The era of video games discussed in the new documentary Insert Coin was one I basically missed, but I don’t just watch documentaries about subjects I’m familiar with. In fact, I tend to favor informational films on subjects I know little about in the hopes of being educated and finding out where the gaps in my knowledge end and the rest of the story begins. In the case of Insert Coin, it begins with a man named Eugene Jarvis, creator of such ’80s classic games as Defender and Robotron. He returned to the industry in the early 1990s and pulled together something of an all-star team of idea men and designers that resulted in some of the most successful coin-operated games ever made, such as Narc, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and the Terminator 2 game. The latter title marked the first time a video game used likenesses of the stars of the movie (or at least their very similar-looking stunt doubles/stand-ins) in the game.
Initially through his Williams Electronics (which later merged and rebranded itself with Midway Games), Jarvis and company pioneered the technology of using digitized video images instead of animation as the key to the game’s action. They then liberally sprinkled in large amounts of blood, gore, and anarchy, and you couldn’t keep the quarters from piling up. Using new and quite lively interviews with most of the major players at the time (as well as a few testimonials from famous fans of the games, including Ready Player One author Ernie Cline), Insert Coin paints a pretty clear picture of a work environment high on creativity crashing into inflated egos, untold riches, and top dogs who wanted to regularly remind the people actually designing the games who was in charge.
Director Joshua Tsui—a former Midway designer himself—walks us through success story after success story, while never forgetting to clue us into the creative process that was at play at Midway. If something simply wasn’t being done or wasn’t acceptable in the video game world at the time, the Midway team thought that was as good a reason as any to do it. Naturally, the growing popularity of home gaming killed the coin-op business with an alarming speed.
As someone who is always curious about films that have their origins in the video game space, it was fun to watch the conversation around the creation of the original Mortal Kombat film, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (who also directed many of the Resident Evil films), who admits that he lobbied hard for the gig as a young, virtually untested filmmaker. There’s a discussion of putting together the trailer, which Anderson was disappointed didn’t feature any of the story elements and simply goes through the roster of characters. But young audiences ultra-familiar with the game went berserk at the very idea of seeing their favorite characters brought to life, and Anderson learned a great deal about marketing in the process (sadly, not about filmmaking).
Again, since I wasn’t overly familiar with the games or the creators, Insert Coin was a learning experience for me and is so deftly put together that it’s easy to get caught up in the fun and chaos of that period in gaming history, both as a consumer and a creator. The movie doesn’t attempt to attach any greater meaning to the period or the popularity of more extreme video games, beyond celebrating success after success, but it’s easy to draw a few conclusions about both just from watching archival footage of those who pumped quarter after quarter into those cabinets. And I got a serious charge listening to designers talk about building in cheat codes and ways to allow the scores to progress at a certain pace to keep players hooked for hours. Not a lot of docs are as fun as Insert Coin, and that should count for something and be celebrated.
The film is available to stream via Facets virtual cinema.
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