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

November 26, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

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.

Eliza (1979)


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.

Zork (1980)


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.

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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 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:

Michael Richey
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Great article, saw it on (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.