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The best video game documentaries to watch in 2021


Billy Mitchell is back in the record books for high scores in Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.


Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

How did Sony get into the games business? Did Atari dump thousands of cartridges in a New Mexico desert? Who is the King of Kong? These are some of the questions that are answered in some particularly strong documentaries on video games that you should watch if you haven’t already.

It’s fun to get caught up in the marketing glitz and glam of new consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, or in the hype around the blockbuster releases coming in the next few months. But video games have a long and storied history, and even the most casual gamers will find these industry tales compelling.

To discover the intriguing story behind your favorite games and consoles, give your thumbs a rest and check out these games-related movies.

Picturehouse

Pretty much everyone agrees that King of Kong is awesome. The documentary is about a battle between Billy, a restaurant owner, and Steve, a science teacher, compete over which of them is the best Donkey Kong player in the world. But that description doesn’t flick at the intrigue, eccentricity and insanity of this tale.

BlinkWorks Media

AAA games like Cyberpunk 2077 or Final Fantasy 7 Remake require a small army of developers plus a nine-figure budget. Independent games are made with far less, usually by less than a couple handfuls of people. Sometimes, they’re made by just one person.

Indie Game: The Movie shows the grit, dedication and perseverance required of indie devs. This award-winning documentary is available to rent, buy or stream (for subscribers) on Amazon Prime Video.

Just as the dot-com bubble burst at the turn of the century, the video game market crashed in the early ’80s. There were many causes, but many fingers point to E.T. on the Atari, a historic commercial flop. Atari: Game Over is the story of Atari’s rise and fall, and it also investigates an urban legend that Atari buried unsold copies of E.T. in the New Mexico desert.

Based on Blake J. Harris’ insightful 2014 book, this feature-length documentary dives into the hair-raising face-off of the early ’90s when Sega challenged Nintendo’s grip on the gaming market. Sonic the Hedgehog squared off against Mario, obnoxious advertising battles fought for your attention and things got bloody over censored versus uncensored Mortal Kombat. They’re stirring memories for anyone who was there, or the makings of an extraordinary tale for anyone who wasn’t.

Console Wars introduces you to a host of colorful figures from the video game industry of yesteryear. A particularly notable presence is former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, who also masterminded He-Man and Barbie’s revival for Mattel.

Console Wars hits CBS All-Access streaming service on Sep. 23. (Disclosure: CNET is a part of ViacomCBS.)

If you’re looking to dive into video gaming history more generally, six-part Netflix documentary High Score is the way to go. Each episode covers a specific element of the industry, like Atari’s downfall, the rise of Nintendo and Street Fighter 2’s influence on esports. The segment on Sega’s challenge has some crossover with Console Wars, providing a more rounded perspective on the story if you watch both.

High Score feels a bit unfocused at times, but gives you a satisfying overall look at how gaming has developed since the ’70s. All six episodes are available now on Netflix.

This feature-length documentary focuses on Sony’s 1994 entry to the video game market with its little gray PlayStation, one of the first consoles with widespread appeal for adults. Big names from the brand’s 25-year history — like current PlayStation boss Jim Ryan, Metal Gear Solid mastermind Hideo Kojima, lead PS5 architect Mark Cerny and Resident Evil co-creator Shinji Mikami — weigh in what a big deal 3D gaming was, and marketing execs reveal how they make Sony’s console cool.

The segments on PS2, PS3 and PS4 are much shorter, but offer a nice overview as we approach the PS5. It’s available now on streaming, Blu-ray and DVD.

For more video gaming excitement, check out button-bashing buddies over at GameSpot.com.



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