Completing the story mode of some sprawling adventure game is like finishing a long book; there is a sense of triumph and closure that you just don't get from watching a movie or TV programme and it's one of the many reasons why I've always felt a strong connection between the act of reading and the act of gaming. However, back in the days of arcade gaming, even if there was a story mode, it was really all about the high score, destroying enemies in as an efficient a way as possible and getting your three letter moniker on the electronic leader board (MTW in my case). If you were at the top, those three letters were like planting your flag, staking your claim. With those three letters you were saying, "I am the best!" It was an open invitation for all comers to try to topple you and even if you didn't know who belonged to a particular name, seeing your initials above theirs was a tiny bit of a rush. If you were a regular at an arcade, you might even see the same names appearing on the leader board of your favourite game. But of course, nothing could be better than beating a friend's high score, both in direct competition or just beating their score when they weren't around, knowing they'd get a nasty surprise next time they played.
My earliest memories of competing with friends for high scores were on a trio of games back in the mid-80s. There was Irem's Jackie Chan beat 'em up Kung-Fu Master, Konami's Olympic mini-game collection Hyper Sports and at number 1 by a considerable margin, an oft-forgotten shoot 'em up by Tekhan called Star Force.
|Star Force's highscore board|
Yet again, these were games I played on holiday in Caister-on-Sea. As I met up with the same friends for several years in a row, the rivalries continued year-in-year-out, with the games changing every few years. Other games that sparked similar rivalries included Taito's bat-and-ball space epic Arkanoid, macho light gun blaster Operation Thunderbolt, pop culture phenomenon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Atari's stunt simulator Hard Drivin'. The latter was a difficult one for me as an 11 year-old, as I was trying to compete with my brother and brother-in-law, both of whom were a decade older. Talking of my brother, I still have vivid memories of people gathering around him while he played 1942. While he never finished it, he was one of the best players in that little seaside arcade.
It wasn't just the arcade. At home, my friends and I would compete on our 8-bit computers and consoles, though very few games stored the scores between sessions. Of course, there was always the risk that either you or your friend would go off in a off if you beat each other at your favourite game you got for your birthday.
High scores go legit
While arcade gamers the world over competed for high scores, in Iowa in the early 80s, Walter Day had plans to take it one step further. After opening his own arcade Twin Galaxies, Day set about collating high scores from hundreds of different arcades, as well as organising contests at his own venue. Then in February, 1982, he released his records as Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard. Throughout the 80s through to the early 2000s, Day and his black and white striped referee jersey, came to symbolise serious arcade competition play and official high score record keeping. If you thought you were good, it was the high scores on the Twin Galaxies' database you had to beat.
In 2013, Twin Galaxies appeared to have folded, only to be resurrected the following year by American TV personality Jace Hall. Now, the organisation mixes its origin as gaming record keeper and competition organiser with a combination of sport commentating and Twitch's live streaming of gameplay. You can check out their YouTube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TwinGalaxiesLive.
Evolution of the high scoreFor a while, outside of retro gaming and a few throwback games, chasing high scores lost its popularity. Online games, such as Quake and Counter Strike had no need for running high scores, just a kill count from match to match, while adventure games from Half-Life to Ratchet & Clank did away with scores altogether.
Then, in 2005, Microsoft launched their new games console, the Xbox 360, which included a new feature called Achievements. They were integrated into every game, including downloadable Xbox Live Arcade games, and offered players numeric rewards when they activated certain triggers. These triggers could be something mundane like finishing a level or beating a boss, something repetitive like getting 50 headshots or having 10 match winning streak, or something just plain stupid, like jumping off a bridge into water without dying or putting masks on zombies (a real achievement in Capcom's Dead Rising).
Microsoft continued to develop the system themselves with their current console, the Xbox One, but the general consensus is that gamerscore hunting peaked with the last generation.
Full circleSo where is the humble high score now? Well, it's probably more popular now than it has been for 20 years, thanks to the increased popularity of retro-gaming. Not only are old gamers, such as myself, able to go back to games they loved, but new gamers are getting to experience these high score driven games for themselves. It seems to me that this is most apparent in the popularity of Far Sight Studio's Pinball Arcade on tablets and phones. Pinball has always been about the pure pursuit of high scores and Pinball Arcade has high scores that automatically feed into an online database. You can check them out for yourself here: http://www.pinballarcade.com/Leaderboards
But whether you are trying to beat your friends or strangers online, ultimately a high score is also a challenge to yourself. Much like your personal best time in a marathon or the amount of weight you can bench press, beating your own high score means one thing: you're getting better at the game itself.