REVIEW: ‘Insert Coin,’ – Looking at the History of Midway Games

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Insert Coin

Insert Coin is a video game documentary directed by Joshua Tsui. From its early days developing arcade titles like Defender to its industry-altering accomplishments like Mortal Kombat, the story of Williams Electronics (later renamed Midway Games) chronicles some truly impressive accomplishments which forever altered the landscape of video gaming. This SXSW selected documentary takes a look at the wild ride Midway Games went through as it rose to prominence, and then disappeared from the scene.

As myself being a gamer who clearly remembers the 90s Midway games is an all too familiar name for. Whether it was playing Mortal Kombat at a friends house, or checking out the Terminator 2: Judgement Day arcade game, Midway Games had a prominent presence in my early gaming days. This documentary was particularly enjoyable to me as it pulled back the curtain on one my childhood gaming influences. And it manages to do it without overemphasizing the points in the story most viewers will be all too knowledgeable about.

Since Insert Coin begins its tale back in the informative years of gaming, one of its first talking points is, of course, how the legendary gaming crash of that decade affected those who were working in games at the time. While the inclusion of this point is completely necessary, as it is one of the most relevant moments in gaming history, since virtually every gaming documentary ever made touches on the subject, I was pleased to see the narrative not tarry too long on this point. This same assumption of knowledge is also applied later in the film when we get to the violence in video games scare surrounding Mortal Kombat.

While you have to talk about it, it’s a moment in gaming history that has been thoroughly documented. And even though Midway is obviously at the center of this one, it is still breezed past a bit quicker than I’d feared it would be. So, if the movie doesn’t focus so much of its 1 hour and 45 minutes run time on these more famous moments, what does it focus on, you may ask. Honestly, a lot.

Insert Coin’s look at Midway Games begins with a deep dive look at one of the things that made so many of Midway’s games feel so unique: their approach to character visuals through the digitizing of videos made of real actors.

The extremely ad hoc, fly by the seat of your pants approach to this new innovation will feel familiar to anyone who has researched early game development. It’s wild to hear these legends of the industry talk about how they had no idea what they were doing as they just made it up as they went along.

From their first uses of their new digitizing process in early arcade successes like NARC, Insert Coin flows along smoothly as it follows one smash hit after another. Though it does take time to acknowledge the occasional disappointment, like the Aerosmith starring oddity that was Revolution X. The stories behind the creation of each game never fail to be interesting. The interviews with the many creatives, as well as cameos from some outside game personalities, deliver enjoyment, as well as information, as the documentary explores the success and impact of Midway Games.

The only disappointment in where the documentary’s list of personalities they speak to is the noticeable absence of Ed Boon. One of the father’s of Mortal Kombat, he is still developing the franchise to this day at Neverrealm Studios. It would’ve been the icing on the cake if some of this industry giant’s thoughts could’ve been here.

While the majority of Insert Coin is focused on the fun and accomplishment of what Midway achieved, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging its shortcomings. This is particularly true in the later portions of the film when it looks at what comes across as an overly aggressive work environment that was fostered, and encouraged, by management.

Lastly, Insert Coin touches on the final demise of arcade culture in America, and the irrevocable damage Midway suffers from it. While it kept going for eight more years after the closing of it’s arcade development department, it was never the same, and eventually shut down altogether.

When all is said and done Insert Coin delivers what feels like a well-rounded look at one of the titans of the video game industry in the 90s. It’s successes, pitfalls, and innovations are delivered in a way that is easy to follow, while also being enjoyable to consume. As Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung would say… FLAWLESS VICTORY!

Insert Coin is available in theaters and through Alamo in demand.

Insert Coin
  • 10/10
    Rating - 10/10
10/10

TL;DR

When all is said and done Insert Coin delivers what feels like a well-rounded look at one of the titans of the video game industry in the 90s. It’s successes, pitfalls, and innovations are delivered in a way that is easy to follow, while also being enjoyable to consume. As Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung would say… FLAWLESS VICTORY!