For gamers that grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, few development and publishing studios are as near and dear to their hearts as Midway Games. Most famous today for bringing franchises such as Mortal Kombat, Spy Hunter, and NBA Jam to American arcades, the company’s run of success began as far back as 1978, when Midway handled the American licensing and distribution for a little title known as Space Invaders. Their next project? The same treatment for Namco’s fledgling Pac-Man.
In its heyday, Midway was a gaming giant, with hands in the arcade industry, the pinball industry, and the home console industry. As time wore on, however, the company narrowed its focus and began concentrating solely on the latter, discontinuing its pinball productions in 1999 and exiting the arcade market in 2001. The 21st century was not kind to Midway. A string of financial losses and legal troubles over intellectual property rights put the company in a precarious position, and in 2009, most of Midway’s assets were bought out by Warner Brothers, while the company itself filed for bankruptcy. Midway Games, the company that brought Pac-Man to America, was eventually liquidated.
How did this happen?
Legacy aside, Midway’s games were often just that – middling. Their controls worked. The graphics were acceptable, if only just. The games were somewhat satisfying. However, there was always the inescapable sense that their products had not quite been finished before getting yanked out of their developers’ hands and thrown into the market.
Besides, many of their home console titles were simply note-for-note ports of their arcade counterparts, which customers had already spent money on before. Mortal Kombat 3 was released in arcades, and later ported to the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, Game Gear, Playstation, and the Sega Master System. Did Midway really think its product would be successful enough to warrant release on six different home systems? Mortal Kombat was hardly the only Midway series to suffer this fate – the NBA Jam series, the San Francisco Rush series, and Hydro Thunder are all prime examples of Midway’s octopedian business tactics. The company poured all kinds of money into getting its games on as many consoles as possible, when it would have been better off concentrating its efforts into developing one compelling, original IP.
By stalwartly refusing to unshackle itself from its arcade roots, Midway never gave its home releases room to escape the sort of derivative gameplay commonly found in quarter-operated cabinets across the world. Their catalogue was ever the stuff of pizza parlour electronica: racing games, fighting games, and sports games. Much like the arcade titles their business was built on, Midway provided some musty fun, but after a while, people were just ready to move on to something else. Midway was the Spïnal Tap of the gaming world – always playing the same songs that were popular in the 80’s, and just a little too anachronistic to be successful anymore.
Midway made old games.
Spïnal Tap made old music.