Instrumental in Texas

I’ve been in full-bore GameSpite Quarterly writing mode this weekend, outside of those times wherein I’ve been doing, you know, legitimate work. The new issue is coming along quite nicely, although I’m having trouble figuring out how we’re going to cram all of this NES 25th anniversary nostalgia into a single book. Blurb’s format tops out at 420 pages, I think. That just might not be enough….

Anyway, trying to figure out the NES’s place in history has set me to thinking about systems that predated it. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to dislodge my conviction that the NES was gaming’s pupal form, the system which ushered in a maturation from simple single-screen arcade games to incredibly deep adventures. Of course, depth in gaming certainly predated the NES! What made the NES important is the way it unified that depth with refined graphic design and streamlined interfaces.

That being said, I did spend my formative years in Lubbock, Texas, and that means I have an everlasting soft spot for Texas Instruments’ bid to dominate home computing: The TI-99/4A.

The 99-4/A was one of a succession of microcomputers from TI, but honestly I know very little about its precursors. They never seemed to make the rounds. The TI-99/4A, on the other hand, was absolutely ubiquitous. Or rather, it was ubiquitous in Lubbock, because TI had a huge manufacturing plant there. I’m pretty sure they cut the Lubbock Independent School District some sort of crazy deal in an attempt to create community goodwill (or maybe just to net themselves a tax break). By 1984, it seems like every classroom in the city had a TI-99/4A. Of course, by 1984 I’m pretty sure TI had pulled out of the market altogether, so maybe we were just getting remaindered goods. Whatever!

The important thing is that we had computers. We could write BASIC programs on them. We could also play videogames. The latter was, admittedly, a lot more exciting than the former, though our teachers didn’t seem to share our enthusiasm.

Like most computers of the era, the TI-99/4A’s library hovered in a nebulous grey era of integrity. Most of its games seemed curiously familiar to anyone who spent time in the arcades, though the serial numbers had been filed down for the sake of plausible deniability. I mean, surely any similarity between shooting game TI Invaders and Taito’s Space Invaders was just coincidence, right? And the maze-chase adventure Munch Man — nothing at all like Pac-Man, and how dare you suggest otherwise!

We didn’t care about the shifty software, of course. We just wanted to play some danged videogames with what should have been learning time. Also, Bill Cosby said the 99/4A was “the one,” and who were we to argue with the vaguely prophetic proclamations of the man who brought us Jell-O Pudding Pops?

Later in life, I learned that the 99/4A was the first consumer-level 16-bit microcomputer, and that it shared common tech with gaming standards like the MSX and ColecoVision. So that’s interesting and all. But I’ve never met many people who’ve shared my own experience with the computer, leading me to believe that it was ultimately a fairly localized phenomenon. Heck, I even attended a morning camp one summer where kids went to learn to program the 99/4A; my project was to have the computer render a drawing of the Tron logo and a light cycle, because, well, I was born a nerd. But that’s probably a given now that I’ve revealed that I was excited about waking up at 7 a.m. to attend BASIC programming classes for a few weeks one summer.

I have to admit that I’ve never really regarded growing up in Lubbock as having been a prime opportunity for a cutting-edge technological experiences… but I suppose stranger things have happened than what I lived in that curiously specific period of time between 1981-1984.

24 thoughts on “Instrumental in Texas

  1. Consider me officially excited about this 25th-anniversary edition of Gamespite Quarterly. Is there an organizing focus to the book beyond “NES FUCK YEAH”?

  2. That loading screen brings back memories. We had a bunch of knock-off arcade games for our TI computer such as Munchman (Pac Man) and TI Invaders (Space Invaders). That was my introduction to gaming even before the NES.

  3. Oh…and how could I forget Alpiner. That was the very first game that I actually owned.

    I too am excited for the next Quarterly.

  4. My experience was more with the Apple IIe, a donated 286, and eventually some 386s. Personally, the only computer I owned was a Commodore 64. And yeah, I pretty much only played games on it.

    But yeah, I’m also of the opinion that the NES was pretty much the start of the really good stuff. There was a level of depth and polish with the best that system had to offer that was pretty much unmatched by anything previously.

  5. We had BBC Micros at my primary school, though that was in the early 90s (they’d been there before that, it’s just that I’m a curmudgeonly young man). Again, probably old remaindered stock. We were quite excited to get a ‘proper’ Windows computer just as I finished there..

    What’s the tray on the side of the keyboard for, is that a place to put a sammich?

  6. Dude, that tray on the right is where the cartridges go! We definitely had one of these in Delaware, kind of far from Texas. This is where video gaming started for me. My dad used to program basic games on the tiny amount of RAM. Also: MunchMan is one of the Pac Man clones that decidedly sucks, but it did have a crazy twist in that you were filling the board with chains, rather than clearing the board. Hunt the Wumpus was far and away my favorite game. Also, this computer didn’t have any ROM, so we tried to save progress in a game onto a casette tape. I can’t remember which game it was, but I don’t think we ever really got it to load correctly.

  7. My ex-wife’s late father was a member of Tandy R&D for a decade and worked closly with dev teams on the TI-94 and some on the TRS-80. I think she’d be interested in sharing her recollections, either via email or an article or what not. Drop me a line if you’re interested. He seemed like an really cool guy; I wish I could have gotten to meet him.

  8. Ah yes the TI99 my aunt still works for Texas Instruments she got us a TI99 one year for Christmas, my brother and I played the crap out of Parsec, that game was the greatest ever. We never did beat it. The next system we received the following year from our parents is still our family’s favorite, THE NES.
    i feel old now…..

  9. Your nostalgia is, as always, fascinating to sift through. Keep up the good work, Parish!

  10. I and at least one of our neighbors had a TI-99 as well. Not sure how many hours we wasted as kids playing it, but I’m sure it was quite a few. Had quite a few cartridges as well. Even had that MBX add-on with the funky joystick. I’d probably have to look through a list to remember all of the ones that we had, but I do remember playing Munchman, Alpiner, Parsec, Blasto among many others.

  11. I and at least one of our neighbors had a TI-99 as well. Lived in North Carolina at the time. Not sure how many hours we wasted as kids playing it, but I’m sure it was quite a few. Had quite a few cartridges as well. Even had that MBX add-on with the funky joystick. I’d probably have to look through a list to remember all of the ones that we had, but I do remember playing Munchman, Alpiner, Parsec, Blasto among many others.

  12. This was our first computer growing up in Wisconsin. I remember Parsec, Alpiner, Hunt the Wumpus and my first RPG, Tunnels of Doom that used the tape add-on as well as a cartridge. TI-BASIC is where I learned to code and put me on the path to being a software engineer years later.

  13. The C64 is probably my “NES” in that regard, perhaps solely because I had a Commodore (only playing NES at friends places) and they were active in roughly the same time period. Then again, my favorite C64 games is Space Taxi–a series of single screen levels…

  14. My (Catholic) school had one when I was in 2nd grade, which would’ve been around 1988 or so. All I remember doing was playing this shootery thing called Parsec and being extremely disappointed that my Sega Master System cartridges didn’t work in it. This was in NJ, too. A few years later everything “graduated” to Commodore 64’s and Apple IIe’s, though.

  15. I cut my gaming chops on a TI-99/4A growing up in St Louis, MO. I definitely remember TI Invaders, Munch Man, Alpiner, and Tombstone. Good times. And yes, I saved my BASIC programs (some original, some copied out of nerd rags of the day) onto audio cassette tape.

  16. I would be totally fine with this quarterly and the next being Part 1 and Part 2 of a massive NES tome.

    Just throwin’ that out there.

  17. Nah, one big volume is MUCH cheaper for you guys than two smaller ones. As in, say, $16 versus $28. Plus those hefty shipping fees…

  18. I remember exactly two things about the TI 99/4A:

    1. Tunnels of Doom.
    2. It had a metal bottom, which channeled mainboard-frying static electricity when used on a blanket for hours on end.

  19. Dammit, that was supposed to’ve been “TWO big volumes about the NES”, not “to”.

    But still, I want two go too there.

  20. We had hella TIs at my Seattle kindergarten. I remember being way into a Bigfoot game that turned out to be Lode Runner, and even then it blew my mind when this mountain climbing game talked.

  21. Whenever the rapper T.I. appears on TV, I ask my wife if that stands for Texas Instruments, and she gets all irritated.

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