Synapse Software 1981-84

I'm a little bit nervous to start a thread here but I feel as though Synapse Software really deserves to be discussed to some degree alongside everything else we discuss here.

For anybody who doesn't know them, they were a US-based company that was around for a very brief period from 1981 to 1984, when they were bought by Broderbund. My particular experience with them was entirely through games they made for the Atari 8-bit computers, which I was hyper focused on during that time period, although I know they also made games for a number of other home computers of the time like the Commodore 64.

I guess for anybody who grew up with the NES or later, a lot of the games will seem pretty primitive (they didn't to me at the time, since I had grown up with the Atari VCS), but to me they really showcased some interesting gameplay concepts and (even more so) a lot of wild for the time visual effects.

I'm not sure if anyone else has any interest in discussing them, but I thought I'd write a tiny bit about a few of my favourites. Sorry in advance if this all ends up being boring!

My first real favourite is Shamus (1982) by Cathryn Mataga. It's pretty much a Berzerk-like, but with a set world layout of 128 rooms. It stars a robot detective in a pseudo-noir setting.
It was followed by a sequel, Shamus: Case II in 1983. It was a much different game-- a platformer with almost Breakout mechanics instead of a maze game.
Weirdly enough, it was remade for the Game Boy Color in 1999. I own it, but I've never gotten around to playing it.

Necromancer (also 1982) is probably my favourite game by Synapse. It was created by Bill Williams (who was mentioned in the obscure games thread) who also created Knights of Crystallion for the NES.
It's a weird game with lots of strange aesthetics where you play as a druid who is trying to stop a necromancer. In the first stage, the view is top down and you have to plant and tend trees while keeping ogres and spiders away from them. You get to use the trees you grew in the second stage, where you summon the trees to walk through some light platforming areas, before planting them strategically to crush spider eggs. Oh, and there are weird hands that reach down and try to grab your walking trees. In the third stage, you fight the necromancer himself in a graveyard.
The thing that I still love about this particular game is the haunting music on the start screen and what I suspect are some early procedural graphics techniques for animating the growing trees and their leaves, something that felt very ahead of its time. Anyway, you can see and hear both of those things in this video:

So yeah, I'm curious if anyone else here is a fan and wants to talk about anything else by them! I'm also happy to write some more about some of their other games if anyone is interested!

thank you yes I’m interested. I appreciate 8-bit look/sound outside of the nes hegemon, something I should know more about

Write about more of the games! This stuff has a real 80s arcade vibe to it, with the flashing/color cycling and that particular type of explosion sound - I‘m also curious whether these games influenced your particular game development style? It’s definitely got a unique flare, though I‘m not sure I’d draw a direct correlation to your games from what I've seen!

Haha, I may have bitten off ore than I can chew in saying I‘d write about the games! I’m far from good when it comes to writing and reviewing things, so– fair warning to everyone.

Oh, also @exodus -- I should have been more clear, but what I meant is that Synapse's games were influential in terms of me wanting to someday make games, not that their style was so influential on mine because yeah, definitely not that! For one thing, while I consider them to have been pretty groundbreaking for the time, they were definitely a product of their time, with their focus on arcade-style gameplay. As a result they really seem clunky and tough to play now. They did, however, have a strange kind of surreal aesthetic (again, for the time, and especially in their packaging art) which definitely had an influence on me.

Okay, so a few more selections!

Nautilus (1982) was the first game that I ever bought with my own money. While I think Synapse eventually released a disk-based version, the copy I had was on cassette (cassette based games are a whole other subject that I could probably write about), and I remember it taking forever to load. It doesn't look like much of a game, but it was one or two player, with either the computer or the second player controlling the destroyer and the first player controlling the submarine. Honestly, as an extremely introverted kid who rarely if ever played any of these games with another person, I hadn't remembered that the destroyer could be controlled by a player! The most interesting thing about Nautilus is that it had an extremely early example of split-screen gameplay.

Picnic Paranoia (1982) was a weird lil game where the player had to defend oddly large food items from ants that would try and cart them away. Each food item needs a certain number of ants to latch onto it before it gets carried away. There's also a wasp that behaves a lot like the pterodactyl in Joust and tries to home in on the player, who has a multidirectional flyswatter to try and kill the bugs.
I also got a big nostalgia hit from seeing the strange and very period-specific packaging art:

The last one for this post, Alley Cat (1983), was mentioned elsewhere on the forums. It was programmed by Bill Williams, who also created Necromancer. Alley Cat is an absolutely wild game by the standards of 1983. It had a bunch of different single-screen stages, some of which are completely bonkers, like the room with the big wedge of cheese, and also some extremely strange movement physics, although I'm not sure if any of that comes through in the play through video. I'm guessing a lot of this had to do with Williams trying to emulate the super loose and fluid movement of cats using the limited tech of the day.
Unfortunately, in practice this isn't the most fun game to play (even though I think it's probably the best game by Synapse Software overall). The hit detection with platforms stinks, and it makes the whole experience pretty frustrating for folks like us who are familiar with the rock solid physics of NES and later platformers.
Still, I think it's super interesting, and it's probably the one game of all of these that I'd suggest seeking out in emulation.

Anyway, I hope this is still interesting to everyone! I'm going to try and write another post about the last Synapse games that I can recall well, Pharaoh's Curse, Blue Max, and Fort Apocalypse.

I can definitely see that they were pushing boundaries in ways that remind me of dedicated arcade PCBs but instead are all on one computer family, which is pretty neat. I remember seeing Nautilus somewhere, as an example of early split screen play, as well!

What seems ahead of its time to me is the programming aspect, the idea of an expansive possibility space is there, and you get the sense that if they had been doing this in the 16 bit era we'd have seen some really wild stuff from them that would be better remembered today. As you say it does seem a bit clunky, but the graphics were *trying* to be higher end, you can see the ambition is there of using every tiny pixel, and the motion/gimmics per game continue to pile on.

I can see why it'd pique one's interest at the time, even if now it does seem a bit more like a relic of a bygone era. seems like important steps toward something, anyway.

Yes, absolutely, I agree on all counts!

I think the pre-NES US home games market kind of got forgotten as a result of the big Atari crash and the almost immediate ascendance of the NES. Looking it all in retrospect, it reminds me a little bit of the exuberance of the PS2 era in games, where people were trying all kinds of wild stuff and because market dominance of a few makers hadn't quite been cemented yet almost anything got tried, even down to mechanics that we take for granted now in games.

Yeah - though I will say I find all this stuff more interesting from a historical and archival perspective than an “I want to play this” perspective. I guess kind of like the SNK 40th anniversary collection (heh)

Looking at that Atari 800 footage of Alley Cat is wild to me. I only ever played the DOS version, in CGA. In my mind, Alley Cat always looks and sounds like this:

Oh wow, likewise! I had no idea an MSDOS version even existed! The title screen music is really interesting too! As an aside, I had always kind of assumed that a Commodore 64 version existed but it seems like the game with that title for C-64 is completely unrelated.

Synapse Software produced one of my favorite games as a kid, Survivor on the Commodore 64. It was a fun game to move around in, and you got to destroy pieces of a larger enemy like in R-Type's third stage. On top of that, it was a game I could actually beat.


Dang, that‘s one of their games that I’m completely unfamiliar with, other than the box art, which is pretty great.

@exodus#13045 Yeah, I‘m pretty much in this boat too! Although for purposes of writing these posts I’ve played the games just to see what kinds of muscle memory remains from what, 35+ years ago, haha. Turns out to be more than I expected!

Okay, so this is probably my last post about specific games, not because I'm not still interested in talking about these games but because I'm running out of games that I actually played. I may at some point go back and play cleanup with games that I could never find at the time, like Zeppelin and Shadow World.

A note on that, and also something of a confession: some of these games I bought with my own money at the time, but most of them were given to me in pirated form by my childhood next door neighbour, who I believe downloaded a bunch of them from a BBS at the time. I'm not going to defend the behaviour on my part, but I will say that if not for this I would probably never have played a bunch of these games. Keep in mind that around 82-83, the only way to get a bunch of these games was to encounter a copy, by chance, at the mall computer store (I wish I could remember the name of the one I used to go to back then). So money aside, if I just never saw Shadow World at this one specific shop, at the very limited time I ended up at the shop, there was literally no other option for me. And money was of course a huge constraint (I was 10 in 1982). The final constraint was having some kind of idea whether or not a game was any good. It was easy to drop months worth of saved up allowance on a game that ended up being dogshit.

So, The Pharaoh's Curse (1983)! It's a multiscreen puzzle platformer where the goal is to loot all of the treasures while avoiding the tomb guardians. More than anything else it reminds me of Broderbund's Jumpman series from around the same time, since it has the rigid physics and unalterable jumps that were super common then.

It holds up fairly well, although the frustration of things like the bat grabbing you and carting you back to the entrance screen is no more fun now than it was then. I also like the nice touch of the title screen being the entrance. The aesthetic is also pretty interesting and was a super jolt of nostalgia in a way that I wasn't expecting. Those one-way 'scrolling' doorways between screens felt super familiar!

Blue Max (1983), on the other hand-- wow, I can remember being frustrated with this one. I was a big fan of arcade Zaxxon, so this was a game I really looked forward to. In practice though... I'm still terrible at it, lol. I mean it's super interesting to me, especially how well it conveys the player's position in space, but it's pretty irritating overall.

Speaking of Zaxxon, wiki says that Synapse ported Zaxxon to C64, which makes sense given this game and its sequel (Blue Max 2001, which I've never played). Blue Max also got C64 and ZX Spectrum ports, which I'd love to hear about from anyone who is familiar with them!

Lastly, Fort Apocalypse (1982) was Synapse's take on Choplifter, a game that I'm fairly certain also got a port to Atari computers. The packaging art is as usual pretty great!

It tracks pretty closely to Choplifter, with the player needing to avoid enemies and rescue prisoners. It even has some very fiddly helicopter controls where it's hard to position yourself perfectly to do what you need to do, which is frustrating when you also need to be avoiding enemies and their missiles. When your helicopter faces left or right, the attack button shoots bullets, but when you're facing toward the screen, you drop bombs, which is important since you have to navigate below ground to find all the prisoners. Here's where the frustration comes in: the the controls are touchy enough that a tiny tap can move you more than you expect, and as a result when you're bombing the blocked up passageways between levels, you end up missing blocks. Oh, and the tiniest collision with anything destroys your helicopter. So get ready to sweat whether or not the gap you've bombed is wide enough to allow you to pass through successfully!

It's one of those cases where for years I've wondered if the problem was with the super clunky Atari joystick that didn't exactly allow for precision, or if it was the way the movement was coded. Turns out it's both!

Like I've said in earlier posts, I'd love to talk more about this stuff if people are interested!

I played Pharaoh's Curse a lot when I was young. It could be so frustrating but the design of the game and its interesting dangerous exploration always kept me coming back for more punishment.

A recent game that feels vaguely similar to me is Love.