Sunday, June 24, 2012

True Crime in the TRS-80 Era

I've recently been playing Bill Miller's 1980 adventure game, House of Thirty Gables, published by Instant Software on the TRS-80; it's targeted for a future Adventure of the Week post if I ever manage to solve it.  In the middle of what's otherwise a fairly ordinary dungeon treasure hunt, I came across this cryptic reference:

For clarity if the screenshot is painful to read: a small room with yellow tile walls contains A MAN WITH A FRIENDLY SMILE OFFERING YOU A GOLD COIN.  If the player opts to TAKE COIN, a tempting choice as one of the game's goals is to collect a certain number of them, the man vanishes in the traditional puff of smoke.  And, much to the player's chagrin, any coins accumulated up to this point are replaced by:

This struck me as odd and intriguing -- usually these kinds of "gotcha" incidents are accompanied by puns, jabs at the player's misstep, or pop culture jokes with an obvious reference.  But this mention of WORLD POWER SYSTEMS was new to me.  I thought it might be an in-joke of some sort, and a little research established the fascinating story behind it.

Norman Hunt, an escaped convict and "bust out" con artist, started a mail-order home computer peripherals company called World Power Systems in the late 1970s.  Using a false name, he ran advertisements in Byte and Creative Computing magazines, took people's money, and of course never delivered the promised goods (if these "products" even existed beyond the photo mockup stage.)

I suspect that adventure author Bill Miller (who also wrote several non-adventure games for Adventure International) may have been among the defrauded.  In any case, this in-game reference stands as a contemporary record of the incident's impact on the computing community of the time -- "Jim Anderson" is now forever immortalized as the MAN WITH A FRIENDLY SMILE.

You can read the details of the scam at, documented by Matthew Reed.  This site has some additional scans of World Power Systems' fraudulent ads.

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