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Jackie Hope: A look back at Texas Instruments games

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Once upon a time, there was a little PC called the TI99/4A. She was lovable, but somewhat challenged, bit-wise. Little TI meant well. She just did not have that much onboard computing power.

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The TI99 was Texas Instruments’ entry into the home PC sweepstakes, back when computers had 16-bit CPUs with 64K RAM onboard, were addressed through BASIC, and kept their memories stored on cassette tapes.

Since Texas Instruments were the guys who invented the speech synthesizer chip, TI had a voice. Unfortunately, she did not have much to say. It took me several weekends to program her to say, “I AM A COMPUTER.” Good times, people.

The speech synthesizer, as well as the storage systems and other drivers, were peripherals which were connected serially.

“Huh?” you say.

Think about one of those tandem tractor-trailer rigs, with a string of trailers hooked on back. The TI computer’s keyboard, motherboard and CPU were the tractor part of the rig, and there were about four or five peripheral trailers plugged into one another, all hanging off the right side of the computer console. I had a speech synthesizer, two cassette storing and recording devices, and the peripheral expansion box with slots for extra memory cards. I felt as rich as Croesus; or as rich as Bill Gates was about to get.

In those days, you had to call somewhere in South Dakota just to get an uplink to the Internet, so all the cool kids played video games one-on-one with their computers, instead. Yeah, yeah, it was hard times back then, man.

My first entry into gaming with my TI was “TI Chess.” I tried the intermediate level first, but TI foxed me in two or three moves. My chess skills were rusty; I hadn’t played since high school. OK, beginner’s level chess, then. TI cleaned my clock. Every time, she cleaned my clock. She was no Watson, but she clearly had me at a disadvantage, so I took chess to the pawn shop and moved on to more exciting games.

“TI Invaders.” Now there was a game I could get into. It was a blatant knockoff of the arcade game, “Space Invaders,” only with slower action and more pixilated graphics. Guessing it was a first-person shooter game — because I got to do the shooting and I was the first person I knew who had the game. Shooting I could do. Moving my missile back and forth I could do. Doing both at the same time? Not so much.

See, the one peripheral device I neglected to acquire was a joystick. Not to worry, however. The “TI Invaders” manual said I could easily access the game action by pressing the arrow keys to move, and the spacebar to shoot. Or maybe press the enter key to shoot. Shoot, I can’t remember.

There were two levels of play, “Merely Aggressive,” and “Downright Nasty.” I was moderately aggressive and TI turned out to be downright nasty. I soon began to regret giving her a voice synthesizer. She chose to remind me, “I AM A COMPUTER,” during lulls in game play.

The game action was “Pong”-ish: the missile worked like a “Pong” paddle; and the “Pong” ball whacked invaders. In theory, anyway.

Whacking different invaders gave the shooter different point values. Again, in theory. Trouble was, the fewer the remaining invaders, the faster those little devils moved.

In addition to the invaders, a UFO would randomly cruise the battleground, just screaming to be shot. Or in my case, to be shot at and missed.

After clearing the screen of invaders, you advanced to a bonus round. Okaaaaay, the bonus stage! Trouble was, the bonus round consisted of that darned UFO cruising across the screen like a yellow jacket at a Fourth of July beer garden. Every time you swatted it, oops, every time you shot it, it sped up.

Mercifully, the UFO zipped off after a few victory laps across the screen, and another identical level of “TI Invaders” commenced.

Yes, the game play was repetitious, and the invaders looked like bugs squashed on a windshield. When you ran out of missiles, you ran out of game. Plus, it was almost a completely silent running, except for a few “zips” from the UFO and a few “zaps” from the missile blasts. And a few personal reminders from the personal computer.

My BFF, Wiki, tells me if I could have ever scored 3,000 points in a game, I would have acquired one more missile. And after each 10,000 points, one of my damaged missiles would have been repaired. Son of a gun. Never knew that.

Well, Wiki is a blatant liar. I choose to believe my personal best score, a nearly 500-point game, was eligible for the “TI Invaders” Hall of Fame.

So if you want to do a plug and play on “TI Invaders,” eBay is offering a complete TI99/4A for the princely sum of $145, and you can pick up the game cartridge for $6.95. Would I recommend it? Heck, yeah! Living la vida loca, blasting away at invaders, with my PC randomly announcing, “I AM A COMPUTER.”

No foolin’, that’s entertainment!

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