Bits from my personal collection – John Harris, Bill Williams, and Alley Cat

As I continue my tour through the games of the early IBM PC days, there’s one game that probably helps define the era better than most others.
It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s adorable, it’s Alley Cat.
Everybody I knew of, who owned an IBM PC or compatible had a version of Alley Cat and I’m quite sure most still remember the catchy theme from the squeaky internal PC-speaker.
Alley Cat was originally developed for the Atari 8-bit home computer and started by John Harris, while he was at Synapse Software. Harris ended up abandoning the game before it was complete and the late Bill Williams would take over and finish it.
Initially released, in 1983, by Synapse Software for Atari 8-bit computer. IBM would a year later pick it up and a classic for the IBM PC and compatibles was born.

John Harris
At the beginning of the ’80s, most action games for the personal computers were either inspired by or directly cloned from successful arcade titles. While it made sense to make games that people already were familiar with and had proven successful and putting them into people’s home, the challenge of utilizing the limited hardware in the microcomputers was not always an easy task and by the time you had completed a clone so had numerous of other programmers as well.
One of the early programmers that took inspiration from the arcade and had great success with it was John Harris.
Harris had been playing with mainframes earlier on in his high school years and had gotten really interested in how one particular game was programmed and how changing the code would give different outputs. Inspired, Harris had, on a friend’s Commodore PET, written a similar game in BASIC, he ended up really liking how he worked with and on the PET.
When he had saved enough money to buy his own computer, he went straight to the computer store to buy his own Commodore PET, at the store he realized that Atari’s new 8-bit home computer just had been released, it had all the best thing work-wise from the Commodore PET and all the great abilities, like producing color, from the Apple II. Harris that day went home with An Atari 800 8-bit computer, pretty lucky since the Commodore PET was far behind other personal computers gaming-wise and discontinued in 1982.
Harris went to the West Coast Computer Fair, where On-Line Systems had a booth and a sign saying they were hiring new developers. Harris went and had a talk with Ken Williams, the co-founder of On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-Line).
Apparently, Williams, impressed by Harris and his work, told they had a house where all the programmers lived and that he would get $1,500 a month to live on for two months, if he hadn’t finished a game in two months, he wouldn’t make it in the industry anyway.

On-Line Systems
Harris decided to join On-Line Systems instead of going to college.
In the first month at On-Line Systems, Harris did a Pac-Man clone, and while Williams liked it, it was just too much Pac-Man, Harris changed the layout of the maze, added a candy theme and a bit more animation and On-Line Systems released it as Jawbreaker in 1981.
Jawbreaker became a huge success and Harris ended up developing three successful titles at On-Line Systems.

Jawbreaker, Mouskattack and Frogger, the three games Josh Harris created while at On-Line Systems/Sierra On-Line.

Harris had for quite some time been wanting to do more creative and original work and also to be part of a team with other Atari programmers (at On-Line Systems he was the only Atari programmer). Another company that had caught his attention was Synapse Software, here they all used the Atari 8-bit computer and did a lot of original stuff.
Multiple events around that time, which I’ll probably cover another time, led for Harris to leave On-Line Systems and start at Synapse Software.

Synapse Software
Synapse software was founded, in 1981, by Ihor Wolosenko and Ken Grant.
Their focus was on the Atari 8-bit home computer and they quickly became known and highly regarded for their excellent games, both original titles and titles inspired by the arcade games of the time.
At Synapse Software Harris started working on Alley Cat, Synapse already had a few design notes to run with but Harris’ progress was slow and it never really turned into something he really liked. After his initially one screen prototype Harris went on to another project and Bill Williams who had just completed one of the most imaginative and unique games for the Atari 800, Necromancer, released in 1982-83, took over the project.

The Atari 400/800 cassette version of Bill Williams Necromancer

Bill Williams
Williams who had no prior computer experience got his first computer when his father, who was an engineer at General Motors, bought him an Atari 800 in the hope that he would write some useful software applications that could prove useful at the General Motors factories.
Software applications weren’t all that inspiring and rather quickly Williams started experimenting with game mechanics, graphics, sound, and music instead. With games Williams immediately felt at home, game development came naturally to him and it didn’t take long before his very first game, Salmon Run was completed.
While Williams didn’t have any idea how to publish his game, he fell over a magazine ad for the Atari Program Exchange, a program by Atari where amateurs and the like could submit their creations, if accepted the program would publish the title and would pay royalties. Salmon Run was published in 1982 and its original and charming idea, great sound effects, and graphics led it to become one of the most successful titles on the program, it would also launch him as a monthly columnist in Softline Magazine.

Bill Williams first game Salmon Run was released on cassette and floppy through the Atari Program Exchange in 1982

Salmon Run would come to describe Williams’ game development legacy, uniquely and charmingly original.
Williams quickly made a name of himself in the Atari community and it didn’t go unnoticed by co-founder and partner, Ihor Wolosenko of Synapse Software, the number one software company for everything Atari 8-bit. Wolosenko impressed by his creativity and abilities on the Atari computer hired him.
After Williams had completed Necromancer he would turn his focus to Harris’ unfinished prototype, Alley Cat. Williams added beautiful graphics, lovely music, and challenging and varied gameplay. As with most of his games, he would bear the only name in the credits, and for a reason – Williams did the design, programming, crafted the artwork, sound effects, and composed the music.
Alley Cat was published in 1983, for the Atari 400/800, to my knowledge it wasn’t a commercial success.
While most Synapse titles are somewhat easy to come by today, Alley Cat is not by any means, it could indeed indicate that very few ever sold.

The Atari 400/800 floppy version of Alley Cat, released in 1983 by Synapse Software

Alley Cat for the IBM PC
Williams would port his Alley Cat to the IBM PC and IBM PCjr in 1984.
IBM published the game under its IBM Personally Developed Software label. A label set out to compete against an explosive growing home user market filling with inexpensive software and shareware titles.
To make their mark in the market IBM would bypass the dealerships and sell, at low-cost, directly to the consumer by mail or phone order
(Select IBM Product Centers and authorized dealerships would still carry the label).
All products in the series were packaged in cardboard folders, with non-descriptive artwork, the only place unique was the floppy label which either could be seen through a cutout in the front of the folder or simply as a label on the cover.
All products were streamlined to offer an easy, simplified, and consistent operation across all titles. All floppies had a small A, B, or C encircled that would refer to a legend on the cover, no need for manuals or other printed documentation.

The IBM Personally Developed Software version of Alley Cat, released in 1984-85. Like most of the early IBM titles, it was a PC-Booter, meaning it didn’t require an operating system to operate – This was very well in line with the idea of the Personally Developed Label – delivering an easy to use experience

The IBM PC version of Alley Cat featured 4 color CGA graphics (palette 0 and 1), which was quite inferior to the original Atari 8-bit version, nonetheless, it became one of the most popular and beloved titles for the IBM PC in its early years.

I have only seen a few IBM copies to surface in the last 20 years, I don’t know how many IBM sold back in the day but given the fact that Alley Cat was one of the most popular games for the platform you should think that many more would exist – or maybe it was just massively pirated, which fits in with Williams claim that he only earned $600 from Alley Cat – I know I played a pirated version and so did everybody I knew as well.

Williams like his siblings were born with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. He died of complication hereof in 1998, just shy of his 38 year birthday.
Both his siblings died in childhood and Williams was told that he unlikely would reach the age of 13.
Given the fact that you as a human being has to live now and not later will for sure give you another perspective and outlook on life, this could play a part in Williams’s unique approach to game design.

2 thoughts on “Bits from my personal collection – John Harris, Bill Williams, and Alley Cat

  1. Excellent pics, excellent info, excellent post and blog, kudos!

    I would love more on this please:
    “Multiple events around that time, which I’ll probably cover another time, led for Harris to leave On-Line Systems and start at Synapse Software.

    I did a lame entry of Alley Cat on my blog long time ago. (I’ll updated one of these days, or make a new one):

    Alley Cat is back

    And just today, I posted on for the videogame Autobots. Would be great if you have more info on it!

    MS-DOS Videogame: Autobots (1989)


    1. Thanks a lot:)
      Unfortunately, my Spanish isn’t too good but your posts look interesting indeed.

      Just short: Harris’s last game for Sierra On-Line, the official Frogger port ended up putting severe cracks in Harris and Williams’s relationship, with mistrust and unpaid royalties, etc… Also, Harris was an Atari programmer, and Sierra, in the early days, was all about the Apple II. Synapse was all Atari, a place Harris thought he could thrive…but I’ll get into that later on.

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