The Cinematic Quarter Master

From video games to documentaries, Joshua Tsui preserves arcade history

By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette

Back in the 1990s, few video gaming companies had as prolific a gaming catalog as Midway Games Inc. From Mortal Kombat to NBA Jam, the arcade developer put out hit after hit before its journey eventually ended in 2009. While the company has become a part in gaming’s history, its legacy has remained for those who worked there.

For Insert Coin documentarian Joshua Tsui, the director decided to turn his own memories into something fans could enjoy.

Insert Coin director, Joshua Tsui – Courtesy photo

Tsui began his career at Midway’s Chicago office in 1993, the first title he worked on was the WWF WrestleMania arcade game. He was brought on as a video artist, working on everything from 2D sprites to environment art and props, and videos for the development teams.

“One person did like five different things,” Tsui said of the small development teams of the time, a far cry from the dozens of staffers that make today’s modern games.

While Tsui left the company in 1999, he knew that he wanted to one day find a way to preserve Midway’s stories.

“A lot of it just came down to, you know, here are these iconic games of that era that everybody knows or remembers,” TsuI said. “I felt like I had unique access to information about the making of these games, about how they were developed, and why they were developed, and all of the shenanigans behind the scenes. And so I thought ‘Well you know what, somebody eventually is going to make a film like this, and so why not me?'”

Tsui originally studied film in college, though he never had the opportunity to make his own movie before joining Midway. Having access to the people who worked on the games, from Mark Turmell, Ed Boon, John Tobias, Eugene Jarvis, and Neil Nicastro, Tsui felt there was a high sense of nostalgia and the time was right to turn his experiences into a feature-length film.

“By the time I got there, Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam had just blown up, and so these guys were pretty successful right off the bat, but you would have never known it,” Tsui said. “When I came in the office, it was just like everybody had a very high work ethic. I was all about the work and so it was very seldom that anybody would put in airs about things.”

“When you’re working in video games, it’s a very humbling experience,” Tsui continued.

Tsui was treated as a peer among the legendary creators, knowing them as co-workers and friends instead of the arcade superstars the game’s fans considered them.

Still, Tsui had his own moments where the reality of where he was working provided some unforgettable experiences.

A look at how human actors are turned into digitized video game sprites from Mortal Kombat – Courtesy photo

While working on WrestleMania, Tsui recalled meeting several WWF superstars during the game’s motion capture sessions (a process that takes live actor footage and digitizes them into playable character gameplay), having the the opportunity to hang out and have drinks with them after filming sessions.

“When you’re talking about Brett Hart, Razor Ramon, Yokozuna… these guys were at the top of their game at that time, and here we are just hanging out with them, and they were so excited to be in the game.”

One of Tsui’s intentions with Insert Coin is to help aid in classic game preservation, keeping those stories a part of modern pop culture history.

“There’s so many ways to keep them alive. There are organizations out there that preserve old games and old video game literature and such that should be supported,” Tsui said. “You have organizations like the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York that has an amazing archive of video game materials, source code, artwork and everything. I think donating to those organizations makes a huge difference.”

“One of the reasons I made Insert Coin is to tell that story that nobody really knew about. When I tell people about the film, especially in the movie industry, they’ll say ‘Oh this is really interesting, but it seems like a niche idea.’ And I can understand why people say that, but then at the same time, technically everything is a niche audience until it’s done really well and it crosses into different audiences.”

Tsui funded his idea on Kickstarter, using the creative project platform as means of validating a response for people wanting to see a film about video game history.

“I love Midway, but maybe I’m in my own echo chamber, and I’m the only person who is that into it.”

As it turned out, 1,316 Kickstarter backers were also “into it,” pledging $92,181 toward the film’s $75,000 goal.

“Obviously getting funding for the film was great to have, and I’m super grateful that people put a lot of trust in me to make this film,” Tsui said.

Insert Coin comes to virtual cinemas and Alamo on Demand Nov. 25. The film will get a physical release at a later date.

Tickets can be purchased at Alamo on Demand or Virtual Cinemas.