Tracked scores in video games come in different forms. Titles such as Devil May Cry 5 use scores to judge a player’s ability to weave together different attacks, while Tetris uses scores as a measure of a player’s critical thinking skills and ability to plan ahead. Even games that don’t feature obvious scoring systems are usually secretly judging players (the Metroid series would reward players with different conclusions depending on how quickly they completed the game). Regardless, all modern video game scores and scoring mechanics stem from older titles and the fabled concept of the “high score.”
The idea of playing a game to achieve a high score is one of those concepts that wormed its way into our pop-culture consciousness around the time that gaming itself reached the mainstream. To be fair, many gamers love inserting quarters into arcade cabinets, outperforming rival players, and recording their scores after each session. To some hardcore gamers, acquiring an all-time high score is serious business. Some players devote their lives to perfecting runs that maximize their in-game points. While high scores aren’t quite as popular as they once were, the spirit of that concept lives on today in various forms. After all, what is a speedrun but a competition that turns clear times into ranked scores?
Whatever form they take, modern games typically allow some way for players to upload and save their score for all to see. However, that wasn’t always the case. Not only did many early games not feature tracked scoring systems, but it actually took quite some time for the industry to invent the concept of the high score as we typically define it today. That raises the obvious question of which game actually used high scores first. While there are a few titles that are arguably worthy of that honor depending on how you choose to define the concept, each of those games iterated on the basic idea of a high score and eventually morphed it into the trope we know and love today.
What Was the First Video Game to Track Your High Score?
Long before video games set up shop in living rooms, the best way to experience a bit of interactive digital entertainment was to head to the arcades. Those early arcade games were coin-operated cabinets that often walked a fine line between difficult and fun. They needed to be punishing enough to demand more quarters but enjoyable enough to ensure you actually wanted to stay at the cabinet and try again. However, one game revolutionized that basic dynamic by offering an influential incentive: perform well enough and win a free game.
The first video game to ever use the term “high score” was Midway’s 1976 arcade cabinet, Sea Wolf. Like many arcade titles at the time, Sea Wolf relied on a pretty basic premise. The only real goal in the game was to shoot torpedoes at different ships. The faster the ship, the more points players receive if they hit it. That incredibly simple concept was thematically enhanced by Sea Wolf‘s periscope-shaped controller. Players needed to look through the periscope to view the crosshairs needed to line up shots, while onlookers could still watch the action unfold on the main screen.
While Sea Wolf was the first game to introduce the concept of a “high score,” its developers had a very different notion of what that term should mean (at least in terms of how we now think of high scores). The game only recorded one high score at a time, and if a player beat that mark, the game replaces the old high score with a new one. However, the cabinet also features a prominent button that erased the current record. What kind of sick joke is that? Who would ever want to erase a high score? Well, if players can beat their high score within an allotted time, they get to play a short bonus round to make their Sea Wolf score climb even higher. However, that system meant that a high score could actually become too high to beat, rendering the bonus round unobtainable unless the score (and the personal high score process) was reset.
So while you could see the previous player’s high score if they didn’t reset it, the game’s use of a high score system was largely meant to incentive you to do better than your personal best rather than leave a record of your accomplishments for all future players to see. That idea wouldn’t be introduced until a couple more years later.
What Was The First Game to Retain Your High Score Between Sessions?
Sea Wolf was a decent, if rough, first step into the world of high scores. It offered gamers a limited amount of time to increase their score, and even if they beat everyone who played before them, their records could be erased with the push of a button. That kind of made it difficult to set any kind of true “high score” in a game where the goalposts could be reset with the literal push of a button. Thankfully, the Space Invaders team would soon come up with a solution to that problem that would help change how video games were discussed and played.
1978’s Space Invaders is the seminal arcade cabinet classic that puts players in control of a tank that shoots upwards at slowly descending alien invaders. At first, it’s fairly easy to hit enemies because they’re so numerous and slow, but the more ships players blast out of the sky, the faster they fly (which was actually an accident caused by the microprocessor not having to render as many ships). As long as players can keep clearing the screen of all invaders, they can theoretically keep playing indefinitely and improve their score along the way.
That cabinet’s ability to retain a high score between sessions that future users could then beat completely reinvented the notion of a high score. Space Invaders didn’t have any time restrictions, so the only obstacle in a player’s path to the hall of high score records was their own skill level. Since the game kept that score stored in its RAM, subsequent players could even see how they stacked up against the absolute best player of the day.
However, even though players couldn’t erase that high score anytime they liked, that information was still stored in RAM, which required a constant flow of electricity. If a Space Invaders cabinet lost power for any reason, that high score was lost with it. Even worse, Space Invader players had no real way of letting others know that the high score on that machine truly belonged to them.
What Was the First Game That Let You Enter Your Initials Next to a High Score?
When we think of high scores, we often associate them with the record setter’s name, or, at the very least, their initials. What good is bragging that you performed better than everyone else in a game if you can’t actually prove it? Many arcade games, especially the most famous ones, let players insert their initials (or “ASS” if they’re feeling immature) next to their high scores when they do well enough. That’s why it’s so surprising that the seemingly simple practice of entering your initials next to a high score originated in a game you’ve probably never heard of.
In 1979, Exidy published a relatively obscure arcade game called Star Fire. Not to be confused with the DC character of the same-ish name, Star Fire shamelessly ripped off Star Wars in terms of its name, in-game font, enemy design, and…well, pretty much everything else. Star Fire was a simple first-person space shooter where players locked onto and fired at TIE Fighter-like ships as well as the occasional Battlestar Galactica Viper-like ship. The goal, of course, was to shoot down as many enemies as possible. The more ships you shot down, the higher your score.
Unlike Space Invaders, which recorded the top score and only the top score, Star Fire lets gamers insert their initials whenever they achieved a new high score. However, the game had an odd way of tracking that score data. Instead of keeping tabs on every single score, the cabinet organizes players based on how many coins they insert into the machine.
So, if someone deposits one coin, Star Fire files their score into the one-coin slot. If someone inserts two coins, the game places them in the two-coin slot, and so on. A player’s score and initials are only put on display if they can beat their slot’s record holder. If someone shoves five coins into the game and beats everyone in the one-coin through four-coin positions, but not the current five-coin record holder, their performance was lost to history. It was a truly bizarre system that would soon be improved by a game that offered a more elegant score-tracking system for a more civilized age…
What Was the First Game to Feature a High Score Tracking Table?
Star Fire introduced audiences to the concept of showing more than one “high” score at a time, although it certainly wasn’t perfect since it divided participants based on how much money they spent (insert your own “pay to win” joke here). Thankfully, gamers didn’t have to wait long to see an arcade cabinet that let players who couldn’t break the all-time record still show off their 99th percentile scores.
Atari’s Asteroids, which was also released in 1979, is yet another seminal space shooter. Instead of shooting down spaceships, though, that game demanded that players take control of a ship and blow up a few incoming asteroids (it’s in the title, after all). Unlike Space Invaders, which restricted player movement to a single horizontal plane, Asteroids actually gave gamers full 360-degree movement that relied on momentum. While some slight acceleration can get players out of trouble, uncontrolled acceleration rams them into danger just as easily. Crucially, though, Asteroids borrowed one key element of Space Invaders’ design DNA by not restricting players to a time limit. As long as a gamer can stay alive, they can keep playing and increasing their score.
While Space Invaders invented the idea of saving high scores (at least until the arcade cabinet loses power), Asteroids invented the idea of saving multiple scores at a time. And even though the game came out in the same year as Star Fire, Asteroids was ahead of the curve in the high score department since it also allowed players to associate their ranked high scores to their initials without needing to meet some strange “money spent” requirement. Although, while players can theoretically play Asteroids indefinitely, the game couldn’t record a score higher than 99,990. Its 1981 sequel, Asteroids Deluxe, fixed that technical limitation by letting scores stretch as high as 1 million points.
So while other games technically beat it to the punch, you really could argue that Asteroids was the first game to feature the basic high score system that we typically think of today.