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edge staff writer


Monsters of the Midway – ‘Insert Coin’

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For a lot of us, our tastes crystallize somewhat in our youth. That’s not to say that what we like doesn’t evolve – it absolutely does – so much as we retain a deep affection for those things that we loved at a certain age. The stuff we were into when we were 12, 13, 14 years old is cemented into us.

Think about it. The music you loved, the TV shows, the movies, the video games – you still have feelings for it all. The songs you can’t help but sing along to when they come on. Your favorite cast on “SNL.” The movies you can still quote by heart. The Nintendo or Sega games you could still beat in your sleep. It’s all still in there.

Now, this is all a long-winded way of saying that “Insert Coin,” the new documentary written and directed by Joshua Tsui, has captured a moment in time to which I personally am still very much connected. The film, which tells the story of the arcade renaissance of the early/mid-1990s through the lens of the legendary game-maker Midway, delves into a world that will look very familiar to my fellow late Gen X/early millennial peeps.

“Insert Coin” celebrates those heady days by speaking to many of the people who made it happen, the people who found a way to move with the times; instead of trying to push back against the blossoming world of console gaming, they found ways to turn the arcade experience into something that consoles of the time simply could not match.

Williams Electronics was one of the preeminent game manufacturers in the first arcade boom, creating such legendary games as Defender and Robotron 2084. Midway was more known for its licensing savvy, embracing a close working relationship with Japanese developer Taito to bring iconic arcade games as Pac-Man and Space Invaders to U.S. audiences.

It was when the two companies were brought together via merger in the late 1980s that things really got nuts and the newly-christened Midway Games utterly changed the face of video gaming.

It started with a little game called NARC, the company’s first foray into the use of video digitization for video games. Basically, they took studio-shot video and pixelated it for use in video games. The degree of verisimilitude that the process allowed meant that the largely abstract violence of earlier offerings was left in the dust. Instead, we got exploding bodies and flying limbs and gushing blood and the whole shebang – in its time, NARC was perhaps the most violent game ever.

But that was only the beginning.

From there, “Insert Coin” takes us through Midway’s development of some of the most beloved games of the second wave of the arcade era. The hits kept on coming – games like the “The Running Man”-inspired Smash TV (a mainstay at Bangor’s former Happy Wheels skating rink) and the “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” tie-in gun game (a game that featured Arnold’s stunt double, Linda Hamilton’s twin sister and a frankly-shocking degree of access for the makers on the set of the film) – but the film primarily focuses on two games. Games that changed the industry.

Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam.

On the one hand, we have a revolutionary fighting game, one that took full advantage of Midway’s photorealistic digitization techniques to create the bloodiest, most violent video game in the history of the medium to that point. From the varied characters to the secret combos to the fatalities, Mortal Kombat completely shifted the paradigm. Among the many great bits in “Insert Coin” is the collection of footage from the making of the game – recorded video of the actors as they went through the myriad motions necessary to build the fighters. It was incredibly controversial and wildly profitable (and one could argue that the former at least partially contributed to the latter).

On the other, we have a definitional sports game, one that was a brand-new experience for anyone who played it. By establishing a licensing relationship with the NBA, gamers were finally able to play as their heroes in the arcade. And those heroes were actually larger than life, gifted with the capability to fly to the rafters before a dunk and fire unmissable flaming three-point shots. We all remember “He’s on fire!” God, I loved that sound. The potential to play with four players added to the camaraderie of the thing as well, allowing for the competitive juices (and trash talk) to flow freely.

(For the record, I was a Kano/Raiden guy in Mortal Kombat and my NBA Jam squad of choice was the Utah Jazz – can’t beat Stockton and Malone.)

This was the peak for Midway; the rest of the film documents the slow descent of the company as the next generation of consoles once again pushed arcades away from the mainstream and back into a more niche enterprise. But for that brief, shining return of the video arcade, no company shone brighter than Midway.

I know, I know – that seems like a lot of synopsizing. And it is. But “Insert Coin” is the kind of movie that invites this sort of impassioned description. At least it does from me, someone who is directly in the center of the target audience. And even with all that, there’s SO MUCH MORE.

The talking heads are first-rate. There are a ton of guys from the Williams and Midway development teams, industry legends like Eugene Jarvis and George Petro and Jack Haegar, all of whom seem delighted to share their insight. You’ve got a couple of famous game-adjacent guys in “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline and filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, whose first American studio film was the kinda-cheesy-but-also-awesome movie adaptation of “Mortal Kombat.” Oh, and there’s some good stuff from all-around video game knower (and friend of yours truly) Dan Amrich.

Seeing the behind-the-scenes stuff is fascinating. The aforementioned footage of the real-life fighters who would become the men and women who do battle in Mortal Kombat is great, but so too is the vintage footage of men (sadly, almost always men) at work developing these games. The stories from the T2 game are killer, but so too is the tale of the Aerosmith-starring flop Revolution X. And on and on and on.

Joshua Tsui is obviously passionate about his subject; it would be insanity to undertake a project like this if you didn’t deeply care about the games in question. However, where he excels is in finding ways to translate that passion to the screen. Not only does the manner in which he tells the story bring forth that love – the wonderful, retro-style graphics and overall aesthetic, just to start – but the way in which he encourages that same passion from his interviewees. The original score by electronic artist Savant is note-perfect as well. You put it all together and it’s just a top-notch bit of documentary filmmaking.

Look, if you’re not interested in video games, then you might not be all that into “Insert Coin” (though I’d actually argue that the movie is made well enough to engage even non-fans). However, if you’re someone who spent part of their lives wanting nothing more than to hear that electronic shout of “Fatality!” or “Boomshakalaka!” – you will dig this movie.

You might say that “Insert Coin” is 100% my jam – my NBA Jam.

(“Insert Coin” can be seen via the following methods:

Alamo on Demand:

Virtual cinemas:

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 November 2020 13:10


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