Video Game #1: “TRON” (1982) / “Discs of TRON” (1983)
“That’s two games,” I can just hear you say. Actually, it’s five — they were all supposed to be in the same cabinet.
TRON was designed to be a marketing tie-in to the 1982 Disney movie of the same name; ironically, the video game made more than the film itself — or so the story goes. TRON is one of those rare gems: a polyglot of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts; a smash success that can still be occasionally found in working condition today, three decades later, and a game that’s better than the movie it was inspired by. As I wrote in an Indy Week review of TRON a few years ago:
“It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as ‘transmedia.'”
TRON effectively paid homage to early video games, with its take on “Tank,” “Berzerk” and “Breakout.” Add in the unique light cycle duel, where you had to race to draw walls around your AI opponent, and that made four-games-in-one. When development problems threatened to derail the title, it was decided to drop the 5th game, Discs of TRON, and release it as a stand-alone a year later once the bugs were worked out. (Speaking of bugs, a programming error — made no doubt in the last-minute rush to get the cabinets to arcades in time — caused the ‘Breakout’ portion of the game, where the player has to blast thru a rotating wall of color blocks, to suddenly veer off the left of the screen. This bug was never corrected, and later ports of the game still have error.)
Each of the four challenges weren’t, by themselves, great games. However, you would have to win a round in all four to get to advance to the next level, and you never knew which one was going to pop up on your screen next. This sense of anticipation — or dread; the tank level was exceptionally fast, hard and mean — helped seal TRON’s reputation.
Discs of TRON sadly did not share in its companion’s success. By the next year the movie had come and gone, and the video game industry was in the midst of its first great collapse. Few copies of Disc were produced (in fact, my brother and I didn’t even know it existed until several years later, when we found a booth in the back of that boardwalk mecca of games, Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, MD.) For what it lacked in distribution, Discs of TRON made up for it in experience: thanks to its enclosed design, the gamer had to step inside a booth to play. Surrounded by digital stereo and enveloped by the blue glow of the control panel, it effectively isolated the player and made it very easy to believe you had been pulled inside the game. Discs of TRON was also a great deal of fun to play:
So there you have it. My favorite video game of all time. Would I buy one to restore if I had the chance? Probably not — there’s still something deeply satisfying about the surprise and joy of walking in someplace and unexpectedly finding an old TRON unit waiting to steal my quarters.
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