Midway Games, oddly enough, could not have a more widespread yet niche following. On one hand, they were the home for what is still one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, Mortal Kombat. Their other titles that undoubtedly took a decade of youth by storm, unfortunately, lacked the legs to hurdle into the new millennium. Director Joshua Tsui looks to bridge this gap for the sake of preserving an instrumental piece of video game history with Insert Coin. What cunning edge does Tsui bring to this documentary that no other filmmaker could? For starters, his very own career started at Midway in the early 90s.
Every avid gamer has come across the work of Midway- whether they know it or not. The company was a household name in the coin-op business throughout the 80s and 90s. The amount of profit Midway produced just from quarters in arcades is beyond belief. Their path from producing classic games such as Rampage to innovational work such as NBA Jam is much more complicated than what the casual gamer might assume. Corporate buyouts, creative fiascos, and good old fashioned internal rivalry are just the beginning. Midway being such a rich topic of its own is more than enough for a basic documentary, but Insert Coin strives to be much more. Tsui is more interested in the people behind the buttons than the people pressing them.
Fans and gamers alike who wish to get a crash course on the making of Midway’s most iconic games will still walk away satisfied. This might first come across as negative, but Insert Coin‘s crash course is far from quick and cheap. The film is divided into chapters, each focusing on a significant game or defining moment in Midway’s notorious 90s run. Tsui constructs his film as an arcade game itself- guiding the viewer through a spiraling journey, complete with its own secret unlockables, that leads to the bittersweetness of its title. Tsui being a former Midway employee of 6 years, operates with a personal weight of responsibility on his shoulders. An immense pressure that he seems to have made his ally instead of a foe.
Tsui uses his inside knowledge and resources to make an insightful, yet easy-going dive into the dogma of the arcade industry. He never distracts the viewer with bleeding his personal history with Midway into the narrative. Given the context of this scenario, any other first-time director, documentarian no less, could have easily let their literal personality slip into the frame. Instead, Tsui’s tastes are felt through the film’s aesthetics and framing. Insert Coin burns with his passion for Midway, but the focus is never taken away from his endgame: to highlight the humanity of the employees who made the magic all possible in the first place. It is not until after a watch of Insert Coin that one realizes that a documentary with such resonance could have only be made by someone in Tsui’s shoes.
The same shoes that could only track down a sheer amount of talent for the camera. Almost everyone who is required to share their side of the story is present. From Defender creator Eugene Jarvis to the former CEO of Midway himself, Neil Nicastro. Even though Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias is heavily involved, fans will be quick to notice the absence of his other half who still leads the series today, Ed Boon. Insert Coin still has more than enough to reach its goal despite a few absent voices. Tsui, having broken sweat with these people in the past, creates a more fluid presence for his subjects. The bareness of it all makes it feel like one is reconnecting with old friends rather than just getting fed facts.
Though, there are plenty of surprises packed between heavy loads of information. Guest voices such as Ready Player One author Ernest Cline and the director of the Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil film adaptations, Paul W. S. Anderson, add necessary perspectives outside from the Midway empire. Norwegian musician Savant provides an original score worthy of its own price. How much more captivating Tsui makes his material with the backup of a Savant synth beat is impressive. Fitting for the topic of video games while also being extravagant enough to avoid simplicity.
Insert Coin ultimately excels by putting Midway history, which could honestly be found in bullet points on the internet, second over the humanness of the ingenious minds responsible for it. One will walk away with the names of these people in their heads. The video-game industry is always the most at risk with the advancement of technology. Inevitable but not necessarily the last nail in the coffin. The documentary drives a bittersweet message home: the party coming to an end does not mean it was any less worth it. Midway closed its coin-op department in 2001. It was not until 2009 when the whole company had no choice but to shut down. A fate felt by many in the video-game world. Insert Coin is a labor of love that suggests the story does not have to end.