The First Gaming PC?

(Note: I know, I know. This kind of blurs the PC gaming Epoch argument. Should this be the first Epoch? No…consider this our pre-history, if you will.)

If you were to go back and define when PC gaming started, when would you choose? I’m not talking about clones or ports from other platforms: real-life, bonafide made-for-PC goodness.

Would it be 1989 with the release of SimCity? Not a bad choice, I suppose. SimCity was an awesome game that took advantage of the power and flexibility of a PC. Perhaps Civilization in 1991? Or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in ’92?

All of those would be interesting ways to start, but I contend that the true dawn of PC gaming happened several years earlier. And it didn’t start with the games themselves: no, those came later. What we needed first was an enabler. We needed a company to turn a boring business PC into something that would leave Commodore or Apple in the dust. A machine that would finally prove the versatility–and establish the staying power–of the DOS PC.

And it didn’t come from IBM.

She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts. Pictured is a 1000HX.

Behold, the glorious Tandy 1000. Okay, sure…I know what you’re thinking. It looks…boring. There surely can be nothing special about such a basic looking device, right?

Oh, nay nay. Let me regale you with the tale of the Tandy.

In the Beginning…

At the tail end of the 1970’s, hobbyists and fledgling entrepreneurs came together to begin the microcomputer revolution. Most people my age generally associate that with two machines, in particular (state-side, anyway): the Apple II and the Commodore 64. Both were 8-bit machines that sold incredibly well. And why shouldn’t they have? They were great machines in their own right and I have no particular bones to pick with them. However, another company outsold Apple and battled with Commodore throughout the early 80’s for market share. Enter Tandy, the computer line being peddled by RadioShack, with their TRS-80.

The TRS-80 was a rather typical, if boring, 8-bit computer. It ran on an x80 chip, like various others, but it had a couple of nifty features that made it superior to some of its erstwhile competitors. Features like 4K of RAM (versus many machines with only 1K), a Zilog chip instead of Intel to reduce price, and an absolutely massive software library.

Still, it was just an 8-bit micro. Tandy needed a share of the lucrative business PC market that IBM was cornering throughout the mid-80’s. Further, they needed to get on board with the DOS/x86 train that was to dominate from the late 80’s on. And they needed it fast: by 1983, IBM was really starting to cut into Tandy’s market share.

Their first attempt was the ill-fated model 2000, which was nominally supposed to be compatible with the IBM PC-XT. Rather than play “me too”, Tandy sought to build a better mousetrap. The 2000 used an 80186 (compared to the XT’s 8088) at almost double the speed. They didn’t skimp on the floppies or expansion, either, delivering what should have been an awesome machine to upend the XT. So, what happened?

At the time, DOS software didn’t have to conform to the standards we think of today. If your software could behave, chances are it would run (and run faster) on the Tandy 2000. If, however, your software gave the proverbial finger to the BIOS and instead needed real access to the hardware, it most likely would crash and burn in Tandyland. Thus also to the 2000.

And now for something completely different…

Left in a lurch, Tandy was forced to try to eke out some market share with the lowly 1000. The 1000 was a fully IBM-compatible design, perhaps an admission that the days of proprietary tech weren’t working for Tandy any longer. Further, rather than targeting the XT, the Tandy 1000 was built as a competitor for the new PCjr. What the hell is a PCjr? I’m glad you asked, well-timed question man.

In 1984, IBM was making a play for the consumer market. They needed a machine that was superior to the 8-bit leaders, while also allowing home users to use some of the DOS-based programs they regularly saw at the office. Unfortunately for IBM, they had no idea what the hell they were doing in the home market. It was too expensive for most home users and too incompatible for use in businesses. They quickly killed it off.

Tandy, however, had already based the 1000’s sound and video chips off of the PCjr, expecting it to become a standard. When it went away, Tandy not only had the best PCjr on the market, but perhaps the best PC on the market period. It had a great keyboard, excellent sound and video, DOS compatibility, and a reasonable price. And, unlike Apple, Tandy was not ashamed to unabashedly go after the home consumer. I know it’s hard to imagine these days, but RadioShack was a trusted authority for electronics in the 1980’s. Their marketing of the product helped to catapult it to a high market share, and the 1000’s sound and video became the de facto standard for PC gaming until the uptake of VGA some years later.

While I’m going to put the machine pictured above, a 1000HX, through its paces and gather some video and screenshots, I wanted you to have a good understanding of WHY the 1000 was such an important machine. It’s easy to argue back and forth, but I’m hopeful that once you see what the Tandy could do compared to its competitors, you’ll agree that it really was the dawn of PC gaming as we know it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s