By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette
Once upon a time, the arcade was king.
While millions of gamers played Atari and Nintendo at home, the arcade was where the latest in technological innovations and flashy designs were found, often from Japanese companies such as Sega and Namco.
The arcade designer and distributor Midway was different. Based out of Chicago, Illinois, the American company created some of the most influential games that helped shape the industry today, and brought the phrases “He’s on Fire” and “Finish Him” into the pop culture lexicon.
The new Kickstarter funded documentary, Insert Coin, brings viewers back to the 1990s, where a pocketful of quarters was all the currency needed to enter exciting (and sometimes controversial) new worlds.
Director Joshua Tsui worked at the Chicago office, alongside industry veterans Eugene Jarvis, Mark Turmell, Ed Boon, and John Tobias. The era was a time where Midway’s titles filled the arcades. The documentary covers a variety of the decade’s games such as Revolution X, NARC, Cruis’n USA, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Smash TV, War Gods, NBA Jam, and Mortal Kombat.
Each game is explored in detail, with interviews from the game’s designers and executive staff of the Chicago office. Having been a part of the company, Tsui provides an intimate look into office’s work culture, and how the design teams often collaborated or competed against each other.
The film also explores some of the aspects behind the phenomena of Mortal Kombat, from the movies, a live touring show, and its impact on the industry.
(Even locally, Corsicana was affected by “MK Mania” when the home version of Mortal Kombat 3 released on Oct. 13, 1995. Calls for game support became so numerous, it shut down the town’s phone system and disrupted service in multiple neighboring towns from Dallas to Houston.)
The documentary also provides a unique look at how inspiration was found while developing each game. Internal staff were often called in to be used for digitized characters in the various games. Revolution X had Aerosmith come into the studio to provide motion capture, scripted lines, and sound bites. Terminator 2 brought in Robert Patrick (T-1000), the student double for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Linda Hamilton’s sister as representation for their in-game counterparts.
And if one ever wanted to learn how some of the wilder moves in Mortal Kombat were performed, some of the creative solutions were clever, if comical. While the in-game characters jumped and punched on the screen, their real-life personas are what really made the title stand out from the arcade’s street fighting competition.
While the film showcases a solid selection of Midway’s best titles of the era, there were still some things I would have liked to have seen explored.
From pinball, to acquiring the arcade division of Atari Games, to Boon and Tobias splitting their partnership for their own takes on the Mortal Kombat franchise, to integrating home game technology into other 1990s titles such as NFL Blitz, Midway embraced the era’s idea of the arcade hitting home. If Tsui ever wants to create a sequel for other facets of the company’s 1990s legacy, his options are wide.
As it stands, Insert Coin is a film about a video game company that was a pioneer in its field, in the last of the pioneering and anything goes days of the industry. It’s often encouraged for creators to “write what you know,” and Tsui took that to heart. It’s a personal love letter to a unique and special time when games went as far as their creator’s imaginations could take them, benefitting from those brilliant flashes of weird and excessive.
I saw the film early as I backed the project on Kickstarter, but the film comes to virtual cinemas and Alamo on Demand Nov. 25. The film will get a physical release at a later date.