Sep 21, 2023

Master Control Program Has Chosen You...

Discs Of Tron
Bally Midway (1983)
One of the things that I saw often in arcades during the 80's and 90's was parents who would let their very young children stand on a stool in front of an arcade machine to wiggle the joystick and press buttons.  They wouldn't actually put a quarter in the machine and let their kids try to figure out how to play... they'd just let them pretend that they were playing for a minute or two while the demo screen played.  I always felt bad for these kids and wondered if they ever knew that they weren't actually getting to play the game.

My father and grandfather would actually give me the quarter or token and let me play the game.  It's one of the many things that I will always be grateful to both of them for.  It helped foster a lifelong hobby, and it allowed me to experience a taste of the final days of the arcade scene that built the gaming industry that exists today.  The games that I played back in those days are especially important to me.  They're an escape from all of the bullshit of adult life, if only for a few minutes.  When I play them, I am that little boy standing on a stool at Aladdin's Castle in the Laurel Mall or Space Flight in the Church Hill Mall.  The game that takes me back to those days more than any other game first appeared in arcades forty years ago.  It's the second arcade game based on the 1982 sci-fi adventure film Tron, and it's called Discs Of Tron.

The Discs Of Tron environmental cabinet had a roof and a back wall that was meant to make you feel enclosed in the world of the game, as well as digitized speech effects.  I don't ever remember seeing the environmental cabinet at any arcades in person.  I'm guessing that it either took up too much space or that it cost extra and it was an easy thing for arcade operators to omit from their order to maximize profits.  All of the machines that I've played were standard upright cabinets like the photo at the bottom, which was shared by scottamus on Flickr.

Discs Of Tron was unlike anything else in the arcades that I ever played up to that point.  Come to think of it, I can't think of anything else that's similar that I've played in the years that followed.

The game starts with two disc-shaped platforms.  Your character is Tron (the little blue guy at the bottom), and your opponent is Sark the red-orange character at the top).  You control the movements of your character with a joystick that was designed like a flight stick.  It had two buttons: a trigger on the underside that you would pull with your right index finger, and a red button on top that you'd press with your thumb.  To play, you'd pull the trigger to throw a disc at Sark, and you'd press the red button to hold up a shield that would cause the discs that were thrown at you to bounce off harmlessly

In addition to the joystick, there was a dial controller like the ones that you'd see on a Tempest or Arkanoid machine, which is what you use to control your target.  In the screenshot above, you'll see what looks like two small blue arrows pointing at each other on a blue line that forms a box around the arena.  Those arrows are your target, and turning the dial moves it 360 degrees along the blue line.  Wherever your target is when you press the trigger button is the direction that you'll throw your disc.  When your disc hits a wall, it will ricochet off of it and continue flying in straight lines until it comes back to you or until it is destroyed by coming into contact with another disc.  You can have up to three discs in the air at any given time, and the object is to hit your opponent with one of them before he can hit you.

The game gets progressively harder as you pass through each level, with multiple floor discs that both you and Sark can hop back and forth on.  Sark also gets faster and more aggressive with each new level, and he starts throwing specialty weapons at you that you don't have access to and cannot deflect with your shields.  Your only defense is to avoid them and destroy them by hitting them with your discs.

One of the reasons I remember Discs Of Tron is because of a story that my dad told me about a group of college kids who gathered around the machine to watch me play it.  I couldn't have been older than four or five years old at the time, and while I wasn't quite Jimmy Woods, I was good enough to hold my own and to make it to level 3 or 4 before losing my last life.  My dad was just a few years out of college himself at the time, and he told me that he just blended in with the kids who were watching me and cheering me on as I played through.  I have no memory of this specific day, but I probably didn't realize that a crowd had formed even in the moment.  Once I hit the start button, that was it... the outside world disappeared and it was just me and the game until the screen said Game Over.

The Bismarck Tribune - Bismarck, ND  (September 24, 1983)
Herald & Review - Decatur, IL  (November 9, 1983)
The Chapel Hill Newspaper - Chapel Hill, NC  (December 25, 1983)

It's almost impossible to pin down an exact date when a game first appeared in the arcades.  Many of them started out in test markets before they were produced and shipped out on a wider scale.  Even the dates that are a matter of public record are questionable at best, with evidence from newspapers and trade magazines that these games were being played in arcades for months prior to their official release date.  The furthest back that I was able to trace is an advertisement for an arcade called The Wizard that was in the Kirkwood Shopping Center in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The game was ported to the Commodore 64 in 1984, and it was included on the Game Boy Advance version of Tron 2.0, but neither of them capture the spirit of the game as it played at the arcade.  It's also available to download on the Xbox Marketplace, but I haven't owned an Xbox since the original console was released back in 2001 so I couldn't tell you if it's good or not.  I can say that it runs pretty well on Mame, but it takes a little bit of time to get used to using the keyboard and mouse in place the joystick and dial.

There was also a home cabinet released by Arcade1Up that combines both the 1982 Tron and 1983 Discs Of Tron games in a single machine.  I managed to pick one up at a good price, but it's still in the box while I finish work on the basement.