Field Notes from an Expedition into the Paleohistory of Personal Computing

After a time-travel excursion consisting of thirty years in the dusty hothouse of  fiberglass insulation that is my parent’s attic, I’ll be durned if my trusty old TI-99/4A computer didn’t turn up on my doorstep looking no worse for its exotic journey.

Something I certainly wish I could say about myself.

So I pried my fossil from the Jurassic age of personal computing out of the battered suitcase my Dad had shipped it in, and — with the help of just the right connector conjured through the magic of eBay — I was able to connect this ancient microprocessor to my thoroughly modern television, resulting in a wonderful non sequitur of old and new:

TI 994A on my large screen TV

Yep, that’s the iconic home screen from a computer that originally came with a 13″ color monitor — which seemed like an extravagant luxury at the time — but now projected onto the 53″ larger-than-life television in my secret basement redoubt of knotty pine.

This is the computer that got me started in programming, so I suppose I owe my putative status as a visionary (and occasional gadfly) of human-computer interaction to this 16-bit wonder. Its sixteen-color graphics and delightful symphonic sound generators were way ahead of its time.

Of course, when I sat down with my kids and turned it on, Exhibit A of What Daddy’s Old Computer Can Do had to be a reprise of the classic game Alpiner which requires you to spur your doughty 16-bit mountaineer to the top of increasingly treacherous mountains.

In my mind, even after the passage of three decades, I could hear Alpiner’s catchy soundtrack  — which takes excellent advantage of the 99’s sound generators — before I even plugged the cartridge in.

Here’s my seven-year-old daughter taking up the challenge:

Alpiner on the TI-99/4aAlpiner redux after the passage of three decades — and in the hands of a new generation. Unfortunately for our erstwhile mountaineer, he has dodged the rattlesnake only to be clobbered by a rockfall which (if you look closely) can be seen, captured in mid-plummet, exactly one character-row above his ill-fated digital noggin.

Next we moved on to some simple programs in the highly accessible TI-Basic that came with the computer, and (modifying one of the examples in the manual) we ginned up a JACKPOT!!! game.

And yes, the triple exclamation points do make it way, way better.

Here’s one of my 8-year-old twins showing off the first mega-jackpot ever struck, with a stunning payoff of 6,495 imaginary dollars, which my daughter informs me she will spend on rainbow ponies.

Powerball ain’t got nothin’ on that.

Jackpot

My daughter awaits verification from the pit boss while I capture photographic evidence of the first ever mega-jackpot payout for striking five consecutive multipliers with a sixth $ kicker redoubling the bonus.

I’m not quite sure what will come next for our paleontological expedition into this shale of exquisitely preserved microprocessors. My other twin daughter has informed me in no uncertain terms that we must add a unicorn to the jackpot symbols — a project for which extensive research is already underway, despite a chronic lack of funding — and which will presumably make even more dramatic payoffs possible in the near future.

And if I can get the TI’s “Program Recorder” working again — and if enough of the program DNA remains intact on my old cassette tapes — then in Jurassic-Park fashion I also hope to resuscitate some classics that a primeval version of myself coded up, including smash hits such as Skyhop, Rocket-Launch, and Karate Fest!

But with only one exclamation point to tout the excellence of the latter title,  I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much for the gameplay in that one (grin).

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