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Tron: A Classic Journey into the Digital Realm

Before Jake Gyllenhaal became the prince of Persia and Lara Croft raided tombs, there was Tron. Launched in 1982, this classic game pits humans against computers in a virtual world battle. It was also the first major arcade game with a big-screen movie tie-in. The groundbreaking game inspired other games for years to come, so as a result, it has become well-loved by old-school gamers and computer geeks.

Overview of Tron

Tron is a coin-operated arcade video game produced by Bally Midway (now known as Midway Games) in 1982, and it is directly based on the movie Tron, which was released in the same year. The game consists of four segments inspired by scenes from the movie, and it has been more financially successful than the film’s initial release.

In 1983, it had a sequel arcade game, Discs of Tron, inspired by the Disc Arena from the film. Many other licensed Tron games were released for home systems, but these were based on the elements of the movie and not the arcade game.

The Tron arcade game was available in three distinct cabinets: a standard upright cabinet, a mini upright cabinet, and a cocktail (table) version. The standard cabinet was designed to recreate the “glowing circuitry” effect from the movie using painted fluorescent lines and two blacklights. Interestingly, the upright cabinet appears in the beginning of Tron: Legacy as a Light Cycles arcade game.

Tron: The Movie

Since the game is based on a movie, you might be curious about the context of the film.

During the time the movie was released, computers were only popular in the military (these were room-sized machines that crunch data on different stuff) and in the arcade (as fridge-sized arcade games). There were home computers back then, but their capacity was minimal.

Yet, in 1982, the public was given a sneak peek into the digital future through Steven Lisberger’s sci-fi film Tron. Few appreciated it at the time – and it wasn’t a classic hit – but its theme tapped issues we are still grappling with today: artificial intelligence, privacy, personal data, digital identity, and dominance of big tech.

This movie was also the first to attempt to visualize the digital world – which was then called “cyberspace” but now may be called “metaverse.” The cyberspace in Tron looks low-res and retro, but its idea was way ahead of its time.

Tron also foreshadowed the digital future of filmmaking. It was the first film that extensively used computer-generated imagery (CGI), lasting up to 15 minutes – which was unprecedented then. It included the iconic Light Cycle sequence and early facial animation for the Master Control Program (MCP).

This groundbreaking approach set the stage for the current era of digitally enhanced spectacle, leaving a lasting impact on filmmakers like James Cameron, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, the Wachowskis, and former Pixar chief John Lasseter, who once remarked: “Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story.”

Ironically, despite its futuristic theme, Tron’s setting was predominantly crafted by hand. It used old-school techniques that modern filmmakers would never replicate today.

This film was released during the time when computing power transitioned from military-industrial control to widespread accessibility – a narrative echoed in the movie. The story follows Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), a brilliant programmer managing a video game arcade after Encom, his former employer, stole his code. Attempting to hack into Encom, Flynn gets unexpectedly digitized by the all-knowing AI, the Master Control Program (MCP). He’s transported into a vibrant 80s nightclub cyber-world, where he must defeat the MCP through video game combat, reclaim his intellectual property, and find a way back to reality.

Because of the unpopular idea, the only company with the will and resources to make Tron a reality was Disney. At that time, the company was looking for something fresh as they were experiencing a decline, as movie hits like Star Wars were overtaking their creations.

The movie was not a hit when it was released, and the spin-off video game made more money than the film. It had its long-awaited sequel in 2010, Tron: Legacy, and the animated series.

Game Modes and Objectives

a person playing a retro arcade game

Tron comes with four sub-games inspired by events and characters in the movie. Players control Tron, either in human form or while piloting a vehicle, using an eight-way joystick for movement, a trigger button to fire (or slow down the player’s light cycle), and a rotary dial for aiming.

The objective of the game is to score points and progress through the game’s twelve levels by completing each of the sub-games. The levels are named after programming languages, including RPG, COBOL, BASIC, FORTRAN, SNOBOL, PL1, PASCAL, ALGOL, ASSEMBLY, OS, JCL, and USER. The game supports two alternating players.

Here are the game rules: Two opponents move at a constant speed, leaving a trail that forms an impassable wall. The player crashing into a wall first loses. Only right-angle turns are allowed, and the opposite edges of the screen communicate with each other.

At the start of each level, players are brought to a “Game Grid” selection screen divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant corresponds to a different sub-game, each of which corresponds to a different sub-game.

At the beginning of each level, players are presented with a “Game Grid” selection screen divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant corresponds to a different sub-game, but the specific sub-game is unknown until selected. If a player fails the game and loses their life, they are taken back to the selection screen, and an icon representing the game is now visible. If the player fails to choose a quadrant before the on-screen timer runs out, their sub-game is chosen at random. Once the player finishes a sub-game, it is taken out of play until the next level.

When all games are completed, the player plays again with harder difficulty. Once they reach 10,000 points, they are awarded an extra life.

Here are the sub-games in Tron:

I/O Tower

To play, guide Tron to the flashing circle of an Input/Output Tower within a time limit while avoiding or destroying Grid Bugs.

This game is inspired by the I/O Tower scene in the film, with the addition of Grid Bugs as enemies (briefly mentioned in the movie). A bonus is awarded for picking up the occasional appearance of Bit on the screen.

MCP Cone

The player must break through a rotating shield wall protecting the MCP cone and enter without touching any shield blocks. Based on Tron’s final battle with the MCP in the film, it alters the MCP’s shield nature. Bonus points are given for destroying every block in the shield.

Light Cycles

The player guides Tron’s blue Light Cycle in an area against one or more yellow opponents. The concept is a player-vs-AI variant of the popular Snake game. In this game, you have to force enemy cycles to crash into jet trails or each other while avoiding them.

This game is inspired by the Light Cycle Arena sequence in the film, with reversed colors for friendly and enemy characters. Notably, this is the only sub-game in Tron that doesn’t use the rotary dial.

Battle Tanks

Lastly, players must guide Tron’s red battle tank through a maze in this game, destroying opposing blue enemy tanks by shooting each thrice. The tank can warp to a random location in the maze, and shots bounce off walls. Red Recognizers replace enemy tanks in harder levels, attempting to collide with the player instead of shooting at them.

This game isn’t based on a specific scene but draws inspiration from Tank Program elements, including Clu’s failed intrusion into the ENCOM mainframe and the “Space Paranoids” game seen at the start of the film.

Ports

If you want to try playing the original Tron arcade game, there’s a version of it in the Disney website’s games section named “Classic Tron.” Unlike other versions, the map/stage selection screen consistently places stages in the same spot on every level – most likely for an easier gameplay experience.

Credits are unlimited, and some stage behaviors have been tweaked. The MCP Showdown is notably shorter. Enemy tanks are faster but less prone to firing – they prefer to run the player over rather than blow them up. Additionally, enemy light cycles seem either slower or more cautious.

At every other level or so, some stages change to a dark color. Upon entering a stage in this condition, an updated graphical interface in the style of Tron: Legacy is featured.

Development

Bally Midway designed the Tron game. There were two design teams created for this game: one team proposed a first-person vector graphics game, while the second team suggested a collection of five minigames using existing Midway technology. The second proposal was chosen as it had a better chance of meeting the deadline. Due to time constraints, one of the five minigames was ultimately omitted.

Now, let’s delve into the programming side of this game’s development. This iconic game showed the efficiency of reusable code. In the Walt Disney film Tron, an evil Master Control Program plans to take over the Pentagon and the Kremlin, boasting about running them 900 to 1200 times more efficiently.

In Bally Midway’s Tron arcade game, a master control program known as the executive streamlined game programmers’ tasks by handling routine functions like accepting quarters, recording game scores, switching between players, and displaying messages on the screen.

Before the standardized executive, programmers had to create code for each game from scratch. The executive lets them focus on writing unique gameplay code for each game.

Although the executive needs adjustments for each game, it still saves a significant amount of time. When a new issue arises in arcade games, it only needs to be addressed once.

This solution provided a universal fix for all games. The same executive, used by Midway in a game before Tron, is now employed for all arcade games the company produces. Copies of the code have also been shared with freelance programmers developing games for Midway.

Soundtrack

The game’s soundtrack features chiptune versions of various tracks from the original film’s musical score.

The Tron soundtrack, composed by Wendy Carlos, stands as a groundbreaking and iconic musical accompaniment that skillfully captures the futuristic and computerized essence of the 1982 film. The electronic and synth-infused music drew listeners into a realm of digital landscapes and high-tech battles – enhancing the film’s visuals and setting a distinct tone.

While the film was not a commercial success, its soundtrack remained a masterpiece of electronic and orchestral music, still relevant and influential in contemporary film scores. Its innovative use of synthesizers set a new standard for film soundtracks, contributing to the establishment of electronic music in the genre. Even after more than 30 years, the Tron soundtrack endures as a cherished and influential chapter in film and music history.

Legacy

One of the top arcade games in the 80s, Tron has hit many milestones in arcade game history.

Electronic Games magazine awarded Tron as “Coin-Operated Game of the Year.” The New York Times reported that 800 arcade cabinets were sold in 1982, and by January 1983, it secured the fourth position on the RePlay arcade charts.

The success of Tron spawned a series of video games. The Snake games, in particular, were inspired by Tron’s light cycles segment, which was referred to as “Light Cycles” games, despite the concept predating Tron in 1976.

Discs of Tron (1983) was an arcade game originally intended as a fifth segment of Tron but was excluded due to unfinished programming. It involved disc-throwing combat, the same as the film sequence, and was not widely released. Two clones of the game, ElecTron (1984) and Kron (1983), were released for the TRS-80 Color Computer.

The 2004 Game Boy Advance game Tron 2.0: Killer App included ports of the original Tron and Discs of Tron arcade games. Tron made its way to Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, courtesy of Digital Eclipse and Disney Interactive. A miniature Tron arcade cabinet featuring looping video attract screens as part of the Tron Legacy pinball machine released in 2011. In October 2021, Arcade1Up released a recreated cabinet of the original Tron arcade game.

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