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TRON's Real Legacy, Then and Now

Tron: Legacy Screenshot

A screenshot from the Tron: Legacy videogameDisney Interactive Studios

In 1982, PCs barely existed, a CD was mainly a financial term, and wireless communication meant walkie talkies or pagers. But one thing links then and now: TRON.

It’s been 28 years since the original TRON hit ushered in an age of computer-generated special effects and arcade games. The film helped propel classic games like Spy Hunter, Mario Bros., and Dragon’s Lair into the mainstream, and the arcade hit let fans play the very games they saw in the movie. It was the first instance of Hollywood convergence, bringing the screen to life -- albeit an 8-bit, low-resolution version of life.

Just as Bally Midway released the arcade classic in 1982, Disney Interactive Studios has a new game, TRON: Evolution, that serves as a bridge between the two films -- even starring actors from the big screen version. And buoyed by technology, video games today can deliver experiences that rival and even help shape Hollywood films.

“I don’t know if anyone imagined games would get to the point they are at now, but I think that it’s affected the way that people are re-imagining the mediums,” Olivia Wilde told FoxNews.com. The actress plays Quorra in both the new 3D movie and the game (which is out now in stereoscopic 3D on the Sony PlayStation 3 and available on all platforms in 2D).

“Each video game that comes out seems to lead to a much more advanced one. What I learned from working on TRON: Evolution is that they’re really valuing performance, as well as the effects, in games.”

TRON: Legacy Producer Sean Bailey, who’s an active gamer, agrees that the original film influenced the modern world of gaming and vice versa.

“I think the influences of gaming can be found in the filmmaking style, where Joe [Kosinski, the director,] would use a POV or video game-style camera position,” said Bailey. “That’s the fun part of games, the immersion that they offer through first-person point of view.”

Back in 1982, state-of-the-art IBM mainframes weighed 2,000 pounds and had 5 megabytes of memory. Today, tablet devices like the Samsung Galaxy S and laptops like the MacBook Air are thin, lightweight and packed with power. Back then, arcades were necessary, incorporating the joysticks and trackballs we needed to leap alligators and zap alien invaders. Today, controllers like Kinect for the Microsoft Xbox 360 have done away with controllers completely, using motion sensors and facial and voice recognition for interaction. 

Steve Lisberger, who directed the original TRON and produced the new film, summarized how far technology has come: Today’s iPhone has more computing power than his team of visual effects technicians had access to for the original TRON.

“We had IBM main frames when we started making TRON that weighed one ton and were five megabytes, and that was state of the art,” said Lisberger. “For this film, we had so much computing power that I don't even know all the words for how much power we have.”

Lisberger has watched first-hand as computer processing power has evolved and inspired creativity across interactive and traditional Hollywood entertainment. After all, TRON has inspired legions of talented people to enter the digital frontier.

 “I've had people over the years come up to me and say, 'I make video games because of your film,' or 'I’ve gotten into computer design or software or hardware,'” Lisberger told FoxNews.com. “It’s been very pleasant to find out that it affected people in a positive way. And I hope that the themes and story of TRON: Legacy helps in some way shed some light on how we might navigate some of the problems we face in today’s digital age.”

James Frain, who plays Jarvis in the new film and video game, knows all about how mesmerizing game experiences can become. He quit playing games after getting hooked on Nintendo’s classic shooter GoldenEye 007 several years ago -- but remains fascinated by how far games have progressed over the years.

“I love the idea of social gaming and designing programs that people can play en masse that solve real problems,” Jarvis said. “We’re going to see games expanding into new areas beyond purely entertainment. My son is five and I can’t wait to see how the field changes over the course of his lifetime.”

Modern video game technology shuttered arcades long ago, but that didn't stop Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, who reprises his role as Kevin Flynn in the new TRON: Legacy. Bridges found video games a key part of the film then, and now.

“On the first film, Steve Lisberger lined the walls of the sound stage with video games that you didn’t even have to put a quarter in to play,” Bridges told FoxNews.com. “I’m not sure if it was incredibly ignorant and naive to think that you’re going to keep your actors and your crew away from those video games ….”

Bridges can still dominate on the Grid -- the digital world seen in the films. But his preferred video game remains the 1980 Atari arcade classic Battlezone, which featured tank combat on a green vector graphics grid.

“I was locked into one particular one that I loved, Battlezone,” continued Bridges. “It was very primitive by today’s standards, but it really would put me into the grid because we had those same grid lines and I was driving this tank around, which I did in the movie. So they would say, ‘Come on Jeff, we’ve got to shoot.’ I’d say, ‘I’m preparing for the scene.’”

One thing that has remained consistent over the years, regardless of how many polygons an Xbox 360 can push, is that a good game remains a good game. Just ask Bridges, who never tired of Battlezone, and jumped at the opportunity to continue the mythology of TRON after all of these years using real-life digital wizardry that Flynn could only dream of in 1982.

Bridges has had plenty of opportunities to play the 1980 arcade hit, which was featured in the original film: Director Joe Kosinski brought back Flynn’s arcade machine for the new movie.

“When we were at Comic-Con in San Diego, there was this recreation of Flynn’s arcade and my fondest memory was to stand there and play Battlezone with Jeff Bridges,” said Michael Sheen, who plays Castor in TRON: Legacy.

It seems everyone involved in TRON -- both then and now -- appreciates the fun of a good video game.

 “I had the TRON stand-up machine installed in my office when I started working on this movie,” said Lisberger, who also played the game at the arcade as a kid. “I said I needed it for research and they bought it.”

John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game industry for the past 18 years and grew up playing games like Pong, Battlezone and TRON.