Intermission: Med Systems Marathon – That was 1981!

From The Adventure Gamer


by Will Moczarski

We’ve finished the second year of our Med Systems marathon now, and there are only four adventure games left. The company would exist for two more years, and in 1983 it was rechristened Screenplay. They would continue to operate under the new name until around 1986 but their output was meager and no new adventure games hit the market after 1983. In 1981, however, Med Systems were slowly reaching their peak: three of their innovative 3-D maze adventure games had been released by January 1981, they attracted new and talented programmers and entered the Atari market after having been an Apple ][ and especially TRS-80 company exclusively. Of course, they were not alone: 1981 was a seminal year for what was still being called “micro games”, as can be gathered from reading an extended feature from the August 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine. In it, Med Systems Software were featured as one of the most important players of the time, and it’s the best source of information you can get if you’re interested in the history of the company.

I’ve compiled some of the most interesting quotes here to set the stage for the year that was 1981 – as usual, I’ve played the non-adventure games, too, and report back about the other software released by Med Systems.

Introduction: A burgeoning industry

According to Bert Latamore’s multiple-page feature “Micro Games Sell Like Hot Cakes, Suppliers Scramble to Keep Up” in the August 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine, the software market of 1980 is estimated at $80 to $90 million retail by the IRD (International Resource Development) which is remarkable for a market that hasn’t managed to lay out many binding rules or even basic structures at that point in time. The suppliers themselves hence are rather vague when it comes to their take on the market, describing it as “very attractive” or even “unlimited”. Those were the days when one single programmer could score a veritable and lucrative hit, the age of a young Nasir Gebelli and an even younger Richard Garriott. Games were fast becoming a guilty pleasure, a kind of secret reason to buy a micro computer that soon wasn’t so secret anymore: “Professional people play games on their lunch hours, their children play educational games at school. People with no use for an accounting program buy games, and people who would never think of using word processing also play games”, Latamore writes.

Med Systems founder and president William F. Denman, jr. was also interviewed for Latamore’s feature – as one of the distinct players on the market at this point in time and as an advocate for the division of software companies’ product lines between “other kinds of software” and games (note how games quickly became the norm in this line of argumentation while business or home applications are already “other kinds of software”!). This is clearly for fiscal reasons, as Denman readily admits: “We make most of our money on games. I consider that to be a really growing market.” He goes on to say that they have seen a large expansion in the market over the last few months which may explain why all of Med Systems’ 1980 games were extensively reviewed and marketed from 1981 on and not earlier. “All kinds of games are selling well, although high speed graphics adventure games sell best”, Latamore sums up. Because of that, Med Systems “are considering” to support the Atari as their third platform. The decision must have been made rather quickly because there’s an ad in Compute! the same month for the Atari version of the Med Systems game Knossos.

Apart from Latamore’s industry report there’s another feature by the same author in that same August 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine. “A Walk on The Monster Side” provides “[a] short history of games and game development”, and it’s a really interesting read, for its arguments why games have never been better than right now seem to be repeated in every age of computer gaming up to this day. Latamore’s history includes a mini-portrait of Med Systems, too, and I’ll just quote it as a whole:

“Med Systems, Chaple Hill, NC, produces some of the most elaborate maze games. This may be a direct result of part of the firm’s philosophy. William Denman, Med System [sic!] president, said they want a game ‘someone can play for weeks, with fast graphics and reasonably different from other games.’ Anyone who has tried to find his way through Labyrinth knows what Denman means. ‘Each time we do a game it gets better,’ he said. ‘We handle the graphics better, we get things to fit better. Asylum, our newest release, is a 1,200-location maze. A programmer would find it elegant, a game player will find it devastatingly interesting.”

Denman also states that he is still writing most of his games for 16K memory because his company has many customers overseas who still own older machines. “Curiously, while his company does not handle arcade games, he admits the arcades are his favorites, and he admires Big Five Software’s products.”

Another testimony to the boom of the software (or rather games) market in 1981 is an employment ad by Med Systems from the August 1981 issue of Compute! magazine. Software developers are wooed to “join the company of bestselling authors at Med Systems. We have an established market spanning the free world and royalties second to none. We seek excellent games, utilities and applications packages. Only the best are accepted! If you have authored software you feel is publishable, submit it to Med Systems, Software Review Section.” They were really stressing their claim to excellence back then, as you can also see in the subsequent part: “MED SYSTEMS has been publishing and distributing software worldwide since 1979. We publish only the best! […] We know how hard it is to wait for that perfect program. We even guarantee satisfaction! If you don’t like our software, return it within 14 days for a prompt, cheerful refund. If you have a problem, call us 10-6 EST. We are here to serve you.” Now that’s what I call service-oriented.

Med Systems has quickly developed from a one-man company to one with at least two more employees – Frank L. Corr, jr. and Simon Smith. They also attracted a couple of contractors who were notable talents: Jyym Pearson and Arti Haroutunian. As the market expanded, their marketing strategies became increasingly aggressive, as can be seen in the October 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine. In it, there are no less than three full-page ads by Med Systems back to back which must have cost quite a dime. Put simply, they were on top of things, and while Asylum proved to be a successful game that even merited a sequel, their first arcade games like Laser Defense finally went through the roof.

1981: Employees and Contractors

a. Frank L. Corr, jr.

Frank L. Corr, jr. had made himself a name as a prolific programmer of 3-D mazes by August 1981. Consequently, he was the subject of a longer feature article by Mike Nadeau in 80 Computing Magazine telling us much about Frank’s background that would otherwise remain unknown. By the summer of 1981, Frank had designed Rat’s Revenge and Deathmaze 5000 on his own, and collaborated with his boss William Denman for Labyrinth and Asylum. According to the feature in question, “Frank Corr – Making the Ultimate Maze”, he was an 18-year-old freshman at MIT when he wrote Rat’s Revenge. He got a marketing offer by William Denman on the spot which surprised him because, possibly in the non-commercial spirit of an MIT programmer, he had not planned to sell the game. Corr simply replied: “Fine, you can market it, but I want to learn machine language first.” While Corr wrote an English research paper on machine language, probably in early 1980, Denman went on to sell Rat’s Revenge. In June 1980 Frank Corr was employed by Denman to use his newly acquired skills for a fast machine-language 3-D maze adventure game. The fact that Deathmaze 5000 sometimes feels so different from its peers may be reflected in Corr’s statement that he “never played an adventure game until [he] was halfway through Deathmaze.” Fans of the game seem to have loved the new concept but Corr realized he had to provide more clues in his subsequent adventure games. He thus teamed up with Denman who already had the experience of Reality Ends under his belt. Labyrinth was the fruit of this collaboration between the writer Denman and the graphics programmer Corr, it seems. Most of the frustrating aspects of Labyrinth are attributed to Corr who called his frustrating teleporters “a cute little stunt.”

Corr was especially proud of Asylum which he though was twice as good as Deathmaze 5000. According to Nadeau, “[h]e attributes much of the improvement to a routine he discovered in January that allows graphics to be stored as data.” And according to Corr, Asylum is “by far an easier game” than Deathmaze 5000. I tend to disagree.

Source: Spring 1981 Med Systems Catalog

Interestingly, Corr was working on another adventure game for the TRS-80 in August 1981 but sadly it never saw the light of day. “The graphics will be vastly improved, with octagonal rooms, and use a space station or similar setting, Corr said. After that, Corr wants to write real-time arcade-style games based on the Atari micro, whose graphics capabilities Corr prefers. He intends to stay with Med Systems, however.” Asylum remained Corr’s last game, at least as far as I know. Its sequel was programmed by William Denman alone, and he never published anything for the Atari micros. I find it interesting that Corr and Denman both were looking to arcade games for inspiration (and their own enjoyment) while they were busy making adventure games. This is also what Med Systems and later Screenplay followed up on as companies. Also, Frank Corr appears to have been very optimistic about games conquering the home, a prediction that has long since been proven right: “Most people will be home playing games and not watching TV, which is good!”

b. Arti Haroutunian, Simon Smith, Jyym & Robyn Pearson

Arti Haroutunian published his first game Microworld through Med Systems. This made him the company’s second contractor after Frank L. Corr, jr. but other than Corr, he never joined as an employee. Microworld fits the Med Systems catalog quite nicely as it follows up the journey into the human body that is The Human Adventure (1980) with a journey to the center of a TRS-80. Haroutunian’s next games were all action or arcade games and published through Tronix Publishing until he landed a lucrative deal with Activision for a computer port of River Raid in 1984. Moreover, Haroutunian was responsible for Juice! (1983) which one of our admins, TBD, has a soft spot for. Other notable ports by Haroutunian include Skate or Die (1988) for EA as well as Pac-Mania (1991), the side-scrolling jump’n’run that famously predated Super Mario Bros. in the mid-80s. He went on to work on three WWF wrestling games in the 1990s and later joined Disney Interactive Studios for some licensed property games in the 2010s. What he did in between 1994 and 2008 or since 2015, I don’t know. For our purposes, Microworld is the only Med Systems game and the only adventure game he ever did. He appears to have returned to the fold briefly for the Atari port of his own game in 1983, now letting the player experience a journey to the center of an Atari 400 or 800.

Simon Smith appears to be Med Systems’s second employee, at least in the programming sector, as he exclusively worked for them as well as their successor Screenplay. He wrote the business application GRBasic for them (more on that below) in 1981 and his first game Knossos was released around May of the same year. He went on to write Laser Defense as well as a port of Sentinel in 1982 and possibly Cyborg as well as Arena 3000 in 1982 but we’ll get into that another time. I’m not really sure about Smith’s ludology because, as you can imagine, it’s rather futile to google someone called Simon Smith.

Jyym Pearson was at the center of our attention for quite some posts now. I dedicated a whole mini-marathon to his and his wife Robyn’s work. They were apparently also contractors for Med Systems and released The Institute (1981), Lucifer’s Realm (1982), The Paradise Threat (1982) and The Farvar Legacy (1983) through William Denman’s company. Their OtherVentures games as well as Saigon: The Final Days were all written between 1980 and 1981, although Saigon may have been released as late as 1983. They never released anything new after The Farvar Legacy except for ports and compilations of his earlier work. Jyym Pearson sadly passed on in 1994. I would have loved to interview him, as his personal style is really something different, and apparently Med Systems knew how to build upon his reputation, marketing many of his titles by using his name.

Source: Analog Computing 08 (11/1982)

Source: Antic Vol. 2 No. 1 (4/1983)

1981 Non-Adventure Games

a. Knossos (by Simon Smith, August 1981, source: Compute!)

I first thought that Knossos was another 3-D adventure game in the vein of Labyrinth but in reality it’s a close cousin to Rat’s Revenge using a different look (I’m not sure if you could call that a different ‘engine’, really). It is related to Labyrinth, however, through their shared mythology. Both feature a minotaur who’s out to get the player but in Knossos you don’t have to solve any puzzles to evade him. A minotaur in a labyrinth always spells Knossos, of course, so they’re technically set in the same imaginary storyworld. From Beowulf to Plutarch, Med Systems sure knew their classics off pat.

The plot is rather simple according to this September 1981 ad from 80 Microcomputing Magazine:

“You are isolated and alone in the maze at Knossos, Crete. Somewhere, a minotaur is tracking your scent. Can you find the only door without becoming minotaur’s meat?” Also, the ad explains the gameplay quite concisely: “Knossos is a 3-D graphic simulation. Mazes are represented by a perspective view, as though you are actually there. These graphics are not the simple, square graphics you have seen before. An entirely new representation has been implemented giving a true cave-like quality. And like all Med Systems 3-D graphics, lightening fast screen generation is standard. Other features include chalk with which to mark the floor for reference points, randomly generated mazes, distance counters for exit, and monster graphics. A typical game might last 15-20 minutes. This is the first Tandy 3-D arcade game ever offered.” The last sentence is especially telling. William Denman made a real job of his ambitions to enter the arcade business as soon as possible.

Playing Knossos feels like stepping into a mixture of Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth without the adventure game elements. The objective is to escape the minotaur’s maze (not kill it) and I can use chalk to (presumably) find my way through the maze. There is a fixed maze and a randomiser. I can also select the difficulty level: a slow minotaur and 10 chalk marks is the easy mode, whereas true professionals only need 2 chalk marks, prefer to have no range and enjoy running from a very fast minotaur.

The labyrinth looks different because, like the ad said, the graphics are more suggestive of a cave than the straight walls of the Continuum games. If the minotaur comes too close for comfort, there’s a warning message (you’ll see this a lot). It’s not easy to die in easy mode and impossible not to die in hard mode, at least for me. If you do, the game taunts you, Med Systems style: “You have just been chomped up into many pieces and left to rot away in a remote corner of the maze. Better luck next time!” Also, the minotaur looks essentially the same as in Labyrinth, if I remember correctly.

As it’s possible to map the permanent maze, that’s obviously the easiest task. However, I succeed with a random map and manage to solve the game on my second attempt. I have to admit that it’s not very thrilling and the replay value is rather low. This is more or less exactly the same game as Rat’s Revenge with a few extra features and nicer graphics. It’s neither cerebral nor action-packed, it’s something in between – and that makes it a little boring.

b. Laser Defense (by Simon Smith, December 1981, source: 80 Microcomputing)

As we were able to see above, Simon Smith was apparently the new go-to guy for arcade games within the small Med Systems company. Laser Defense was released the same year as Knossos and – according to later advertisements of the Atari port – went on to become a veritable success. The manual is still in existence (thanks to archive.org), and it does a good job of summing up the game’s general metaphor: “Laser Defense places you in control of the United States strategic defense satellites. These satellites sit spinning in orbit, ready to intercept nuclear missiles with high-energy laser beams. They also have the capability to destroy missile silos on the ground.” That description sounds a bit like a home version of Atari’s Missile Command which had been a huge hit in the arcades the previous year but we’ll see if that holds true.

To quote the back of the manual: “The screen shows you the United States and its cities as though viewing them from orbit. […] With the press of a button, you can see Europe and the Soviet Union. Missile launchers are visible, and even as you watch, a continuous stream of nuclear rockets rise and disappear over the pole to destroy your home cities. The goal is simple: destroy all the missile silos while intercepting rockets launched toward the U.S. Pulverize the enemy. Keep your cities alive. As you proceed to each new wave, more and faster missiles are launched. Particle beam weapons on underground MX tracks attempt to blast your satellites from orbit, and your fingers itch to activate the final defense . . . ERADICATION!”

I’ll admit right away that I suck at playing Laser Defense. I never beat my first score of 2.200 again, and although the game is a lot like Missile Command (which I like) I don’t understand why it’s suddenly game over. You can shoot incoming missiles with your laser which has a pretty good scope, so it’s not really hard to hit them. Another option is the “eradicator” which makes sense when a lot of missiles scatter the screen. Pressing “1” will change the maps, meaning you will see Europe instead of North America – however, the missiles are ostensibly launched in the Soviet Union and I can’t find any way to interact with them on the European map. Finally, I am unable to try out the 2-player game but it seems notable that there is one.

Because I am not a wimp but an adventure gamer, my journey doesn’t end there. After my first session, I read the manual again and find that I have overlooked one crucial detail: you need to destroy the missile silos on the European map while defending your cities against the attacks on the American map. This turns out to be a lot more fun, and I am much more successful now. Four attack waves perish, and I am rewarded more than 10.000 points. Very nice! After a while, there may be a nuclear plant located in East Germany. According to the manual, you can destroy it with the eradicator but when I try to do just that, it always drains my energy but doesn’t blow up. Also, the game is always over when the Soviets manage to build some kind of SDI defense – as soon as that one is finished, it destroys all of my attack satellites right away, and I lose. There seem to be ten attack waves, maybe more, but I am not trying to get good at Laser Defense, I just want to get an impression of it. It’s a very well-made arcade game and I can see that it was a huge success for such a relatively unimpressive machine as the TRS-80.

1981 Applications

a. GRBasic (by Simon Smith, May 1981, source: 80 Microcomputing Magazine)

Med Systems also released three more business (or college) applications. I won’t go into detail with these and wasn’t able to test any of them but for the sake of completeness I’ll try to give you an impression what (I think) they did.

GRBasic was programmed by Simon Smith who seems to have had a productive 1981. The program offered “fully integrated basic graphic commands for the [TRS-80] Model I and Model III”, meaning it enabled you to create lines and shape tables while allowing for scaling and rotating them. It’s an extension to common Tandy BASIC packages (Level II or Disk BASIC) to include a graphics command set, which probably means you needed to employ BASIC commands to draw lines, tables and other shapes on the screen.

GRBasic was seemingly geared for developers and possibly scientists. It was a unique product meant to improve the Tandy computer line to compete with the superior Apple ][ computer. To quote an ad from the May 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine: “GRBasic will allow the professional user to produce data graphs and displays with unbelievable ease. […] 3-D animation from BASIC is now a reality!” It’s well possible that GRBasic is essentially a marketable byproduct of Knossos and Laser Defense, as the graphic examples in the ad all stem from micro games.

In September 1981, Med Systems released an add-on for GRBasic allowing for “the plotting of almost any function, including polar coordinate based figures, parametric equations, and almost any wave form”: the GRBasic Function Plotter. A set of both on disk set you back $44.90 which would be about $126.83 in 2019.

b. Qwerty 3.0 (September 1981, source: HE Computronics)

Also in September 1981, Med Systems introduced Qwerty 3.0, a complex typeset program with easy printer support catering exclusively to academics. According to the December 1981 ad in 80 Microcomputing Magazine, Qwerty 3.0 “has seen thousands of hours of use in a university environment. A master’s thesis and a statistical doctoral dissertation were produced and accepted right off a Centronics 737 [a dot-matrix printer] using this package.” Med Systems, as usual, are very convinced of the quality of their product: “Since introducing Qwerty 3.0 in September, people have been calling to ask if we were making ludicrous claims. The answer is NO! Qwerty 3.0 does all we claimed and more! No other software of this type can match Qwerty 3.0.”

Interestingly, you could buy the manual first (a steal at only $10!) to check out Qwerty’s features before jumping in at the deep end: “For cautious buyers, we offer the manual (over 70 pages) for $10. When you decide to buy Qwerty 3.0, we will credit the full manual price.”

c. SPM (by Bruce P. Douglass, December 1981, source: 80 Microcomputing Magazine)

Bruce P. Douglass, a hitherto unknown Med Systems employee or contractor, wrote the company’s third killer application of 1981: Statistical Package for Microcomputers (SPM). It caters to those who want to use their TRS-80 for statistical analyses. Among its impressive features are descriptive statistics, analysis of variance, two way analysis of variance, linear regression, multiple unear regression, non-linear regression, and multiple non-linear regression. SPM is also able to transform the data, e.g. through linear transformations, logarithms, exponentiation, absolute values, and trigonometric functions.

Final tidbits: New findings about 1980 Games

a. Reality Ends: Authorship confirmed

Finally, some news about the older games! According to Jason Dyer over at Renga in Blue, my assumption that William F. Denman, jr. was the author of Reality Ends turned out to be correct. He got the confirmation from the proprietory of Ye Olde Infocom Shoppe who own a copy which, I presume, includes the manual.

b. Money Master: Test turned up

In the last summary I wasn’t able to say much about the educational game Money Master because it seems to be lost and thus unavailable. The February 1981 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine contains a review by Sherry M. Taylor at least, so I can flesh it out a little more this time.

According to the review, Money Master “is designed to give children practice counting money.” Seems like the right game for the dawn of the Reagan decade, right? “There are drills in adding coins and bills and drills in making change[,]” Taylor continues. I’ll just quote the review from here on out, as otherwise I would just be paraphrasing a game I wasn’t able to play which seems a bit silly.

“When the student enters a room in which there is an object, the screen clears and shows drawings representing the coins, penny through half-dollar, in a column with a graphics $1 and $5 bill. The student pays for the object by indicating how many of each coin or bill are needed to make up its exact price.

When a creature is encountered, the student is told how much the toll is and what the creature took. Alongside the coins, the student is then shown his change. The student must determine whether the creature gave back the correct change, and indicate yes or no. If the student’s answer is wrong, the computer displays the correct answer. The creature or object is moved to another room to be faced again. If the student gets the amount correct, but another combination of coins is better, that answer is also shown. He is given credit for a correct answer, but cannot use 68 pennies to pay for something that costs 68q. In this case, the computer informs him that the amount is correct, but he has used too many coins. Each game is different. There are two dozen creatures and objects stored in memory, but only six are used for any game. The arrangement of the rooms and hallways is random.

A graphic representation of the player shows him walking along the hallways, commanded by the arrow keys on the keyboard. The animation routine is simple, but adds a nice touch. […] When all the objects have been bought and the creatures dispelled, the game ends. Everything the child bought is shown on the screen, along with the percentage of correct answers. The program has three levels of difficulty. Easy deals with amounts under $1; moderate, up to $5; hard, up to $10. I wish the program had a preschool level. This option could allow 79 pennies to be accepted for payment, or keep the prices to a total of one coin. This way the preschooler could match the coin to the price, penny by penny. The program is written in BASIC and uses 16K memory.”

Med Systems Marathon Overview:
(a) 1980 Summary
(b) Reality Ends (1980)
(c) Rat’s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d) Labyrinth (1980)
(e) Asylum (1981)
(f) Microworld (1981)
(g) The Institute (1981)

Jyym & Robyn Pearson Mini-Marathon Overview:
(a) Curse of Crowley Manor (1981)
(b) Escape from Traam (1981)
(c) Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 (1981)
(d) Saigon: The Final Days (1981)



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