SXSW 2020 Review: “Insert Coin” Cracks the Code for an Entertaining History of Midway Games

At one point in “Insert Coin,” Jeff Gerstmann, the founder of the gaming review site Giant Bomb, is speaking of the Aerosmith-fronted flop “Revolution X,” a first-person shooter where CDs replaced bullets, when he says to director Joshua Tsui, “I look forward to watching the finished product of this to find out how that came to be, because what the hell?”

“Insert Coin” was made to answer questions like these, obliging Gerstmann mere moments later with a video of execs at Midway pitching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on getting involved and mea culpas from those who worked on the game, and for anyone who came of age during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and had an interest in hitting the arcades, Tsui offers up a compulsively watchable oral history of the company that occupied much of the prime real estate. With relatively little archival material to come by from the early days, it takes a little while for “Insert Coin” to move beyond a rudimentary look back at how Midway, reborn after being acquired by Williams Entertainment in 1988, conquered the coin-op industry with games that reflected their cavalier attitude, relying heavily on talking head interviews with former Midway execs and artists such as CEO Neil Nicastro and programmer Eugene Jarvis.

But such an approach could be argued as being reflective of the company that took some time to find its groove, having a string of hit games result from the company’s innovative video digitization technology that brought an unprecedented level of realism as far as facial expressions and movement. Once Midway’s biggest hits “NBA Jam” and “Mortal Kombat” come along, Tsui gets his hands on fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that illustrate how game designers scrapped together a primitive version of motion capture, using a treadmill to record the proper strut for their side-scrollers on VCR camcorders and enlisted their buddies to become facial models for games at a time when most were uninterested in participating. (While a lengthy chapter recounts James Cameron’s enthusiasm for what Midway could do for a “Terminator 2” tie-in game, it’s revealed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton were less so, leaving it up to their stunt doubles to portray them in the game, though Robert Patrick is said to have been psyched about seeing himself in the game.)

Most watching “Insert Coin” will already know that the rise of home console gaming and the advent of the internet will ultimately mean the end for Midway, which was so inextricably tied to developing for the arcade experience, and it’s to Tsui’s great credit he spends little time there. Instead, the film takes a more nuanced view of why the company still isn’t around today with many of their strengths evolving into weaknesses, from their ability to improve upon tech innovations from past games leading to derivative junk such as “Revolution X” when the creativity was no longer there and how the competitive atmosphere that Nicastro fostered amongst employees to encourage their best work grew toxic when no one felt they were being paid what they were worth. “Insert Coin” also sheds fascinating light on what role Midway had in becoming the poster child for violence in video games, some of which was driven by their own desire and ability to create realistic games while the rest of the industry was mired in fantasy, but was also accelerated by the war between Nintendo and Sega for home gaming supremacy when the latter sought a more violent version of “Mortal Kombat” to burnish their brand for a more adult audience and politicians that were looking for an easy punching bag.

Although “Insert Coin” is great at piecing together how all the various elements of Midway coalesced to create a special company, it can feel like it’s doing too much at times to place it within a larger context. Attempts to bring in modern day gaming experts and CEOs allow the film to include a much-appreciated female perspective, but prove somewhat awkward when present-day insights don’t add much to the firsthand experiences of those that worked at Midway, and a chapter dedicated to the making of “Mortal Kombat” the movie will no doubt delight fans, but also feels like it’s an addendum to the central story. (It’s telling when the film doesn’t cut back to a comment from Nicastro after producer Larry Kasanoff mentions how he gave a “three out of 10” to an early version of the film.) Still, in trying to cover all the bases, there’s more than enough in “Insert Coin” to keep playing, and as you learn about Midway, that’s undoubtedly the greatest tribute of all.

“Insert Coin” is awaiting its festival premiere.

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