Friday, June 19, 2009

Oddities: Poltergeist

The TRS-80 Color Computer I owned once upon a time was an oddball in the 8-bit computer market, especially early on when Radio Shack was not actively encouraging third-party software development. So a lot of my gaming experiences in the mid-1980's were fairly unique.

One of the strangest games to hit the CoCo was an officially licensed Poltergeist cartridge, based on the now-classic Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg horror movie. This was not a port from any other system, as far as I know; there were games by the same name on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX81, a little Google research indicates, but they were not based on the movie in any licensed sense. So this title was original and exclusive to the Color Computer, with the famous "They're here!" poster art on the cover, licensed by MGM directly to Tandy Corporation, Radio Shack's parent company. That said, it might have benefited from a bigger, cross-platform design and development budget.

The game consisted of three levels, loosely based on the movie. In the first section, the player had to run around a city block map, avoiding traffic and stopping by buildings to collect the various objects needed to rescue Carol Anne. The second level challenged the player to walk up a foreboding staircase, Frogger-style, avoiding evil spirits moving back and forth on each progressively narrower step, to reach the top. The third level depicted demonic figures rising out of "The Light", displayed as a vortex, which the player had to shoot, except SOMETIMES the figure was not a demon, but Carol Anne. Shooting Carol Anne immediately ended the game unhappily; shooting the demon multiple times as the speed increased was required to rescue her, earning a "This house is clean" message onscreen and ending the game on a positive note.

The CoCo's intensely analog, 4096-position joystick was not well-suited to action games, but I played this one quite a bit back in the day, to the point that the cartridge's door spring gave out and would not spring back into place when it was removed from the computer. The graphics were very, very simple, but it made good use of the CoCo's difficult-to-work-with sound capabilities to produce noisy, eerie background audio, and the gameplay was varied and fairly challenging, enough to merit several playthroughs after I mastered it.

But I often wonder whose idea it was, on a platform with almost NO licensed games of any sort at the time, to base an official game on Poltergeist. Was the license cheap, or awarded to Tandy as part of some obscure patent or copyright suit? We may never know. Spooky!


  1. Thanks for the info on this game! I remember reading there was a game but did not know how much it was based on the movie. I run a "Poltergeist" fan web site and have added a link to your blog post. You can check it out here:

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the link!

  3. I remember playing this as a kid.

  4. I remember this game! I always though it was weird that this was the only original, licensed game that Radio Shack ever put out. There was also a bug in the first level (the neighborhood) where if you held down the joystick button, the cars wouldn't come out.

    1. I forgot about that bug! It made the first level pretty easy to finish. I suspect it was a testing feature that never got disabled. :)

  5. What an awesome post. I had one of the original silver CoCo 4K models upgraded to 16K. My dad and I used it so much, the silver wore off the bottom part of the keyboard case. This was one of the few cartridges I had. Graphics never had to be that great since these were typically run on TVs through a converter. I still remember when the thing booted and it said 8487 bytes available and I thought it was amazing! The "Extended Memory" ate up most of the additional 12K we had it upgraded to.