The Notable Games
The TRS-80 had amassed a sizeable game library by the early 1980s, but few of its titles are regarded or played as classics today. The system's market penetration was too shallow, and the technology too primitive, to inspire nostalgic memories on the Atari scale. But Radio Shack's machine served to introduce mainframe computer games to a wider audience, supported arcade-style games with some success, and provided an inexpensive, readily accessible sandbox for new ideas.
Many long-running concepts and genres first appeared on this early personal computer, along with a number of experimental dead-ends. Few of the rules of game design were established in 1977, and with low hardware costs and no formal barriers to market entry, the TRS-80 proved to be a great launching pad for budding designers and publishers. By 1979, a few certifiable classics -- or ancestors of such -- were available.
Temple of Apshai (Automated Simulations, 1979)
Retro dungeoneers of a certain age will recognize the Apshai series by name, although this screenshot from the original TRS-80 version published by Epyx forerunner Automated Simulations may not look familiar. Slow, clunky and crash-prone, with graphics running at half the TRS-80's normal resolution for the sake of squaring the pixels, this early attempt at an action role-playing game managed little of either.
Item names were abstract (it's the fabled TREASURE #17!) and objects of interest were simple blocks. Enemy creatures didn't look much different from the player, so text at the side of the screen display was employed to indicate just what variety of foe had appeared. The game's innovative line-of-sight effect took forever to calculate, exacerbated by the frequent screen redraws as the player explored the dungeon, step by painful step.
But this newfangled ability to do just that -- stepping through the dungeon, bringing an invisible bow and sword to bear, dealing invisible wounds to nondescript enemies in featureless hallways -- was quite clearly compelling. The dungeons of Apshai would spring to memorable life on future Atari and Commodore hardware.
Joseph Weizenbaum's classic artificial intelligence fake-out originated on mainframe computers in the mid-1960s, but a wider audience was introduced to Eliza in the late 1970s on the humble TRS-80. Eliza's conversational abilities would never pass the Turing test -- the illusion was pretty convincing for a few minutes, but quickly faltered as her responses became more obviously repetitive and derivative. But Radio Shack clearly felt she had commercial potential as a technological novelty. Eliza was also one of the few programs designed to use the TRS-80's advanced phoneme-based speech synthesizer -- though a therapist that sounds like the Wizard of Wor may not have offered much comfort.
Scott Adams' Adventures (1978)
In sunny Florida, computer programmer Scott Adams encountered the classic Crowther and Woods Colossal Cave text adventure game on mainframe computers, and was inspired to bring the game home. His attempt to convert the code to the 16K cassette-based TRS-80 failed (his company would later publish a version for the disk-based Apple II), but Adams' efforts along the way led to his own wildly popular series of text adventure games.
It was the right type of game for the hardware of its day; Adams' parser was efficient, if limited, and his puzzles were clever and leavened with humor, featuring varied and innovative themes and plots. He also did the budding industry a great service by publishing an early BASIC version of his code in BYTE magazine.
Proceeds from Adams' first game, Adventureland, helped establish Adventure International as one of the first large-scale, multi-platform publishers, and he also pioneered the concept of the "game engine" -- with a standardized data format and no graphics to worry about, reaching a broader market was just a matter of porting the original TRS-80 engine to more machines.
The classic Scott Adams Adventure series eventually ran on just about every home computer on the market -- circa 1981, these games were available for the Apple II, Commodore PET, Atari 400/800, and the obscure Exidy Sorcerer. Adams' influence on the adventure game genre is visible throughout the early 1980s; many authors borrowed his characteristic phrasings ("Everything spins around and suddenly I'm elsewhere..."), and some even reverse-engineered his data format to create their own games and engines.
Everyone knows about Dungeon, a.k.a. Zork, the seminal work of interactive fiction created by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Bruce Daniels, and Tim Anderson on MIT mainframes, then cut down, rearranged and squeezed onto early home computer diskettes with impressive technical engineering. But few have played this original TRS-80 release, developed by Infocom but published in 1980 by Personal Software for sale through Radio Shack (an Apple II edition was marketed separately.)
Later, of course, Infocom became a publisher in its own right and renamed this original game Zork I, expanding on material left over from Dungeon to produce the famous Zork trilogy. Publisher Personal Software also produced Space Warp, an improved TRS-80 version of the unlicensed mainframe "Star Trek" games that also inspired Atari's Star Raiders.
Frogger and Zaxxon (1981, 1983)
Early home computers hosted plenty of arcade action games "inspired by" the latest coin-op hits, without benefit of licensing (see below). This was mostly due to cost, paperwork considerations, and sheer naiveté-cum-chutzpah, but the small size of the market in dollar terms tended to keep the lawyers away.
This began to change when Sega took a more liberal approach with its licensing -- Atari was unable to tie up exclusive hits like Frogger and Zaxxon, and the TRS-80 was among several platforms hosting official, authorized ports (Frogger was created by Konami but controlled by Sega at the time.)
The Cornsoft Group's official TRS-80 version of Frogger was severely hampered by the system's 48-line vertical resolution, which forced the arcade game's vertical gameplay to be split across two screens -- after crossing the road on one screen, the display would flip to the river section. But the game did manage to render the game's familiar musical theme in three-part harmony, no mean feat on the TRS-80, and it certainly played enough like its namesake to merit the name.
Zaxxon, arriving late in the platform's life, is a truly impressive feat of TRS-80 programming -- the isometric display scrolls smoothly, it's not hard to see what's going on despite the blocky graphics, and all the gameplay elements are intact. The game was surprisingly well-suited to the TRS-80's display -- its fundamentally stair-stepped graphics made diagonal scrolling much smoother and less jarring than on other platforms. There are even parallax-scrolling stars in the background, lending visual depth to the action that the original Zaxxon arcade hardware couldn't match.