Insert Coin review

First released for home audiences late last month through the Alamo on Demand platform, the arcade gaming documentary film Insert Coin heads to additional VOD platforms very soon. Coming to Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Vimeo on Demand, Google Play, Xbox, and PlayStation, it’s a release that those who are nostalgic for the classic arcade experience will want to check out. Here’s why.

Now that videogames have been part of mainstream entertainment for over 40 years, documentary films about the global phenomenon have become fairly common as well. But while most films focus on the initial rise of videogames, the relative decline of videogames in the mid eighties or the arcade culture of that same period, few venture where Insert Coin goes.

This year’s From Bedrooms To Billions shows us that the 1990s were the birthplace of the modern console era, but what director Joshua Tsui highlights is that videogame arcades had a bit of a resurgence in this period as well, and much of that was due to the success of games by Midway. We’re not talking a minor boost in popularity either, as the film tells us that NBA Jam alone made roughly three times the amount of money that Jurassic Park made – a whopping $1 billion dollars, one quarter at a time.

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Midway didn’t appear out of nowhere though, and to understand that the film backtracks to the golden era of arcades in the 1980s first, when the Williams company released classics like Defender, Joust and Robotron: 2084. We get some insight into some of the corporate moves that led to Williams acquiring the videogame arm of Bally/Midway and the subsequent name change to Midway, which apparently happened because “they paid good money for that name”.

Although he wasn’t around for the success of Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, a lot of screen time is reserved for Eugene Jarvis, revered for his work on Williams classics Defender and Robotron as well as the early Midway hits NARC and Smash TV. His insights help to paint a picture of the early culture at the company that made the boom of the 1990s possible – a culture in which no game concept was too crazy to explore and new technology was embraced in order to create experiences gamers hadn’t seen before.

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One example of this is the iconic Terminator 2 arcade game with the mounted gun, for which the game makers were given access to the film set because James Cameron was so impressed with their ability to digitize real life characters into games – something that NARC pioneered for the studio. It’s fun to hear the designers talk about how in awe Robert Patrick was at the prospect of seeing himself appear in a game, and how Aerosmith was quick to jump aboard for Revolution X a few years later.

The technology also gave birth to Mortal Kombat though, which we learn was originally intended as a videogame project starring Jean-Claude van Damme. John Tobias, who pioneered the franchise alongside Ed Boon (longtime fans will think of Noob Saibot every time they hear their names), talks at length about the creative process that went into the game, while studio execs point out that they loved the controversy as it had such a positive impact on the sale of the home conversions as well as the turnover in arcades.

In between the firsthand accounts of the people involved, director Joshua Tsui also uses the opinions of videogame historians/journalists as well as (Ready Player One) author Ernest Cline to give some outside perspectives on the era. The film also doesn’t shy away from a bit of self-criticism, even though the bulk of the content was clearly born out of a fondness for Midway and their games.

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What’s a shame is that, in the final 15 minutes or so, Tsui appears to be in a rush to wrap things up. There’s a lovely mechanic where the film is divided up into chapters using an ‘x coins remaining’ still before each segment, but while the Cruisin’ games feel like an interesting side story more than anything the years that followed are afterthoughts at best. Midway’s eventual move towards home consoles and subsequent decline are dealt with through text alone, when it’s an era that could have made for some incredibly interesting insights. Perhaps it’s a time people don’t enjoy talking about, but for now these are some of the untold stories of the history of Midway – though director Joshua Tsui did shed some more light on this during our recent interview.

True enthusiasts shouldn’t expect to hear too many things that haven’t already been told before, but for those who fondly remember walking into an arcade in the early to mid nineties this is a nice walk down memory lane that offers insights into some of the most successful entertainment franchises to come out of the decade.

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