documentaries, showing a more detailed and rich history. Boom & Bust uses regurgitated information, a minimalistic approach and uninspiring stories. For me this docuseries is a definite bust and I will not be watching episode two.

Score – 4/10

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Big names from the industry giving us a few random lines of dialogue doesn’t account towards a history of the market and they seem as though they are on-screen just because of who they are, nothing more.