When I was in junior high school, I had a friend named Andy. We lived in the same neighborhood and I was often asked to “watch the house and feed the cats” when his family was away on vacation. As a young teenager, I enjoyed having a place to myself and would often watch movies on their Sony Betamax. They also had a Texas Instrument TI-99 with several game cartridges. I don’t remember if the games were any good, but it was cool to have a computer all to myself. Hmm… They had a Betamax, which was an unsuccessful video medium – and a TI-99, which was an relatively unsuccessful computer system. I’m not making any judgments, but I hope that Andy’s parents didn’t play the stock market.
Since becoming a retro game collector, I’ve been keeping an eye out for this classic computer from the 80’s. I have a simple standard for collecting computers – they simply must have a game cartridge slot. If it does have a slot, then it is no longer a computer in my eyes, but a gaming system. I was recently at a friend’s garage sale. I didn’t see a lot that I was interested in but casually asked if they had any older game systems they wanted to sell. She remarked that she only had some old Texas Instrument computer that they have been storing in the attic since the 80’s. She couldn’t get it right then but she promised to bring it by and we could make a deal.
She came by a few days later and I could not believe it – she still had the original box! Unfortunately, it had severe heat damage but it was still interesting to see the original package and even a rebate sticker still on the box. The back of the box was in much better shape and it showed how the TI-99 was supposed to be used. The ultimate setup had the computer with a monitor, a voice synthesis module, joysticks, a modem coupler, and a huge expansion pack. I’m sure that it would have costs at least $5,000 back then to have every component.
My newly purchased computer included the system, RF adapter (for connection to television), 2 joysticks (broken), a voice synthesis module, and 2 game cartridges. I had all the equipment, but would it still work after storage in a hot attic for more than thirty years? YES!
After searching for the right television connections, I turned it on and the TI-99 start screen came right up. It had a friendly rainbow of colors! Even though it gave me the option of programming in BASIC right away, I chose to turn it back off and load the first game cartridge: Ms. PacMan.
The game didn’t look too bad and I was surprised to get decent sound as well. But with broken joysticks, I had to try and play the game using the keyboard. Normally, that would not be a problem except the computer has no number pad, so I had to use letter keys. It was hard for me to remember so I died frequently. I can play Ms. PacMan on much better systems – so enough of that!
The second cartridge was for a strange game called Hunt the Wumpus. I did not have any instructions, but I wandered a maze until I was killed by the Wumpus. This game had no appeal to me without some understanding of the game’s purpose. I would have been very disappointed back in the eighties to spend a lot of money on a cartridge like this and then play it. I couldn’t even get a decent picture of the maze, although the game seemed to delight in telling me how many times the Wumpus killed me.
What do I think of this as a game system? Well, before I pronounce judgment I need to be on the lookout for more games. There are plenty of them for sale out there. I seem to remember playing Miner 49er on the system back at Andy’s house, so I’m definitely going to look for that one. But so far, this is a game system that is a challenge to set up, has broken joysticks, and has either sub par games or games that I have better versions on other systems. This one, for now, is destined for display on the shelf. I made a short video on youtube about the TI-99/4A for you to watch below: