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.
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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?
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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:
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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.