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Dragon 32

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Year released: 1982
Original price: £175
Buy it now for: £20+ loose, £40+ complete
Associated magazines: Dragon User, The Rainbow (CoCo)
Why the Dragon 32 was great… The Dragon was an excellent general-purpose machine that catered for different types of user. Beginners were offered an excellent introduction to programming thanks to the inclusion of Microsoft Basic, serious users could purchase a wide range of utility and productivity software, while Johnny Gamer had access to hundreds of arcade and adventure titles. The Dragon could pretty much do it all.

Capture_00467The Dragon 32 made its UK debut in August 1982. It was a product of Dragon Data, the Swansea-based subsidiary of toy manufacturer Mettoy. The rise and fall of Dragon Data is fascinating: a story of success and struggle, buy-ins and buy-outs. Our focus is the machine itself, so we’re not going to get bogged down in all the business stuff – if you’re interested you’ll find an excellent warts and all account by David Linsley over at www.dragon-archive.co.uk.

In short, Mettoy was struggling financially and formed Dragon Data to diversify its business. It realised that the UK home computer market was about to explode and was shrewd enough to see that Sinclair, Acorn, Oric and the other manufacturers were struggling to meet the huge demand. Christmas 1982 would be a critical period and if Mettoy wanted to wrestle the market share from Sinclair it needed to act fast and have a challenger waiting ringside. That’s when it came up with a cunning plan.

It’s reasonably well known that the Dragon 32 is a clone of the Tandy Color Computer (or CoCo as it’s commonly known), a machine that achieved success in the US. They share most of the same innards, being based around the Motorola 6809 family of chips (processor, video circuitry and memory management). Even the keyboard layout and various ports are essentially the same. They’re so similar that you’d assume Dragon Data simply licensed the CoCo design for use in the UK – but you’d be wrong. What actually happened was that Dragon ‘borrowed’ the Motorola chipset configuration on which the CoCo was based and then made a few tweaks to differentiate the Dragon 32.

manualThe changes made not only prevented the Dragon 32 from being a complete clone of the CoCo, but rather audaciously they served to improve on Tandy’s two-year-old machine. Early CoCos shipped with as little as 4Kb of RAM, whereas the Dragon 32 came with 32Kb of RAM as standard (hence the name). This allowed Dragon to licence Microsoft Extended Color Basic – the out-of-the-box CoCo made do with Microsoft’s standard Color Basic interpreter. The serial port of the CoCo was replaced with a parallel interface for speedy, standardised printing. And externally, the Dragon 32 featured a deluxe fully moving keyboard while CoCo users had to cope with a cheap calculator-style keyboard.

So the Dragon soundly out crafted its US cousin, but how did it compare with the other 8-bits that were clamouring for UK market share? We can ignore the Commodore 64 for now, because while it was released at the same time as the Dragon, its initial retail price was £299. The Dragon’s battleground was the cutthroat sub-£200 sector, which, in late 1982, was firmly under Sinclair’s control. The Spectrum 48K and the Dragon initially retailed for the same price (around the £175 mark), but stick them side by side and it’s hard not to smile – the Speccy really does look like a child’s plaything next to the Dragon, with its robust cream case and professional typewriter style keyboard. Drop a Dragon on your foot and it would hurt, whereas a Spectrum would probably bounce right off. Not only did the Dragon look like a proper computer, but it had all the ports and connectors you’d expect. In addition to the parallel printer interface there was a colour monitor socket, twin joystick ports and a slot for plugging in cartridge software. Like the Spectrum, the vast majority of software was available on cassette and loaded via a third-party tape player, although an official Dragon 5.25in disk drive was launched in 1983.

Capture_00481While the Dragon could not match the Spectrum’s generous 48Kb memory, it boasted one of the best versions of Basic available. Microsoft Basic was quick, command rich, user friendly and perfect for beginners. It was clearly superior to the Spectrum’s non-standard, nonsensical one-touch Basic system, and was perhaps only bettered by BBC Basic. Programming tasks were also aided by the Dragon’s CPU, the impressive Motorola 6809E. The 8-bit processor exhibited some 16-bit traits and could reasonably out-power the popular Zilog Z80 and MOS 6502 CPUs that were inside almost every other machine available at the time. However, it was the 6809’s individuality – promoted as a unique selling point – that would ultimately clip the Dragon’s wings.

Now despite what the stuffier computer magazines of the day claimed, most of us weren’t buying computers to spin data on a spreadsheet or drive a home business database. The entertainment market was massive and more often than not it was the quality and quantity of available games that prompted buying decisions. In particular, the acid test was how accurately a home computer could mimic the latest arcade titles.

The Dragon 32 was a capable games machine, but no amount of customisation could hide the fact that the core CoCo technology was already two-years-old. The sound capabilities were fine – a single square-wave oscillator could be controlled using simple commands – but the graphics were lacking. The Dragon had seven levels of resolution – two low-res text modes and five hi-res graphics modes. Nine colours in total were available, but there was a trade-off between colour and resolution. For example, at the highest possible resolution (256×192) it could only display two colours (black and white or black and green). A further frustration was that the text and graphics modes could not be mixed, so in games it wasn’t possible to easily print legends on screen like “score” or “status”.

cocoTo compound matters, UK software houses did not throw support behind the Dragon because its programmers had little or no prior knowledge of the 6809. By 1983 it was clear that for a game to be a commercial success it had to be released on as many platforms as possible and this was usually done by porting the code between machines with the same processors. The Dragon, however, was effectively outcast because of its unique CPU. To write for the Dragon meant starting from scratch and many developers couldn’t justify the time and cost.

There were a few exceptions. Well known UK software houses such as Ocean, Imagine, Beyond and Software Projects all dabbled with the Dragon, while CRL and Incentive released a number of quality titles for the computer. In addition there was a small amount of homegrown software, but it was nowhere near enough to satisfy starved Dragon owners. To fill the gap, Dragon Data once again looked to the American market for the answer…

Notable Dragon 32 Games

01 - Chuckie EggChuckie Egg

02 - JSWJet Set Willy

03 - Donkey KingDonkey King

10 - AirballAirball

Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 37, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop


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