Priming the Pump:
How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark
the PC Revolution


  -- From Chapter Five:
Computer Commerce: Games, Business, Robots, and Scams
     

Young people liked to hang out at commercial arcades, those noisy palaces full of coin-operated games, and leave their initials in the machine when they were the high-scorer. Space Invaders from Midway was especially popular. Versions of this game later turned up on all the popular microcomputers, including the TRS-80. Another all-time favorite was Pac-Man, the little mouth that gobbled up dots. A version for the TRS-80 was called Scarf Man, sold by Cornsoft.

One of the earliest TRS-80 games was Microchess, written by a Canadian programmer, Peter Jennings, which was for sale at Radio Shack stores. It fit into only 4K of memory and had nice graphics (much better than the before-mentioned checkers game). The chess pieces actually moved on the board as the computer challenged the human player. Microchess was only an average player. It had different levels, but even the advanced levels could be defeated by a good opponent. Jennings originally wrote Microchess for a KIM-1 kit computer with less than 2K of memory, which he had purchased at a computer show in 1976. Jennings was offered $1000 for all rights to Microchess by Chuck Peddle of MOS Technology, maker of the KIM-1 (and later the creator of the Commodore PET), but Jennings turned it down because he believed he could make more money selling the game himself. It was a bold belief because there was no real software industry at the time, but Jennings ported his program to all the popular microcomputers and it became well known. The biggest thrill for him was when he answered the phone one day and found himself talking to famous chess master Bobby Fisher. Fisher wanted to play against Microchess. This was great publicity for Jennings’ program, even though the subsequent game was no contest — Fisher easily clobbered Microchess.

Another popular chess game that followed it was Sargon, which was a better chess player, but required more memory. Programmed in Assembler by Dan and Kathe Spracklen, a talented husband and wife team, it competed successfully in tournaments against programs running on mainframes.

Another game that appeared early was Oregon Trail, a game wholly invented for playing on a computer. Early TRS-80 versions of Oregon Trail had no graphics at all, just words that told you where you were and what was happening, along with your options. Players had to buy supplies, ration bullets and other items, and hunt for food. They typed their actions and the game responded by telling them they had shot a deer or their child had fallen ill or some other response. The game could be played by multiple players who each tried to reach the end of the trail first, with everyone still alive. More elaborate versions followed, complete with multimedia, and the game never stopped being popular, with a 25th anniversary version offered in 1998. It may be the longest-selling computer game of all times.

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