Dan Counsell

10 of the Best Video Game Documentaries

Tuesday, 18th July 2017

Over the last few years, I've rediscovered my love of old video games. It all started when I stumbled across people building and playing Mame arcade cabinets on YouTube. These things are essentially PC's running an emulator inside something that looks and feels like a classic arcade machine.

The best thing about a Mame based setup is that once you're in a game you forget all about the fact it's running on a PC. It feels just like the real thing. Loading up Street Fighter II on one of these takes me back 20 years, it's insane.

I know the graphics in these old games aren't often up to much when compared to today's standards, but they still have a certain charm and style that only old video games can. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but I still really love the way look (and play). Perhaps best of all, is the fact that there are no in-app-purchases. These games were made to be tough, but enjoyable.

Yes, you could argue that arcade games are pay-to-play and similar to mobile games with in-app-purchase. However, I think there's one big difference. If you're skilled at an arcade game you could play for hours on one credit, where as games with IAP often just block your progress unless you're willing to pay more money. It's a subtle difference but it's a big one. Arcade games rewarded those with skill, mobile games reward those with deep pockets.

10 of the best video game documentaries poster image

Along with re-playing a lot of these old games from my childhood, I've also been watching some great documentaries on the origins and history of the arcade and games in general. I've compiled a list, they are outlined below in release order, with the most recent being at the top.

If you're into designing, building, or even just playing games then all of these documentaries are worth watching.

1. Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler (2015)

The inspirational and outrageous true story of one man's quest for the highest video game score ever.

This one's very similar to The King of Kong from 2007 (See below). Perhaps not as good as KoK, but still a great documentary. Tim McVey sets out to reclaim the high-score he set on Nibbler when he was a teenager in the 80's. He's now 40 years old, and hasn't played the game since. Watch Man vs Snake on iTunes.

2. Nintendo Quest (2015)

Gaming enthusiast Jay Bartlett hits the open road with best friend Rob McCallum in hopes of buying the 678 official retail-licensed Nintendo games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) in 30 days with no online purchases.

Ths one can be a little slow at time, and it's a shame they don't show more of the haggling part when he buys the games. It's still good, and if you're into Nintendo you really should watch this. Watch Nintendo Quest on Vimeo.

3. Atari: Game Over (2015)

A crew sets out to dig up all of the old Atari 2600 game cartridges of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" that were supposedly tossed into a landfill in the 1980s.

This was much better than I expected, especially when you consider it's essentially a documentary about digging up rubbish. Contains plenty of great information and history on Atari. Watch Atari: Game Over on iTunes.

4. From Bedrooms to Billions(2014)

'From Bedrooms to Billions' tells the story of how the creativity and vision of a relatively small number of individuals allowed the UK to play a key, pioneering role in the shaping of the billion dollar video games industry, which today dominates the modern world’s entertainment landscape.

This documentary triggered some serious nostalgia, a lot of memories came flooding back. So on a whim, I decided to see if I could pick-up an Amiga on eBay to replay some of those old games that I loved while growing up. Turns out you can, here's the article I wrote on getting a 30 year old Amiga up and running.

5. The King of Arcades (2013)

This documentary follows arcade owner Richie Knucklez on a rollercoaster ride of success through 1980s nostalgia. Follow the rise and fall of the King of Arcades as he pursues his dream against all odds.

The story arc on this documentary feels a bit off at times. There's not much of a "rise and fall" story here. I feel they should have perhaps focused more on Richie's love and craft of restoring arcade machines. Anyway, it's still a great documentary. Watch The King of Arcades on GOG.com.

6. Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

A documentary that follows the journeys of indie game developers as they create games and release those works, and themselves, to the world.

While this one isn't about arcade games, it resonated with me so much I just had to include it in the list. If you've ever developed and shipped an app you'll be able to relate to this. Well worth watching. Watch Indie Game on iTunes.

7. Ecstasy of Order - The Tetris Masters (2011)

One man made it his mission to find them. In an effort to legitimise Tetris as a pro sport, Tetris super-fan Robin Mihara summoned the greatest Tetris players from around the country to compete in Los Angeles at the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship.

The people in this documentary have some serious dedication for Tetris, a lot of them have been playing it for over 20 years. Impressive and insane in equal measures. After watching this I went and played Tetris. Watch Ecstasy of Order on GOG.com.

8. Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball (2009)

The situation facing the pinball designers at Williams Electronic Games in 1998: come up with something new, or see the world's largest pinball manufacturer be shut down forever.

Not the best documentary out of the bunch, as it's not aged well and can be a little slow at times. The people in it are so talented and so passionate, it's worth watching for that aspect alone. Watch Tilt on iTunes.

9. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007)

1982's Video Game World Champions share their philosophies on joysticks, groupies and life.

A more personal and in-depth look at the history of the Arcade. It shares a lot of similarities to The King of Kong, and Man Vs Snake. They interview a lot of the same people and use some of the same archive footage. Worth watching if you really can't get enough of the 80s. Watch Chasing Ghosts on iTunes.

10. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Billy Mitchell sets a record score in "Donkey Kong" that many felt would never be broken. In 2003 Steve Wiebe, who has recently lost his job, learns about the record and sets out to beat it and does. So both men embark on a cross-country battle for inclusion in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records as the supreme king of the electronic game.

Even if you're not interested in gaming, this is a great documentary. If you're into gaming you are going to love this. After Indie Game The Movie, this is probably my next favourite documentary out of the bunch. Watch The King of Kong on iTunes.