You may not know Josh Tsui by name, but if you're a gamer, there's a good chance you've seen his face before—a pixelated version at least.
While he was working as an artist at the Chicago studio Midway Games in the 90s, Tsui's coworkers digitally pasted a graphic of his head onto the body of the ice-powered ninja character Sub-Zero in the video game Mortal Kombat 2 as well as that of the martial arts master Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4. If you input a secret code you could also suit up as a tomahawk-dunking version of Tsui in the game NBA Jam: Tournament Edition.
But it's Tsui's behind-the-scenes accomplishments in the gaming world that are really significant. A graduate of Columbia College's film program, Tsui helped introduce digitized video technology into a medium dominated by hand-drawn pixels. After leaving Midway, he had a notable stint at Electronic Arts, then cofounded two smaller studios in Chicago, Gigante and Robomodo. Now he's putting the finishing touches on Insert Coin: Inside Midway's 90s Revolution, a full-length documentary chronicling the rough-and-tumble history of his first employer.
"It's absolutely electric. It's going to be big," says Jonathan Kinkley, executive director of Video Game Art Gallery, which at a reception Saturday, September 8, is honoring Tsui with its annual Global Illumination Award (you can also catch the VGA's NBA Jam 25th anniversary exhibit this week).
Courtesy of Josh Tsui
Tsui appeared in NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat and filmed WWF wrestlers in the making of Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game
Tsui said he's honored by the award, even if receiving the closest thing video games has to a lifetime achievement award makes him feel old.
"I was like, I'm not dead yet," he laughed.
Then again, 25 years seems like an eternity in an industry that always seems to evolve at dizzying speed. When Tsui started his career in 1993, Chicago was the epicenter of arcade-game development, then still a thriving business. Two of the most iconic games in arcade history—NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat—were birthed next door to each other at the back of a pinball factory in a nondescript office park in Avondale.
"Back then Chicago far outweighed Silicon Valley in terms of the video game industry," Tsui notes.
Unlike today, when most Xbox and PlayStation blockbusters rival Hollywood in terms of the hundreds of people needed to build them, Midway's hits were fully realized by a handful of techies. Tsui was one of a trio behind his first project, Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game. The small, tight-knit teams were allowed a lot of freedom, which is why so many of the Midway arcade games of the era share a kind of anarchic sense of humor. Mortal Kombat's infamously violent fatalities, for instance, started as a dark joke on the part of creator Ed Boon, and NBA Jam's "big head mode" was initially a programming quirk that the team kept in the game because—why not?
"It was part of a culture that Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One) called punk rock," says Kinkley. "There were no rules. If there were, [Midway] tried to break them."
But toward the end of the 90s, the arcade industry itself declined as home gaming consoles like PlayStation 2 gained processing power, and its decline took the superstar studio along with it—Midway's arcade division closed in June 2001. "It was kind of like Blockbuster fell with the emergence of Netflix," Tsui says.
The story behind the rapid rise and fall of Midway has remained largely untold, which is partly what led Tsui to leave the world of game making for that of moviemaking in 2015. Since raising $92,000 in funding for the doc through a Kickstarter campaign, he's spent the last three years tracking down former colleagues and coworkers for interviews. Tsui plans to finish editing the documentary this fall and will release it digitally early next year.
The timing of Insert Coin's release is fortuitous. Midway's arcade classics can now be found everywhere at the arcade bars that have popped up all over the country over the past half decade.
"Chicago has a ton of barcades, and whether they know it or not, these games they're playing there are very much a Chicago thing," Tsui says.
HARDCORE/CASUAL 2018: An Evening to Benefit VGA Gallery Sat 9/8, 5:30-7:30 PM, VIP dinner and VGA Gallery tour, 2418 W. Bloomingdale, #102. Afterparty 7:30-10:30 PM, $45-$100.