'Insert Coin' Boots Up Retro Feelings For The Arcade Hits Of The Past [Review]

Please Note: “Insert Coin” was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. With the express consent of the representatives of the filmmakers, we present the review of the film here.

For a certain generation of gamers, the arcade is where you went, weighted down with quarters in your pockets, to idle away hours trying to win at the latest and greatest game. These days, arcades are relics, niche businesses that manage to stay afloat thanks to devoted customers seeking that nostalgic experience, or that strange room in multiplexes where cinema owners think people will kill time before a movie. For those yearning for the dimly lit, stale smelling room, crammed in that weird corner of the mall, where blurps and bloops rang in your ears and faces were filled with a phosphorescent CRT glow, “Insert Coin” will tickle the wistful longing for that unique and exciting atmosphere. And for those who couldn’t experience it for themselves, this scrappy documentary earnestly tries to convey the giddy and anarchic spirit of the golden age of video games.

The no-nonsense documentary offers a “just the facts ma’am” account of the rise and fall of Midway Games, the folks who left the huge footprint of “NBA Jam” and “Mortal Kombat” on the 1990s landscape. But before we get there, we have to go a little further back. During the 1980s, at the height of their power, Williams Electronics wore the arcade gaming crown. One of the leading pinball manufacturers, and the team that brought the hugely influential “Defender” to the world, there was a measure of truth in their cocky company slogan “We make the games that make the industry.” So, what did a video game company in ascendance do with their “Rampage” sized clout? Well, they acquired the very people that made that game. Bally/Midway was Williams’ biggest rivals, and now under their roof, they were spun-off into simply Midway. Corporate maneuvering aside, success brought with it the ambition and confidence to push the boundaries of the medium.

Taking an oral history style approach, and anchored by interviews with key personnel such as game designers Eugene Jarvis and Mark Turmell, programmers like George Petro and Jack Haeger, and the perspective of nerd culture expert and author Ernest Cline (“Ready Player One”), “Insert Coin” gets the straight goods on the development of Midway’s landmark titles. Even decades removed, the energy is still palpable when the team shares the video digitization approach that made the realism of the “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” shoot ‘em up possible. It’s not a surprise that an early demo of the technology so impressed James Cameron, he invited Midway’s team to work on the set of the movie as it was filming. Midway’s dedication to blending realism with the best button-mashing (and at times, adolescent) pleasures of go-for-broke game design was the secret sauce behind their biggest hits: “NBA Jam” and “Mortal Kombat.” 

It’s remarkable to learn that at the time, the NBA was very resistant to what would become a landmark title. “NBA Jam” works precisely because it tosses most of the rules of the sport out the window, favoring the sugar rush hit of letting players shatter backboards, execute flaming slam dunks, all while getting colorful, authentic-sounding play-by-play. How big was “NBA Jam?” The game earned $1 billion in quarters alone. Then “Mortal Kombat” came along and set an even higher precedent. What was initially supposed to be a gap-filler — a game knocked out quickly to keep the production line busy between bigger titles — was quickly recognized early on as a potential smash-hit. Upon release, the violent, bloody, blockbuster game was a pop-culture sensation, with former executive Neil Nicastro admitting that the controversy around it from concerned parents and politicians never bothered him because it drove sales even higher.

Funded through Kickstarter, and marking the first feature film effort by video game industry veteran and former Midway employee Josh Tsui, “Insert Coin” both succeeds within and is hamstrung by its limitations. The documentary lives up to its promise of delivering a nuts and bolts overview of Midway’s history, but it often brings it up topics that demand more context. One of the film’s biggest coups is landing interviews with director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Lawrence Kasanoff, who brought “Mortal Kombat” to the big screen. Anderson brings candid context to the making of the movie noting the clash of visions between video game suits and the moviemakers, and that he was hindered by having to use the poorly designed, animatronic villain Goro in the film. “Mortal Kombat” hasn’t aged particularly well, and while it’s somewhat alluded to in the doc, it’s often forgotten that the film was a massive hit at the time, holding the top box office slot for three straight weeks. It was one of the top 20 films domestically of 1995. While Tsui does occasionally use archive footage to illustrate or underline a point, “Insert Coin” often lacks how its events are placed in the cultural landscape of its time. “Insert Coin” also sidesteps subjects that might too thorny to navigate, so it’s a bit disappointing that when technology and gaming historian Carly A. Kocurek notes the boys club nature of the arcade world, the thread isn’t followed any further.

However, Tsui’s affection for Midway and the anarchic, go-for-broke era of the company’s heyday goes a long way. “Insert Coin” will get your fingers itchy again for the retro satisfaction of hearing the “NBA Jam” commentator exclaim “Boom-shaka-laka” after a huge slam dunk or tearing out your opponent’s spine in “Mortal Kombat.” And aside from a roll of quarters, what more could you ask for? [B-]