Archive for the ‘Tron’ Tag

[50/50] Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme”

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme” (1993)

6968245506_377bae96dfOnce LANs (Local Area Networks) became commonplace in the early ’90s, it was finally possible to link up computers in the same room and play live head-to-head. While the Macintosh suffered from a dearth of games compared to what was available for PCs, we did have one classic to ourselves: Spectre. Widely considered the grandson of “Battlezone,” Spectre was a sci-fi tank game played on a TRON-like grid. And when “Spectre Supreme” came out, you could play against your friends on the LAN.

Around this time I spent a year working for a tiny design firm. It was just the two of us, the owner and me, and at the end of the day, we’d boot up “Spectre Supreme,” he in his office and me in mine, and spend an hour or so hunting each other down in cyberspace. It was the most productive we were all day.

[Photo via amatecha … for about a decade, computer game companies put a lot of effort into designing the boxes the game came in, and the Spectre series (Sumpreme, VR, etc) were notable for how elaborate and beautiful they were. Strange but true.]

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[50/50] Video Game #1: “TRON/Discs of TRON”

Friday, June 14th, 2013

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.

1 tron 1 tron_tankTRON 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:

tron_berserk“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_breakoutTRON 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.

1 tron 5

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.

End of line.

Top 5 albums of 2011: Part II: Electric Boogaloo

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

#1 The Cars — Move Like This

The simple fact that I can write a sentence with the phrase “new Cars album” is reason enough to celebrate. That it’s actually a solid, catchy record is a minor miracle. 24 years after they called it quits, a sudden impulse overtook Ric Ocasek, and he decided to get the band back together one more time. Maybe he was feeling old, or, more likely, Ocasek didn’t want the awful Door to Door to be The Cars’ swan song, but whatever the reason,  — OH MY GOD THERE’S A NEW CARS ALBUM.


Granted, it isn’t perfect: Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, is sorely missed. A lot of people pointed out that it was Orr’s voice that carried the band’s ballads, and Ocasek isn’t up to the task, straining to match the gossamer tones the songs need. That said, Ocasek’s writing is as beat and whip-smart as ever, and the overall effect is incredible. They somehow managed to pick up their original sound as if they had stepped out for a smoke instead of taking a quarter century break, with songs that both recall their biggest hits and feel completely new. In it’s review, the AV Club said, “considering how many other bands have tried to make modern versions of classic Cars songs, it’s nice to see the original article doing it better than most.”


This isn’t just a nostalgic cash grab by a bunch of old dudes playing at new wavers. Ocasek’s lyrics in particular are world worn, a generational coda to the capricious cool of their top 40 hits. As one critic said, “Sad Song” is the bookend to “Let’s Go” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” as though it’s sung by the same character thinking about how much he’s learned since. And “Hits Me” is clearly penned by a guy who been through it all and just wants to get to next week. It is their darkest album since Panorama.


And, still, it’s a joy. My brother saw them perform in Philly (at the Electric Factory no less) and said, while they weren’t a great live act they were never a great live act. Yet, it was absolutely clear these four guys were just plain happy to be on stage and playing together, and that reenergized youthful enthusiasm — along with a fans who felt the same way — made for a great show. While it would have been good to see them one more time, I’m just happy I’ve got one more Cars album to listen to, one that fits perfectly along side their very best stuff.

Honorable Mention: Daft Punk — TRON: Legacy 

Technically, this came out in 2010 along with the film of the same name, but I didn’t pick it until well into last year. None of which changes the fact that I played this soundtrack in 2011 more than any record I’ve bought in years. TRON: Legacy — the movie — is seriously flawed and, I strongly suspect, would have failed if it weren’t for this stunning techno score. It is the best thing about the movie, and pulls the story along even when the plot, acting and special effects refuse to do so.


Beyond their driving synth numbers, the duo of Daft Punk — who, with their robot-masked public personas were tailor made to work on this movie (and indeed appeared as themselves in one scene) — composed a tight orchestration that is a worthy successor to Wendy Carlos original TRON score, and belongs among the most famous and listenable of soundtracks.


I’ve listened to it while writing, while playing games, while cooking, while folding laundry — seriously, there is nothing it can’t make more exciting.