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My Gaming Education Part 1: The TRS-80 Color Computer



During my young and formative days (we are talking single digits here), I was aware that I lived in a technology savvy home. This was during the later years of the 1970’s, and even as we rolled into the 80’s our house was consistently ground zero for every new electronic product, format of media, or possible future trend. My dad was an electronic engineer who commonly brought home new high-tech gizmos from his workplace (AMF at the time, where he helped develop automatic bowling scoring systems). I remember seeing a teletype in the garage, a Model I TRS-80 coming home one weekend, non-stop Heathkit projects being assembled on the kitchen table, and I am pretty sure we were the first family in our neighborhood to own a VCR. Much of this new tech came and went in and out of our lives since it was borrowed from my father’s workplace.


These temporary relationship with future tech started to become more permanent with the arrival of our first personal computer, the TRS-80 Color Computer. The American home computer market had started offering several viable consumer models by 1980-ish and my dad was all too keen to jump into the waters. My friend Jeff’s dad had recently gotten an Atari 800 which I thought was the coolest thing I had ever seen thanks to the game Star Raiders. At school, early Apple II machines started appearing in classrooms and my friend Mark started saving his allowance for a VIC-20. But once my dad decided to invest into our own home silicon future box his choice was an interesting one since the Color Computer had strong sets of pros and cons.


Issac was a Coco booster

The little Color Computer, or Coco, had a lot of initial promise and over the years would develop its own unique community around it. In these early days of home computing, much of the backing of any machine format was thanks to a dedicated community of hobbyist and tech interested well-wishers. Built around the powerful (at the time) 8-bit Motorola 6809 processor and backed by a network of Radio Shack stores one could see the appeal for swaying towards the little Coco. It came packaged in a silver painted case with a serious sort of Battlestar Galactica vibe to it. The keyboard on the first generation of machines was a terrible chiclet style (designed to accept overlays), which was improved with later models. A cartridge slot was on the right side for game packs and other add-ons including a handy expansion module for attaching a floppy disk drive for those who had the bucks to do so. I am pretty sure our Coco came with 16k of memory originally (my dad expanded it to 32k at some point), and a cassette recorder to load and save program data.


The little Coco did somethings very well as early computer systems go. The built in extended basic language was well thought out and easy to program thanks in part to a pair of excellent manuals that came with the system. Even at an early age my brother and I could make a host of dopey but functional programs to amuse ourselves. The Coco’s hardware design was not ideal for gaming compared to some other home computers on the market at the time. The 6809 processor was slow at 0.89Mhz, there was technically no lower-case text, and in the best video resolution only four colors could be displayed at a time creating some unusual pallet combinations.


Radio Shack made some great computers, but was unable to dominate in the marketplace

The biggest strength and weakness of the Coco would be its ties to the Radio Shack store network. During these early years of the personal computer market, Radio Shack (or Tandy) had a wide network of stores for support and sales which no other brand could match. Radio Shack also had somewhat of a well-earned reputation as a cheap discount store selling rebranded merchandise with lack luster service. This land locked approach to the Radio Shack chain of stores perhaps made software for the Coco limited comparted to machines from TI, Atari, or Commodore. Few large third-party software manufactures supported the computer with most the software we had for the computer was made from Tandy, small software houses, or sold via mail order from the back of computing magazines.


Wildcatting by Radio Shack, a fun oil seeking sim

Much of the game software available from Radio Shack came in cartridge form, and there was a decent selection. Many of the cartridge-based titles were the typical rebranded or renamed unauthorized versions of other companies’ software which was slightly changed just enough so Tandy wouldn’t get sued. Taito’s Space Invaders became Space Assault, Atari’s Missile Command was retitled and slightly changed to Polaris, and Asteroids became Microbes. Most of the games ran 20-35 dollars or so with some more advanced titles requiring floppy drives. Floppy software seemed very limited compared to other home computers where the floppy format was much more of the standard fair (like the C-64 or Apple II). We never upgraded to the floppy disk drive for our Coco (which was pricey) so we had to tough it out with the rather pokey cassette recorder for loading and saving most programs. I get the impression few Coco owners had the floppy drive either originally, probably due to the cost.



Now that isn’t to say the Coco didn’t have its share of gems along the way. Some early text RPGs were fun and innovative for the time. Several of the Coco’s cartridge offerings proved to be innovative or unique such as the historically important first-person RPG Dungeons of Daggorath, a weird platformer based on the movie Poltergeist, and the painfully difficult run and jump game Downland. I personally loved the early one-on-one fighter Dino Wars, the oil tycoon sim Wildcatting, and there was a particularly well-done adaptation of the Konami arcade game Pooyan. There was also an excellent Donkey Kong rip-off called Donkey King (which made the Atari 2600 version look even more pathetic), along with a public domain copy of Mattel’s Utopia that kickstarted my lifelong love for strategy simulation games.

Chromasette newsletter showing the programs for the month

One last software uniqueness to the Color Computer I want to share was the subscription service of a “software magazine” we received for several years known as Chromasette. Chromasette was a monthly subscription service made up of several programs, graphic demos, and other goodies on a programed cassette. The quality of the programs could vary month to month, I remember for a solid year it seemed every month had some sort of terrible Pac-Man clone or cheesy graphics demo. But sometimes the programs were well done, this all depended on the talent of the given programmer. Still, this unique subscription service brought a cool factor to owning the Coco machine as every month we had some new software to look forward to. This was especially appreciated since often computer magazines at the time (which often had basic programs written in the back), often ignored the Color Computer.

The fun but hard Downland

Radio Shack would introduce a slightly revamped version as the Color Computer 2 in 1983 (finally improving the keyboard somewhat), and a more advanced version in 1986 with the Color Computer 3. The Coco3 had both expanded audio and visual capabilities and was upgradable to 512K. Despite the bargain basement prices of the Coco3 by the mid 1980’s, it was no competition when compared to the vastly better supported Commodore 64 or the capabilities of newer 16-bit computers such as the Atari ST, Amiga, or Apple IIgs. To add insult to injury, Coco’s during the mid to later 1980’s shared a Radio Shack showroom with various (and well designed) IBM PC Tandy clones which were popular, better supported, and much more powerful. By the later 1980’s Coco’s had become discount bin computers sold in a store with a discount bin vibe, often pushed to the back end of stores with little thought given to their existence from salespersons or the public. It had become a MS-DOS world and the Coco was on borrowed time. By 1991 the Coco line was killed with little fanfare and with little notice outside its loyal user community.

The unreleased Color Computer 4

By the mid 1980’s I had moved onto other computers and gaming platforms as well. I had both an IBM PC compatible of some kind by 1987 an Atari 520ST which was, for its time one heck of a gaming computer. The Coco eventually got boxed up into the garage somewhere and left to the savages of time. I recently asked my dad if we still had it during my holiday visit to my parents’ house last year and I was told it was given away with a large pile of older electronics a few years ago. A sad fate to a computer that welcomed me into a lifelong love of computing and electronics and gave me many hours of enjoyment. I hope the little Coco is now in the hands of a collector somewhere still being enjoyed for the unique little computer it was. God speed little Coco and thanks for all the rounds of Downland.

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