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

November 26, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

TRS-80 Roots: Publishers and Trends of Later Note

SoftSide Publications and CLOAD Magazine (1978)

As the fledgling home computer market struggled to find its audience, software was hard to come by and largely self-published. The market wasn't yet large enough to support software stores, and there was no internet to facilitate download of freeware or shareware.

But there was a hungry audience out there, so necessity led to innovation in the form of cassette (and later disk) magazines. CLOAD Magazine and SoftSide Publications both debuted in 1978, providing subscribers with ready-made utilities and simple games at a reasonable per-issue cost.

Most were written in easily-customizable BASIC, satisfying the early market's do-it-yourself ethos while providing a leg up for the novice computer users, and the modern downloadable indie game scene owes a certain debt to these pioneers.

Avalon Hill Microcomputer Games (1980)

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Wargame and pencil-and-paper RPG publisher Avalon Hill was among the first to venture into computer games in 1980, producing hex-map wargames and strategy titles for the TRS-80 and its contemporary platforms. These turn-based, graphically sparse games were a long way from X-Com or Civilization, but they provided a counterpoint to the "TV games" of the era and paved the way for more sophisticated gaming on PCs.

While the chief attraction was that these games could be played without the hours of setup and lengthy group commitments required by their tabletop forerunners, Avalon Hill also innovated with its multi-platform releases -- even though there was no common engine and games had to be coded specifically for each machine, multiple versions were released on the same cassette tape.

Big Five Software (1980)

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Big Five's founders, Bill Hogue and Jeff Konyu, were bound and determined to make arcade games viable on the TRS-80. They borrowed heavily from the coin-op scene, with releases like Super Nova (an Asteroids clone) and Robot Attack (a copy of Stern's Berzerk, featuring another technical innovation with digitized voice samples), and they engineered the TRISSTICK, modifying standard Atari joysticks to work on the TRS-80.

The company is best known today for following its TRS-80 line with Bill Hogue's breakthrough hit, Miner 2049er, debuting on the Atari 400/800 and still around in cell phone form today. A TRS-80 version of Miner 2049er was advertised in the mid-1980s when the title went broadly multi-platform, but despite the nostalgic appeal, it was apparently never published or even developed.

Brøderbund (1980)

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Brøderbund became a major software publisher in later years, with game hits including the Carmen Sandiego series and a series of cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System. But founding brother Doug Carlston's elaborate Galactic Saga space strategy/trading trilogy was originally published by Adventure International, before the brothers Carlston started publishing on their own.

Joel Mick Text Adventures (1979)

13-year-old Joel Mick's story is not particularly unusual, but he's one of the few early TRS-80 game coders whose career can be traced over the longer term. He got his start in the game industry developing and marketing his own text adventures for fun, via mail order, at nominal cost. Although the first wave of computer gaming went bust in the mid-1980s, forcing many early game coders to seek more traditional IT employment, Mr. Mick stayed in the field of game design after college. He went on to design numerous games in more traditional formats, and was notably part of the original Magic: The Gathering team.

The End of the TRS-80 Era

Hardware cycles are a recognized and predictable challenge for the game industry today -- a successful platform has five or six years of solid success, an unsuccessful format a briefer existence. TRS-80 publishers catering to gamers were generally small and on the edge of solvency, and as the system aged, it became clear that most were tied too closely to Radio Shack's flagship machine. Activision and EA were young too, but they supported multiple newer platforms and managed to weather the storm.

Most TRS-80 publishers did not survive the era, and many blamed software piracy for the end of the ride -- modems and illicit BBSes had become popular, and by 1983, it was hardly worth advertising a new game for more than a month, as once it was released it would almost immediately become available through underground channels.

But the TRS-80 had other problems -- it was clearly more technically limited than its primary competitor, the Apple II, and software support for Tandy's little gray box dropped off as technical standards and gamers' expectations rose. In 1982, Epyx was still supporting the TRS-80 alongside the Apple II, which was just starting to pull ahead in the race for market share:

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But while this mid-1980s Epyx catalog still features a wide range of Apple II titles, the TRS-80, so popular a little bit earlier, is now nowhere to be seen:

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This was not a reversible trend -- while the TRS-80 Model III and IV computers cleaned up some of the original's aesthetics, the system's basic capabilities were clearly being outstripped by its new competitors, especially in the game arena. Concepts that just barely worked on the TRS-80 were becoming fully realized experiences on the newer 8-bit machines, and Radio Shack's aging machine became less and less able to compete. Gamers didn't suffer, but they did move on, and they did so more suddenly than an industry unaccustomed to platform shifts had anticipated.

The TRS-80 occupies a unique position in gaming history -- it enjoyed early success because it was early to the party, cheaper than its competition, and easy to find at the local Radio Shack. It bridged the gap between the hobbyist kit computing era and today's all-purpose consumer computer. And it dominated the home computer market just long enough to provide fertile ground for many early games, and concepts that still inform interactive entertainment today.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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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.