You may not know longtime game developer Joshua Tsui, but you know his work. Over two decades-plus in the industry, he founded Studio Gigante (makers of Wrestlemania 21 for the original Xbox) and spent time at industry stalwarts like EA. His credits include beloved franchises from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to Fight Night.
Despite building that kind of resume, however, Tsui’s first passion wasn’t the gamepad—he actually went to school to study film. And in the early 2010s, well, “I don’t want to call it a midlife crisis, but I realized after all this time I hadn’t made a film,” he told Ars recently.
Tsui had done some video work—marketing for the games he worked on; a few making-of shorts here and there—just never a feature film. Luckily, when he sat down with Polygon in 2012 to talk about his past, he realized the perfect idea had been waiting for him all along. In our post-Indie Game and King of Kong reality, all he had to do was look to his professional beginning: Chicago, 1993, pushing pixels on 2D arcade games with the teams behind Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam at the soon-to-be-legendary arcade developer, Midway Games.
“We started talking about my history with Midway, and it sparked a bit of an idea—a lot of people know these games, but they don’t know what happened behind them,” Tsui recalls. “When I thought about it, well, I lived through this incredible era in the mid-‘90s at Midway when everything was blowing up.
“It seemed like the perfect subject: I knew the subject really well, I knew who to talk to, I knew what the skeletons were, and I still had a really good relationship with everyone from back then,” he continued. “Frankly, I was surprised there hadn’t been more discussion about Midway in general, a holistic view of the studio and how all these games informed each other. I thought, ‘If I don’t do that, someone else is going to.’”
Five-plus years of work, a tantalizing Kickstarter campaign, and a treasure trove of saved archival footage later, Tsui’s debut feature film, Insert Coin, earned a world premiere this spring at South by Southwest—which in this case means it exists solely in screener form for now. Tsui and his team remain hopeful it can play some festivals this fall, but he doesn’t want his debut documentary stuck on the circuit for a super long time. “I want to get it out there as soon as possible,” he says. “I just want to do it the right way.”
So, save up your quarters now. Whenever Insert Coin finally gets in front of audiences, you’ll want to hop in your La Bomba and smash the gas as fast as possible to take this trip down memory lane.
From Narc to NBA
Tsui’s filmmaking background will be obvious to anyone lucky enough to eventually catch Insert Coin. The first-time feature director (and editor) makes several smart decisions that elevate this doc beyond standard making-of or behind-the-scenes fare.
To start: beyond one notable Ed Boon-sized hole, the list of Insert Coin interviewees seems to include everybody. The film’s long production period seems to be time well spent. Tsui has industry icons on camera frequently and frankly, including programmers Eugene Jarvis (Cruis’n USA) and Mark Turmell (NBA Jam), designer John Tobias (Mortal Kombat), and corporate heavyweights like Midway CEO Neil Nicastro. (It might feel like every arcade War Story you could want in a single film.)
But Insert Coin smartly doesn’t stop there—Tsui tells Ars he probably interviewed twice the amount of people who ended up in the film. He tracked down game journalists from the era to paint the broader perspective. He interviews notable game enthusiasts (from Ready Player One author Ernest Cline to gaming academic/author Carly Kocurek) as pseudo stand-ins for the millions of fans of these games. Even Daniel Pesina, the martial arts pro who originally portrayed Johnny Cage for Midway’s version of motion capture, shows up. No matter if you’re a developer, a professional gamer or games journalist, or simply a fan of Smash TV, someone in Insert Coin speaks directly to your experience with these titles.
“A lot of people who see the film have said it feels like sitting at the bar talking with someone,” Tsui says. “That’s actually how I tried to do the interviews: me as a one-person shooting team, talking one on one with the people I know. I wanted to make it as intimate as possible.”
Despite its director being so intimately familiar with the material—again, Tsui literally started his career in game development at Midway and spent a half-decade there as the company soared—Insert Coin doesn’t pull punches, either. Tsui showcases some of Midway’s misses and instances of corporate transgressions right alongside the company’s many landmark achievements. To put it another way, Insert Coin viewers will learn as much about The Grid and Midway management financially pressuring creators as they will about Narc and how Terminator 2 pioneered Hollywood-inspired video games.
“I wanted people to know why things happened, not to just make a straight making-of or behind-the-scenes story you can find on a DVD,” Tsui says. “I wanted people to know that a game like Narc influenced the game developers moving on. And if people don’t know the games, I wanted them to relate to the personalities and the actions they took. Because they’re all characters—you have people like Eugene Jarvis, a certified genius and a mad man. You can’t help but get a great interview.”
But the film’s greatest strength (and ultimately the thing that will allow Insert Coin to win over both the casual arcade player and those with encyclopedic knowledge of the Mortal Kombat universe) lies in its access. Tsui simply has so much stuff to cleverly dole out and leverage. You see motion-capture sessions with Aerosmith for Revolution X, hear about James Cameron wining and dining the team, and soak in footage of Mortal Kombat characters appearing in NBA Jam before the NBA offices nixed the idea. Again and again, Tsui expertly shows how forward-thinking Midway proved to be as the company’s work looks in retrospect like a precursor to many common gaming practices today: social commentary (Smash TV and consumerism), DLCs (see Smash TV’s Pleasure Dome), esport-friendly games (The Grid), or microtransactions (Ernest Cline on Terminator 2, the game: “By the time you reached the end and defeated the T-1000, you had spent enough to watch the movie like 18 times”).
Accessing all of this footage might feel commonplace nowadays—if you’re making a documentary about any kind of modern game or TV or film entity, all its footage is usually pre-digitized and properly stored—but the early ’90s were a different time and arcade cabinets a different format. Getting all this together in one place is a tremendous service for fans and gaming historians alike, and Insert Coin pulled it off thanks to a combination of Tsui’s hustle and a little luck.
“A lot of times, [documentary] films get made based on what material is available—but as a first-time filmmaker, nobody told me that,” Tsui says. “So I got very fortunate—I have a lot of materials from my old days, but my old boss, Ken Fedesna [VP at Midway], literally had almost every single video ever created at Midway in his office. Because otherwise, after Midway went bankrupt and Warner Bros. took over, they were going to literally toss these materials.”
Tsui drew upon that archive heavily. It now exists at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York—home to the World Video Game Hall of Fame and the International Center for the History of Electronic Games—after Fedesna donated his Midway collection last year. And as part of the festivities honoring Fedesna, Tsui was asked to show an early cut of his film. As you’d expect, the filmmaker recalls it being a great evening, his first chance to show Insert Coin on the big screen outside of test sessions. But in retrospect, if Insert Coin is the kind of game documentary that can pass the sniff test for that collection of video game historians, that likely says everything audiences need to know about what’s to come. Hopefully it won’t be too long until the film’s first public screenings of 2020 so the rest of the world can see for itself.
Listing image by Joshua Tsui / Insert Coin