There's a sequel to Tron coming out soon. The film. The 1982 Disney classic, which on viewing today is in equal parts brilliant and bemusing.
It's a very family-friendly film, and yet makes absolutely no effort to be understandable by kids. Its esoteric ideas of the programs inside our computers being sentient AIs - who not only complete the tasks they're given, but have personalities, desires, a will to live - aren't introduced. It's just that way. A corporation able to grow evil enough to take over the world through the success of videogames? Oh, well, maybe that was more realistic. But not in '82.
Monolith's Tron 2.0, made following its absolutely superb No One Lives Forever spy comedies, was the company riding a high. It was two years before F.E.A.R. transmuted it into a bunch of miseryguts with its dreary, solemn Condemned games. It still had spirit, and Tron 2.0 is bursting with the stuff.
Looking at trailers for next month's cinematic sequel, Tron: Legacy, it's odd quite how similar their core plot is to Monolith's own. While the film has Kevin Flynn's adult son attempting to rescue his father from within the machine, Tron 2.0 has Alan Bradley's son, Jet, rescuing his father in the digital world.
And like the film, along the way Jet is helped by a pretty female program, Mercury. (In the film it's Olivia Wilde playing Quorra.) Oh, and if we're listing similarities, in Tron 2.0 you spend a good portion of the game looking for a new version of Tron's code, called Tron: Legacy. So go figure.
As Jet, you charge about in a first-person shooter, attempting to take out malevolent or corrupted code, while chatting with the friendly denizens of the data. What's odd to realise going back to it is quite how much there is of the latter.
My lasting memories were of three things: 1) The pink worm monster thing I could never beat. 2) The light cycle races I could never win. 3) The Disc weapon. What I'd forgotten was that it was in many ways as much of an RPG as Deus Ex.
Not only is there a good deal of walking through friendly areas, or areas populated with friendly NPCs at least, but there's a lot of chitchat with them and your companions. Combined with this is the levelling up - something that's so incredibly rarely featured in an FPS. And then on top of that is the absolutely superb way it lets you add in various abilities, augmentations and weapons.
You're given a disc with a limited number of memory spaces (the number and the spacing changing with each chapter of the game), and a collection of subroutines that go into the spaces. These are everything from armour and weapons to sneaking, jumping and scanning abilities. Subroutines come in three versions: alpha, beta and gold.
Better versions take up fewer memory spaces. So every area is about balancing from your pool of tools, selecting what you think will be most helpful for the level, and then trying to arrange them as efficiently as possible. It means you can't just have sixty-seven weapons available at any time. Carrying a weapon means sacrificing something else. It's an excellent exchange.
But what I love most is that you can get most the way through the game using the starting disc weapon, or perhaps with its first upgrade, the Disc Sequencer (which fires multiple discs at once, rather than waiting for the one to arrive back).
I love discs in games. Seriously, if a game puts a disc in that I can then re-catch, that's an extra score point right there. It just feels so bloody excellent. And while Tron 2.0's disc doesn't quite match my all-time favourite - Klingon Honor Guard's Ding-Pach Spin Claw - it's still a real treat. And all the other weapons don't interest me at all. Combined with the Triangulation subroutine, which lets you zoom in sniper-style, it's perfect for both long-range headshots and close-combat bombardments.
Monolith tells a good, solid tale, both through your experiences in the levels, the conversations you have with NPCs, the cut-scenes, and the emails you'll find when hacking datacubes. Each element combines to form the larger plot, as you realise that the takeover of ENCOM by Future Control Industries is extremely sinister, and no good for you or your family. While it's essentially a serious story, they couldn't have packed more puns and geek references in. Just spotting all of those is reason to play.
Its presentation is remarkably brilliant. Honest to the film on which it's based, it keeps those strange geometric structures, the odd slopes and shelves, and introduces one heck of a lot of crates. But it also keeps the environments deceptively simple. True to Disney's primitive design, it doesn't try to over-modernise. Instead it just looks smooth, neat, and vibrant.
There's a huge amount of thought and care that goes in to keeping that retro/future vibe. And when it gets elaborate, such as the City Hub containing drinking establishment the Progress Bar (I told you there were puns), it looks completely beautiful while sticking to its principles of simple shapes and technical patterns.
Of course, my other two memories weren't wrong. The game gets the difficulty clangingly wrong. Those light cycle sections, in which you take your high-speed bike through 90-degree turns at a ludicrous pace, fighting against AI with reflexes beyond any human, are idiotic. A patch was later released that allowed you to skip the sequences without penalty.
And this difficulty was in no small part thanks to a camera designed by a deranged lunatic who somehow broke into the Monolith offices and wreaked his revenge on the awkward camera angles that killed his parents. It's so awful.
And that pink work thing? Yup, still couldn't kill it. Well, no, that's not strictly true. It's more: still couldn't tell if I was doing anything I was supposed to be doing, as I got stuck in an endless loop of shooting at it and the viruses that incessantly appeared. I'm afraid I put on god mode (mpgod) just to get it to be gone.
This is still a tremendous pleasure, however. Use a level skip to get past the light cycles (mpmaphole) and wow, it's enormous, very well written, and just packed with smart ideas. And thanks to its using such a clean, smart design, it's not aged a day.
I've not even mentioned how your equipment gets viruses, that Bruce Boxleitner reprises his role as Alan One (although sadly there's barely a mention of Flynn, let alone an appearance by Jeff Bridges), the fun of the Ball Launcher, and the fun of finding all the Permissions for a level.
Although good luck finding a copy. It's not on sale anywhere that I can find. This is definitely one for the digital download services to retrieve. I hope Tron: Legacy can live up to the sequel Monolith already provided us.