How Console Wars and Insert Coin Re-examine the Sega, Nintendo, and Midway of the ’90s

As video games zoom towards the future, the Console Wars and Insert Coin documentaries take a fascinating look back at the industry’s history.

Console Wars Insert Coin
Photo: Jessica Koynock

As gamers, we’re always looking for the next big thing, whether it’s a disruptive new way to play (e.g. virtual and augmented reality) or an innovation in what makes games tick (ray tracing). But sometimes we’re so busy pushing forward that we forget to look back. Fortunately, two upcoming documentaries will take us back to the days when arcades were still swallowing our quarters and Nintendo and Sega ruled our living rooms. 

Insert Coin, by 25-year game industry veteran and indie filmmaker Josh Tsui, chronicles the history of Midway Games, the legendary studio behind such arcade classics as Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and many more. Console Wars, which tells the story of how Sega tried to bring down Nintendo with the Genesis, is the documentary version of the beloved non-fiction book of the same name by Blake J. Harris, who directed the film with documentarian Jonah Tulis. 

Together, these documentaries not only explore video games as an art form whose history is worth preserving but also profile the people who made many of the games we still love today. The films also show just how much the industry has changed in the last 30 years.

Insert Coin

Tsui had only been at Midway for about a week when Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias approached him to take some pictures of his face. It was 1993 and Mortal Kombat II, the sequel to the mega-successful fighting game, was just around the corner. 

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“It was literally a 10-second thing that they did. Tobias just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, can I take a picture? I want to put you in the game.’ Took a picture, alright, cool,” Tsui recalls, still a bit amazed at how quickly he became a part of video game history. After all, this is how a newbie Midway Video Artist ended up as the original unmasked face of Sub-Zero, one of Mortal Kombat’s most popular characters

“The studio was like Lord of the Flies. People just did pretty much whatever they wanted to do. So things like that happened all the time. Spur of the moment. ‘Hey, I need a character in here. Can you put this hat on real quick and get in there?’ So all of us participated that way.”

In the ‘90s, Midway was known for using real-life actors, photography, and motion capture to animate its sprites. All of the fighters you love in the early Mortal Kombat games? Those were all played by people in costumes, performing moves in front of a camera. 

“It was done before, but really Midway was the one that really perfected it,” Tsui says of the early days of mo-cap at Midway. “But it wasn’t like they made a concerted effort to get a film look or a video look. It was more about, ‘Hey, our teams are super small and scrappy, and we don’t have enough people to do crazy animations like the Japanese companies do, so what would be another way of doing it?’ And that’s how they came up with the whole idea of digitizing actors.”

This is the kind of go-getter energy Tsui sought to capture with Insert Coin, which charts the rise and fall of the studio, which closed its doors in 2009. Mortal Kombat, which began as an almost guerilla “in the back of a pinball factory” production in Chicago, was an arcade phenomenon that changed the studio’s fortunes seemingly overnight in 1992. Tsui follows the Midway story from Mortal Kombat and the making of 2-on-2 basketball arcade classic NBA Jam to partying with WWF (now the WWE) superstars while developing the WrestleMania arcade cabinet and the company’s decline as it shifted to the console game market.

“It’s a love letter to an era of video games that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Tsui, who has been working on Insert Coin for four years, raising over $92,000 on Kickstarter to get the project made. For the film, Tsui interviewed Midway titans such as Eugene Jarvis, John Tobias, Mark Turmell, and Sal DiVita, the game designers responsible for most of the company’s biggest titles.

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On the phone, Tsui tells particularly funny stories about DiVita getting “shit-faced” in a drinking competition with former WWF World Heavyweight Champion Yokozuna at a Chicago dive bar and Midway accidentally sending Turmell a pair of million-dollar royalty checks. Such was the success of Midway in its golden age that “accounting couldn’t even keep track of all the money that was going in.” 

Listening to Tsui describe his time working at Midway, it’s clear that he’s nostalgic for a more utopian vision of game development almost unheard of in today’s mega-corporation-run games industry in which employees are often overworked, underpaid, and don’t receive royalties for their creations, although the latter was rare even back in the ‘90s: “Midway was one of the few companies that actually gave royalties based off of every arcade unit sold. I mean they would make a ton of money. So it was quite the heyday.”

Tsui moved on from Midway in 1999 to start his own studio but eventually had stints at other companies, such as Electronic Arts, a publisher that has been criticized in the past for its demanding “crunch,” the production phase right before the release of a game that can result in 100-hour work weeks with no additional compensation for exhausted developers. Midway had crunch too, and Tsui admits it was hard work, but those long nights were also a labor of love. Tsui suggests the studio’s “very flat structure” made crunch a lot more tolerable, and that the designers themselves ultimately had the final say on how much time a game needed to be finished and when it would be released. Listen carefully: this is unheard of today.

“We didn’t have producers. We didn’t have people telling us, ‘Hey, you have to stay,’ or, ‘You have to work the weekend.’ It was quite literally self-motivated. I would stay all hours of the night working, and we’d play games afterward,” Tsui says. What games would the Midway team play after “pushing pixels” all night? “It went from Quake to Quake 2, then Unreal, and Unreal Tournament. There’s that whole ’90s era of first-person shooters. We were ridiculously competitive.”

So why did it all come to an end? Tsui suggests that it was the industry’s shift from the arcade to the living room. As the arcade business declined, so did Midway’s bread and butter. 

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“Midway’s DNA was always in arcade-type games. So Midway really struggled going into home games,” Tsui says. “Home game development is massively different. Suddenly, you had to make games that had to play for 40 hours. The size of the teams changed, and management teams and organizationally everything changed, and Midway I think always struggled with that.”

Yet, Insert Coin wants you to remember the good times, when the halls of Midway were full of rock stars (Aerosmith appeared in Revolution X), wrestlers, and, most importantly, video game legends. 

“I really wanted people to understand this is how your entertainment was made,” Tsui says. “These are made by real human beings that cared about the projects. It’s super important for people to know that.”

Insert Coin will premiere later this year.

Console Wars

The games industry is about to change again. This year, Sony and Microsoft will release the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, two next-gen consoles that will usher in the future of gaming and spark a new battle for market superiority between the two companies. Microsoft and Sony’s rivalry today is not unlike the classic console wars of Sega and Nintendo in the ‘90s, the subject of Harris and Tulis’ documentary.

For the filmmakers, Console Wars is an opportunity to tell an interesting story about video games that anyone (not just gamers) can connect with, even those viewers who didn’t live through the 16-bit era.

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“I’ve spoken at a bunch of colleges and high schools the past few years. These are people who obviously weren’t alive during that era of gaming. They’re fascinated by it and when I ask them why they like it, they say, ‘Oh, there’s something nostalgic about it,’” Harris says of the relatability of the story. “But that doesn’t make sense because you weren’t alive. It’s not bringing back more memories.”

Harris published his seminal book Console Wars, the product of two years of research and 200 interviews, in 2014. Impressively, Harris’ account of the war between Sega and Nintendo reads more like a novel than a history book. At the center of this “non-fiction novel” is Tom Kalinske, a former president of Mattel who joined Sega of America as CEO in 1990 and gave industry leader Nintendo a run for its money in the West. 

Like the book, the documentary follows Kalinske’s quest to make the Sega Genesis the number one console in the world through gutsy marketing campaigns that challenged Nintendo head-on. He also made bold decisions like championing Sonic the Hedgehog as the console’s premier title (the console was originally bundled with the beat-‘em-up Altered Beast), which led to the Genesis outselling the Super Nintendo Entertainment System almost two to one during the 1991 holiday shopping season.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Kalinske, who not only inherited a Sega of America in disarray after the Genesis initially sold poorly in the West but also faced resistance from Sega’s corporate office in Japan. Famously, Kalinske tried to broker a deal between Sega and Sony to design an optical-based console— which would eventually become the PlayStation—but was shot down by his Japanese superiors. 

“There are some cool twists and turns,” Tulis says of the documentary’s most dramatic moments. “The guy who launched PlayStation for Sony, [Steve Race,] defected from Tom’s ranks earlier in the film. [Console Wars] is all about these people who came into this industry that was young and it was the wild west and they did what they had to do.”

While Sega missed out on the console that arguably ushered in the next era of console gaming, it’s this kind of forward-thinking that made Kalinske such a formidable opponent for Nintendo. It was also Kalinske who, unimpressed with the consumer electronics trade shows of the day, pushed for the creation of games industry trade show E3 in order to promote Sega’s next console, the ill-fated Saturn. (Nintendo and Sony ate Sega’s lunch at the first E3 in 1995 by presenting the N64 and PlayStation, respectively.)

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In addition to interviews filmed with key players, the film also benefits from tons of archival footage that gives viewers a deeper look into Sega’s aggressive marketing push into Nintendo’s territory. Harris and Tulis compiled footage of industry goings-on like Kalinske’s E3 ‘95 keynote speech as well as commercials and clips from old newscasts. The directors were particularly interested in showing the confrontational advertising of the day. 

You may remember the famous “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercial that actually precedes Kalinske’s time at Sega, but Harris and Tulis also explore the work of Goodby Berlin & Silverstein, the ad firm that took shots at the Nintendo Game Boy’s lack of color and welcomed Sega-CD (a CD-ROM accessory for the Genesis) adopters to “the next level.” And who can forget the ear-piercing “Sega Scream” ad?

“Obviously that advertising affected a generation. Jeff [Goodby] went on to create ‘Got Milk?’ He was the ad man of the decade and it all started with this scrappy Sega advertising,” Tulis says of Goodby, while also lauding Kalinske’s boots-on-the-ground approach when Walmart refused to stock the Sega Genesis for fear of angering Nintendo. The Sega CEO wouldn’t take no for an answer: “Kalinske and [Sega of America COO] Shinobu Toyoda went down and basically took over Bentonville, [Arkansas, where Walmart’s home office is located,] setting up a Sega shop, buying all the billboards leaving in and out of town and bombarding them with Sega. I can’t imagine seeing a president of a major company doing that today. That scrappiness is really something that changed business as well.” 

The plan eventually worked. Harris remembers soaking up the marketing as a kid and choosing a side: “We were kids during this battle. I remember first hand feeling the tribalism that they were trying to invoke in us and being persuaded and also feeling a sense of belonging and of allegiance, which largely I think was a good thing.”

Sega of Japan’s discomfort with Kalinske’s machinations is one of the things that ultimately sunk the company’s hardware dreams. Disagreements over the direction of the Saturn led to Kalinske being sidelined by his superiors in Japan, and the man who’d led Sega to its biggest hardware success was out of the company by 1996. But the legacy of the console war Kalinske ignited lives on.

“There’s a tendency to say that the console wars are bad, but from a business standpoint, I certainly believe that console wars are good. It causes a company to spend more money to basically have an arms race against themselves to offer better things to the customer,” Harris says. “People ask us, ‘Who won the console wars between Sega and Nintendo?’ I think the answer is that we won.”

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Console Wars will premiere later this year and is also set to air on CBS All Access.