We can all point to memories throughout our childhood that penned an indelible plot in the script of our lives. For many middle-aged geeks, one of these memories is our first experience with a computer. Mine is fuzzier than I’d like it to be, but the image persists, nonetheless. I’m 9 or 10 years old. I’m on our dining room floor, laying on my stomach, surrounded by low-pile brown carpet. The weathered faux wood paneling on the walls fades into the background as I stare up at our mid-sized color TV. It beeps, and out of thin air, appears a cyan background with colored bars bordering the screen. As I lower my gaze, the metallic shimmer of the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A catches my eye and comes into focus.
Oddly enough, I remember the system, but not the programs nor the games I would play. In fact, I’m not even sure that I had any games on cartridge or tape. There is, however, one powerful memory that I do have. I thumb through a book of TI-BASIC code, shifting my eyes back and forth … book… keyboard… screen… as I painstakingly punch in every character in every line on the page. And of course, nothing worked on the first attempt. So back to the code listing in the book to figure out what I mis-typed. After minutes poured into hours, I would eventually be greeted with a text character that I could move around the screen. It wasn’t just a block of text shifting X and Y positions, though. No, it was a fierce warrior looking for a way to escape the apocalyptic hell he was manifested into.
As I aged, this one scene occasionally projected onto the movie screen of my mind. I needed to watch this film again. So, I did what any self-respecting adult with a healthy case of nostalgia and some disposable income would do – I turned to eBay and clicked a button. A few days later, giddy with excitement, I ripped open the box and a wave of emotion hit me as I gently lifted my youthful ambitions from the cardboard container.
At the time, I didn’t really know much about the machine, nor how we got it. Released in 1981, the TI-99/4A was a rather advanced home computer for its time. It packed in a 16-bit microprocessor (the TMS9900), running at a whopping 3 MHz, as highlighted in the ads featuring their spokesman, Bill Cosby.
There were multiple options for loading programs. In addition to my method (typing them in manually), there was also the option of loading data via audio cassette tape or by inserting a “command module”, which is what Texas Instruments called their solid state cartridges. If you had some extra cash, you could also purchase a 5.25” disk drive – surely a luxury that my fixed-income family couldn’t afford.
The 5.25″ floppy drive, along with any other expansion unit, would connect to expansion port, which is on the right-side of the TI-99/4A’s chassis. If you had more than one expansion unit, you could daisy chain those peripherals together in a ridiculously long configuration that resulted in a computer that was several feet wide and took up an entire desk.
Eventually, Texas Instruments released a pluggable expansion unit called the PEB (Peripheral Expansion Box). That’s the big grey box sitting under the screen in the Bill Cosby ad.
Whether or not this computer was really “the one”, you can’t argue with the price. The TI-99/4A was surprisingly inexpensive. Texas Instruments entered into a pricing war with the Commodore VIC-20, which eventually lowered the price of the TI-99/4A to less than $100. This led Texas Instruments to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, tanking their stock, and eventually leading to the discontinuation of the TI-99/4A.
The TI-99/4A had a large library of Command Modules, giving you many entertaining games to play. It’s unclear exactly how many were released, but in my research, I counted over 400 different titles. This sounds like a lot (and it certainly is), but it was on par with the software library of its closest rival, the VIC-20. Additionally, many of the Command Modules were educational. And with TI BASIC built in, you didn’t even need a Command Module – as long you had a code listing from a magazine or book (or wrote your own BASIC games), you would have hours of entertainment at your fingertips.
To begin my journey back in time, I decided to choose a BASIC game from one of the many books published back then. I came across SAMS’ “TI-99/4A Games” by Allen L. Wyatt, which promised 13 fun and educational programs.
Flipping through the book, the first game that caught my eye was Mastermind. Always up for a game of Mastermind, I was eager to jump right in and start jamming out BASIC in the editor. Fortunately, I decided to read through the book’s preface before diving in and saw the following statement:
“You must have a TI Extended BASIC cartridge for the programs to run.”
Ahh, rats. I don’t have the Extended BASIC cartridge, so it looks like I can’t join in on the fun. So, I continued my search.
Eventually, I came across another book that caught my eye – “COMPUTE!’s First Book of TI Games“. This time, I jumped straight into the Introduction and saw that out of the whopping 29 games included, only a select few required the Extended BASIC cartridge.
Flipping through the pages, I found another version of Mastermind, which the book called “Color Codes”. This time, however, the Extended BASIC cartridge wasn’t required. I fired up BASIC on the TI-99/4A and proceeded to type in the 111 lines of BASIC code.
Of course, I made many mistakes along the way. The TI-99/4A keyboard isn’t too terrible, but one thing it lacks is a backspace key. When I made a mistake, I had to hold FCTN+S to move the cursor back to the position of the mistake, and then press FCTN+1 to delete the character, FCTN+2 to insert a new character, or just type over top of the mistake to replace it. By the time I was done, I didn’t fully develop the muscle memory, but I made enough mistakes to make this process feel more natural. It did give me a renewed appreciation for the Backspace key, however.
After typing it all in, I did a quick scan of the code by using the
LIST command and didn’t notice anything that seemed blaringly wrong with what I typed. I decided to roll the dice and hesitantly typed in that magical word…
RUN. A mere 10 seconds later, I was greeted with the Color Codes start screen.
As instructed by my own hand, I pressed any key, and the game board drew itself onscreen before my very eyes. Finally, a game of Mastermind… er, Color Codes!
Seconds passed into minutes, as I played game after game, trying to guess the colors. Finally, the mental challenge was just too much to handle, so I hung it up after about 5 minutes of gameplay. 20 minutes of typing in BASIC code for 5 minutes of gameplay… that’s not too bad! Still, I wanted to move on; I had some Command Modules to try out!
The Joyless TI Joystick
As much fun as it was to type in my own game, I was ready to see what this incredible 16-bit processor with sprite support was capable of. The only challenge was, I didn’t have a joystick. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted one, because the original TI-99/4A joysticks were notoriously terrible.
At the time that the TI-99/4A was gaining in popularity, Atari had established a footprint in many homes with the astounding success of the Atari 2600. Because of the very successful release of Space Invaders, Asteroids, and other beloved games, Atari was selling over 10 million units each year in the early 80s. Commodore saw that, and they did something really smart; the joystick port they used in the VIC-20 (and later in the Commodore 64) was compatible with the Atari joysticks that everyone already owned and loved. You could plug your Atari joystick into a Commodore and have a great and familiar experience.
TI, however, decided to go a different path. Even though they used the same 9-pin connector for their joystick, the wiring scheme was different. If you plugged an Atari joystick into a TI-99/4A, it wouldn’t work. Fortunately, some enthusiasts had mapped out the schematic for the joystick port, so many people created their own Atari joystick adapters for the TI-99/4A.
Following suit, I did the same, and designed a simple adapter that I could use to plug two Atari joysticks into the TI-99/4A joystick port. I have an article on how I built that adapter coming up soon.
Now that I could wield the mighty joystick, I was ready to take on some Command Modules. As great as the BASIC Color Codes game was, I was hoping for something a little more… fun. I ended up acquiring several Command Modules for my TI-99/4A, but there were 3 in particular that I really wanted to play.
The first game I chose from my collection was TI Invaders. If this sounds like a clone of Space Invaders, it’s because it is! And a good one, at that! I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t expect much from this game, but I was pleasantly surprised how well it played. The movement of the sprites was smooth, and the joystick worked really well with my adapter.
There were some great little animations that really added to the experience, including an explosion of multi-color particles when killing one of the invaders. Little Kenny would have loved this game and spent many hours with it, had he owned it back in the 80s.
Next up was a game that I heard many good things about – PARSEC. In this futuristic space fighter game, you are commanding the starship PARSEC. Your goal is to destroy all the rebel alien fighters, while trying to survive.
I’m sure these characters on the screen are all sprites, but the game has somewhat of a color vector graphics kind of feel to it. The fast game play keeps you engaged, and the visuals are great eye candy.
PARSEC also has another feature, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to try out. If you own the Texas Instruments Speech Synthesizer module, you’ll receive a synthy voiceover that warns you of incoming enemies. In my mind, I imagine this to sound like a spacey version of Kitt.
I wrapped up my TI-99/4A gaming spree with another highly lauded game called Munch Man. This is another Texas Instruments clone, but this time with an interesting twist on Pac-Man. Instead of running around the board and gobbling up pellets, Munch Man races around the maze, filling it in with a continuous chain while avoiding the dreaded Hoonos!
This is certainly a more challenging version of the Pac-Man genre. Munch Man is fast, and when he ingests an “energizer”, he speeds up to a frantic pace. Directing this cocaine-infused Munch Man around the screen with a high-quality aftermarket Atari joystick was tough; I can only imagine the frustration felt by many kids trying to get by with the original TI-99/4A joysticks.
Another aspect that makes this game more difficult than Pac-Man is that you’re adding content to the screen, rather than removing it. It’s much easier to glance at a Pac-Man board and see where you missed a pellet. But you can’t do that with Munch Man! There were several moments where I thought I completed a board but had to scan the screen, with an eagle-eyed gaze to spot a small gap in the chain that I needed to fill.
Munch Man released a year before Pac-Man came out for the TI-99/4A. Despite the difficulty, I expect that it served well as a replacement for the absent Pac-Man title, even if only temporarily. The gameplay is different enough that it stands on its own as a perfectly suitable game to enjoy even years after the real thing came along.
After spending time with the TI-99/4A, I can say that it holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I got my first taste of programming, and it set me on my journey down the path that led to a fruitful career in the tech industry.
As I ponder my own story, I can’t help but think that others must have similar ones. When some technology “fails” in the marketplace, we tend to call it a failure. But I would bet dollars to donuts that those “failures” produced defining moments in the lives many, who went on to do loads of good for the world.
For Texas Instruments, the mid-80s marked the end of a computing era. For me, it marked the beginning.
Another brilliant one for the ages, Ken.
[…] a previous article, I wrote about my experience revisiting the first computer brought into my home back in my youth […]
Great piece Ken, I have rediscovered my TI99/4A and started to expand its capabilities, it is a journey of rediscovery and absolute joy.
Thank you! I completely agree – there’s really nothing quite like reliving those pivotal experiences of our youth… especially these wonderful machines that were much less of a mystery than today’s complex technology.