Back in the 90s – when arcades were my destination of choice whenever my mom dragged me to the mall – I was never one to line my quarters up on the bottom of the gaming cabinet monitor to indicate to other players that I had the machine locked down. It only took the one time when a passerby stole my dollar-worth of quarters for me to learn that lesson. To be fair though, I was also not good enough to “reserve” a machine. Despite that fact, I loved every waking minute that I was able to spend time at the joystick helm of my favorite games. NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat 2 remain, to this day, my favorite games to play on an arcade cabinet – both of which happen to have come from the same game studio: Midway Games. 

NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat are just two of the games that Midway Games put out, along with many more titles that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in gaming – and the entertainment industry in general – at that time. Insert Coin – a new documentary from director and former Midway Games employee, Joshua Tsui – provides an intimate look at the rise of one of gaming’s most legendary studios, as well as immense levels of nostalgia for those of us who grew up during its heyday.

via Cargo Film

Insert Coin takes you on a journey of the life of Midway Games – from its initial beginnings under the Bally brand to its incorporation with Williams Electronics Games (and all of the headaches that came with it), followed by Midway absorbing the Williams brand in the early 90s, before eventually filing for bankruptcy in the late 2000s. Even though business rivalries and the overall corporate politics that were at play dominate the early narrative, Tsui does great to keep things moving in a captivating way – most notably, directly from the mouths of the people who lived through it all.

Midway seems to have been a personification of the minds who made up the creative team. Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Robotron: 2084), Mark Turmell (SmashTV, NBA Jam, NFL Blitz), John Tobias (co-creator Mortal Kombat series), and George Petro (NARC, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Revolution X) all shed light on what it was like to create the iconic games of yesteryear at a time when the gaming industry was synonymous with the wild west. Hearing them speak of the fun that they had during development, as well as the surprising amount of success that came with their games was a delight to take in. Here was a group of individuals who were out to create things that hadn’t been done before regardless of any negatives that may come later. And – as any longtime Mortal Kombat fan knows – controversies did come.

via Cargo Film

Insert coin talks to some of the negative light that the studio had to endure, such as the violence of the Mortal Kombat series, issues with the NBA regarding NBA Jam, and the sneaky press backlash that came as a result of games like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Revolution X. Even though I was only ten or so years old at the time, I remember rolling my eyes whenever the news had something negative to say about violence in video games negatively influencing, well… me. But, back then, I never really considered how this sort of coverage impacted the people behind the games. Midway rose above it for the most part, taking on the mentality of “any press is good press”, which, after learning more about what made the studio tick, sounds to be right on par.

One of the defining features of Insert Coin is all of the footage shown throughout – much of which was salvaged just minutes before it was all thrown into a dumpster, never to be seen ever again. The raw VHS footage from the 90s provides pure visual joy, as did the mentions of games that I had long since forgotten… or repressed. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Revolution X. These are titles that I remember playing every time I went to Red Robin. They are also games that I remember losing the second I started playing. This was intentional (accessibility options were definitely NOT a thing back then) and was a major factor defining Midway’s success in the arcades.

While Midway Games certainly had success with its home releases – not to mention one of the best video game movie adaptations ever in Paul W. S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (yes, I’m serious) – the collapse of arcade culture along with new creative endeavors ultimately led to the demise of the studio.

Insert Coin is a wild ride, but it’s clear just how invested Tsui was in telling the story of Midway Games. It would have been a disservice not to, given how invested each of the team members were while they were creating the games that they did. I already had a deep appreciation for what Midway Games did while I – an impressionable youth – was growing up. If you have ever played any of Midway’s titles, or any of the games that eventually spawned from the same creators, you owe it to yourself to watch Insert Coin.

Insert Coin is available now on Alamo Drafthouse’s Alamo On Demand Digital Release and other independent cinemas around the country.