Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Joshua Tsui, Insert Coin is the type of nostalgia-based documentary built for gamers who reminisce about the good ol’ days of putting quarters into video games at an arcade. An amusing and informative look into an industry that has evolved so much in years since, this documentary is almost as fun as the games it features.
The film tells the story of the game developers at Midway, whose coin-op game cabinets like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and Terminator 2 revolutionized the gaming industry forever. Even the most casual of gamers will be familiar with some of the games being discussed (Mortal Kombat in particular having found great success as a console game later in its life), and it is absolutely fascinating to learn about their origins.
Tsui divides the movie into segments, each exploring a different game created by Midway and the innovations that went along with it. There’s definitely a lot of technical language used throughout, so those who don’t have a remedial understanding of the way games work and function may find themselves lost at times, but it isn’t so complex as to be unfollowable.
That said, Midway’s story isn’t one entirely composed of successes, and the film also serves as a cautionary tale of corporate greed. Tsui picks up the story with Midway experiencing great success and follows them as they begin to struggle with the increasing prevalence of at-home gaming. It’s interesting to watch as consumer preferences shift in this time.
The movie features interviews with various people involved in the making of these games, from the programmers to the actors who lent their likenesses to be characters in the increasingly complex visuals of the games. These interviews provide a great deal of insight as to how these games were made with a combination of skill, creativity, and luck.
In addition to cashing in on the nostalgia that many viewers (and the interviewees) will have for a bygone era of gaming, the film does a great job of making the audience appreciate the level of hard work that goes into creating games like these. More so than other gaming documentaries, Tsui’s movie emphasizes game design as an art.
On a technical level, Tsui gives the film a lot of visual energy. The story is told mostly through interviews, with archive footage and gameplay footage used to accompany what is being discussed. Tsui’s editing style is certainly very kinetic, particularly when he cuts from archive footage of the making of the game to footage of the game being played. The result is pretty captivating.
Insert Coin admittedly relies a lot on the viewer’s love of classic video games to work, but it is certainly going to be very entertaining for anyone who does have that admiration of gaming. Audiences will leave this movie feeling informed about how some of their favorite games came to fruition.
Insert Coin was set to premiere at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.