Retro Review: Tron (Arcade)

tron

Release Date: 1982

Developer: Bally Midway Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Publisher: Bally Midway Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Arcade is king!

Disney is an absolute monster nowadays. In addition to their own IPs and those belonging to the uber-animators at Pixar, the acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilms have given the House than Mickey Built access to a vast treasure trove of marketable content. Back in 1982, however, ol’ Walt’s empire was very shaky. It was largely coasting on the nostalgia for its old properties and struggling to find a new property that would carry it to new prosperity.

Tron was introduced in 1982 and became a strange anachronism. The Steven Lisberger movie was lauded for its aesthetic brilliance and gained a large critical blessing and cult following, but was a financial dud for Disney. The movie remains a cultural icon, inspiring people like Pixar’s John Lasseter. But Disney wrote off a large amount of the movie’s $17 million in development costs due to its poor box office performance.

Included in Disney’s media push for Tron was their development of an arcade game that coincided with the movie’s release. The significance of the arcade was important at that point. Although second-generation home consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision attracted large followings, the local arcade was still king when it came to getting eyes on an IP. Massive successes like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were forged in arcades. No one knew this more than Bally Midway, who rode the success of games like Galaga and Pac-Man to financial windfalls.

Disney Interactive Studios decided to partner with Bally Midway to develop and distribute the Tron arcade game in 1982. To this day, I still feel that Tron is one of the greatest arcade games to ever exist. On an off day, I may consider it to be the best arcade game to ever exist. I still hope to one day have a fully restored Tron cabinet in my home.

The gameplay for the Tron arcade game was straightforward enough, but its controls were highly unusual for the time. Most arcade games of the time sported an assortment of buttons, joysticks, and trackballs in different configurations. Tron, however, is outfitted with both a flight yoke with trigger and a spinner. It was an unusual input combination; flight yokes were only seen in arcade flight games like Afterburner, and spinners were used in Arkanoid and Tempest.  But the tandem worked beautifully.

Tron features levels that are split into four mini-games, each set in different areas somewhat loosely based on the movie. Once all four mini-games are beaten in the level, a new level opens up. The difficulty of each of the mini-games ramps up with each succeeding level. All the mini-games feature the same traits present in video games: waves of enemies and obstacles that grow progressively more difficult to beat, and a reliance on twitch gameplay to survive.

The most iconic of the four is the “Light Cycles” mini-game. In it, the player pilots one of the ubiquitous Light Cycles, colored blue. Players compete against three other Light Cycles, colored red. The gameplay is reminiscent of Snake. The cycles leave colored trails which are lethal to touch. Players must avoid the trails and attempt to trap the AI adversaries within the trails themselves. Only the flight yoke itself is used here; the trigger and spinner are useless.

The second mini-game, “Battle Tanks”, is not directly based on any scene in the movie. Again, the players man a vehicle, a tank in this case. They and three AI opponents are dropped in a maze, where gameplay is similar to the Atari 2600’s Combat. Here’s where the flight yoke/spinner combo becomes necessary. Players use the flight yoke to move the tank around the maze, firing with the trigger. The spinner, meanwhile, rotates the tank’s cannon. That allows players to move away from opponents while still firing their way. Later levels introduce the also-iconic Recognizers to the battlefield. The Recognizers are the huge gate-looking constructs that would stomp on light cycles when they tried to escape the confines of the game in Tron.

The third and fourth mini-games also feature these mechanics, but with a human avatar rather than a vehicle. Both mini-games, “I/O Tower” and “MCP Cone”, feature events from pivotal points in the movie. In “I/O Tower”, the player guides their character into a tower while being assaulted by Grid Bugs, which resemble spiders. In “MCP Cone”, the player tries to blast a path through the core’s defense blocks, Breakout style, in order to enter the core. Both mini-games require the player to move the character with the yoke, fire with the trigger and rotate the character’s arm to aim using the spinner, all while trying to beat a timer or avoid getting crushed by the oncoming blocks.

Describing the mini-games is a prosaic exercise, meant to explain what needs to be done. Actually playing Tron, with the yoke in hand and spinner twirling, is a much more visceral experience.

Tron’s visuals are not exactly eye-popping. They are nice-looking, especially with the aesthetic look that’s reminiscent of the movie. They are also very colorful, which is pleasing. But they aren’t exactly the top tier in arcade visuals.

The audio, however, is pretty good. The “Battle Tank” and “Light Cycle” mini-games feature nothing more than the sounds of the vehicles and shots. But they’re very atmospheric. The “I/O Tower” and “MCP Cone” Mini-games feature a backing track that is equal parts frantic and monotonous. Simply hearing it wouldn’t evoke much response from anyone that isn’t an absolute chiptune geek like me. But in the heat of battle, the track makes the action even more frenetic. It’s even more frenetic when the timer warning fires off, letting players know that they have to reach the objective RIGHT THE FUCK NOW in order to succeed. The victory and loss tunes also accentuate the game, rewarding those who succeed and chiding those who came up short.

The best part of the game, however, is the varied and frenetic gameplay. Going from blasting enemy tanks to racing a clock and Grid Bugs, to trapping enemy light cycles, is a visceral thrill that few arcade games deliver. Off the top of my head, only Missile Command, Berzerk, and Robotron 2084 thrilled me as much as Tron did.

Of course, even this game has its limitations. Despite the fun of playing these mini-games, it gets repetitive real quick. The only variation between levels is the speed, quantity, and general assholery of the enemies. By level 4, the enemy AI is ludicrously cheap, which is the norm for quarter-munching arcade games. Beating the mini-games will still thrill players, but the almost unfair AI will frustrate many.

Then again, that’s the point with arcade games. They aren’t supposed to grant you long playing sessions; they want your quarters and tokens! People who want hours-long gameplay should stick to Super Mario Bros. or the Mass Effect trilogy. Tron is meant as a quick adrenaline rush, and it delivers in spades.

Does the game still hold up? Yes, it does. I was fortunate enough to recently visit an arcade that featured some retro cabinets. Slotted between Dig Dug and Time Pilot was Tron, and I spent a good $10 in tokens on it. Yes, the difficulty was too severe for my old twitch responses, and yes, there are nicer retro games I could’ve played. But I never lost my love for this game, and the fact that I was able to play it again was awesome. I never got past level 3, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t fun while I tried!

People who play arcade games on emulators will be flummoxed with Tron. The unique setup is one that’s kinda tough to replicate. Folks who build dedicated MAME cabinets with the requisite inputs will be fine, but playing Tron using a PS4 or SNES controller will end up sucking hind tit. There are ways to replicate the spinner using a keyboard (follow this link on Eric’s How-Tos to learn how), but it’s not a great solution. Unfortunately, this is one game that is best experienced in its native environment: the arcade. Considering the average working Tron cabinet starts at about $3,500, my dream of owning one of these bad boys is limited by the fact that I’m not related to Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

Still, Tron is a great game based off of a cult-favorite Disney movie. It gives players a quick, short-term thrill every time they play. The moment I can finally acquire one, I will commence to thrash it with restrained abandon (I don’t wanna break it). I love arcade games, but I love this one more than most. The fact that its control scheme makes it non-optimal for MAME by default hurts me. Of course, I can always retrofit an arcade stick unit with a flight yoke and spinner. For this game, I will consider it.

Good: Visceral gameplay; iconic elements; fun and varied mechanics

Bad: Control scheme limits ability to play now; repetitive in later levels

Final score: 9/10

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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