By Aaron Evangelisti / January 12th, 2021
INSERT COIN is a 2020 documentary by Joshua Tsui about the rise and fall of Midway, and to a lesser extent, the arcade industry as a whole. This is Tsui’s first time directing a documentary, although he was a producer on another documentary about the Chinatown Fair arcade’s influence on the fighting game scene from 2015 titled The Lost Arcade.
I’d like to briefly touch on my own experience with Midway and their games. I grew up in the 90s, when Mortal Kombat was just the biggest thing with boys my age, and I admit a big draw for me to these games was the blood and the fatalities. I once called Mortal Kombat II my favorite game, despite being terrible at it, and I’m still terrible at it. MKII is no longer my favorite game, but there’s still something about the franchise and the characters that I find interesting. I’m a little young to really have enjoyed Midway’s older arcade titles during their heyday, but thanks to the collections that have been released for various modern consoles I was able to play them. Midway Arcade Treasures was actually one of my favorite games on the original XBox and was my introduction to many of their games such as Robotron: 2084, Root Beer Tapper, and Smash TV.
In INSERT COIN the film makers spend a lot of time interviewing former Midway employees, such as game designer Eugene Jarvis and CEO Neil Nicastro, as well as talking heads in the gaming industry and certain pop culture icons. It follows the history of Midway in chronological order, from the companies early days in the 80s as Williams Electronics, to the fall of the arcades to advances in home consoles in the early 2000s. The bulk of the movie covers the 90’s with NARC, digitizing actors into games, Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam.
I really appreciate how the star of the show here is in fact the employees, and the various gaming cultural icons really only serve to contextualize what the company and their games meant to the general public. They’re able to provide some interesting insight as to the inner goings on in the company, including some instances where game designers and management didn’t necessarily see eye to eye. CEO, Neil Nicastro, isn’t exactly shy about stating some of his opinions in regard to workplace atmosphere and how to get the best performance and product out of your employees. Those opinions are pretty controversial and I think many viewers aren’t going to come away from INSERT COIN with a high opinion of him. I don’t think some of his former employees have a particular high opinion either, for that matter.
I find it interesting that Joshua Tsui didn’t get into his own history with the company. Tsui was directly involved in the production of multiple Mortal Kombat titles as an actor having played Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat II in the stills presented during story segments and Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4, as well as worked on the art direction for Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. They do interview Daniel Pesina, who was the motion capture actor for multiple characters in the early MK games, including Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 as well as the other ninjas and Johnny Cage, of which he is probably best known for. I don’t know of Tsui maybe felt his own involvement just wasn’t relevant, or perhaps he worried about the documentary coming off as some sort of vanity project, but either way I think that’s an interesting choice.
There are a few things I think the documentary could have covered in more detail: I would have appreciated if it had spent more time covering the companies early days in the 80s. It is something touched upon in the very beginning but they quickly move on to the 90s and NARC. I would have liked to hear a little more about games like Defender, Joust, and Root Beer Tapper. I would also have liked if they maybe covered what those involved in Midway are up to these days. There’s no mention of NetherRealms, the company lead by Ed Boon, co-creator of Mortal Kombat, that’s responsible for the modern Mortal Kombat titles, for example. In fact, Ed Boon is notably missing from INSERT COIN in general. We hear a few passing mentions of him and see him in some old footage from the making of the klassic MK games, but he isn’t interviewed. I’m sure many of these people are still working in the industry, and it would just be cool to learn what they’re up to.
Overall I found INSERT COIN to be an interesting and well presented documentary. Maybe it could have been a little more detailed in some places, but coming in at a runtime of just over an hour and forty minutes it’s probably about as long as it should be, so of course some things couldn’t make the cut. There are definitely things about Midway I didn’t know going in that I learned from watching this. The Grid, for example, I had never heard of before, which looks like a very interesting competitive arena shooter. Kind of like the arcade’s answer to Unreal Tournament. If you’d like to checkout INSERT COIN for yourself be sure to visit their website. From there you can find links to where you can watch the movie. It’s on Amazon Prime and available to rent for $4.99 or buy for $12.99 USD. You can checkout a trailer for the film below: