The thing about arcade gaming that people often forget is that you were totally at the whim of your local arcade operator. If they decided, for whatever reason, not to buy in a particular cabinet, then that was that. You never got to play with it. And such was the case with Tron, a game that my befreckled early '80s self was never exposed directly to. This makes reviewing Tron on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008 trickier than it might be, but I suppose it also means I'm less blinded by the inevitable ingrained nostalgia that easily deflects critics from fairly re-evaluating these relics.
Released in the middle of 1982 to general acclaim, Tron was, lest we forget, based on the futuristic Disney movie of the same name, and was available to show off for arcade operators in a particularly lavish cabinet, complete with stylish fluorescent back-lights that aped the look of the movie. It was also a stylish, atmospheric-looking game, and one which evidently had a mystique and an allure about it which helped it to stand out from the crowd. Such simple trickery to tempt gamers into parting with their loose change was all part of the experience, but shorn of such opulence, Tron in 2008 is left to impress us on its gameplay charms alone. And, sadly, those charms ill-befit the term.
The best thing you can say about Tron is that it was fairly ambitious, in that it offered four distinctly different levels, which was something of a novelty. The start sees you based in some kind of hub, which is effectively a level-select screen where you can tackle any of the four mini-games in the order of your choosing. The one I usually pick first is the MCP Cone, which is basically a spinning multicoloured wall which you have to quickly shoot through as it rotates, and try to squeeze through the gap you've created before it regenerates.
Of course, standard-issue one-hit death means it's easy to snag a stray pixel and die (horribly), and if you happen to suffer such misfortune, it's back to the hub for you m'laddie. Because you're playing as an actual man, rather than, say, a spaceship, the game deems it necessary for you to rotate the firing direction of your arm. This may have worked with the arcade version's proprietary rotary control, but on a humble Xbox 360 pad it feels horrible, and lining up your firing arm correctly is pretty hit and miss. Fortunately it's a fairly forgiveable level, so the annoyance factor doesn't kick in.
Far more exciting and interesting is the Light Cycle level. Essentially like the Snake game we all had on our Nokia mobile phone handsets about ten years ago, the idea is to wriggle around a top-down playing field without crashing, while also trying to trap your opponent into doing just that. You can accelerate if you like, but at the risk of crashing - especially on later levels where you face progressively more opponents and you're all busily twisting and turning at once.
Elsewhere, there's also the I/O Tower to negotiate, which is similar in control and objective to the MCP Cone. Once again, you direct a man with his arm pointing up in the air, rotate the angle of his fire and try to clear a path of 'Grid Bugs', which buzz around like naughty insects drunk on misplaced authority. Once you clear them, you have to dash to a flashing circle to enter the Input/Output tower before the time runs out. All very simple, and not especially engaging.
Tanks for the memories
And then, the one I always leave to last is the sodding Battle Tanks level. Set in a simple top-down maze, the idea is to destroy the level's tanks before they zap you. Only problem is, the rotational control, again, is an absolute git, and trying to fashion a scenario where you can deal with them is hindered no end by the slow, unresponsive and counter-intuitive way it's been translated to the 360 pad. It is, to my mind, absolutely no fun at all.
As per sodding usual, a completely pointless online mode has been tacked onto the side of Tron, where you can either compete for the best score in the laggiest of lag-fests, or do some 'co-op'. Like all of these attempts to bolt on online multiplayer to old arcade games, it simply doesn't work, and I wish they'd stop wasting everyone's time with it. Just give us the game, give us an online leaderboard, and leave the rest alone. Thank you. At least there's been no attempt to mess around with the graphics. Offline, it's a faithful conversion, except that the controls don't quite translate. Hrm.
In the harsh light of early 2008, it's not difficult to reach the conclusion that Tron doesn't really warrant a place in the often salubrious confines of the Xbox Live Arcade. It deserved to be left dying in the gutter, begging for loose change, and is in no way a glorious representation of a fondly remembered era of classic arcade gaming. It's a clunky, somewhat charming period piece that's interesting for five minutes if you have childhood associations with it, but, for everyone else, it isn't even worth going beyond the free trial version. Trust me on this.