2020, NR, 102 min. Directed by Joshua Y. Tsui.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 4, 2020
There are lots of ways a game can fail, but two of the real killers are learning curve and level design. You can say much the same about documentaries: How quickly can you pick up what’s going on, and does the structure guide you through to the end? Insert Coin, the history of arcade gaming legends Midway, cheats a bit by having the chapters count down like quarters being chomped by a Satan’s Hollow cabinet with a sticky trigger. The learning curve? That’s about as smooth as a joystick with busted restrictor gates.
But Insert Coin is not intended for beginners. It drops right in at a pivotal moment for the gaming industry in the early Eighties, as Midway visionary/Jeremy Piven look-alike Eugene Jarvis turns the pinball company into a billion-dollar juggernaut, one token at a time. It’s the classic boom-and-bust story, from the industry-shifting release in 1988 of the super violent Narc to the shuttering of the coin-op division in 2001. If you grew up welded to NBA Jam, you’ll know how incredibly important Midway was to the arcade digital era, innovating technology, pushing gameplay, and expanding the market beyond kids and tweens by injecting blood, guts, and fatalities. If you already know that, then you’re Insert Coin’s ideal audience, because anyone else will wonder what the fuss is about. Former Midway developer (and the face of Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat II) Tsui clearly knows everyone involved, but there are so many supporting characters delivering snippets of information that it’s often hard to keep track of what or who is really important. That’s exacerbated by the extraneous and inevitable Nineties arcade kids-turned-talking heads like Ready Player One author Ernest Cline and What’s Good Games co-founder Andrea Rene (although it doesn’t get much better than game-to-film maestro Paul W.S. Anderson explaining why Mortal Kombat was unbelievably cool).
Insert Coin is filled with fascinating stories about how Midway often lucked into its biggest successes, and the story of how the Aerosmith-starring Revolution X was almost a Public Enemy game deserves a documentary by itself. What you don’t get to see are any of the other games on offer in the arcade or any of the context about the industry at the time. It’s fine to make a documentary about Midway and its importance, but not even mentioning Atari feels like half the story is missing (even longtime pinball rival Bally only crops up when Midway buys them out). The timeline often gets hazy, and while blaming the death of the arcade on home gaming and the internet is both true and trite, it wouldn’t have hurt to explain how the fifth- and sixth-gen consoles killed the cabinet business when the SNES couldn’t. Insert Coin doesn’t tell gamers anything they didn’t already know, and non-gamers won’t care – so unless you're a hardcore fan, maybe just save your quarters.
Insert Coin is available now via Alamo on Demand.