'Tron' fan finds rare 'holy grail' arcade game abandoned on sidewalk

Jul 29, 2023
Original URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2023/07/27/discs-of-tron-arcade-discovered/

Chris Lapetino inspects the “Discs of Tron” arcade game that his brother Tim discovered on a Chicago-area sidewalk. (Tim Lapetino)
Chris Lapetino inspects the “Discs of Tron” arcade game that his brother Tim discovered on a Chicago-area sidewalk. (Tim Lapetino)

Growing up, Tim Lapetino loved the movie “Tron.” The cult classic sci-fi movie was always playing on VHS in the background of his childhood. It left its mark — Lapetino became a designer and writer with a passion for the history of geek culture and video games.

It also left Lapetino with a white whale: an arcade machine based on the movie that became vanishingly rare after the game’s 1983 release. Lapetino never found “Discs of Tron” at any of his childhood arcades. He finally played the game — on a machine that is now a collector’s item worth thousands of dollars — as an adult at a museum.

Then, on a May outing near his home in the Chicago suburbs, he came across a “Discs of Tron” cabinet abandoned on the sidewalk.

“If you were to ask me if I had a sort of ‘holy grail’ arcade machine that I would want to own someday, this would be it,” Lapetino told The Washington Post. “… To drive up and see it sitting on the curb, I just couldn’t believe it.”

After the encounter, which a gaming blog wrote about on Saturday, Lapetino confirmed that the game was abandoned and quickly enlisted the help of friends and family to transport it back home. He got to the arcade machine in the nick of time — a notice from a trash pickup service taped to the side instructed its previous owner to break it down before disposal. Nevertheless, it was in good condition. And when he tinkered with it several weeks later, he discovered it still worked.

For Lapetino — a “Tron” fan currently writing a book about the history of the franchise — it was the kind of serendipity that any collector could only dream of. His friends and fellow hobbyists agree.

“This is unobtainium,” said James Zespy, a friend of Lapetino’s and the owner of a Chicago arcade bar. “This does not happen.”

Lapetino is not a collector of arcade machines and did not own one before his unlikely discovery. They’re bulky and expensive, he explained. But if he would ever make an exception, it would be for “Discs of Tron.”

The 1983 arcade game carried a mystique befitting of a coveted collector’s item. It was the sequel to the first “Tron” arcade game, which came out the year before alongside the movie and ended up becoming an arcade hit. But “Discs of Tron,” in which players fling discs of light and other projectiles at enemies, emulating a scene in the movie, flopped on release. It debuted the same year the nascent video game industry suffered an industry-wide crash, according to George Gomez, a video game designer who worked on both games.

“We didn’t make anywhere near as many ‘Discs’ as we did ‘Trons,’” Gomez said.

Rarer still is a version of “Discs of Tron” dubbed an “environmental” — a special edition of the game in an arcade cabinet with an enclosed playing area that allows a player to stand inside the machine while playing, surrounded by lights and speakers. That’s the version Lapetino stumbled upon on the curb outside Chicago. Gomez isn’t sure how many were made or how many still exist. A sold-out listing for an environmental “Discs of Tron” on a vintage arcade store priced it at $11,000. Sellers on eBay have listed the game’s circuit boards alone for over $1,000.

Lapetino said he spoke to a person at the house where the machine had been left out and confirmed that they were throwing it out, saying it was broken. Lapetino texted Zespy, and neither of them could contain their excitement.

“Don’t take your hands off of it,” Zespy told Lapetino.

With the help of his brother, Lapetino strapped the roughly 700-pound cabinet to two dollies from a hardware store and wheeled it down the street back to his home. He left the machine in his garage for several weeks. In late June, he and Zespy inspected it to see if it was still working. To their surprise, it only took a few hours of tinkering with the cabinet’s wiring before the decades-old machine sprang back to life.

Lapetino’s luck continued. He and Zespy inspected the interior of the cabinet and saw that it had only been played about 2,600 times, according to a counter inside the machine. And the coin mechanisms inside the machine were spotless. Lapetino’s free “Discs of Tron,” rescued from the street, had barely been used.

“You’d have a better chance of winning the lotto than for him to find this game,” Zespy said.

Tim Lapetino, left, and James Zespy by the “Discs of Tron” arcade machine. (Tim Lapetino)
Tim Lapetino, left, and James Zespy by the “Discs of Tron” arcade machine. (Tim Lapetino)

Lapetino said he’s aware of the high prices the machine could fetch, but he has no plans to sell it. He has kept the arcade game in his garage ever since. The yellow notice from the waste management company is still taped onto the back of the machine, which Lapetino said he’ll keep as a reminder of his incredible discovery.

Lapetino wants to keep gaming and complete a few final repairs. A faulty light on the machine needs fixing, and he has ordered a replica glass panel with a graphic from the “Tron” movie to place onto the back of the cabinet. The machine will be great firsthand research for Lapetino’s book, which will discuss the “Tron” arcade games in detail, he added.

He has also showed the game to his two children, who love it, he said. His 11-year-old daughter currently holds the high score.

“I’ve got to log some more time on there, apparently,” Lapetino laughed.