The RetroBeat: Midway’s jammin’ rise and mortal fall

The RetroBeat: Midway’s jammin’ rise and mortal fall
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Arcades are a novelty these days, but they were a massive force in the industry in the 1990s. That was thanks in large part to huge hits like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat, both of which came from Midway.

Insert Coin is a new documentary that looks at Midway Games and its arcade dominance in the ’90s. Josh Tsui, himself a former employee at Midway Games, directed the film. It’s now available to buy or rent via Alamo on Demand.

I grew up when Midway’s biggest arcade hits became cultural phenomena. So I loved the chance to talk with Tsui about Midway’s history. I also got to chat with two of Midway’s biggest names: John Tobias, one of the creators of Mortal Kombat; and Mark Turmell, the creator of NBA Jam.

By talking with with these game designers, I learned what made Midway special.

“Neil Nicastro was our CEO, president. We worked in a pinball factory,” said Turmell. “It was a normal assembly line. Cement floors. Rats running around. It was a very gritty environment. Neil liked to keep it that way. He didn’t want anybody to have a cushy surrounding. Midway was different right off the bat, because our environment was kind of urban, inner city, grunge.”

Midway became a hip studio filled with young developers.

“For me, I think it was the looseness of it all, this idea that we were left to our own devices to do whatever we thought was necessary to create a game that we felt would resonate with our players, in the arcades specifically,” noted Tobias. “I’ve said before that I think that, at least for me, I was so young when I started there that I and Josh and a lot of the other folks who were involved at the time, we were the demographic, when you look at the demographic of arcade players at the time. We were of that age. We had a good idea of what the players were looking for.”

“For many of the people that worked in the studio at the time, it was our first time working in games,” said Tsui. “We didn’t know what you could and couldn’t do. Because we were left to our own devices, we went and just did things that we thought were fun. That’s what created some of the personalities of those games.”

Shocking

Two things helped Midway standout: Its use of digitized actors for game graphics, and its over-the-top presentation. You can find both of these qualities in 1988’s run-‘n’-gun game NARC, which was something of a precursor to later Midway hits with violence and digital actors.

“We always wanted to shock people,” said Turmell. “In the coin-op business, you need to ‘wow’ people early. You need to get them to put in that first quarter. You need to have something special that intrigues players. And then after that you have to rely on good gameplay to keep them and get that next quarter, but we were always trying to do something big and wow. Sensory overload. If you even go back and look at a game like Robotron or Defender in the early ‘80s, the color explosion that would happen, it was that sensory overload. That was the mindset.”

It turns out, seeing a ninja rip a movie star’s head off, with spine attached, was pretty shocking.

“The first game I worked on was Smash TV,” Tobias said. “There was lots of blood in that game as well. The follow-up to that game was Total Carnage, and that led into Mortal Kombat. I can’t speak to NARC, but I know that when Ed Boon and I worked on Mortal Kombat, we just did what we thought was necessary and would resonate for the player. Everything we did was about giving the player a good time. If they were enjoying themselves, we thought, okay, we’re doing our jobs. If that meant there was going to be a lot of graphic violence involved, then so be it.”

Mortal Kombat’s violence surprised a lot of people, especially when it was on display in public places like malls. While government officials and parents claimed disgust and horror, younger, hipper audiences loved what they saw.

“When we tested the game in the arcades, our player age, the demographic was older teens, early adults. We felt like if we were entertaining our players, we were doing our jobs,” added Tobias.

Above: The original Mortal Kombat.

Image Credit: GOG

Heating up

Mortal Kombat came out in 1992. NBA Jam debuted in 1993. Midway was able to follow up one giant arcade smash hit with another. While Mortal Kombat had over-the-top violence to help it stand out, NBA Jam transformed basketball into a fun, exciting, and fast-paced arcade experience.

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“Ed Boon [Mortal Kombat’s other co-creator], in fact, did a football game before Mortal Kombat called High Impact,” said Turmell. “It had kind of a funky camera, but it had some interesting action in it. Digitized graphics for the players. It showed some promise. And so there wasn’t a lot, or maybe nothing, that had been successful on the sports side in the coin-op business.

“We started NBA Jam initially more because we were geeking out on digitized graphics. Smash TV was hand-drawn. NARC was digitized. We knew that was the new frontier, getting digital images on the screen. It’s silly to think about that now, but that was hard. That was the cutting-edge tech, to have a digital photograph. We were geeking out. And basketball, even though I’m a big basketball fan, was the natural vehicle to justify digitized graphics.”

The digitized graphics helped Midway transplant actual NBA players right into the game.

“It’s not like now, where you have game engines that are readily available, commercially available,” noted Tsui. “Everything was custom-programmed, including the tools for creating the art and working on audio and animation. Everything was tailor-made to whatever the game needed, for the most part. That’s one of the reasons why the digitization process we developed was so good.”

Of course, Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam used 2D sprites. The industry was fast approaching the age of 3D polygons.

Above: NBA Jam was an early sports arcade game hit.

Image Credit: YouTube

The next generation

“Toward the last portion of the film, we get into the rise of the more powerful consoles, said Tsui. “Obviously, there were other consoles well beforehand, but the arcade hardware, for a very long time, was what Mark Turmell would call the top of the food chain. They were the most powerful hardware, because they were custom made for each game. Back then you had the Super Nintendo and the Genesis, and they were all fine, but they couldn’t touch what was going on in the arcades. But then along comes Sony with the PlayStation, and specifically focusing on 3D hardware. It starts to change things.

“A huge shift in technology was the rise of CD-ROM storage. In an arcade game, you have pretty limited storage. They were all ROM chips. They eventually had some games with hard drives in them, but for the most part it was ROM chips. You can only put so much content in there. It’s one of the reasons why for so many games, like Mortal Kombat, you had the ninjas who were palette swaps, as opposed to all-new characters. With CD-ROM suddenly you could have games like Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider that had tens of hours of gameplay, and it changes things. It goes from the equivalent of short stories to full novels when it comes to gaming. Arcades couldn’t catch up with that. You’re expecting people to pay 25 or 50 cents every minute, as opposed to just paying $40 or $50 for a game that you can play practically forever. The economics changed.”

It’s also possible, if you can believe it, that Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam were just too successful.

“Games like Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, and other products by other publishers or manufacturers, at that time they were making so much money,” added Tobias. “Every subsequent product that was put out, the expectation was that they would one-up the previous product. That became almost impossible. Arcades were only open so long. Each game could only be on so many hours a day with a constant pumping of tokens and quarters. If any game hit that ceiling, it was probably NBA Jam. That game couldn’t make any more money. It made a ton of money. The expectation was, OK, the next product that Midway puts out better top that. The idea that we were going to create a constant flow of coin-op products that were going to one-up the prior ones, there was no way that could happen on a long-term basis.”

Midway was doing an OK job shifting its focus from its digitized games to 3D graphics. It had a hit with the 3D football arcade game NFL Blitz. But the company struggled with the console market.

“The window was closing on having the coin-op games be clearly superior to console products,” said Turmell. “And so then at the same time, of course, Midway realized they had to begin developing and funding and dipping their toes into the console business, versus just pure coin-op. And we just did not have the philosophy, the infrastructure, the talent, the production experience to do things on a schedule. We were more, on the coin-op side, working on a game until it was fun, and when it went out it went out. The console side, you need to be way more disciplined. You need to hit schedules. There’s advertising. There’s commitment to manufacturing the CDs — or the cartridges, even worse. Midway was a victim of the shift to consoles more so than any 3D technology.”

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Tobias and Tsui left Midway together after developing Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero for PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in 1997. Critics dismissed this 2D sidescrolling action game.

“We had been developing coin-op games for the last decade,” said Tobias. “The magnitude of the shift in terms of development that we had to make for home games, we weren’t quite prepared for it. Certainly that first game we had created, we brought a knife to a gunfight. The way we had developed coin-op products needed to change. And so that was a growing pain that Midway as a whole was going through for a few years. We were in the middle of that. There was a bit of frustration on our parts, having to walk through that. And then we also know that there were these new, at least the way I remember it — there were these new consoles coming out that we understood — there’s an opportunity. It was a different era, obviously. But there was a window of opportunity for us where publishers were going to be looking for developers. We thought that if we made ourselves available at the right moment, when the new systems were coming out, there was a hunger for developers to work on those things, PS2 and Xbox.”

All the way

Midway would file for bankruptcy in 2009. Warner Bros. would buy most of the company’s assets, and it has kept Mortal Kombat thriving to this day. Electronic Arts owns the rights to NBA Jam, but that series hasn’t had a big new game since the 2010 reboot.

The once-mighty Midway may now be a memory, but it’s a strong one for those that worked there.

“When I look back on it, it’s definitely a sense of awe,” said Tsui. “It was what inspired me to kick off this project in the first place. Twenty-plus years after working there, there’s a sense of nostalgia. A lot of people get that after a couple of decades separated from something. I look back on it fondly, but I also forgot some of the not so great things. When I started making the film, started talking with people again, it was interesting to get a more holistic view of what it was like to work back at Midway. It’s still mostly positive, for sure, but it was interesting to suddenly get this feeling of, oh yeah, I remember how bad the crunches were.”

Midway was making hits, but it wasn’t always one warm, happy family.

“It was very competitive,” said Turmell. “There were very successful teams. There were a lot of royalties at stake. Competitiveness is the first thing that comes to mind. The other thing, though, is that wow factor. The sensory overload. Trying to one-up another team with some presentation. It could be a cabinet. It could be some kind of a boss monster getting destroyed, or ripping a head off. Doing a dunk that was exaggerated and too high, spinning 360. Everything was a challenge to one-up the other teams. That’s what I think about when I think back to Midway and that era. It’s the competitiveness and that sensory overload.”

Nostalgia has done its part to help keep Midway’s legacy alive. Arcades aren’t what they once were, but a new home arcade business is growing thanks to companies like Arcade1Up, which sells replica machines for both NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat. And now Tsui’s documentary can tell Midway’s story to the world.

When I think about Midway, I remember the thrill I felt seeing Mortal Kombat II for the first time during a field trip to the local skating rink (and my Catholic school principal unplugging the machine so we couldn’t play it).

Midway wasn’t just shocking. It was exciting, and that is the company’s greatest legacy.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.


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