What comes to mind when you talk about ’90s gaming? The relentless rumble of a Playstation controller clutched in your hands as you blasted Sweet Tooth in “Twisted Metal”? Yelps and shouts from the back seat of your parents’ car as you splatted Goombas on your GameBoy Colour? The madcap ad campaigns of the Sega vs. Nintendo console wars?
These images of home video games at the end of the last century stick because they directly produced today’s game culture. We still play games on consoles, and many of those series persist today. But there was a whole other, more grown-up gaming world flourishing at that same time in neon-lit, tootling arcades. Midway Games, creators of classics like “Mortal Kombat” and “NBA Jam,” dominated that industry — and now their history will be recorded for the first time in a documentary: “Insert Coin” by former Midway developer Josh Tsui.
Partially filmed but still awaiting funding on Kickstarter, Tsui’s “Insert Coin” documents an era when game companies operated like anarcho-capitalist arts fraternities. Midway was an extreme example.
“It was a bit like walking into a tent city,” he tells Tech Insider. The video games division of the company was squashed into a corner of a building set up to build mechanical arcade machines. “I can’t imagine HR letting things go the way they did at a company today.”
Midway churned out short hits built to compete for player’s attention — and quarters — in dark, loud, bustling arcades.
Designers largely had free reign over their creations, Tsui says, and often followed absurd ideas from inception to release. The GIF at the top of this article comes from “Revolution X,” a 1994 shooter featuring Aerosmith. Here’s how Midway pitched the band on the idea:
No PR agents. No go-betweens. Just a video letter with all the unnecessary special effects of a 3AM cable ad for dish cleaner … to one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
And the thing is, it worked. This for the same reason celebrities and sports franchises hitched their brand to Midway: they were raking in the cash.
Tsui says that each unit Midway made sold to an arcade for a few thousand dollars, and their most popular hits raked in tens of thousands of orders. Smash hit “NBA Jam” made a billion dollars alone in its first year.
Developers got a cut of that action too. “[Those bonuses] could definitely get into the six figures,” he said.
For all the cash involved though, Midway hung on to its back-of-the-envelope approach to design. Here’s a couple of developers trying out tricks to animate:
Tsui says he’s the perfect person to tell Midway’s history — including visits from Macaulay Culkin, pro wrestlers, and playboy playmates — because he lived it for six years in the ’90s. Of course, he showed up as a character model in several games:
If “Insert Coin” gets funded, it could be the most important record of an era in gaming that has almost entirely passed us by. The arcade has moved from the center of the video game universe to the novelty fringe. For Tsui, who now works on console and PC franchises like “Tony Hawk,” the documentary is a return to his origins. And for younger game fans, it’s a chance for reflected nostalgia about something they might not have even realised was gone.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.