A still of a light-cycle sequence from Tron.

CGI Light Cycle Battle from Disney's Tron

Games on Film I: Tron - Behind the Screens

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Disney 1982

Does not compute

All of this talent and technology mix together to create something never seen before on film. A lot is riding on the movie, but its release is marred when Theodore James Jr., a stock-market analyst at Montgomery Securities, has a “review” of the movie published in financial sections of newspapers nationwide on July 8, the day before Tron is released to theatres. In his scathing appraisal of the film, James describes the story as “disjointed” and the special effects “distracting”. He even goes so far as to say that he is recommending traders to sell Disney stock, and indeed the company takes a hit in the market in the wake of the movie’s release.  Matching the bewilderment of James, when Tron is released the next day on July 9, 1982, audiences, at least in the smaller city markets, aren’t sure what to make of it all. Despite all the hype, with multiple teasers and trailers and magazine covers, the film opens with a $4,761,795 weekend gross, placing it 2nd for the week behind the 13 million pulled in by monster hit E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, still sucking all of the oxygen out of the theatre even five weeks after release. Tron would end its domestic run with $33,000,000, placing it #22 for money makers in 1982, behind The Toy, Rocky III and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It gives a decent return on its 17 million dollar budget, but the final take is still a disappointment to those involved with its creation. This lukewarm response by the movie-going public puts the kibosh on the bonanza planned by over 35 Tron merchandise licensees , lessening the value of such agreements as a deal with Japanese toy maker Tomy to make Tron action figures and electronic handheld games. It also cools the jets of Tron II, the movie sequel announced perhaps a bit too hastily by Walt Disney Productions soon after Tron‘s premiere. Gamers who had hoped to enter the Game Grid for real as part of Walt Disney World’s CommuniCore hub at EPCOT are also handed disappointment with Tron‘s weak box office performance: the so-named Tron-themed video arcade space never makes it past the concept stage.

The Game Grid, a planned Tron-themed video game arcade at Epcot, Walt Disney World, 1982

Enter the ‘Game Grid’, a planned ‘Tron’ arcade at EPCOT, Walt Disney World, 1982

Tron‘s disappointing box office take also provides the old-guard at Disney, who had so shunned Lisberger and team’s promise of a brave new world of computer animation, vindication in their distrust of the technology. Forces within the company pull the plug on their now established CGI pipeline of talent, losing the chance to stay on the vanguard of CGI, a movement that would take over the production of visual effects in the decades to come. Tron producer Don Kushner would bring the glittering effects of the Tron costumes to television the next year, on the short-lived ABC midseason series Automan. The premise of the show plays Tron in reverse: instead of a human getting zapped into a video game world, Automan is a computer construct brought into the real world.

Still from Automan, a science fiction TV series by ABC, 1983

Automan counted Don Kushner as one of the producers

Success in the Arcade Arena

Tron arcade video game, by Bally/Midway

The Tron arcade video game by Bally/Midway: way more popular than the movie

What would a movie about videogames be without a videogame adaptation? The first arcade game released under the Tron name does not disappoint. After Bally Midway lands the license from Disney, the various design teams within the company vie to produce it.  In a contest between the Midway internal Game Design Team and the two external design studios, Nutting Associates and Arcade Engineering, it is the internal group that wins out. Along with lead programmer Bill Adams, the production team is made up of George Gomez, Tom Leon, Atish Ghosh, and John Pasierb. John Marcus and Sharon Barr help with graphics, and Earl Vickers as sound programmer. Provided with only a shooting script and a special effects reel, the design team develops four individual games to make the whole. One can see a lot of Gorf’s influence, a previous game by Midway, particularly in Gomez’s arcade cabinet design for Tron. It includes a version of the impressive Gorf flight control stick with a trigger, also designed by Gomez, with the added effect of a backlight on the control panel that makes it fluoresce. Next to this imposing joystick is a spin-dial for precise firing control. As for gameplay, the Lightcycles section has the player trying to fend off up to three opponents, avoiding their deadly light trail and the walls, while trying to trap the other riders. The lightcycle sequences in the movie, and more so in Midway’s arcade game, owe a debt to an early Atari VCS game of the same nature, titled Surround.  In the Tanks screen in Tron the arcade game, players must navigate a maze facing off against from 1-5 enemy tanks. Grid Bugs features the very briefly shown creatures in the movie, rapidly replicating themselves as Tron and Co. make a run for an I/O tower while on the Solar Sailer. The MCP Cone rounds things out, with Tron using his ID disc to break off pieces of a swirling barrier. in order to clear a path to enter the heart of Master Control. All four sections must be completed before Tron can continue to the next level, containing the same four games, continuing through 12 levels of increasing difficulty.

Total Environment Cabinet for Discs of Tron, an arcade video game by Bally Midway 1983

The cool Total Environment Cabinet of Discs of Tron, Bally Midway 1983

The original game design calls for animated cutscenes from the movie, as well as a total of seven game sections: Paranoia would have the player building a bridge out of spiders, while competing against a CPU player doing the same. While building the bridge, the spiders used might change colour and thus harm the player. IO Tower has the player running around trying to avoid being touched by electrified blue warriors. And Rings would be a disc combat level, with the player facing off against Sark. All three levels are dropped due to time constraints involving getting the game out in three months, to coincide with the movie. The Rings sequence is blown out into the second released Tron arcade game, Discs of Tron. This features disc combat against Sark while keeping balance on ring platforms, which become multiple rings at different heights later on in the game. Along with the regular upright cabinet, Discs of Tron is also released in Total Environment Cabinet form, which the player stands inside, with speakers placed right behind their ears while being bathed in black light.

Initially installed in Bally’s 240 Aladdin’s Castle video game arcades around the country, the original Tron arcade game is also the subject of a nationwide video game contest held by Bally-Midway in 1982. For the finals in NYC, contestants are accompanied by such luminaries as actress Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), along with baseball superstars “Hammerin'” Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. 29-year-old Richard Ross achieves a cumulative score of 3,958,901, and walk away with the 1st prize, which includes a year supply of tokens from Aladdin’s Castle, and a full-size Tron arcade game. Moviegoers are greeted by Tron machines as well, placed in movie theatres running the film. The game eventually out grosses its movie brethren, selling $60 million dollars worth of cabinets for Bally-Midway by early 1983. This is ample evidence that people who love video game would rather just play them as opposed to sitting passively watching a movie about them. The game also wins the “Arkie” award for Coin-Op Game of the Year in 1983 by Electronic Games magazine.

Tron Comes Home

Mattel secures the license for home video games based on Tron, with the hopes that it will help propel sales of its Intellivision console on the coattails of what is expected to be a smash movie. The first Mattel game released is Tron Deadly Discs. Under the working title Tron I, the game is developed concurrently with the production of the film, based on still photos and other art material provided by the producers. The game tasks the player with moving Tron, represented by the ubiquitous Intellivision running man character, around a gaming arena, avoiding the discs of his enemies while hitting them with his own. As his opponents enter the area, they leave doors open that Tron can use to navigate to the other side, if there is a door present there already. At random times after Tron dispatches all of his opponents in a level, a recognizer appears to throw some deadly shapes around the room.

Deadly Discs goes on to sell over 300,000 cartridges, a respectable number, but much much lower than expected, especially given that Mattel does a production run of 800,000 due to the hype surrounding the movie. A version for Mattel’s fledgling Aquarius home computer is also released, along with a version for the Atari 2600 through Mattel’s M Network label. Mattel also produces Tron Maze-A-Tron for the Intellivision, going under the names Tron II and Mazeatron while under development. As with Deadly Discs, the game is made parallel to the movie and uses production art and stills for inspiration for the graphics. A version of this game is also planned for the Atari 2600, but it turns out to be so different from the Intellivision version that Mattel decides to release it under the name Adventures of Tron. As opposed to running around in a maze-like the Inty version, here players move Tron up and down elevators in a standard platform game.

The final game rounding out the Tron licenses from Mattel is Tron Solar Sailer in 1983, a game compatible with the company’s Intellivoice add-on for the Intellivision. The game has the player sending the titular craft down light beams, avoiding tank fire and attempting to find the route to take him right into the heart of the MCP and then engage in a puzzle game to overload him. Solar Sailer has the dubious honor of having inspired the most notorious game hack in Intellivision game programmers Blue Sky Rangers history. The joke going around at the time of the game’s development is that the word “can’t” from one of the digitized taunts from the MCP, “I can’t allow this”, sounds more like the word “cunt”. It becomes such a running joke, that one of the programmers hacks the title screen of another Intellivoice game, Space Spartans, to greet the player with “Mattel Electronics Presents… Space Cunt!”. Taking the joke further, an entire Space Cunt game is created around the premise, a hacked version of Astrosmash were the player’s ship is a penis, shooting semen at falling vaginas and IUD devices. Along with these video game tie-ins, we also get a dazzling handheld game version of Tron by Tomy, complete with multiple screens.

JUMP: History of the Mattel Intellivision

A pregnant pause of 20 years passes until Tron is officially revisited in video game form, with 2003’s cleverly named Tron 2.0, done by developer Monolith Productions for the PC and later for the Macintosh by MacPlay. The franchise is in good hands with Monolith, having made some stellar games for the PC. They hit it big off the start with Blood, an early FPS that separates itself from the myriad Doom clones of the era with a spectacularly fun multiplayer component. They follow this success up with other iconic offerings such as The Operative: No One Lives Forever, Condemned, and F.E.A.R. In Tron 2.0, players control Alan Bradley’s son Jethro “Jet” Bradley in an FPS setting faithful in visual style to the film, no doubt due to Syd Mead’s participation in the design of the lightcycles featured in the game. Tron also makes it to the Game Boy Advance and Microsoft’s Xbox console, under the name Tron 2.0: Killer App.

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