Insert Coin Review

(The SXSW Film Festival may have been cancelled, but our coverage will go on with reviews of films and TV shows made available to our critics.)

Today, most video games are played from the comfort of our own homes. But there was a time when adults, teens, and kids flocked to arcades to play the latest video games. The late 1970s and early 1980s is considered the golden age of arcade games, but it all came crashing down suddenly and hard in the late 1980s. However, there was a renaissance of coin-operated gaming in the 1990s, even in the face of Nintendo and SEGA bringing more and more advanced video games into the home. At the heart of this resurgence was Midway Games, a group of tech-savvy geeks who would create some of the most influential and popular video games of all time.

The new documentary Insert Coin, which was meant to play the SXSW film festival, tells their story, and it’s an excellent look back at this exciting period in gaming history.

Insert Coin provides an oral history of the rise and fall of Midway Games, a company that came about after the arcade masters at Williams Electronics (creators of games like Defender and Robotron) absorbed the video game division of Bally/Midway, also  known for their success in pinball. With Japan mastering vibrant animated characters in their video games, Midway wanted to do something different by bringing a touch of stylized realism into the gaming world.

Midway stood out from the pack of other arcade games by utilizing video digitization in their games. They took real video footage that they shot in a makeshit studio, and turned it into pixelated imagery for video games. It’s essentially digital rotoscoping.  That means the character design and movement felt much more natural, or at least as natural as the technology would allow at the time.

NARC was the first game where this technology was utilized, but it wasn’t just the technology that made the game stand out. This was one of the first super violent video games, featuring enemies having their bodies blown to pieces, with limbs and blood flying all over the screen. But it was all good because it was good guys killing drug dealers, and if there’s one thing people hated in the 90s, it was dangerous drug dealers. This would mark the beginning of Midway’s foray into pushing the envelope of what was appropriate content for gaming, something that would eventually spark the video game violence debate that is argued by politicians and critics to this day.

From then on, Insert Coin is a fascinating and entertaining chronicle of one of the greatest video game companies of all-time. The documentary highlights hit-after-hit produced by young, innovative minds who basically did whatever they wanted by bringing over-the-top violence and state-of-the-art technology into arcades. Smash TV, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and more are highlighted in chapters that are packed to the brim with archived footage from behind the scenes, amusing anecdotes about the making of the games, and fascinating trivia. It’ll make you want to find the nearest arcade that still keeps these games up and running, like Chicago’s famous Galloping Ghost Arcade, which I’ve frequented several times and is actually featured in this documentary.

Fans will be in awe of footage showing the recording of fighting moves, fatalities and more from Mortal Kombat, all done in a dingy warehouse. They’ll discover the abandoned plans to have Mortal Kombat characters as secret basketball players in NBA Jam. And they’ll learn how they made Terminator 2: Judgment Day with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stuntman and Linda Hamilton’s twin sister (yes, she has an identical twin) instead of the actors themselves, all while have unprecedented access to the film’s production. With outstanding material like this, found myself wanting even more time with each chapter, making me wonder if Insert Coin could be expanded into a documentary series chronicling the making of dozens of other arcade games.

Talking heads from Williams Electronics game designer Eugene Jarvis, programmers like George Petro and Jack Haeger, and video game experts like Ready Player One author Ernest Cline are genuinely excited and thrilled to look back at this relatively short-lived revival of coin-operated arcade games. Insert Coin is continually captivating because of the passionate and lively creators and designers of these games who love digging up the past that they made so thrilling for millions of gamers. The documentary could have used some more female representation in this arena, but that’s somewhat difficult since video games were even more male-dominated in the ’90s. There are some female voices from video game history experts and authors who do offer insightful observations and context, but it’s a largely male perspective presented here.

If there’s one problem that I have with Insert Coin, it’s that I wish these fascinating interviews were shot in a little more cinematic fashion. Too many of the talking heads are in boring offices or living rooms, some with distracting computer screens in the background. Somehow, the interviews that are more appropriately in video game arcades that are still up and running are less distracting. There’s not enough variance in camera angles or shooting style, as evidenced by the constant cut to the same shot digitally zoomed in on its subject. It’s not enough to bring down the documentary in a significant way, but it’s definitely noticeable. I suppose that kind of shortcoming is to be expected from first-time documentary filmmaker Joshua Tsui, whose primary experience is producing and designing video games.

However, the rest of the documentary’s production is rather slick. Not only are there stylish graphics used to recreate tracking distortion and scan lines in old television footage from video taped interviews, but they’re framed in a polished retro fashion with glossy graphics and a style that is reminiscent of the 1990s without going overboard. Adding energy to the proceedings is an original score by Norwegian electronic music creator Savant, who uses the sounds and style of 90s video games to craft a pulsating soundtrack that not only slaps, but really helps bring the documentary and the vibe of the decade to life.

As Insert Coin comes to a close, it feels like it starts to lose momentum. That might be because Midway Games started losing momentum too. Not just the hits are highlighted in this doc, but also flops like Revolution X starring Aerosmith, and the six-cabinet multiplayer sports arena game The Grid. Dropping from the $1 billion in quarters that NBA Jam earned in arcades at the height of Midway’s success is a hard fall, and Insert Coin feels it too. The film somewhat fizzles out and doesn’t feel like it has a satisfying ending, but in a way, I wonder if that’s intentional. Insert Coin comes to a close suddenly, not unlike the arcade game renaissance of the 1990s. But it does leave you with the hope and inspiration of whatever the next generation of video games holds, even if it’s no longer powered by 25 cents.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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