A Brief Chat With Insert Coin Director Joshua Tsui

If you’re a fan of the history of video games and how they get created, the recently released documentary Insert Coin is quite a blast. While not the most comprehensive thing around, it details a prolific period in the life of Midway Games, famous for its work on Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. There are a ton of interviews and tidbits from designers, programmers, the CEO, and even media personalities to add some flavor to everything. It’s a very good documentary.

In the run-up to its release, I was given the chance to ask the film’s director, Joshua Tsui, some questions about how Insert Coin was made and why he chose to focus on Midway Games, specifically. Was there some kind of nostalgic attachment there? Did he have a particular favorite moment from his interviews with ex-staff members? As you can expect from a passion project, he most definitely was a fan of Midway and wanted to bring its particular story to light.

“Midway in the 90s was one of, if not the biggest, videogame companies on the planet,” Tsui told me. “I always felt there was so much history behind those games that people never knew about. Along with that, Midway was also very emblematic of 90s pop culture where everything was taken to ‘extreme’ levels and their games changed how people viewed videogames.” That extremity is shown in Insert Coin with titles like NARC, which was built on the basis of being more violent than anything before.

That’s probably what helped something like Mortal Kombat take off. While violence isn’t the only thing important to the series, it helped make the game stand out from the crowd. Capcom wasn’t going to be putting fatalities in Street Fighter, after all, so why not kill your friends on the next machine over? Tsui has a particular fondness for those finishers, telling me “They’re so comical, especially now after 20+ years, that it’s hard to imagine there was a public outcry about them.”

As for his personal favorite game featured in the film, that honor would have to go to NBA Jam. “It was a game that went beyond your average videogame player. You’d see kids playing against business people,’ Tsui recalls. “The games showed up in restaurants, gas stations, etc. – not just arcades. It was super accessible to all people and it really showed the best of the NBA.” I can’t say I disagree with him, as that is one of the reasons I’m enamored with the series.

When thinking about how Insert Coin was filmed, I wondered how Tsui worked around the COVID-19 pandemic. It must have been tremendously hard to film segments with guests when everyone was locked down, no? While it was probably a bit naïve on my part, Tsui informed me that Insert Coin had been in the works for a little over four years. All of the filmed interviews didn’t take place in 2020 and were spaced out over time.

Being a passion project for Tsui, he didn’t have much trouble shifting into high gear once the lockdowns started. All of that solidarity allowed him to hone in on editing and figure out the best way to distribute the film once it was ready. The aforementioned four years might sound like a long time to be sitting on this kind of material, but as Tsui told me, a lot of feature-length documentaries can take upwards of a decade to come out. He found a way to cut that down considerably.

It likely didn’t hurt that most of the featured guests were located in two specific locations. Midway Games was previously based out of Chicago (in fact, NetherRealm Studios, something of a successor to Midway, currently is), so Tsui didn’t need to trek around the nation locating specific people. Other guests were in Southern California and had kept in touch over the years, making connections easier to come by. As Tsui puts it, “Once one was found, it was easy to find the others. It’s not like they were hiding, haha. They were so happy to be part of the film and very candid too!”

With any project of this caliber, multiple elements wind up on the cutting room floor. With a company like Midway, the early years were loaded with multiple releases. It would be almost impossible to cover everything in less than two hours. As you can expect, certain segments were dropped from the film to get it into a comfier runtime. Trog, Wrestlemania, and NFL Blitz are some of the games Tsui mentions. He explained that they were axed, “Mostly for running time, but also some of the themes behind those segments were covered in other parts of the film. But it was painful, especially Wrestlemania as that was such a hilarious game and the stories behind it were so amazing.”

That had me wondering how Tsui could potentially follow-up Insert Coin. Would there be some kind of director’s cut with additional material? Did he ever consider making this a short series instead of a full film? “At one point I was very tempted to turn this one into a series as there were so many stories to tell,” he stated. “I think a follow up could go in multiple directions.” For me, I felt the lack of information regarding Midway’s downfall in the 2000s was a potential area for improvement, which Tsui agreed. That may yet come to pass for a sequel.

Even with some absences, the reception to Insert Coin has been very positive. “The film has not only gotten gamers excited but also people who may not have touched a game since the Pac-Man days,” Tsui told me. The reason for that is simple: “The film is about creativity, business, rivalries. Universal themes that anyone can relate to.” It seems that even without being a gamer and knowing these brands, you can relate to the struggles that creative people are having.

It could also be that gaming has grown into a major force to be reckoned with in pop-culture. While films from the early ’00s showed an almost dismissive attitude about the industry, younger filmmakers are now stepping in to create loving retrospectives and in-depth looks at how our favorite pastime flourished against intense political backlash. As Tsui puts it, “Videogames are now an artistic and entertainment medium that is over 50 years old so there’s a rich history to mine. The industry is larger than film or TV, possibly combined, and is now mainstream.” Imagine telling that to your younger self.

If any of this has made you interested in Insert Coin, you can find the film on its official website by clicking here. It’s available to either rent or own and you can even stream the film from a local theater to help refund the seriously impacted theater industry. However you watch it, it’s definitely worth checking out even if you’re not particularly familiar with Midway Games.

NEXT: NiNoKuni Review: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ghibli!

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Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can’t find him in front of a game, you’ll most likely find him pumping iron.

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