It’s that time again, programs! This week we’re looking at the first set of TRON video games to be released – that is, the ones put out around the release of the original film. In the coming weeks we’ll be looking at the rest of the TRON-related video games separated out in two subsequent waves, the 2000s and 2010s, with additional posts focusing on TRON 2.0 and TRON: Evolution in particular.
Now, when it came to the release of the original film, Disney knew there was at least one potential audience for TRON: video game fans. I mean, it makes perfect sense – most of the action of the film centers on bringing video games to life, and the plot itself is pushed into motion because Flynn is trying to recover proof that he designed the very successful video games that Dillinger later claimed as his own. Also, the film was released at the height of the initial “video game craze.” And what better way to appeal to gamers than to make video games?
Full disclosure: I didn’t get the chance to actually play all of these games – I don’t own an Intellivision, and didn’t think it wise to invest in one for the sake of a blog post that probably only a few people will read. If I get my hands on one in the future I might revisit the TRON Intellivision games in a separate post. But in the meantime, I’ve marked the games I haven’t played with an asterisk.
What are they, anyway?
As far as I’m concerned, Disney went all-out when it came to making video game tie-ins for the original TRON. They didn’t just put out one crappy game for the Atari 2600 and call it a day – they made several games for two of the major home consoles of the time, a somewhat-portable handheld game, and two different arcade games. How do they hold up after all these years? Let’s find out!
Adventures of TRON (Atari 2600)
As we’re going to see later, Mattel had its own home console competing with the Atari 2600, called the Intellivision. Yet Mattel still released games for the rival console, some of which were even simplified versions of Intellivision games. It sounds bizarre today, when we’ve gotten used to console-exclusive titles helping drive hardware sales, but it made perfect sense at the time. (And then the video game crash of 1983 happened. I’m just saying.)
Adventures of TRON happened to be one of those Mattel-produced titles released under the M Network label. Supposedly it was intended to be a 2600 port of TRON Maze-A-Tron (see below), but due to the comparative limitations of the 2600’s hardware it turned out so different that they gave it a new title instead. Also, if you bought Adventures of TRON in a bundle with the 2600 version of TRON Deadly Discs (see below) – or bought the two separately and sent in proof of purchase – you got a cool-as-hell TRON joystick that you could use to play the games.
But actually, don’t use it – apparently these things are pretty fragile.
The gameplay is deceptively simple: you play as Tron, and all you have to do is keep Tron alive. In practice this means moving and jumping all around the screen, trying to collect bits and figure out how the hell the elevators work while avoiding recognizers, gridbugs, and tanks. (The manual explains everything, but as usual I forgot the internet existed when I was playing the game for the first time.) I found the game a little frustrating to play, but I’m not sure whether that was because of actual difficulty, unresponsive controls, or me not actually being good at video games. Apparently it’s gotten good reviews, so I’m leaning towards the latter.
If you’re interested, you can play the game for yourself on the Internet Archive.
Discs of TRON (arcade)
This was the second of the two TRON arcade games, released by Bally Midway in 1983 (just before the aforementioned crash). Originally it was developed as part of the original TRON arcade game (see below), but was taken out so the original game could be released on time. Instead of being dropped altogether it was developed into its own game, and it came in two models: upright (basically a “standard” arcade cabinet) and environmental (a more enclosed version with two openings on the sides).
Of the two I prefer the environmental cabinet, partially because in that version a clip of Sark’s voice taunts you every time you die. How cool is that? Also, as the game’s page on the Arcade Museum site explains, the environmental version “attempts to replicate the environment that your character on the screen is experiencing. The player stands inside the cabinet on a disc, and lights around the disc flash when your character dies just like on screen. The surround sound replicates the sounds of discs that whiz by your character.”
The game’s controls include a joystick (which moves your character) with trigger button (fires a disc) and a knob which can be used to aim your discs. When the game begins both you (as Tron) and Sark stand facing each other on circular platforms. Your goal is to either knock Sark off his platform or hit him enough times with your disc to derezz him before he does the same to you. While you can deflect his discs, Sark also uses two other weapons which can’t be deflected, only destroyed with discs: a “chaser” and a “super chaser.”
As the game progresses it gets more and more complicated, adding things such as additional platforms that you can jump between to dodge discs and obstacles that appear between you and Sark. Although I’ve never made it far enough to see this firsthand, according to the game’s page on the Tron Wiki “on later levels the knob can be pulled up or pushed down depending on the height of the platforms.”
While this doesn’t seem to get as much love as the first TRON arcade game (see below) does, Discs of TRON is still hands-down one of the best early TRON video games you can play. It’s fun, it’s challenging, the graphics are great, and playing it really feels like you’re entering the world of the original TRON.
Like many of the other games in this post, Discs of TRON can be played online at the Internet Archive.
You know this game. Most people know this game. It was featured in TRON: Legacy as the machine hiding the door to Flynn’s secret computer room in his arcade, for crying out loud.
“Wait, why is Alan on the side art?”
This is the first, and probably more well-loved, of the two TRON arcade games. It was actually released before the film itself, likely as part of Disney’s attempt to build up hype for the film. Bally even held a special TRON arcade game tournament before the film’s premiere with some sweet prizes, like a bunch of TRON swag:
This game came in three models: upright, cocktail (basically a table that’s also an arcade game), and mini. The upright model is quite cool, not least because it includes blacklights that make the day-glo circuit lines and blue joystick glow. Much like Discs of TRON, in addition to the joystick it includes a small knob that you can turn to aim your shots.
Gameplay consists of four mini-games, which you choose more or less at random on a map (they appear in different places in each level). In Light Cycles, you race your blue lightcycle against your opponent’s yellow lightcycle, trying to get them to crash into one of the lightcycle walls before you do. In Tanks, you control a red tank moving through a maze trying to destroy the enemy tank(s). (Apparently in higher levels the tanks are sometimes replaced by recognizers.) In Grid Bugs, you control Tron as he tries to fight his way through a swarm of gridbugs and get to the I/O tower before the timer runs out. And in MCP Cone you shoot discs to break through the ever-advancing barrier surrounding the MCP so you can enter the MCP cone itself. Beating all four games advances you to the next (more difficult) level. Incidentally, the twelve levels have names instead of numbers, and many of the names reference programming languages: RPG, COBOL, BASIC, FORTRAN, SNOBOL, PL1, PASCAL, ALGOL, ASSEMBLY, OS, JCL, and USER.
The game was generally well-received at the time (though I read a contemporary review in the Video Games magazine that complained the minigames were just a rehash of existing games) and was even named “Coin-Operated Game of the Year” by Electronic Games magazine. And an oft-repeated piece of trivia claims that the arcade game made more than the film did in its initial release.
This game is a classic, and whenever I’ve seen a TRON cabinet at a video game convention, there is always a line of people waiting to play it. If you get the chance, you should too.
If you’d like to check it out, the TRON arcade game can be played online at the Internet Archive.
TRON (Tomytronic handheld)
This one often seems to be left out when others talk about TRON video games, which is really a shame since it’s quite fun to play.
While it may seem primitive by today’s handheld standards – its screen has pre-printed images, its size makes it more of a “tabletop” game, it requires an AC adaptor or 4 C batteries to run – I think this handheld has a lot going for it. Its images are all in color, it’s difficult enough to be challenging but not so much that it’s frustrating, its sounds (while often shrill and a little grating) are cool, and it contains three different games, not just one.
You play through the three games sequentially. In the first one you, as Tron, have to beat Sark in a lightcycle match three times. The gameplay takes a little getting used to for anyone used to other versions of the lightcycle game; the pre-printed images makes the play a little choppy, and the walls are a little inconsistent – sometimes they disappear when they go offscreen, and sometimes they don’t.
After you beat Sark in three lightcycle matches you move on to the disc battle game. The gameplay in this section will be a little confusing to anyone familiar with other versions of the TRON disc battle game – rather than dodging Sark’s disc like the deadly weapon it’s supposed to be, you’re supposed to catch it and throw it back, as if the two of you are playing a friendly game of frisbee. But once you get used to it the gameplay isn’t that hard, and once you eliminate Sark’s final life you move on to the next game.
In this game you’re pitted against the MCP himself. Like the film, this version of the MCP has moving barriers protecting his vulnerable core. Your task is to break one part of the barrier, then time your second shot so your disc moves through the opening and hits the MCP’s core. If you succeed, you move on to the next level, where you start over again with the lightcycle segment.
As far as I know there’s no emulated version of this game available. So if you want to play it yourself, you’ll have to track down an original handheld and hope it still works. If you do find one, though, it’s a fun little game to play every now and then.
TRON Deadly Discs (Atari 2600/Intellivision*)
This was the only home TRON game to come out on both the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision, and because of the differences in hardware each game was a little different.
Anyone who’s seen a traditional Atari 2600 joystick controller knows that it’s pretty simple – there’s a joystick that moves you around and a button you can push to do something. So the gameplay for this version is equally simple: you (as Tron) run around the screen and throw discs at your warrior opponents. The joystick both determines where you run and which direction you throw the disc. The warriors appear in waves of three; when you kill all three, a new wave appears.
Each warrior dies in one hit, but Tron can take a few hits before he dies (making it a bit more forgiving than most Atari 2600 games I’ve played). In the videos I’ve seen, Tron is blue and turns a more reddish shade every time he’s hit, but since something controlling the color output in my Atari 2600 broke before I reviewed this game, I can’t confirm if that’s always the case. As far as I could tell, that’s pretty much it.
The Intellivision version of the game is a little more complex, starting with the controller itself. Unlike the Atari joystick controller, the Intellivision controller has a directional knob and a number of buttons which can be used to do different things. For this reason, Intellivision games came with plastic overlays that you could fit over the buttons to show what they did for that particular game.
TRON Deadly Discs Intellivision controller overlays
As the overlays show, you can use different buttons to throw Tron’s disc in certain directions or block the other warriors’ discs. Of course, the block only works when Tron’s holding his disc – otherwise the button just makes him duck under the incoming disc. Additionally, discs are only harmful when they’re first thrown – they change shape and become harmless when returning to the thrower.
There are four kinds of warrior opponents: normal (light blue), “bulldog” (purple), leaders (dark blue), and guards (orange). They each take a different number of hits to kill and have different effects on the gameplay. There’s also some gameplay tactics that involve jamming the doors open so you can use them to teleport and recover one hit.
Oh, and guess what else? This game has recognizers in it too! They come in to repair jammed doors. Touching a recognizer is an instant game over, but destroying one (which is difficult) gets you a lot of points. Like I said, the Intellivision version is a bit more complicated than its Atari cousin. In this version of the game, Tron is red and throws a yellow disc.
While I’ve heard the Intellivision version is much better (unsurprising, given that it has a lot more variety), the Atari 2600 version is quite fun. Granted, I’d pick Discs of TRON over either version of TRON Deadly Discs any day, but these are pretty good for home console games of the era.
Like Adventures of TRON, you can play the 2600 version of TRON Deadly Discs online at the Internet Archive.
TRON Maze-A-Tron (Intellivision)*
Before we get any further, I want to say that this game looks pretty cool for a second-gen console game. But I also want to say that trying to piece together the details of the gameplay without playing it myself feels like trying to condense detailed plot summaries of all the Halo games – which I’ve also never played – while drunk. (Do not try that one at home, kids.) The original manual for the game helps somewhat, but it might be best to leave this one in the more-than-capable hands of the TRON Wiki:
You are Flynn, a computer programmer who’s been zapped into the world of the Master Control Program, a highly-intelligent program bent on world domination. In the first part of the game, you must travel through a dangerous and constantly-scrolling computer world that resembles a circuit board and collect zeroes so you clear the RAM chips that the Master Control Program is using. Opposing you every step of the way are Recognizers that will “de-rez” you if they touch you. Use your shield to freeze them in their tracks as well as to pass safely through some energy fields. When you proceed to the Master Control Program, the MCP works to fix the RAM you cleared. Your goal here is to fire a Bit-Gun at pairs of BIT streams and BIT stacks before they hit the top of the screen. These two phases repeat with a higher difficulty each time.
The most common complaint I’ve heard about this game is that it’s “too complicated,” which is a shame since it otherwise sounds like the most interesting TRON home game. I suppose that the overlays for the game, while cool, didn’t help clear up the gameplay much:
Worth mentioning as well is that back in 2012 the game was included in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit The Art of Video Games; it was initially selected as a finalist for the Intellivision console by one of the curators of the exhibit, Chris Melissinos, and a public vote chose it as the most artistically significant “action” title created for the Intellivision.
TRON Solar Sailer (Intellivision)*
This game required the use of the ill-fated Intellivoice add-on for the Intellivision, which probably explains why it’s harder to find. The first part is divided up into several “sectors,” and at the beginning of each sector Alan gives you the code (through the Intellivoice) that you’ll need to advance to the next sector. After that, it’s up to you (presumably as Tron) to pilot a solar sailer along energy beams while keeping an eye out for tanks and recognizers, which will fire at you. You can fire back, but doing so drains the energy in your beam (the Intellivoice will inform you of energy changes by shouting things like “ENERGY LOW!” or “ENERGY HIGH!”), so you have to switch beams fairly often.
Eventually you make it to the MCP, beginning the next part of the game. The MCP sends out data transmissions which appear as zeroes and ones, which you capture with Bit and enter into a display. If you do this correctly enough times, the MCP overloads.
This game looks pretty fun, if a little complicated. The Intellivoice aspect is an especially nice touch, since it provides voices for a few characters from the original film (Alan, Tron, Yori, Bit, and the MCP). It’s not as visually interesting as TRON Maze-a-Tron or the arcade games, but it still blows the Atari 2600 graphics out of the water.
How do they fit in with everything else?
It appears that none of these were really intended to be part of the TRON canon, which is unsurprising given how minimal the story in each of them is. Frankly I don’t think Disney was planning any kind of extended TRON timeline when any of these games came out. They’re more like tie-ins, designed to bring the action of the film to life in an interactive medium. So if you’re looking for any kind of extended universe material from these games you’ll be sorely disappointed, but if you ever wondered what a lightcycle race or disc battle would be like as a video game of the era, these titles are for you.
Why should I care?
These games helped lay the groundwork for the gameplay in the later TRON video games. If you’re a fan of TRON 2.0 or TRON: Evolution, you should at least respect these early games, especially considering the limitations the designers and programmers were working with at the time. And I highly recommend you try to play them if you get the chance – they’re pretty fun on their own, too!
Next week, we’ll be looking at TRON 2.0, which was considered the official sequel to TRON until TRON: Legacy rendered it non-canon. But I believe it deserves its own post, partly because I think it helped spark renewed interest in TRON, as well as using a number of elements which were later vital to the plot of TRON: Legacy. See you then!
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