Dodge Racer, the Synapse Software story part one

Welcome to the first part of a series of smaller articles on Synapse Software, as told through the games that helped define the company. From 1981 to late 1984 when Brøderbund acquired the company and ultimately shut it down the following year.

Born in Austria to Ukrainian parents, Ihor Wolosenko immigrated to the U.S. following World War II. His parents settled in Queens, New York, where Wolosenko attended Stuyvesant High School, known for its science graduates. At the time, however, Ihor was more interested in drama and psychology and followed these interests during his time at The City University of New York.

After graduation Wolosenko moved up to the Boston area where he established a successful high-end commercial photography studio, doing still photography for major clients. After roughly ten years he sold out and to escape the winters and art directors, he moved to Berkeley, California to discover new interests and took up the study of Tibetan Buddhism and neurolinguistic programming. He began counseling clients and started doing workshops, and to manage his business more efficiently he started exploring the different computers and software options available at the time. After seeing Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer, he was convinced that this was the right system to invest in and acquired one himself. His newfound fascination led him to delve into BASIC and Assembly language programming.

Through a mutual friend, Wolonsenko was introduced to Kenneth Grant, who worked as Vice President and was in charge of data processing for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. The two, sharing a mutual interest in computers and software, hit it off. Wolonsenko visited Grant who showed him some of the programs he had written, including a database software Wolonsenko found interesting as he needed software to manage his clients and workshop attendees. After testing the software Wolosenko realized, with some polishing and bug fixes, it had potential in the fledgling software market. In 1980, while Grant was working his full-time job, the two agreed on forming Synapse Software to complete and publish what would become the hierarchical database manager File Manager 800, with Wolosenko crafting the documentation, implementation, and user interface.

Completing File Manager 800 took longer than anticipated and for the company to have more than one product in its initial lineup, Wolosenko and Grant found their second product with fellow Atari User Group member, Rob Re, who in his spare time had created Dodge Racer, a clone of Sega/Gremlin‘s popular 1979 video arcade game Head On. Head On had been a commercial success in arcades, and home versions were starting to appear among them Atari‘s Dodge’Em, released for its Atari VCS in 1980. Capitalizing on a proven and popular concept made sense for a first venture and Re was offered somewhere between 10 and 20% in royalties, with no up-front payment.
In 1981 Synapse Software published Re’s Dodge Racer for the Atari 400/800 making it the newly founded company’s first published game.

Created by Rob Re, Dodge Racer became Synapse Software’s first published game when released for the Atari 400/800 in 1981

With your racecar, pick up all the dots in the six-lane maze while avoiding the crash-car going in the opposite direction. The concept was simple and had been proven successful with Sega Gremlin’s video arcade game Head On from 1979.
Head on became the first game to feature a maze and dots, a concept perpetuated in 1981 by Namco with its hit title Pac-Man.

While File Manager 800 was an innovative and impressive piece of software and was met with praise it became the games that ultimately would define Synapse Software and account for two-thirds of the company’s revenue.
I’ll continue my journey through the company’s history and portfolio of games in upcoming Quick Bits articles.

Sources: Robert Dewitt’s 1983 interview with Ivor Wolosenko in Antic magazine, High Score! Expanded: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, Wikipedia, InfoWorld

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