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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 Previous Page 3 of 6 Next
 

COMMBat (1981)

 

COMMBat was a very early online player-versus-player game for the TRS-80, so named because the system's COMM port was used to interface with the modem. The technology was extremely primitive by modern standards -- there was no lobby or server system, no way to find a stranger to battle. Arranging a match meant finding a friend with the same equipment and software, ideally within range of a cheap local phone call, and then setting up a time to connect to each other and play.

The game looks and feels like a mainframe exercise -- the command line-driven gameplay is methodical and slow, though its turn-based nature minimizes the painful lag one would otherwise expect at a 300 baud transfer rate.

There are no graphics to speak of, and the gameplay is essentially Battleship with tanks that can explore the playfield and fire at will. But in an era where computer AI was also in its infancy, allowing players to take on a fellow human being was a huge advance in terms of pure strategy gameplay. COMMBat didn't have to look good to inspire passionate battles.

Tunnels of Fahad (1980)

Tunnels of Fahad isn't particularly notable as a game -- it's an "interpretation" of Atari's 2600 classic Dodge 'Em that simply replaces the original's racing cars with an explorer and a mummy, accounting for a visible drop in speed while adding a bit of atmosphere. But it's technically solid, and it's also one of the first commercially published computer games written by a female programmer, one Kathy Pfeiffer, who at the time was apparently obliged to bill herself as the gender-disguising "K. Pfeiffer." This is also an early example of today's publisher/developer division of labor, as Ms. Pfeiffer wrote the game on behalf of Micro-Fantastic Programming, for publication by Adventure International.

Kid-Venture #1 - Little Red Riding Hood (1980)

James Talley's Kid-Venture #1 - Little Red Riding Hood was an extremely early "multimedia" title, taking advantage of the low-end TRS-80's cassette storage system -- really just a consumer-grade Radio Shack tape recorder with an official TRS-80 logo on it.

The story mode presented the familiar tale of Little Red Riding Hood, with blocky graphics, text and simple computer-generated music. The visual presentation is augmented by read-along narration on audiotape, delivered with charming low-budget awkwardness by the programmer, James Talley. The audio is synchronized to the gameplay in simple book-and-record fashion -- we hit the space bar when the bell sounds.

The story is simple and remarkably conservative compared to modern children's entertainment -- the moral of the tale seems to be "do what your mother tells you" -- but it was an interesting technology experiment. One additional Kid-Venture was produced, but the sequel eschewed audio narration, perhaps because diskettes were growing in popularity, or because families hated rearranging the cassette recorder cables after loading the game in order to make the narration audible.

Death Dreadnaught (1980)

Death Dreadnaught's publisher, the Programmer's Guild, claims this was the first "rated" game -- computer magazines of the era were uncomfortable with proposed ads for this atmospheric and moderately gory text adventure set aboard an alien-ravaged starship. So the game sported a self-imposed "R rating", borrowing from the MPAA in a wholly unofficial manner, and thanks to the controversy, sales skyrocketed.

Buyers seeking something really nasty were likely disappointed -- there's very little actual violence in the game, though there's plenty of evidence of violence in the recent past. The TRS-80 itself even came in for a little pre-invasion abuse, as the deceased space explorers (and the authors billed only as the Mutt Brothers) have contributed frustration-mangled Radio Shack computer parts to the ship's pools of viscera and dismembered limbs.


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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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