The Programmable Graphing Calculator...
...makes a pretty good GameBoy, don't you think?
What an awesome idea! Put a GameBoy CPU in a calculator (no joke, the Zilog Z80 was very similar to the GameBoy's CPU), give it a screen and a keyboard and then hand them out to every high school student and ask them to graph parabolas with them. Hah! Yeah right. What were they smoking? From the moment they put those bricks in our hands we couldn't unglue ourselves from them. They were just the pinnacle of excellence in every way shape and form. The fact that they could solve algebra problems and graph lines was just noise. First thing I did when I got my TI-83 was start programming all sorts of little apps into it to cheat on all my tests. Then I distributed them to all the other kids via the ultra handy cheating/multiplayer cable (TM). Then the teachers found out and deleted our calculators before every test. Then I found an app to fake the delete process and keep the programs :D Ohhh man, those were the good ol' days. This novelty educational item was so popular it attracted programmers far and wide who made a ton of awesome programs and games. It also had hardware add-ons and a long following of even better graphing calculators, one of which, the TI-89 Titanium, I bought and used from then on, all the way through university and beyond. It had even more awesome apps and games than its predecessor although both the TI-83 and TI-89 remained the most popular models in the lineup.
To clarify about the calculators, the TI-83 is the workhorse of the education system and that's what we all got back then. It runs on an 8-bit microprocessor, the Zilog Z80 at 6MHz and has a small 96 x 64 pixel black and white LCD display. This is about as basic as it gets, yet you'd be surprised how versatile it was. I made a chat program that used the link cable to send text back and forth and used this to talk to my buddy during a silent reading period in English class, with a very obvious cable dangling between our desks :D Anyway the TI-89, which I later used in university and work has a 16 bit MC68000 type of processor (an SNES CPU no less!) running at 12 MHz and had a 160 x 100 pixel 4 shade gray scale display, which was much better and closer to the GameBoy's native resolution. It's no surprise an emulator came out which allowed you to play GameBoy games on the TI-89! Just a piece of trivia but this is something the SNES never managed to do and the Super GameBoy was actually a full GameBoy, jammed into a cartridge because emulation wasn't fast enough... but the TI-89 could do it !
As for the games, well they were clunky and monochromatic, much like they might be on a prototype of the GameBoy, which it felt like with its heavy feel and brick shape but what the games lacked in fidelity they more than made up for in ingenuity and design. Never have I seen such clever exploitation of such limited hardware capabilities. The calculators were designed to do math. They weren't intended to be used for 3D shoot-em-ups or playing MP3s, both of which they did anyway. The software exposed both high level C/BASIC style programming AND lower level assembly program compatibility which enabled programmers to efficiently harness the CPU cycles and RAM efficiently and re-purpose the once math-oriented device into a plaything capable of being an e-reader, game console, music player, PDA and calculator all in one! Since this is a game review however, more specifically for the TI-89, let's not get too carried away with drooling over how awesome the calculator is and let's see what kind of awesome games there are for it!
Oh and for those of you wondering why on Earth you'd want to play games on a calculator when there are portable gaming consoles that do a far better job... it's because we can and because it's awesome. That's why!
The Best Games For Graphing Calculator
There are an absolutely ridiculous number of games for all the TI graphing calculators at http://www.ticalc.org and I mean A LOT. Therefore I will miss many games in this review that are totally awesome but hey, I have to be selective right? I'll try to touch on different categories though because every gamer is different and there are some really good games for each genre. I'm focusing mainly on the TI-89 because the games tend to be better but that's primarily a limitation of the hardware and it's not always the case either so I will throw in some TI-83 games as well. Let's get to it!
Oblivion (3D FPS)
Just so you know, an entire 3D engine called the FAT engine was developed for the 68k compatible calculators, which enables any author to develop 3D games with HUDs and everything. This was a godsend for the 89 and resulted in several 3D FPS titles, of which Oblivion is my personal favorite! Oblivion is a simple story: You're crash on a planet because your ship ran out of resources and you have to basically find more resources and phone home for a rescue. It's a bit stupid by design because it assumes the planet has technology, life, air, weapons and all that but I don't care one bit. It's just AWESOME.
The level design is superbly rich, with beautiful texture maps, a great skybox, tons of sprites for things like trees, items, rocks, all sorts of stuff. There are several weapons ranging from using your own feet to kick, all the way to rail guns. Each weapon has realistic animations and physics (recoil), ammo, etc. There are health kits to pick up. There's destructible architecture like doors you can blow through, tons of switches and toggles, great AI that are challenging to kill, scripted scenes, level bosses, lighting changes, the list goes on. You can even drive around at one point. If you have played survival games or shoot-em-up games and like that genre you will be right at home with this one. It's a long game with great pacing and will leave you very satisfied at the end.
Corridor99 (3D FPS)
Unfortunately this is only a demo but oh what a demo it is! Similar to Oblivion in many ways but different in just as many ways, this game is pure gold. It starts out with some very photo-realistic cutscene frames showing a dialogue between you and your military commander. Your mission is to go to the moon and shut down a rogue AI that has taken over the moon base. It is very much like System Shock with regards to the feel of the game and the premise.
From the get go, even the menu screen is fully 3D and animated, shifting camera angles to different things when you choose different menu items. There's a full HUD and automap to track all your stats and location, there are many world objects with which you can interface, including terminals where you can radio home and get info. Everything can be toggled from light switches to vending machines to toilets. You can see yourself in mirrors!!! There are all sorts of mechanical horrors waiting to kill you in the hallways of the base and you need to find keys to access new areas doom-style while also uncovering the mystery of the base being overrun. The rogue AI antagonizes you from time to time as well. Pretty much every hardware and software capability of the calculator was heavily taxed to make this game as feature rich as possible so there are so many delightful surprises you will come across as you play. It's well worth playing BOTH this game and Oblivion as neither are a re-hash of the other.
GB68k (GameBoy Emulator)
This is pretty simple. It's a very very well-made Game Boy emulator that will play any game you can fit into memory. There is a process in which you'll have to take a rom from your computer and process it into the format that GB68k recognizes. This is because the calculator architecture is so much different from a computer's that the instruction set is much different and some instructions had to be emulated in creative ways so the calc needs its own rom format. Still, once you get the files converted, the games play just as they do on GameBoy, with a couple of exceptions, again due to special instructions that cannot be properly emulated. The screen resolution isn't exactly the same either so there is some panning that needs to happen in certain games with hud info or other details that can't fit. Having said that, this emulator still rocks and exposes the calculator to the entire Game Boy library so without this, you have only a couple of games which have been directly ported like Metroid II or Pokémon. These ports are usually faster and fit better so check them out first but for everything else, this is what you want!
TI-Chess (Board Game)
This is quite simply the best chess game you will ever see on a calculator. It is superbly done. It works well, is very clear and has a very well designed menu. It has adjustable difficulty and everything you would expect from a chess program. Not much else to say. If you like chess, this is the only game you need.
Ultima V (Turn Based RPG)
As far as I can tell this is the best RPG available for the graphing calculator. It's based on Origin's own Ultima series and has a vastly sophisticated system of items, locations, NPCs, dialogues, weapons and much much more. It engrosses you in its own detail and sophistication while challenging you to make good decisions and follow a path that ensures your survival. With accurate line of sight, lighting and daily cycle algorithms, there is also enough realism to enhance player immersion and further hook the player, which is why the game is so hard to put down once you get into it. RPGs are rather involved in general and this one certainly is so it's not for everyone but that's the nature of RPGs and this one is the best!
Super Mario 68k (Mario Game)
Having already reviewed GB68k you might wonder why I'm listing a Mario game. Well, this isn't a port of any existing game. It's a re-imagined Mario game combining the best qualities of many different generations of Mario all in one... and it's kick-ass! The graphics and speed of the game are flawless. The tiles and backgrounds are masterly rendered. It's smooth as silk and fun as ever. The only thing that could possibly make this better is color and music. It even has a level editor so that you can create your own worlds using the plug and play assets used to make the game. If you decide to play 1 Mario game, it should be this one.
F-Zero 68k (Racing)
It's amazing how close this game comes to matching the SNES version. It's simple and very fast paced but captures the aesthetics and gameplay mechanics that made F-Zero so fun! It's got the same damage system, the recharging, the jumps, the same familiar tracks and a rendering system that looks identical to the SNES's mode 7 graphics. Controls are responsive and gameplay is smooth. I highly recommend checking this game out if you liked F-Zero for SNES.
Gran Tourismo (Racing)
Still in the racing category, this game takes a completely different approach to F-Zero. While F-Zero is very much in your face, Gran Tourismo focuses more on the simulation element of racing and less on the graphics. Your car is a mere elongated blob, no matter which car you pick. However the tracks are far more complicated and the selection of cars, far more diverse. Each car has very specific performance characteristics like HP, torque, gearing, tires, suspension, weight, etc. and your little blob will behave exactly the way a real car of that particular model would. Therefore you need to take great care to make good use of acceleration, brakes and steering in order to navigate the course in the best possible time and beat your opponents who can drive quite well. The most fun this game brings to the table comes from knowing that your skill and handling of the car has to be just right to edge out your adversaries and it makes for some tense moments, overtaking them during turns or getting passed in straightaways. As far as car games go, Gran Tourismo and F-Zero are at opposite ends of the spectrum but are both great fun depending one what sort of experience you're looking for, simulation or arcade style action.
Ice Hockey 68k (Sports)
For you sports fans, this really fun hockey game has clean, clear graphics, smooth gameplay, 2 player mode via link cable (not many of those!) and a lot of replay value. There are cool graphical menu effects and you can pick from several teams or invent your own! The multiplayer option really brings the game to life as you literally square off against another human opponent just as you would on a modern day console. How cool is that to do on a calculator? Honestly this game feels like something you could easily pay for considering how refined and well made it is. Check it out!
BomberMaze 68k (Arcade)
Once again, an incredibly popular console game, BomberMan, gets ported over to the TI-89 and the results are nothing short of spectacular. It plays just as well as the console version and the graphics are equally impressive. The levels and AI are challenging but have a progressive difficulty that enables less skilled players to enjoy the game as well while adept players will be able to plow through the easy levels and get obliterated on some of the later ones. It's an excellent game to have if you want to kill time sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office or something equally boring ;)
There are many many versions of this game floating around but every one of them is essentially the same idea. It's a top-scrolling shooter like R-Type where you collect money, buy power ups and face off against hoards of unique and challenging enemies while avoiding enemy fire. These sorts of space scrollers have always been popular and now there's a way to enjoy them on your calculator!
Dying Eyes (TI-83 RPG)
If not for the 83's pathetic amount of memory this game might have been a bit longer but so much went into making it look like a playable RPG that it just wasn't possible to produce something akin to Ultima V for the TI-89. Nevertheless, I found this game extremely satisfying... perhaps more so than Ultima, because although I like RPGs, they're not my favorite on account of me being slightly impatient so it was nice to play a game that was short, sweet and very very fun. You have to explore a small world, enter dungeons and castles, fight enemies, level up and upgrade your skills and collect items. I have a hybrid Ultima/Zelda/Pokémon sort of personality to it and benefits from their better qualities. This game is a no brainer if you are looking for a TI-83 RPG.
Bust-A-Move (TI-83 Arcade)
Everyone who's played Bust-A-Move, knows what it is and there's no mistaking this calculator port for TI-83. Even without grayscale shading, dithering is effectively used to discriminate different colored balls, and the graphics work very well for this game. The precision of the balls is rather impressive also (maybe due to the whole fact that the calculator is good at drawing lines) and rewards player skill and dexterity for good aim. A great classic re-made.
BomberKids (TI-83 Arcade)
This may as well be the same game as the 89 version but with simpler graphics for a less capable piece of hardware. The game still looks great considering and it runs just as fast as it's 89 counterpart. If given the choice of player either of the 2 games I don't think I'd have a preference. Play the game corresponding to the calculator you have. They are both superb games.
Mario Deathmatch (TI-83 Mario)
This extremely bizarre game consists of a single screen in which 2 Marios played by 2 humans over the link cable, battle each other by jumping between various platforms, firing turtle shells and firing guns at each other oddly enough. I don't know how guns made it into a Mario game but it's actually really fun to be able to shoot a bullet or slide a turtle shell as they each have different trajectories and offer different strategies for killing the other player. This is one of the few multiplayer games available, which in itself makes the game that much more fun to play.
zTetris (TI-83 Arcade)
This is a clone of Tetris. There's not much to say about it except that it plays just like any other Tetris and it plays very well. It looks accurate, it plays smoothly and it's challenging. It also supports link play. It's a staple for any game library and offers many hours of fun so try it out!
These Calculators do So Much More Than Games
Aside from playing games, you have the incredibly powerful built-in math functions and CAS (Computer Algebra System), you have advanced scientific and engineering software suites, PDA and organizational tools, Office tools like Excel and Word, file managers, graphics, animation, sound, utilities... someone even made a text based internet browser that works with add-on hardware. On top of all that, the programming functionality means the sky's the limit on what sort of programs you can run on the calculator. It really does pay for itself whether you're using as an educational tool, a work aid or an entertainment unit.