“The future is now!” Jim Carrey shouts prophetically in a scene toward the end of the 1996 movie The Cable Guy. “Soon every American will integrate their television, phone, and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!”
Indeed, back in the mid-90s the possibilities seemed endless for Chicago’s own Midway Games, makers of Mortal Kombat and a string of other monster hits including Narc, NBA Jam, WrestleMania, Cruis’n USA, NFL Blitz, and many others.
Now Midway’s remarkable rise—from its early days operating out of a former Avondale pinball factory to producing some of the decade’s most iconic games—is being charted in a documentary. Producer and director Josh Tsui, a former Midway employee, was delighted on Monday when the $75,000 fund-raising goal he set on Kickstarter was exceeded. The doc’s working title: Insert Coin: Inside Midway’s 90s Revolution.
Tsui studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and Columbia College before talking his way into work as a video and computer graphics man at Midway. He spent his 20s working for the developer before moving on to found his own studio, Robomodo, which has produced the last several entries in the Tony Hawk series. Insert Coin is the 48-year-old’s first feature-length film.
“The core of this movie is showing all these games together,” Tsui says. “People didn’t realize that these huge games were all done by a small team in the back of a pinball factory. It just blows their mind when I tell them.
“Each game has a connection to the others. Narc was the first one that had the technology that really influenced every game that came after,” he says. “It’s almost like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they’re different movies but they’re all tied together—it’s the same with these games.”
Tsui’s doc zeroes in on the arcade era of Midway’s existence, as opposed to the home-console period. The 90s, he says, were “the last golden era of arcade games, and Midway was king of the hill.”
The film will be packed with anecdotes about Midway’s presence in popular culture, he says. Like the time Macaulay Culkin, in Chicago during the filming of Richie Rich, made a point of dropping by the factory with his brother Kieran.
“They went nuts,” Tsui says. “They were getting themselves digitized, playing all of the games, running all over the place. It was surreal to have the biggest [child] star in the world in the factory.”
He’s also mining stories from the days when pro wrestlers—Bret “the Hitman” Hart, the Undertaker, Bam Bam Bigelow, Yokozuna, among others—made their way through Midway HQ before shows at the Rosemont Horizon so Tsui and company could digitally capture their likenesses.
“This was when wrestling had all these crazy characters,” Tsui says. “We’d go out to their shows and afterwards they always wanted to take us to these really weird bars out near O’Hare, these really sleazy VIP lounges and bizarre, half-empty bars that were filled up with a bunch of professional wrestlers and us. You can imagine the kind of things going on when those guys were around.”
Tsui anticipates the film will be released in about two years. It will follow a handful of video game documentaries produced in the last few years. Last year’s Atari: Game Over, which explored the success and subsequent downfall of the iconic 1980s home console system, offered a window to the drinking and drugging at the company’s Sunnyvale, California, engineering building. Tsui says there was “a bit of that” going on at Midway, but “it wasn’t the prevailing atmosphere.”
More often than chemicals, Tsui says, passion was the Midway crew’s common driver. “People were so into these projects. In modern gaming development there are 30, 50, 100 people making a game—in the arcade era it was five or six people at most, so it was a pretty tight-knit group. So as far as the debauchery and stuff—there was some of that going on but it wasn’t like that on a 24-hour basis.”
The studio’s game makers have gone on to do big things. “I almost want to call them the titans of the industry,” Tsui says. “Matt Booty—he was an audio engineer when he was there.” Booty now oversees a development team at Microsoft. “John Vignocchi—he used to write fan letters to Midway, then got a job as an intern.” He’s now vice president of production at Disney Infiniti.
And then there was Eugene Jarvis, the man behind 80s classics Defender and Robotron: 2084, as well as Midway’s Cruis’n series. He has the funniest moment on the Kickstarter page’s sizzle reel. Tsui calls him “the godfather of video games,” but it’s clear from the archival video clip that the revered veteran had a self-deprecating sense of humor about his status. “Here we’ve got the godfather, the doctor, of video games, Eugene Jarvis, creator of all,” says a young John Tobias, best known as the artist behind Mortal Kombat. “Some call him God. What do you call yourself?”
Jarvis flashes an impish smile and says, “Uh . . . fuckface.”
“If you ask about a video game maker idol, 100 percent of people will say Eugene Jarvis,” Tsui says. “Eugene kickstarted the 90s era at Midway but he left about halfway through the 90s. His legacy was so strong that the personality of the studio stayed the same after he left. The video game makers were going to do whatever they needed to do to make the games incredible, and every other part of the company was going to stay out of it.”