Everybody knows the game, it was Midway’s signature videogame series. Sadly, the once proud studio is now dead, with Warner Bros Entertainment paying out $33 Million for the bankrupt Mortal Kombat developers.
Many of the younger amongst you may not realise just how sad this passing is. This isn’t a company that just gave us fatalities and Sub-Zero, for they have been about for over fifty years. Midway is, and always will be an important part of the history of videogames. They are intrinsically linked to the Golden Age of arcade gaming.
The company started off producing equipment for amusements and fairgrounds, its first release being Redball. The company continued to produce these mechanical games until pinball machine behemoth Bally bought the company in 1969, it was just after this as the 1970s began that Midway Games was born.
Midway began to license arcade games from Japan to put into American and European arcades. One of its first big hits was bringing Taito’s Gun Fight to the West. While the company looked to snap up the latest from the Far East, it unknowingly passed up on the daddy of them all.
In the early 1970s, Nolan Bushnell offered Pong to Midway before it was snapped up by Atari. Midway however passed on the game, this decision perhaps being the first major blunder of the fledgling company. If Midway had taken Pong then the history of the arcade scene in the USA could have been very different.
The company’s relationship with Taito however, would see the release of one of the biggest arcade success stories ever, a game that would change everything from then on.
Space Invaders was released in 1978, initially in Japan by Taito. The game was then, as per usual with their business agreement, licensed to Midway for distribution in American and European arcades. “It was single-handedly responsible for turning an entire nation onto videogaming; and its impact in America and Europe was hardly less culture breaking”, said Jonathon Smith, author of Construction Complete? – Computer gaming’s battle to take over the world. It was one of the first games to attract the casual audience that is talked about so much today, it took games away from smoky arcades and into ice cream parlours and restaurants.
The legacy left from Space Invaders cannot be underestimated. There is a unique, impending sense of doom that permeates from the second the game starts. The rhythmic movement and sound of the invaders instilling this in the player. There is no end to the game, it is merely how long can you survive before the inevitable. People were attracted to this new experience, they had never seen anything of its ilk before.
The game’s most important legacy to the industry is the high score system, something that had never been seen before and has been seen in every game since. It gave new impetus for players to have “just one more go”. To have your name at the top of the board was what it was all about. “You couldn’t win at Space Invaders, ultimately, but you could fail better than anybody else”, Smith said. Without this game there would be no online leader boards that appear on Xbox Live and PSN today.
With Midway hitting one out the park with Space Invaders, it was now time to follow up and cement themselves as big players in the arcade scene. In the early 1980s, the team released three titles that would do just that: Defender, Robotron and Pacman. Defender put a new spin on the space shooter, not only were players tasked with saving their own skin, but also had to take care of the humans that populated the ground at the bottom of the screen. If all the humans were abducted by the aliens flying above then the planet would explode and result in a game over. Defender has since seen numerous re-releases like much of Midway’s back catalogue.
Robotron was “panic-action” gaming at its finest. Putting the player in a screen full of enemies, that became increasingly hectic in a very short amount of time. The games two-stick control scheme allowed for strafing and shooting in opposite directions, a great deal of strategy soon developed for players wishing to crack into the upper levels of the high score table. A re-release on Xbox Live Arcade allowed a whole new generation of players to become terrified of the indestructible Hulk Robotrons. Mark Turmell, co-developer of Smash TV, described the game as “my favourite action game of all time”.
Pacman,needs no introduction. It is a videogame phenomenon that caused a very real Yen shortage during its heyday in Japanese arcades. It is testament to Midway that they brought both this and Space Invaders to the West, allowing a generation of gamers to experience the absolute finest that Japanese arcades had to offer. In the 1980s, Midway were the premiere producers of arcade games in the USA.
In 1988 the company was purchased by William’s Electronics under a holding company called WMS Industries. For the next ten years Midway would be under the WMS umbrella, producing some of America’s most iconic arcade experiences.
1991 would see Williams gaming division incorporated into Midway’s. One of the first games produced by the new look studio was Total Carnage, sequel to William’s Smash TV. Taking control of either Captain Carnage or Major Mayhem, players would take on the forces of General Ahkboob. The game was mush in the same as its predecessor, big guns, big aliens and lots of blood. Ahkboob was voiced by Ed Boon, creator of the Mortal Kombat series alongside John Tobias. It was Tobias who incidentally hand drew the arenas, monsters and player characters for Smash TV.
After Total Carnage, Boon and Tobias united to create Midway’s signature series. A series that was as much the company’s albatross as it was a saviour, Mortal Kombat. Launching in 1992 the game swept into arcades and created a storm of hype and controversy. Originally Boon and Tobias had sought to create a game based on legendary action star Jean Claude van Damme. After a deal broke down, the two decided to make an entirely original game. Van Damme’s likeness can still be seen in MK’s Johnny Cage, his split legged groin punch lifted straight out of the movie Bloodsport.
Mortal Kombat was Midway’s response to the great success of Street Fighter 2. While the company had introduced an eight way directional stick, block button and juggle combos, these were all largely ignored in favour of the game’s extreme violence.
With the introduction of fatality moves, Midway had something that instantly created buzz amongst gamers. Kids all over the country were passing on tips and showing off their prowess by cracking out decapitations and electrocutions. Parents meanwhile were concerned at the clarity of gore these digitised sprites could produce.
When released on home consoles the game prompted such a huge political outcry that it was solely responsible for the creation of the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in America. The Mega Drive release was, at first glance, relatively sanitised. There was no gore, however as gaming magazines began printing the “Gore Code”, unlocking all the blood and fatality moves, parents became horrified at their children playing such games.
Unrepentant, Midway continued and released Mortal Kombat 2. Introducing more environmental fatalities and a sense of humour not found in the previous title. This didn’t change the public perception much and controversy continued to follow the game, something that no doubt helped sales dramatically.
While Boon and Tobias were working on corrupting the youth of a generation, others within Midway were making the most successful arcade game of all time, NBA Jam. In monetary terms, nobody could match it, the game’s cashboxes earned more than $1 Billion from gamers. Nothing came close to that sum at the time and nothing has since.
Granted, the price per game was high (one to two dollars normally) but the fusion of legitimate sporting athletes with exaggerated gameplay and simplified rules was genius. The two-on-two games meant that up to four players could all compete. A home release soon followed on every conceivable format, with sales topping five million. NBA Jam was the catalyst for titles that would appear later in Midway’s life, such as NHL 2 on 2, Red Card Soccer, NBA Ballers and NFL Blitz.
With the success of these two titles Midway continued to release top arcade title and convert them for home release. It also purchased Atari Games, later renaming it Midway Games West. At the same time the company changed its name from Midway Manufacturing, to Midway Games. Throughout the 1990s they produced more arcade favourites such as Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game, Killer Instinct and Rampage: World Tour.
Midway diversified from the arcade games and pinball machines with which it had made its name. A Mortal Kombat movie was released in 1995 and helmed by Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson. The success of the movie was huge, an August 18th release charged straight to the top of the box office with an opening $23 Million. The movie remained in top spot for three weeks. In total the film grossed $70 Million in the USA and $122 Million throughout the rest of the world. Anderson and Midway had created the first ever videogame to movie success story.
That success was short lived as the truly abysmal sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was served up. The muted semi-realistic colour palette of Anderson’s original was dropped as new director John R. Leonetti favoured outlandish outfits resembling Batman and Robin more than the subject matter at hand. The story was for MK diehards only, with any casual movie-goer being lost in the myriad of sub plots that the director apparently expected his audience to already know about.
Annihilation wasn’t just a critical failure, it was also financially calamitous when compared to the nine-figure revenue of the original. While it hit the box office number one slot on opening, it only managed $16 Million in the US and a paltry $35 Million worldwide. Rumours of a third movie have persisted but never materialised.
In 1998 the company became fully independent of WMS. On January 20th of this year Midway would release Mortal Kombat 4. After the success of MK2 was followed up with a lacklustre MK3, the team really needed the series to get back on track. Sadly the game’s new 3D graphics didn’t quite capture the essence of its 2D origins. The game was released on home consoles to a mixed critical reception, although IGN did proclaim “the only thing keeping Mortal Kombat 4 from a perfect score is its aged fighting system”.
A year later John Tobias would eventually leave the company for pastures new, taking with him key development staff to form his own team, Studio Gigante. The studio created Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus and Wrestlemania 21 for Xbox before closing in 2005.
Midway meanwhile fought on and continued to up their output, increasingly favouring home console releases to the dying arcade scene. Struggling into the new millennium the company posted losses that were offset by various stock and credit agreements. Despite these continuing losses, Midway acquired various development studios from around the world. Surreal Software was purchased, releasing The Suffering and most recently, unveiling the disappointing looking This is Vegas.
Next was Ratbag Games, who’s only significant contribution was The Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee on Xbox and PS2. The company had hoped these purchases would help create a new big money maker, instead it just bogged them down in more poor releases. Only four months after paying out for Ratbag was the studio shutdown on December 13th.
The next few years followed the same pattern, desperate for a big success, Midway posted more losses. 2006, 2007 and 2008 saw increasingly large losses and nothing could stop it. Offshoots of the Mortal Kombat series like Shaolin Monks, performed fairly poorly, despite the weight the franchise name still carried. Big budget flops proved to be the death knell of the studio, Area 51: Blacksite, Stranglehold and TNA Wrestling living freshly in the memory of gamers who were initially impressed with their next generation visuals, yet ultimately let down by poor gameplay.
Amongst the financial crisis that started last year, the company announced that it did not have the funds necessary to continue without “cost cutting measures” or “additional liquidity sources”. No saviour was found however and the company that had stood for half a century filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on February 12th this year. At the time a Midway spokesperson said, “we’re looking to reorganise and to come out on the other side stronger”.
So Midway as a standalone company is no more. The company has been absorbed into Warner Bros. in a $33 Million sale. The deal only sees two of four studios being purchased, Midway’s Newcastle and San Diego studios were not part of the sale. For the Newcastle team an anxious sixty day wait has begun to find a buyer, if none is found then the studio will be dissolved. Sadly for the San Diego studio there is no such hope, it will be officially closed in September this year.
While the ever popular Mortal Kombat franchise will live on under Warner’s umbrella, it is a sad sight to see one of gaming’s most historic studios reduced to a bit part player of another company. The visionaries that once generated $1 billion of revenue off of a single game, sold in a bankruptcy court for just $33 Million. From Redball to Mortal Kombat, it’s been a hell of a ride.