Humble Beginnings on the TRS-80 Color Computer, Pt. 1: Lunar-Rover Patrol (1983)

Even before I can remember, I was a video gamer. In fact, I can remember quite far back to when I was very small to the first time I played certain arcade or console offerings. I can remember the first time I played a stand-up arcade game (Centipede), my first glance at the legendary NES, my first hands-on with the system (playing Legend of Zelda, no less), and numerous other formative firsts, or at least what my mind can be bothered to retain.

With all of these recollections, there is still a visceral mote I can dredge up in regards to the child-like wonder these marvels impressed on me over 25 years later.

But what about my first video game? I can only pull this from anecdote at this point, and although the year is fairly certain, my parents are not sure which I played first. The most likely candidate was Lunar-Rover Patrol for the Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer in 1983.

Farrah looking hawt

Not the actual poster, but pretty close...

My father, to provide context, is a geek. He was, in the early 80′s, transitioning from being an industrial electrician into the field of computers. To aid the cause, he bought a Tandy Color Computer [affectionately termed the "CoCo" or "CoCo 1"] for his basement office space at home (a little narrow room between the workshop area and the 70′s-style rec room, complete with home bar, pool table, and Farrah Fawcett poster).

I remember, slightly later on, around 1984-85, being totally enamored by that silver wedge. The whole rig had a tape deck, external disk drives (hooked up to a home-soldered, hobby-style controller board), a printer, and those somewhat uncomfortable-to-grip-the-handle analog joysticks. Looking back at the thing, with it’s chiclet keyboard, it’s bizarre placement of the arrow keys (left and right on the far right above the Enter key and the up and down on the far left above the Shift key), and the fact that its only option for a monitor was hooking up the RF terminals to a small color television, it seems pretty basic compared to the Apple II or the VIC-20 (and slightly later on, the Commodore 64). I think only those who cut their teeth on these beasts really appreciate or sigh longingly at this humble, designed-for-home-use little box.

Unlike the VIC-20, Apple II, and C64 which used the cheaper MOS 6502 for its CPU, this bad-boy used the Motorola 6800, famously (as this sort of esoteric knowledge can be) used in Williams arcade games of this era, such as Defender, Joust, Sinistar, and Robotron: 2084, and was used in their pinball machines well into the 90′s, such tables as Funhouse, Indiana Jones, Twilight Zone, and The Adams Family. But I digress.

My geek dad had a really cool home computer in an era well before the adoption of home computers and being a proper alpha-geek dad, introducing me to the machine was a priority, which brings me to Lunar-Rover Patrol.

Lunar-Rover Patrol intro screen

Lunar-Rover Patrol (1983): Roll that beautiful intro screen footage...

According to my mom’s telling of the story, I was about two and a half years old and my father had me on his lap and was showing me his computer, loading up some games and getting me familiar with what a computer is, or at least to the degree a two-year-old can comprehend [e.g. "magic!"]. She was coming down the stairs to call us to dinner and she heard me laughing hysterically and uncontrollably. Of course, my mom assumed I was, as was prone to happen, being tickled mercilessly by my father, so my mom shouted down, “Paul! Stop tickling the baby!”

“I’m not even touching him!” he shouted up, as she made her way down the stairs toward the laughter. Rounding the corner to the office, she spotted my dad looking amused and a little perplexed with me on this lap (as to see the screen) with a joystick in my hand, laughing to the point I had tears coming out of my eyes and couldn’t see what I was doing. Every time I crashed, which I could imagine was quite a lot, the animation of the tires flying off the little on-screen lunar rover would send me into hysterics. My dad thought that I would think this game was cool, of course, but the unbridled joy and uncontrollable giggling was not what he was anticipating.

Lunar-Rover Patrol itself was a clone of the arcade game Moon Patrol, published in 1982 by Williams in the U.S. and developed by arcade gods (at least for fans of classic arcade shmups) Irem. Where the original had decent, colorful graphics and fair sound effects and musical vignettes for the era, it is notable for being the first (or minimally one of the first, as far as I can tell) horizontal-scrolling shmups by Irem, albeit you are bound to the ground, with the ability to jump. Perhaps more importantly, Moon Patrol was one of the first examples of parallax scrolling in video games. The CoCo “port” was programmed by Tom D. & Brett N. Keeton and licensed to Spectral Associates, a small developer/publisher prolific in the early 80′s for cassette and disk releases for the early Color Computer models, specifically, arcade clones.

Although the humble CoCo could not perform on par with contemporary arcade machines in terms of graphics, the actual game looked pretty solid. All of the general elements are there: the backgrounds, the wobbly terrain, the enemies, the time line HUD with progress checkpoints, and most notably the awesome parallax scrolling! Even today, seeing this on a pre-C64 home computer, it’s kind of impressive that they pulled it off so smoothly. Particularly since this wasn’t a common graphical embellishment until the 16-bit console era, it is really cool to see a cheap-y home computer clone including this sort of effect.

Lunar-Rover Patrol - So Screwed

Lunar-Rover Patrol (1983): I am so screwed...

I do say I remember the game well, having played my dad’s CoCo 1 when I was very little and a bit later inheriting his CoCo 3 when I was 7 as my own computer [ohmygod!] and delving into his library of disks and tapes. Returning to play it in emulation, it is still pretty fun. Still, there is something missing without that clunky-ass joystick!

The gameplay is simple. You are a little moon buggy equipped with two weapons: a cannon that fires up and one that fires directly ahead. A single button press fires both, much like Gradius‘ ground fire upgrade, except of course in reverse and mercifully firing directly up, rather than an arc. Your buggy can jump (pushing up on the joystick) or accelerate and decelerate scroll forward and backwards sloooowly.

Your goal is to progress from checkpoints A-Z (indicated by a little time line at the top of the screen) without dying. Progress to checkpoint E, J, O, T, & Z mark the end of the level, at which point you are tallied for bonuses (based on time to complete), treated to a little 8-bit music, and the backgrounds change for the next level. Each level becomes more difficult as you progress.

There are a variety of obstacles standing in your way, including pits, piles of debris, and UFOs. The pits and debris can be jumped Speed Racer-style with the an appropriate little digital grumble noise. Debris can also be destroyed with the forward cannon, which is probably the easiest and safest way to progress, since jumping debris may land you in a pit. The UFOs come in few varieties: two types of generic UFO-shaped ones that shoot directly at you and three-spoked ones that drop bombs that blast new pits into the road. The top cannon takes care of these but with the slow forward and backward movement [whilst jumping in particular] groups of UFOs can be tricky or downright cheap. Thankfully, your cannon can take out enemy bullets/bombs/whatever they are with a single hit in mid-air.

The controls are overall passable, although the slow forward/backward movement is a little problematic when swarmed by enemies, keeping you in the same general spot while taking enemy fire which is nigh inescapable, even if you are able to shoot down an enemy bullet or two. This reminds me of Gradius, prior to getting 1-2 speed upgrades ["how the hell am I supposed to dodge that!"]. Likewise, some of sequences of jumps can be more than tricky, having to jump further ahead than you normally would so that you can land between two pits and a jump again (and again). This may be in part to the ever-so-slight lag from the game needing to register the joystick hitting “up” as opposed to the more conventional button tap. Since the whole thing auto scrolls, it leaves little time to think about what to do next, which adds to the challenge [good], at least when it is not being cheap [bad].

Your little buggy gets one hit, whether it be landing/driving into a pit, crashing into debris, or getting capped by a UFO. At which point your buggy explodes in a fireball and two little tires fly off in each direction with a comical little bouncy noise. This being, of course, what drove me to hysterics as a little kid.

Even independent of the parallax scrolling, the scrolling is good. In an era when most arcade and home video games were single screen affairs with sprites moving around on a fixed background, this has two planes of background movement, moving enemies and of course your vehicle tottering along. Really, for such an ancient game on an ancient home computer, it’s pretty smooth and feels at least a few years ahead of its time.

Comparing it to the arcade original, which I recently played at Fun Spot, it is much harder, mostly due to the stiff controls/acceleration. The 2-axis joystick (for acceleration/deceleration) and a separate button for jumping really make for a better experience: no accidental hitting a diagonal causing a jump and no response lag in jumping due to it being a simple button tap rather than stick travel. It does seem like the accelerate/decelerate by means of the joystick is quicker than this CoCo clone. I also found that shooting enemy bullets out of the sky and gunning down enemies was a bit easier and more predicable on the original cabinet. Of course, the overall presentation is better, but that is unremarkable, really [c.f. Donkey Kong (1981) vs. Atari 2600 Donkey Kong (1983)].

I would have to say it’s not the greatest game on the CoCo nor even that its arcade predecessor was a particularly awesome game, but in terms of technical merit for the day and for its place it my own personal history, Lunar-Rover Patrol gives me the warm fuzzies. I would suggest checking out TRS-80 Color Computer games in general, so you never got the chance, this is minimally a solid entry to try.

Allie playing Moon Patrol with Daddy

"Mom! I'm going for a high score here!"

As a brief note, on September 10, 2011, I went to Fun Spot, with my wife, Alyssa, and my nearly 15-month-old daughter, Allie. Alyssa, of course, stuck to a handful of tried-and-true classic arcade games (mainly Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man, although I did get her to try Super Pac-Man), sticking mostly to ticket games to win something for Allie and watching/taking pictures of Allie and I. Allie, however, either watched from the crook of my arm while I played classic arcade cabinets or played them with daddy [bashing buttons or moving the joystick back and forth]. The first one she wanted joystick duty was Moon Patrol, leaving me to control jumping and firing.

So basically, our first video game was the same game. Kind of cool, that.

Proud to say, not even two and she can get to the 2nd stage (with a little help). She probably would have gotten further, if not for the discovery of the other fire/jump buttons on the right site of the panel.

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