Sammy Lightfoot, from violence to light-hearted action

This article should be seen as the continuation of Bits From my personal collection – Threshold, a bestseller.

Warren Schwader had just finished his very successful space shooter, Threshold, one of the pinnacles in fast-paced Apple II action gaming. The success had not only amounted to nearly a hundred thousand dollars in royalties but also to struggles within Schwader himself. At the time he was becoming more and more devoted to Jehova’s Witnesses and had started to question his part in creating violent games. After all, the efforts of his hard work had resulted in a game glorifying both war and violence and yet it was meant to be played by kids. Maybe his joy of programming with the stereo blasting the music of Satan’s rock band, Led Zeppelin, after all, was a sin. Leaving programming behind was not going to be easy, in only a few years he had become one of the most prominent Apple II programmers, and his ability to continually evolve and push himself and the hardware had been nothing short of a lauded achievement.

The struggle wasn’t isolated to within Schwader also the media was starting to put violence in video games in a negative light, among those was Jehova’s Witnesses‘ own religious Awake! magazine. Continue developing games certainly had to be on a happier note and if Jehova’s Witnesses would deem all games the work of the Devil he would definitely have to quit programming for good. For now, the strategy had to be zenful programming, not turning into a zombie and losing contact with god, no Zeppelin, and certainly no violence. With these essential guidelines, he began work on Sammy Lightfoot, a light-hearted circus-themed multi-screen platform game, starring Sammy, an acrobat with an exceptionally large pompadour hairdo.

In a market driven by technological advancement, new tricks, and techniques had to be employed to keep Schwader’s new game relevant and attractive. While the now five-year-old Apple II was lacking the capabilities of other systems, it still had much to offer, at least enough, for now, to not make the switch to Commodore’s newly introduced Commodore 64 or the ever-capable Atari 8-bit line of computers. Schwader took a sensual pride in making the most of what he had to work with, after all the Apple II and programming had changed his life, made him someone.

With slower-paced gameplay, Schwader had to overcome the Apple II’s issue with flickering. This wasn’t a big concern with fast-paced games like Threshold where the screen would be scattered with erratic moving aliens all shooting at you but with Sammy Lightfoot, the gameplay was much slower. By employing page-flipping, displaying one page while the next was being modified before switching to it, Schwader was able to eliminate the rather distracting issue and create a flicker-free experience. To eliminate the distinct X-Ray effect when two objects passed on top of each other, a priority scheme was created, helping determine which objects should be displayed.

In 1983, with a clear conscience, having avoided any sinful doings, Schwader completed Sammy Lightfoot. He had implemented all the technical bells and whistles resulting in a game playing extremely well. The game was published by Sierra On-Line, under the company’s short-lived SierraVision label, created specifically for its arcade and cartridge-based games.

Simultaneous with Schwader’s development a conversion for the Commodore 64 was taking place. Schwader would send out intermediate compiled copies, without any source code, to programmer Dean Creehan. Creehan would play through the copies on his Apple II and essentially, from the ground up, recreate whatever Schwader had done, this process of course came with its own sets of headaches as Schwader continually would make changes to his design resulting in a lot of backtracking. Also, the Commodore 64 cartridge version required the complete game, all code, graphics, and sound to fit within the 16K limit, nonetheless, Creehan managed to recreate a faithful conversion.

Sammy Lightfoot was published by Sierra On-Line for the Apple II and Commodore 64 in 1983. The commodore version, recreated by Dean Creehan, was released on both floppy and cartridge.
The great cover art was done by illustrator Scott Comstock, who at the time did cover art for a small dozen of titles

Sammy Lightfoot utilized the now-aging Apple II’s hardware excellently. By employing page-flipping Schwader overcame the issue of flickering, resulting in a smooth and very well-playing experience.
The game featured one or two players in hot-seat mode and three stages with increasing difficulty. By successfully completing the three stages on the highest difficulty level (6) you would win the game

Sammy Lightfoot was ported to Coleco’s own video game console, the ColecoVision in 1984. The conversion was not favorable as the implementations didn’t manage to fully utilize the system’s capabilities

Sammy Lightfoot only received moderate reviews upon its release. While it was a great showcase for the now aging Apple II, the conversions for Commodore 64 and especially the ColecoVision was not favorable as the implementations didn’t manage to fully utilize the system’s capabilities. The Commodore 64 Home Companion positively stated that Sammy Lightfoot managed to capture the cartoon spirit and graphic style of Donkey Kong without being a simple donkey clone.

During the development, Schwader’s knowledge of the Apple II and Assembly Language had continued to improve and new techniques were to be employed in the upcoming sequel, Sammy Icehouse, inspired by the original Mario Bros Game & Watch game. Schwader truly wanted to showcase what was possible with the Apple II when done right but both Sierra On-Line and the market were about to move away from the computer as a viable platform.

Schwader had been living off his savings from Threshold and still contracted with Sierra On-Line when the video game market crashed in late 1983, nearly wiping out the company. Following the crash, the market slowly resurrected but the desire for small simple arcade games dried out. Consumers wanted more elaborate products and Sammy Icehouse among a few other titles Schwader was working on never came to fruition. Instead of writing games, the market preferred he was fully dedicated to keep pushing the Apple II to its limits, something that would go unfulfilled when Schwader’s savings ran dry in 1985 and he left the Apple II, games, and Sierra behind.

For a few years, Schwader worked different jobs and didn’t give the games industry many thoughts but a run into Sierra On-Line founder Ken Williams on a spring day in 1988 would come to mark the beginning of a new venture. Williams asked for Schwader to yet again join Sierra and come work with the company’s new proprietary language, the Sierra Creative Interpreter, SCI.

Schwader went on to design and program multiple titles in the Hoyle series of classic games, a genre that took him back to his roots. He also joined the team creating the excellent Jones in Fast Lane as lead programmer. The title would turn into one of the company’s first multimedia products released on CD-ROM. Later Schwader joined The Sierra Network, something I’ll cover in a future article.

Sources: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, Halycon Days, InfoWorld Aug 1983, Lemon64

3 thoughts on “Sammy Lightfoot, from violence to light-hearted action

    1. Thanks, Dean.
      Much appreciated that you’ve taken the time to comment.
      If you have anything to add or corrections, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll revise the article.

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