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

November 26, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next
 

The Wild and the Weird

The TRS-80 hosted a number of experimental games that didn't necessarily lead to greater things. It was the perfect platform for a lone programmer with a quirky idea, and some odd but interesting titles made it to market.

Outhouse
(1982)

"The aliens are coming! And they're stealing our toilet paper!" That's pretty much the concept in this original arcade action game by John Weaver. The player's laser-equipped spaceship has to protect the local privy from alien creatures that fly through the sky, and, closer to home, zombie-like vandals who walk in from the sides of the screen, violate the sacred outhouse, and begin unspooling the precious TP as the remaining footage counts down.

It plays like any number of arcade shooters, with elements of Space Zap and Stratovox, but it's not exactly like anything else out there.

Dancing Demon (1979)

Leo Christopherson was one of the most talented animators working on the TRS-80, adapting to the system's limited graphics to create appealing characters with fluid movement and considerable personality.

Dancing Demon was not really a game, but a fun creativity tool -- users could enter music, note by note, and arrange choreography to go along with it, stringing together a series of canned dance steps to put a tap-dancing demon through his paces. A wacky and unique entry in the annals of early computer gaming, Dancing Demon stayed in active release for years, issued by three different publishers -- including a stint as an official Radio Shack release.

Paddle Pinball (1981)

What do you get when you combine pinball and Pong? Well, you get Eric Quintana's Paddle Pinball, a not-entirely-successful hybrid. The single-pixel rectangular ball behaves according to something like physics, with a certain amount of randomness built-in and a touch too much gravity.

The game's most notable feature is the playfield editor that preceded Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set by a couple of years, allowing players to modify and save the layout to cassette. The feature is well-hidden and not likely to be found without reading the manual, and the editor also does nothing to prevent the player from creating board layouts that interfere with paddle movement or are prone to stuck balls. But it was an innovation at the time -- though it still feels odd playing pinball with a paddle.

Misadventure #2: Wet T-Shirt Contest (1982)

There weren't a lot of "adult" games released during the TRS-80 era, but Softcore Software's series of text Misadventures, created by "Dirty" Bob Krotts, were a good deal saucier than Leisure Suit Larry could ever be.

This second game in the series was a fairly standard text adventure, but in addition to its uncensored use of mild profanity, it featured one pioneering mechanic: the player starts out as a male, but must switch genders to enter the title competition. Whether intentional or not, the end result allowed the player to feel exploited as a woman and guilty as a man, likely disappointing its target demographic but reinforcing the emotional power of simple, text-based interactive fiction.

Astrology (1979)

I'm not quite sure where the 1970s astrology craze and the TRS-80 met, but their woebegone stepchild was Radio Shack's Astrology program. Given the user's birth date, time and location in latitude and longitude, the program would compute where all of the heavenly bodies were at that moment in history, as defined by the standards of this age-old art of codswallop. It might have been entertaining if it had been able to generate actual newspaper-style horoscopes, but 16K of cassette-based code wasn't about to pull that off; the TRS-80 struggled quite enough just doing the basic solar system calculations the exercise required.

Electronic Handicapper: Basketball (1981)

What kind of entertainment software package retailed for $99.00 in 1981? Acorn Software's Electronic Handicapper: Basketball was not a game, really, but a slyly disguised business proposition. It promised a way to beat the odds with "sophisticated" computer analysis, and while this catalog advertisement doesn't explicitly mention anything as uncouth as sports betting in any way, shape or form, the selling price alone implies a certain you-scratch-my-back ethos.

Asylum (1981)

The first person shooter as we know it was still a few generations off, but Med Systems' early first-person escape adventure Asylum managed to capture a little of that heart-in-throat feeling. While the TRS-80 couldn't handle animated 3D in real-time, the machine-language program runs quickly as the perspective shifts from one straight-on view to another, and never dampens the tension. Navigating an unfamiliar space, with no idea what might lie around the next corner, made for an engrossing experience despite the limited technology.


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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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