Ask any professor and theyll tell you that graphing calculators have a slew of mathematical functions, including, you know, trigonometric functions, and other typical academic functions. For many bored students, they have long offered a secondary feature: the ability to play games in class.
The history of calculator game development, which began in the 1990s, may be recent, but its an historical one. Thats because the graphing calculator is a relatively niche platform that is not geared around games, even if the platform has a large community of developers many of whom create calculator games precisely because of the devices limitations.
Computer Lab Week is a tribute to the old school games, likeOregon Trail and Number Munchers, that prevented us from being productive. Sure, you should be doing homework, but Carmen Sandiego is out!
According to John Cesarz, a web developer who discovered the hobby while fiddling with a Texas Instruments calculator in eighth grade, I kept doing it because I liked the challenge involved with the [tight] hardware limitations.
Cesarz's recent successes include Wordle, Celeste, and the Google Chrome dinosaur game. These groups date back to the 1990s, when graphing calculators became more affordable and popular in schools.
Martin Bousquet's path to career as a programmer began when his older brother showed him a calculator game on the TI-81. He laughs. Because I broke one of the computers and they were kind of mad at me, he said.  You can only select a point on the screen, but] I was hooked from the start.
Because there was no way to transfer data between two computers, all games had to be manually pressed in by hand, one button at a time, and all games were not sharable. With the introduction of the TI-85 in 1992, games could be developed and launched on the calculator that were created using assembly, a much more advanced programming language. Bousquet recalls one of his classmates saying that using assembly, rather than the BASIC language, would allow him to learn more about assembly online.
[...] z80 assembly allowed you to have almost complete control of the hardware, but had a significantly higher learning curve, according to James Vernon, another calculator game developer. After all, the operating systems in these calculators werent made for games in the first place, with the first being ZShell.
Programmers were also constructing libraries with prewritten code, open-source operating systems, emulators, unique languages, and other features, so that calculator games could be created with greater ease.
Texas Instruments was the only company that produced graphing calculators. Casio, Hewlett-Packard, and NumWorks were also included in the mix. The company's popularity remains strong today among calculator hackers.
Despite Texas Instruments' love of making calculator games, some Texas Instruments employees have been quietly impressed by the community's efforts in a 1999 New York Times interview, he said the company wanted to see if users could understand the devices' proprietary assembly language. At one point, the company even released calculator games on a CD-ROM due to parents finding inappropriate content.
Texas Instruments desired that their calculators be patched up as part of a slew of other innovations, in order to deter cheating in class. According to Vernon, the company has become more reticent to the community due to the fact that teachers are usually not interested in their students performing math while studying, or using software that was specifically designed to workaround enforced memory resets before exams.
Texas Instruments made other attempts to halt the development of calculator games, although hackers eventually discovered solutions. This hasn't altered game development that much, since an exploit was quickly discovered, and it just amounts to an additional installation step for the end user, according to Cesarz.
According to Adrien Adriweb Bertrand, limitations are likely to arise when programming calculator games. It's got a fairly basic set of capabilities, like the ability to toggle pixels on the screen, and the ability to do enough math and logic in the algorithms.
Cesarz demonstrates another characteristic of calculator games: their rather unconventional hardware architecture. The TI-84 Plus CE is one of the few consumer devices that uses an eZ80 processor, and it is, to my knowledge, the only one that does so; often, bugs are discovered because of how few people are using them.
Although they are frustrating, such limitations have not slowed the community from reworking popular calculator games such as Doom and Among Us, others, like Vernon, have made original calculator games that have not been released on other platforms. I've always wanted to do a top-down RPG game like this, because of the powerful narrative you can tell in an RPG.
Many people who have begun writing calculator games have been exposed to the fundamentals of programming. Some have pursued degrees in computer science, while others have established businesses.
Calculator forums may appear dwindling today, but many designers from the golden age of calculator games in the late 1990s no longer make them, and update on these sites are less forthcoming than a decade or so ago the community is still active in obscure corners of the internet, says Cesarz.
Bertrand claims to have built a real-time collaborative editor for programming and games in C and C++, for one. I'm just so happy to see that the calculator programming community is still alive and well, [even if it's] mostly on TI [...] and for the fact that we now have such community-made tools that we could've only dreamed of in the past.
Perhaps the community's long-standing presence can be seen as an obscenity disguised as a shield against Texas Instruments' sterile academic ambitions, which have continued to hack its devices, even in recent years. Or perhaps these hackers are more like ruthless rulebreakers, openly defying established rules of learning.
The quest for the best gaming gear is harder than ever. With PS5s selling as fast as they can stock them and Pokemon cards disappearing from virtual shelves, it's critical to know where to get it and when. Join the PowerUp Rewards membership program today to earn additional rewards, including a subscription to Game Informer magazine.