High Score was the original Classic Arcade Gaming documentary. It came out in 2006, and charts the journey of Classic Arcade player Bill Carlton as he tries to take down the then 20-year-old Missile Command marathon high score, held by Victor Ali. This week on the blog, you can watch it for free in your browser!
The documentary tells a far more human and realistic story than The King Of Kong, and faithfully portrays the real agonising pain of trying to beat old arcade video game records. As you’ll get to see, Bill’s attempts are fraught with failure, resets and self-doubt as he battles with 30-year-old hardware in an attempt to gain the crown of Missile Command World Record holder.
This is from the original movie description:
Although technology continues to evolve, a group of die-hard gamers refuse to abandon the classic arcade games of yesteryear. The 80’s live on for these enthusiasts, who compete against each other and history to record the world’s highest scores. Portland gamer Bill Carlton is one of the most brazen, fearlessly taking on some of the toughest records on the books.
HIGH SCORE follows Bill as he attempts to take down the Atari classic Missile Command and its twenty year-old record. To get the 80 million points he’ll have to play the game on one quarter for over two days straight. There is no pause button. There will be no sleep. There can be only one victor in this classic story of Man versus Missile Command.
I usually get questions at this point along the lines of “but I thought you were the World Record holder on Missile Command?”. And yes, this is true; but the Missile Command world record comes in two flavours; marathon and tournament.
Marathon settings (the subject of the High Score movie) are the typical settings one would have found in the arcades back in the 80s. The player starts with 6 cities, and will receive a bonus city at every 10,000 points reached. A reasonably skilled player could in theory, play the game forever, by ensuring that they reach the next 10,000 point threshold to receive another bonus city, thus keeping the game going. There comes a point where staying awake and keeping concentration become the most important part of setting the record (beating Ali’s original score of over 80 million points would require two days of continuous play). So you can see, for all sorts of reasons, getting this world record isn’t an easy feat. However – everything is not what it seems, and there is more to worry about as you’ll see in the documentary.
The Missile Command world record that I hold is on tournament settings, and are so-called because they are suited to a tournament environment – the player starts with 6 cities, and receives no bonus cities at all. Once all six cities are destroyed, the game ends. This makes the game much more intense and arguably more difficult – the record here is more about fighting the game itself, rather than inner sleep demons. I took just under three hours to achieve my world record in tournament mode. You won’t find anyone capable of playing in tournament mode for hours at a time.
I should point out that none of this is to say that one is better or worse than the other – they are very different scores, and each is regarded as being unique in their own right, as they require different skill sets and objectives. Think of 11-a-side soccer vs 5-a-side soccer – they are essentially the same game, but different! If you watch a good marathon player, you’ll see a different approach to the game compared to tournament players. Tactics are very different, primarily because tournament players cannot rely on the safety net of a bonus city coming along.
Watching a marathon player step up to a tournament game is quite revealing.
So with that setup, here’s the movie. Pull up a chair, grab some headphones and watch Bill go through every human emotion in his attempts to achieve his goal.
I’ve met Bill a couple of times – he is a great guy to spend time with, and an amazingly skilled CAG player. If you ever get a chance, just watch his mad Asteroids gameplay. I did have some pictures of Bill and I playing Missile Command together way back when, but they seem to be sadly lost. If I find them I’ll add them here.
Things have moved on massively since that documentary was made – it is over 10 years old now. Players have since broken down the game, and worked out why the game will reset in certain situations, and have even built playing aids that remind the player when they need to “dump” cities in reserve to ensure resets don’t occur.
The current marathon World Record Holder is Victor Sandberg from Sweden, who achieved a score of just over 103 million points after an incredible 72 hour run in December 2013. I watched much of that score unfold, and it was quite something.
While marathon mode isn’t something that interests me in terms of having a go at, it remains an interesting part of the high score legacy of Missile Command.
Enjoy the movie.
As a bonus, or for those of you who have already seen the film, an interesting podcast came out last week that I’d like to draw your attention to. Gary Vincent the President of the American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire, was interviewed by the “Weird Work” podcast and tells some great insightful stories about the games he preserves, and the way they affected every day life back in the 80s – I can highly recommend it. Click the link below to listen in:
Thanks for reading (and watching!) this week. See you next time.