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‘Insert Coin’ documentary highlights Midway Games’ arcade empire

In their heyday, the Chicago-based video game designers created ‘Mortal Kombat,’ ‘NBA Jam,’ ‘Rampage’ and ‘NFL Blitz,’ among many other coin-operated/pinball arcade games.

Tim Kitzrow, the voice of Midway Games’ “NBA Jam,” is featured in the documentary “Insert Coin.”
Cargo Film & Releasing

After creating memorable video games that delighted generations of teen gamers and frustrated their parents, a defunct Chicago company is the subject of a new documentary that aims to showcase their importance to the current iteration of interactive entertainment.

Insert Coin,” detailing the history of the Northwest Side-based Midway Games, is known for creating cult classic video games “NBA Jam,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Rampage” and “NFL Blitz,” among many others.

The film, now available for streaming via Facets, is directed by former Midway Games developer Joshua Tsui, who says while he relished tracking down his former colleagues to get them on the same page, timing also is everything in regards to the film.

“I felt like somebody is going to tell the story about how these great games were created and how this band of crazy people and how they made them,” said Tsui. “I thought if that someone is going to do it, why not myself?

“I think a project like this, if it was done 10-15 years ago, I don’t think people would have been as open or as candid as they are now. It’s 20-plus years later. And everyone has moved on to bigger and better things. I think everyone was just really happy to relive those moments both good and bad. I think they were excited that somebody like me was doing it as opposed to somebody outside of the organization.”

Tsui, who worked at Midway from 1993 to 1999, says the group enjoyed not only creating characters for the games but also implementing their personal stamp on the games by inserting themselves as characters unlocked by codes.

“At the time we would do that stuff for fun,” said Tsui, who’s in “NBA Jam” and was the impetus for “Mortal Kombat” character Liu Kang. “It’s really strange because 20-plus years later, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s super surprising when people that you know — friends of mine — find out later on that they can play as me in an ‘NBA Jam’ game; it blows their mind. For me, it was kind of fun, but I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”

The documentary’s main storylines feature how Chicago is an “epicenter” of video games, the ebb and flow of the games’ popularity with teens who became adults with disposable income, the alleged negative influence games have on kids, and how game consoles essentially put Midway out of business.

“I think there’s a certain collective consciousness happening where people of a certain age were getting nostalgic about something that they loved as a kid, but now that they’re adults, they have money to spend,” said Tsui. “I think it’s surprising they come back because there was a big lull where our games were nonexistent.

“Everyone thinks video games were created out in California, but Williams [Manufacturing Co.], Midway and other companies like Stern Electronics were a dominant force in the video game industry — and they’re all based in Chicago — especially during the arcade days, because it was all about manufacturing.”

“Insert Coin” director Joshua Tsui appeared in the video game “Mortal Kombat” as Liu Kang.
Cargo Film & Releasing

Over time, Midway Games, which shut down its operations in February 2003, achieved cult status.

“NBA Jam,” which was released in 1993, made $1 billion within its first year, outselling blockbuster films such as “Jurassic Park.” “Mortal Kombat” has a movie series, and in the lyrics of the 2004 platinum-selling track “Knuck if you Buck,” a member of Atlanta rap collective Crime Mob shouts out a “Kombat” character: “Jumpin’ off from on the stage/ Throwin’ dem bows like Johnny Cage.”

Those factoids illustrate the reach Midway Games continues to have on gamers young and old.

“I’m hoping the younger crowd will get out of [the film] what it’s like to make something creative and to put your personality into your work,” said Tsui. “I think about when I was younger, I would watch the making of old movies and being fascinated by the storytelling and how people pulled them off.”

To watch “Insert Coin,” go to www.facets.org/cinematheque/