Welcome to another Quick Bits article, this time being very quick since I haven’t been able to find much information on either Laser Ball or its two developers.
In 1982 the Pac-Man craze was raging across the United States with an estimated 30 million active players. Namco‘s 1980 monster hit, initially released with limited expectation, had become a nationwide success. By 1981 it had surpassed Atari‘s, Asteroids as the best-selling arcade game in the country selling more than 100,000 arcade units. By 1982 that number reached 400.000, Pac-Man was on its way to becoming the best-selling arcade game of all time.
Pac-Man, unlike the majority of arcade games at the time, targeted a broader demographic with its unique, simple yet challenging, and highly enjoyable gameplay, cute colorful graphics, and iconic main character, which since has become a pop culture icon. The universal appeal without regard to gender or age, its recognizable characters, and being released at a time when arcade games were becoming increasingly popular, helped contribute to its immense success and led to the development of numerous home video consoles and personal computer games all borrowing elements from the concept. Fledgling programmers made their own variations with various added twists, among those were Neil Matson and Matt McMahon, who on the now five-year-old TRS-80 personal computer created their take as an exercise in programming.
The TRS-80 graphics capabilities were extremely rudimentary with individual pixels on the screen represented by blocks with a maximum of 128 horizontally by 48 vertically and only in monochrome. Depicting colorful, loveable, and recognizable characters were impossible but the core gameplay with a maze, enemies, and dots was indeed doable. To make their own spin at the concept, the Pac-Man character was changed for a laser-blasting capable ball, the dot-eating part was turned upside down and became dot-dropping, and the ghosts were swapped for Destructoids, which could be laser-blasted when the ball was charged by picking up Stimulators around the maze. Each level was completed when you had traversed every part of the maze and filled it with dots. When Laser Ball was completed, the duo mailed it to Scott Adams‘ Adventure International in Florida, which published it on floppy and cassette in 1982.
Neil Matson and Matt McMahon’s Pac-Man variant, Laser Ball was picked up by Adventure International and released on floppy and cassette for the TRS-80 in 1982
Drop dots instead of eating them, the general mechanics clearly copied Pac-Man.
The ghosts were swapped for six Destructoids which could be shot with your laser after picking up Stimulators placed around the maze.
Laser Ball came with 24 levels in total but with the high difficulty level, most would probably only live to experience a few
Matson and McMahon dedicated the game to their mathematics teacher, Betty Lyda
While Pac-Man became a widespread critical and commercial success, leading to several sequels, merchandise offerings, and two television series, as well as a hit single, Laser Ball quickly faded into obscurity. The TRS-80, the best-selling computer only a few years earlier was becoming ever more obsolete, put to shame by the offerings of Commodore, Atari, and even mighty corporate IBM, yet for those who hadn’t upgraded, Laser Ball was a small fun and challenging Pac-Man-like game for the platform.