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Games from the Trash: The History of the TRS-80
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Games from the Trash: The History of the TRS-80

November 26, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

Radio Shack's first computer was an underpowered but accessible and affordable unit -- and as with nearly any platform, quickly became home to games. In this retrospective, Gamasutra pays homage to a system beloved by many but mostly forgotten by everyone else.

The TRS-80 Arrives

In the mid-1970s, computer games as we know them today didn't really exist. There were coin-op arcade games, of course, just making the transition from analog circuitry to digital. And the likes of Adventure and Hunt the Wumpus existed on mysterious, arcane mainframe computers locked away on college campuses, likely plotting to take over the world.

There were "home computers," sold in kit form by companies like Heath Electronics, Ohio Scientific Instruments, and the Apple Computer Company. But these machines were the exclusive domain of the hardcore hobbyist armed with a soldering iron, a wire-wrapper and a thirst for technical knowledge.

A nascent support industry provided reference manuals, tip sheets and technical utilities; pre-packaged consumer software accounted for only a tiny fragment of the market, as most users simply preferred to write their own programs.

The executives at Tandy Corporation's Radio Shack division, including buyer and TRS-80 designer Don French, were in a unique position to observe the coming computer revolution. As more and more hobbyists hit the company's small shops looking for transistors and tools, it's likely that sales data contributed to the company's decision to introduce the TRS-80 Model I in August of 1977. Unlike most of its competitors, the new machine was a pre-built home computer, following the Apple II introduced earlier that same year.

Like many Radio Shack products, the TRS-80 (often referred to as the "Trash-80" by fans and detractors alike) cut a few corners to balance price point and feature set against Tandy's profit margins. Features like additional memory, a numeric keypad and lowercase characters were sold as optional upgrades. The system was also notorious for its ability to interfere with local electronics, prompting the FCC to require some design changes by the time the improved Model III was released.

But Radio Shack had a marketing advantage over Apple in 1977 -- its existing stores provided a readymade distribution network, and as commercial software publishers began to emerge a few years later, many companies favored the TRS-80.


(Click for larger version)

The TRS-80 was hardly a gamer's dream; it was designed for "serious" home and business use, though users were hard pressed to find many practical uses for the primitive technology -- a 3 x 5 card and a pencil were still superior tools for most purposes. Radio Shack wasn't quite sure how to market the system to consumers beyond the type attracted by its basic technological appeal, usefulness be damned.

While the TRS-80 was intended to help file recipes and balance the household checkbook, good tools for actually doing so were slow in coming, and most required the additional expense of a disk drive. Many of these utilitarian software packages were promoted with appropriately dull black-and-white one-sheets -- three volumes of Real Estate software, anyone?


(Click for larger version)

It's hard to believe from a 21st century perspective, but Radio Shack's marketers didn't quite grasp the appeal of games as a way to sell home computers. This ad promoting a paltry launch selection of "Games and Novelty Programs" is just as uninspiring as the company's other software promos:


(Click for larger version)

Rather than focusing on games, it seems, Radio Shack thought they could market the TRS-80 to kids by licensing Superman from DC Comics, and forcing him to pitch the system in a giveaway comic book. This could have been a good idea, had it not misfired badly with a story about two kids helping the brain-addled hero fight a supervillain's flood disaster... by doing a whole bunch of math problems quickly and accurately with the TRS-80.

Fortunately, more entrepreneurial types realized that computer games were an exciting new concept that could survive and even thrive on a platform with limited resources. While the Shack was slow to add games to its official catalog, an army of enterprising programmers started putting the TRS-80 to more entertaining use.

The system's core Zilog Z-80 microprocessor had some arcade credibility -- it was used as the main CPU in a number of early Namco coin-ops, including Galaxian and Pac-Man. But the TRS-80 had limited graphics capabilities -- 128 x 48 strangely rectangular pixels, which could be displayed in binary black-or-white and no grayscale -- gave it a distinctive look. The machine's complete lack of onboard sound didn't help, and there were no official input peripherals available beyond the keyboard, mounted above the motherboard in the same gray plastic casing.

On the other hand, the TRS-80's 64-column text display and dedicated monitor were clear and readable, well suited for text adventures and mainframe game conversions. A complete screen display consumed only 1536 bytes of memory, and text and graphics could be freely mixed onscreen -- something the competing Apple II couldn't handle in its high-resolution mode. And as game developers embraced the TRS-80 and all of its technical limitations, hardware hacks and software tricks soon emerged to advance the state of the art.

Early experimenters leveraged the system's predilection for radio interference to create music of sorts, broadcasting modulated noise to a portable radio placed near the keyboard. Later, it was discovered that the system's cassette tape interface could be controlled directly to produce sound effects -- with an external speaker attached. And several companies adapted the classic Atari 2600 joystick to work on the TRS-80 via the system's expansion connector.

As time went on, clever programmers found ways to produce music in multi-part harmony, parallax scrolling, and even a few gray shades (via a flickery timing trick that few designers ultimately chose to use for actual games.) While the TRS-80's lifespan was relatively short, these community efforts helped make it popular enough to inspire clones in some territories, like the Australian System 80.


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Comments


Chris Hendricks
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Thanks for archiving this bit of history! I hadn't heard about any of this stuff.

I find it odd, though, that the monitor's resolution was only 128x48. It's pretty obvious from the text that it could support smaller pixels... was it just a processing issue of not being able to compute more pixels than that at one time?

Steven Stadnicki
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The monitor's resolution was much sharper than 128x48; that was simply the size of the 'pixels' it chose to display. I think the primary issue was one of video memory and addressibility; as it was, text and 'graphics' could be interleaved on a display screen that took up exactly 1kByte of memory, making it eminently reasonable in terms of footprint.

Dale Dobson
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I just realized I did the math wrong -- Steven is absolutely right, 64 x 16 8-bit characters would be exactly one kilobyte. I think I was thinking the text resolution was 64 x 24 when I wrote that a screen took up 1536 bytes, which isn't correct.

Bart Stewart
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A very nice review of these systems. A couple of minor notes:

1. One other reason for the TRS-80's success was Radio Shack's use of its size to make deals with schools to supply systems for education. Schools got to say they were forward-looking, and Radio Shack could expand brand awareness among future computer users.

Ultimately Apple did a slightly better job here, but a lot of people know the TRS-80 because their school had one.

2. One of the reasons why the TRS-80 became extinct was that it couldn't compete with another Radio Shack computer: the Color Computer, or CoCo. It wasn't fast, running at a smoking 0.89 MHz. But the CoCo did have much better graphics, and its use of specialized logic chips and a Motorola processor (the 6809E) presaged the next wave of home computers such as the Amiga.

The TRS-80 may seem today like one step up from banging rocks together. But it was a real personal computer that fired the creative imaginations of gamers and game designers of the day. If for no other reason than that, it shouldn't be forgotten.

Dale Dobson
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Good point -- I remember the early networking hardware Radio Shack was pushing in its catalogs at the time, for use in classroom environments where short travel distance between the teacher and the students made speed less of an issue.

No arguments with your second point -- I learned BASIC on the TRS-80 Model I and 6809E assembler on the Color Computer myself. But the CoCo faced stiffer competition in the market than its predecessor did; its support fell more to small, specialized software houses, though Datasoft, Adventure International and Infocom published for it, and EA, Activision, and Sierra published some ports through Radio Shack. The Apple II actually outlived both generations of Radio Shack computers as far as mainstream and retail software support were concerned, so I let it play the role of villain/cautionary example here.

Michael Bristol
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#1 is exactly how I got introduced to it. I had a teacher that was spearheading a technology initiative for our middle school and we ended up with a room of about 8 model III - one with 64KB! In VT even. I had no idea at the time how special that was.

I'd basically exhausted the math curriculum at the time so I had what amounted to a whole year of playing with these things. Writing text adventure games, Peek/Poke gfx ...

And I swear Zaxxon had to look a lot better back then! At the time I thought it was amazing.

I moved on to a home CoCo later but the original Model III (and the Model I before it) was a tremendous influence on me at the time.

Dale Dobson
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The 128 x 48 graphics resolution was actually a limitation of the way the TRS-80's video memory was mapped to an ASCII character set. The character set ROM was natively stored at a higher resolution, but there were only enough spare values left over above standard ASCII in the 128-255 range to allow 2^6 different graphics configurations (it could have allowed 2^7, really, but 7 pixels per character position would have been even stranger-looking.)

So each of the 64 x 16 character text slots could hold 6 pixels in any combination, 2 per character across and 3 per character vertically. Hence the 128 x 48 graphical resolution and freedom to mix text and graphics -- ALL graphics were really rendered as text, with 64 different characters assigned to handle the possible combinations of black-and-white pixels.

David Pochron
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The reason the TRS-80's could not do higher resolution graphics was because the graphics consisted of 64 characters in the video ROM (in addition to the regular letters and numbers) made up of a 2x3 grid of pixels. Since the character set could not be pointed to RAM, the graphics were limited by what you could do with these special characters.

Dale Dobson
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I have often wondered how the hi-res monochrome graphics boards marketed later for the TRS-80 Model III worked -- did they replace the entire graphics system, or did they somehow map additional memory into the existing display address space? Seems it would have been easier to replace the whole system than to try to map arbitrary imagery into the ASCII set, but maybe it could have been done that way if carefully VSYNCed.

Rob Allegretti
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So nostalgic. I was just looking up some of the first games I played. I seem to recall playing Donkey Kong or Mario or some similar game on a Kaypro II back in like 1986.

Leland Wiseman
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The first video games I played were on the TRS-80 my father owned. My entire family's favorite game was Catacombs, a game that featured randomly generated mazes where you could only see small portion of the map at a time, forcing you to either remember where you've gone or draw your own maps by hand. The game focused around finding treasures and returning them to the beginning of the level. You could only carry 2 of the treasures at once. Sometimes the treasure would give you a special ability, like being able to see invisible traps and enemies. Others would give you a curse until you either dropped it or turned it in.

Despite having an NES as well growing up with classics such as Tetris and Super Mario Bros, I still have more fond memories of these games.

Steve Fulton
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I recall waiting for my mom to finish the laundry at the laundromat and sneaking next door to the Radio Shack to playing games on the display TRS-80 model. I think it was a CoCo, because most of the games were in color. As I recall, Sea Dragon was my favorite.

Jeremy Reaban
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I had a TRS-80 model 1, and I don't recall actually having any games with graphics on it. I remember B-52 Nuclear Bomber, where you flew a B-52 on a mission using text commands; a Star Trek game; and a couple of text adventure games, only one I remember involved exploring a pyramid.

kevin williams
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Remember this well - was linked to one of the early London Computer Clubs, and it was the 'Trash'80's against the 'PET' boys while the Apple IIE contingent sat in the middle with the lonely Acorn Atom and Z80 guys (scratch builds).

As a n00b I had to beg these guys to put (load) 'games' on their system - remember the Invaders and LunarLander on the Trash'80 was great with good audio. Then the day finally came when I got my BBC'B and the word changed!

We invited the UK rep to bring a TRS Colour (forget the name) to the club once, piece of rubbish, but still interesting.

Ryan Lee
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This machine was what started me down the road of game development. When I found out that arcade games were made by programming, I jumped in to learning BASIC, which was about the only thing you could do on the thing.

TC Weidner
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Yep the trash 80 was one of my first as well, along with the atari 800. BASIC and COBOL ftw.

Paul Marzagalli
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Oh my gosh...wow. Let me get over the overwhelming trip into the past that I just went through and hopefully I'll come back later with something to say! Fantastic article! :-D

Jeff Zugale
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I still run TRS-80 games that I and my friends wrote in high school in an emulator here on my Mac! They're terrible copies of other games (like Taipan), but we had fun - and got extra grade credit! - writing them. My buddy Gene bought the TRS-80 Model III from the school a few years later, still has it, and it still works.

And hey, doesn't anyone but me remember Starclash??

Here's a great TRS-80 resource page by Ira Goldklang: http://www.trs-80.com

Michael Richey
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Great article, saw it on http://reddit.com/r/trs80 (which could always use more posts). Our school had TRS-80s and I had a Coco, grew up gaming and programming on them. I recently purchased a Coco for my niece because her mother wanted her to learn to program.

Jeff Richardson
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I hated the TRS-80 and the Commodore 64 both. What really hurt back in the day was the demise of the TI-99-4a. Texas Instruments had a great product that really only failed due to timing and lack of support.


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