November 28, 2008 8:00 AM | Mister Raroo
[For those of us old enough to remember arcade gaming during its peak, Mister Raroo takes us on a trip down memory lane, recalling the beauty of the high score. Though their importance may have been diminished in the more recent past, his GameSetWatch column examines how in some ways, they may be more popular than ever.]
Pizza Grease Memories
During my formative gaming years of the early- to mid-1980s, I spent much of my free time at the local Straw Hat pizza parlor. Located less than 10 minutes from my house by bike, Straw Hat featured a special area of the establishment that was dedicated to arcade games. Crammed with the hottest new cabinets, Straw Hat’s makeshift arcade drew a menagerie of gamers from the local area, each with pockets full of quarters and one goal in mind: high scores.
Straw Hat’s arcade games not only attracted nerdy little kids like me, but it was also a hangout for some of the seedier teenagers and adults from the surrounding neighborhoods. Hyperactive, long-haired, pimple-faced rockers with faded Ratt t-shirts, 30-something go-nowheres still living at home and getting an allowance from their mothers, and burned-out stoners zoning out and forgetting where they are at and what they are doing are but a sampling of Straw Hat’s rogues gallery of gamers.
I quickly discovered the optimal times to visit Straw Hat during which I could steer clear of the shadier patrons. Still, there were those few unavoidable times when I’d end up playing shoulder to shoulder with some pretty questionable fellows.
I’m still filled with fear when I think back to being yelled at by one particularly fierce Gauntlet player. I wasn’t necessarily appreciative of the swearing that was blasted in my direction and in my honor, but at least I picked up a few choice combinations of curse words that I’d never heard before.
No matter whom it was that frequented Straw Hat on any given day, there was nary a person immune to allure of being able to permanently make a mark of their gaming prowess by scoring enough points to enter their initials on a game’s high score screen. There were a handful of diehard Straw Hat regulars who continually jostled for the number one position, proudly putting their initials on display.
And, on the other side of the token, there were jokers who took the golden opportunity to perform electronic graffiti by entering their initials as FUK, DIK, ASS, or any other number of clever three-letter profanities. I only managed to claw my way to the bottom of the high score charts on a few rare occasions, but it still was enough to make me feel like I was riding on air as I peddled my bike back home.
A Lack of Belonging
My allowance wasn’t hefty enough to warrant Straw Hat gaming as often as I’d have liked, so a great deal of gaming during that period of my life was at home. Even there, high scores mattered to me, and provided a significant way for my sister Sara and me to engage in some healthy sibling rivalry (save for hurt feelings or even a punch in the shoulder from time to time). Being 8 years younger than my sister meant I didn’t get to stay up as late as she was able to, and it always seemed to be while I was asleep that my top scores were bested.
These were the days of the Atari 2600 (at least in my house—we weren’t lucky enough to upgrade from that until after the NES era!), and since the game cartridges didn’t provide an option to save scores, I often would argue the validity of Sara’s alleged accomplishments, but my mom would always chime in as the neutral observer, verifying my sister’s prowess. Sadly, Sara passed away a few years ago, but our epic battles for high scores make up some of my favorite gaming memories of all time.
It wasn’t long after this period in my life that scores began to lose meaning in many games. I recall Super Mario Bros. as the first game in which I realized that the score didn’t really have any value toward the overall experience of navigating the levels. Case in point: each coin you collect results in your score increasing by 100 points.
However, these points in and of themselves don’t provide much benefit to the player. Instead, it’s the amount of coins gathered that holds the true value, with an extra life being awarded every each time 100 coins are collected. Thus, collecting coins has a purpose, but the score assigned to them actually does not. Needless to say, as much as I’ve always loved playing Super Mario Bros., I don’t think I ever once put much thought into how high my score was.
Though some gamers may argue that score does matter in games like Super Mario Bros., to me it just seems like an unnecessary carryover from previous game design paradigms. In other words, I believe the reason so many developers continued to include scores in games whose design didn’t necessarily require them was because, quite frankly, that was what had always been done. As a result, countless games continued to incorporate score tallies that didn’t seem to have any purpose other than just to exist for the sake of being there.
So, to summarize, Super Mario Bros. is but one example of a game in which the score has little bearing on the overall experience. Does having a higher score make the process of guiding Mario through the levels significantly more thrilling? I don’t believe so. For me, the beauty of playing Super Mario Bros. is in clearing what are truly unprecedented platforming challenges rather than concentrating on the score I amass doing so.
Relocation and Evolution
Naturally, over time, scores began to disappear from many games altogether. Or, in other cases, they evolved into something else. In a game like Phantasy Star Online, for instance, your score is essentially the experience points you gain from slaying monsters, and the leveling up of your character is the reward you get for “scoring” well in the game.
That’s not to say that score-based games ceased to exist, but I believe they became much more niche or simply fell into a few specific categories. Puzzle games, for example, are an excellent showcase of games in which score continued to matter. When I received a Gameboy for Christmas in 1989, I didn’t care much about my score in Super Mario Land, but I sure was preoccupied with the number of lines I could clear in Tetris. “Shmups” also became safe havens for score fiends, with some shooters incorporating scoring systems so intricate that sometimes I’d think I needed a mathematics degree to interpret them.
But even though high scores continued to hold importance in some games, the decline of arcades meant most gaming was taking place in people’s homes, with bragging rights often being limited to the small circle of one’s family and friends. Sometimes game magazines would publish reader-submitted high scores, and fans would send in photographs of their television screens to validate their rankings.
I was never good enough to go to that extreme, but I still took the time to enter my initials into any game I ranked highly in, sometimes even getting saucy and putting in something a little inappropriate just to make myself chuckle. However, since I had very few friends or family members who were into gaming, high score rosters were important to me mostly for personal vanity and nothing more.
The Return of the Score
For better or worse, there’s no denying that the Internet has truly revolutionized global information transmittal. It’s pretty incredible and more than a little frightening to realize that information can be exchanged at such a rapid and widespread rate. Anyone who has had nude photos unwontedly spread online can attest to this fact.
In terms of gaming, I believe the Internet revitalized a sense of community that had long since disappeared since the heydays of arcades. Of course, the interconnecting of gamers has also brought with it some pretty vulgar aspects, namely unsavory characters who take every opportunity to question your sexuality, insult your mother, and call you every racial slur in the book. But looking beyond these negative factors and even beyond positive cooperative play, gaming’s intermingling with the Internet has allowed for something that I consider truly wonderful to arise: online leaderboards.
Though it can be disheartening to realize that my global rankings in many games are embarrassingly low, what makes online leaderboards most alluring is seeing how you rank against your friends. In that sense, the spirit of competition is back and stronger than ever, and whenever I play a game that supports online leaderboards, I’m always anxious to see how I stack up against my friends. Discovering that one my pals has bested my score since the last time I’d played is often enough to spark a fire under me to reclaim my position above them.
Granted, most popular modern games still don’t support traditional scores. What would be the point of keeping track of score in a point-and-click adventure game like Sam & Max, for example? But the advent of global competition via the Internet and online ranking boards has definitely had an impact on the creation of a greater number of score-based games. A quick glance at the types of games available on Xbox Live, Playstation Network, or WiiWare will reassure any gamer that competition via scores is not only alive and well, but in some ways it’s perhaps even healthier than it’s ever been.
In fact, scores are so healthy that an entirely new type of score—namely, the Xbox 360’s gamerscore—has been cultivated in the past few years. In this case it’s not necessarily one’s score for any particular game that matters as much as the cumulative score obtained from meeting certain criteria for the various games played on the system.
Far too many players go out of their way to play games they’d probably be better off not wasting their time on just to snag points for their gamerscores. I shudder to think how many relationships have broken up because gamers have chosen raising their gamerscores over spending time with their significant others!
And even for gamers like my brother-in-law Thomas who have yet to fully embrace the Internet as a way to play and connect with other gamers, the quest for high scores is a way in which he’s been able to bond with his son Mario.
Missus Raroo and I purchased Link’s Crossbow Training as a gift for Thomas on his birthday this past year, and he and Mario still regularly play the game, gleefully aiming to beat other other’s top scores. I can only imagine how obsessed Thomas will become with attaining top scores once he finally enters the addictive world of online leaderboards, not to mention learning what a gamerscore is.
My son Kazuo is still too young to play video games, let alone understand what high scores are. But I have a feeling that sooner rather than later he’ll become hooked on games, and I’m looking forward to the day he furiously works to beat Daddy’s top marks.
Scores may not have relevance in all games released these days, but I’m glad their importance still exists and, with the ever-growing increase in gamers using the Internet, they’ll no doubt continue to gain even more value to players. That said, high score rosters filled with names like MastaGangsta, xxSephiroth987xx, or WhiteBoi420 just don’t have the same silly allure as those containing initials like FUK, DIK, and ASS!
[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Categories: Column: Game Time With Mr Raroo