The Return of the High Score

Back when videogames first hit the mainstream in the 70’s, games were relatively simple affairs when you compare them to today’s standards. Level designs were simple, and gameplay was pretty repetitive. Take games like Space Invaders, Galaxian and Pac-Man, for example. You control your avatar and either shoot down waves and waves of bad guys, or chomp on endless levels of dots. So how do you know if you’re better than the guy next to you? That’s where the high score comes in. By destroying enemies or lasting to the next level, you increase your score, and obviously the highest score would denote the player with the largest e-penis, right?

Space Invaders

Nothing more important than that number at the top left corner

During the so-called “Golden Age of Gaming”, gaming took place predominantly in video arcades, so gamers pretty much share their favorite arcade cabinet with thousands of other players. And just as dogs like to mark their territory by peeing on trees, gamers like to do the same by leaving their initials next to their high scores. There’s nothing quite like walking away from a video arcade with your initials next to the highest score in the machine, and then coming back a week later to find that nobody has been able to dethrone you. All hail the champ!

The practice of the high score continued onto the console market, and console games, whether they were dumbed-down versions of arcade games or originals, would all allow a player to punch in their initials next to their high scores. This was a bit of a silly addition in hindsight, because the high scores would reset the moment you switched your console off, due to the memory limitations of home consoles at the time. What’s the point of putting up a high score if nobody else was going to see it, right? For the first time, gamers started questioning the necessity of the high score.

Then something else happened during the 80’s when home computers and consoles became more popular: games started shifting away from the repetitive level-based nature of the early arcade games and started becoming more story-based. Arcade games are designed for short experiences to generate a higher turnover and larger profit margin, but games at home don’t have such restrictions. Game developers were then allowed to properly integrate a story for gamers to explore and unravel over a longer period of time, and thus the story-based game became the new trend.

Cutscenes killed the high score star

Karateka (1984) was a big offender in this sense, as it is one of the first games to institute the practice of the “cutscene”. Cutscenes equal story, and story equals a definite set ending to culminate the gaming experience. Before long, games were no longer about repetitive gameplay to achieve the highest score. Players were now more concerned with beating games and finding out what happens at the end. Bragging rights no longer went to the player with the highest score, because now the top dog is the guy who managed to view the all-important final cutscene first.

Bragging rights no longer went to the player with the highest score, because now the top dog is the guy who managed to view the all-important final cutscene first.

The story-line trend continued through the 90’s, and cutscenes and storylines became so important to gamers that big production departments were formed to film live-action cutscenes, starring once-famous actors such as Mark Hamill and Michael Beihn. With gamers salivating over such high quality cutscenes, the humble high score was more or less put to sleep.

Wing Commander 3 cutscene

And the cutscenes got better and better.

But then came the Internet in the late 90’s, and the gaming dynamic shifted again. With the Internet, you’re able to connect and communicate with millions of people across the globe. While that great power can be used to share knowledge and help shape a more unified and mutually understanding world, gamers prefer to use this service to compare the sizes of their e-penises. Single-player gamers would rush out gaming FAQs and walk-throughs to assert how quickly they can cut through a game, and multi-player gamers would connect to large battles and try to kill as many other players as possible to be the fastest gun on the Internet. And thus, the High Score was reborn.

When you play an FPS or RTS, there’ll be leaderboards indicating who has the highest win-lose ratios… that’s a high score. When you play an MMO like World of Warcraft, there will be a place to check out which character is the highest level and has the most bad-assed equipment set in the server… that’s pretty much a high score. When you play one of those Flash-based games, there’ll be a set of numbers in the top right hand corner… that’s a high score too.

Word Challenge from Facebook

Note the constant reminders at the bottom about which of your friends is better than you.

If anything, the Internet has made high scores more popular than ever now. Play a game like the motorcycle based Trials HD, and you will be treated at the end of every level with a leaderboard showing you just how many people in the world are FASTER THAN YOU. Play those Facebook games like Word Challenge and you will be treated at the end of each challenge with a similar leaderboard showing you just how many of your good friends are SMARTER THAN YOU. Hell, you can play a karaoke game like LIPS and there will also be a leaderboard there to show you how many people are LESS TONE-DEAF THAN YOU.

And gamers simply cannot allow these things to go to rest. By nature, a gamer needs to excel, and to do that would be to keep plugging into a game to get better and better at it, until the high scores say that you’re the absolute best. If not in the world, then at least among your friends. You might not be able to dunk like Jordan, or dance and woo adolescent girls like Justin Timberlake, but by golly you’ll be able to show the world that you can click mouse buttons with the best of them!


About Drew

I love videogames, movies, my wife and my dog (in no particular order). View all posts by Drew

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