Editorial: A Look at Calculator Gaming

I need it for homework, Mom, I swear!
Texas Instruments Gameboy

There is a certain type of respect I reserve solely for the people who diligently continue to breathe life into those nostalgic aspects of gaming. One such individual is Omnimaga.org user Hayleia. Very recently, the journalism world was simply atwitter about Hayleia’s Super Smash Bros. Open on the Texas Instruments series graphing calculators. Admittedly, a calculator is a fringe platform at best, yet this did not stop big names like Kotaku and Time from giving an appreciative nod as our collective memories were stirred by thoughts of clandestine classroom gaming tactics that ran the risk of detention. Perusing the numerous publications applauding Hayleia’s gift to gaming, it occurred to me that there is a deeper discussion to be had. No matter how periphery a particular aspect of gaming is, there will always be those in the community with the magnanimity to keep it alive.

When Super Smash Bros. Open hit my desk, I was immediately transported back to the mid-nineties, specifically the first time my floundering version of rhetoric successfully convinced my parents of anything. They eventually came around to my line of reasoning, and decided that purchasing me a TI-83 was a terrific idea. To be fair to them, and abate my own residual shame, I did not lie to them entirely. Despite my best efforts to sneak game sessions in school, my calculator ended up employed for countless hours of classwork which resulted in my current rudimentary understanding of maths. Gaming was policed by the instructors who quickly adopted helicopter flight patterns in response to hallway chatter about Drug Wars. They were already well versed in surveillance from hunting wild Game Boys for sport.

It was not long before said chatter ceased to be about Drug Wars market prices or trying to determine what a Quaalude was, and moved to the topic of development. We wanted to know how people were turning these low powered computers into delightful diversions, and it began to dawn on me that gaming was a natural organism extending far beyond me and a few friends gathered on a living room floor paying daily homage to a console. Its tendrils were seeking purchase on all available lattices, and people were coming together to nurture yet another sprout.

Whether or not Texas Instruments also had this revelation is up for debate. Being no slouches in the world of technology, their intention was to put scientific computing into the pocket of the consumer. Granted, the TI-92’s beefy design demanded some roomy pockets, but the addition of a qwerty keyboard was only one of many augmented aspects of the TI series models as time went on. Previous to the TI-83, TI-BASIC was the accessible language, and a work-around was needed to program in Assembly.

By giving easier accessibility to Assembly, Texas Instruments allowed users of all kinds, including gamers, to harness more power from these little machines. Calculator link cables became a sort of clubhouse handshake while the Internet proper was growing into a robust tool of shared knowledge that made it easier for anyone daring to dip their toes into the world of programming. Games were traded and discussed via BBSs and message boards as the community devoted their free time to entertaining each other by contributing to an environment that not only fostered, but encouraged freeware and open sourcing. It was a novelty steeped in a movement that continues in the brotherhood of gaming, despite its competitive core.

Even slipped the logo in. Nice.
Super Smash Bros Open title screen. On a calculator.

It is in keeping with the aforementioned tradition that Hayleia released Super Smash Bros. Open as an open sourced project. He chose the word ‘Open’ in the title to illustrate the openness one finds in the Linux community or, in my experience, the Maker movement at large. The word choice also cleverly calls upon a tennis open to serve up the game’s competition, pulling double duty in the title. Wordplay like that tickles me in a way that probably should not be discussed in polite company. Simply put, it boils down to sharing and playing existing as two buttons on the same controller. This describes a place where I often find true beauty in the gaming world.

Super Smash Bros. Open was unleashed upon our calculators as playable with only Fox and Falco, yet presents other offerings lovingly handled by the creator. The variable zoom mechanic is a signature to the Smash Bros. family, and has been included in this low-fi title. While the project is open-sourced, players need not deal with any slippery source code, since Hayleia had the foresight to include character creation in the game engine. This allowance for player creativity will, I predict, serve as a nourishing morsel, feeding the seeds for character sharing within the existing fan base of calculator gaming, and possibly get some new people interested.

What? No, I'm doing research on parabolas and momentum.
My money is on Fox.

It is impossible for me to see this as anything other than a testament to the spirit of the greater gaming community. Modding culture is a rich vein of precious ore that continues to be mined for the good of all. There are some days when I revisit an aging title or system to be greeted by an absolutely staggering number of creative minds, all present and willing to keep a cherished memory from collecting dust in some dismal digital closet. The notion that players are allowed and sometimes encouraged to generate content is as old as gaming itself, having been brought to a young maturity with Dungeons & Dragons and war gaming hobbyists. Video games have certainly been no exception, resulting in published books on the subject, or placing us in the peculiar position of dreading a toot from Thomas the Tank Engine in Skyrim. Allowing a game to be tinkered with by the hands of others is nothing short of a rabbit hole, often making me feel like I am interacting with some shared hallucination in a collective subconscious, and boy, it sure does keep things interesting.

As I sit here musing about the intricacies of the open-source ethos, I cannot help but wonder what the future of calculator gaming might hold. It is difficult to avoid suspecting my TI-83 was not the only unit excavated from a cardboard sarcophagus of ancient school supplies, especially after finding industrious individuals were still out there, creating games for them. Hayleia had another hit in 2011 with Pokemon Topaze, and there is certainly no shortage of other titles available for those who happen to have launched an expedition into the depths of a storage bin. These folks do this for the love of gaming, and for that, I feel a duty to thank them.

12 comments

  1. A very fun debut article, Java! Maybe nobody noticed, but I’m a bit of a Smash fan… So I always enjoy info about the series. I’ve seen a few fan made “demakes” of Smash, usually in a 16 bit style for computer browsers. But a calculator version is nuts.

    Also, if we’re talking about the official Smash games, in a match up between Falco and Fox, I always bet on Falco. He’s mah boy (in Melee).

  2. I was part of exactly what you described as well. Now I remember why I completely stopped paying attention in Pre-Calc! I never got that much into playing games on my TI-83 or 85 – though I certainly tried them on others’. The programming really sparked my imagination and I kept trying to make some Ultima I/Zork-esque RPG which never got anywhere but menus and a dot that moved around the screen. So when a programmer makes something like this, it’s very impressive considering their tools.

    Boy, that TI-92 was a beauty, wasn’t she? I swore someday I’d make her mine… never happened. And then you felt sorry for the poor sap with a TI-82. Memories. Now I’m so f’n glad I found other things to get involved in besides calculators. What a dorkus malorkus.

  3. That 92 was a slick behemoth. The only reason why I never picked one up is because my stylish cargo pants* lacked an adequate pocket.

    *note: cargo pants were never stylish, but more of a pragmatic solution to the much-needed accessories for a monochrome Game Boy, and later, Magic: The Gathering decks.

  4. I was required to get one in high school. Thankfully I had one already that my brother needed to buy seven years earlier for the same purpose.

  5. They were and are pricey. The 83 Plus still rings up at $100 or so, unless you find one at a yard sale or auction site. I’ve yet to see any serious contenders to make the market competitive, so that probably will never change, at this point. That and TI did make huge efforts in ensuring their calculators are the gold standards in schools through bulk sales so districts can loan them out to students. I have no idea if that still goes on, though.

  6. They offered that for kids who couldn’t buy their own when I was in school in the early 2000s, so maybe they still do. But, the last year I was in school they also gave each kid a laptop for school and at-home use. When I was there they used Sony Vaios which were nice looking, but shitty. Still, with Windows you could run just about anything, even if admins tried to stop you. Last I heard they’re using Apple laptops set up in such a way that the kids can’t just install Counterstrike and play that during class… Senior year was awesome, btw.

  7. I believe some schools in NYC are trying out programs where the kids get Chromebooks, which are hard to game on by default. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I like gaming, but I like education, too, and darn it, kids need to pay more attention in class. And get off my lawn.

    Balance in all things, I suppose. Know when it is time to game, and time to learn.

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