Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Game 273: Shamus

Our next whale, Alley Cat, is one of the best known computer games of the early 80's, though perhaps better known for its 1984 PC port than the Atari original. That's the version I played in the early 2000's, thanks to its wide distribution as freeware and surprisingly good compatibility with Windows XP era systems.

Its designer, Bill Williams, created two games prior in 1982, both for Atari computers; Salmon Run through the Atari Program Exchange, and Necromancer through Synapse Software, who would later publish Alley Cat and Commodore ports of both earlier titles.

Synapse Software was, in its heyday of 1981 to 1984, the largest third party publisher of Atari computer software, originally focusing on databases, but soon expanded into computer games.

They published two games in 1981. One, Dodge Racer, is a clone of Sega's Head-On, and of no interest to me. The other, Protector, seems like a blend of Defender and Scramble, and was originally published by Crystalware, but republished by Synapse after a bit of playtesting, debugging, and polish. This holds a bit more interest to me, but the link to Alley Cat seems too tenuous to require inclusion in a retrospective leading up to it.

Synapse released several games in 1982, and the most well known of them appears to be Shamus, by a considerable margin. This game, which contains little sleuthing but plenty of shooting and is very obviously inspired by Beserk, is the title I've selected to play as an introduction to the company.


Just like in Berzerk, you run around a maze full of robots who are trying to kill you. The walls are deadly to touch, you attack in eight directions (by throwing "electro-shivs"), robots have a tendency to shoot or crash into each other, and if you tarry too long, an invulnerable, wall-passing opponent spawns and chases you, though unlike Evil Otto he can be stunned.

Where it differs, though, is that Shamus' maze is hand designed and has an absolute endpoint. Colored keys and locks mean a lot of backtracking, and the robots, which come in five different varieties, respawn whenever you enter a room. With 128 rooms spread over four color-coded zones, each one designating a higher difficulty level than the previous, with faster, more aggressive robots, a full playthrough takes over half an hour. It took me several nights to beat Shamus, but each time I made it farther and farther in, filling out more of my map. At least that was until I reached the Red Zone, where things were frantic, and here I made a single save state about halfway through. It was just enough to reach the lair of the villainous Shadow and toss an electro-shiv through his yellow keister.

The game then restarts on a higher difficulty, but I'm cool. Novice mode was hard enough.

Some observations:

  • The maps are orthogonal but non-Euclidean. Going down, left, right, and up does not guarantee you will end up in the same place you started. Trizbort was therefore ideal for mapping things out.
  • Unfortunately, there's no pause button from what I can tell. Making a map while playing on real hardware must be incredibly annoying! Even if you kill everything else in the room, The Shadow will eventually enter and chase you around, and in the later zones he doesn't take long at all.
  • Robots are more random than in Berzerk, but less suicidal. Tricking them into colliding with each other, or shooting each other, or walking into walls is very difficult. However, killing one robot often takes out another one or two in proximity to its explosion.
  • Once you kill the last robot in the room, Shamus's walking speed increases tremendously. This is very handy for traversing empty corridors quickly, but the sudden acceleration got me killed by accidentally walking into walls more often than I'd have liked.
  • Shamus is pretty generous with extra lives, which exist as pickups that look like potions, and are granted after collecting enough points, and sometimes randomly when collecting mystery tokens. But you'll need them.
  • Robot spawns are semi-random, but each room is fairly consistent in how heavily populated it is. 
  • Sometimes robots spawn very close to where you enter and you just have to retreat because there's no chance of dodging their fire. Sometimes they kill you before you even get a chance to retreat.
  • When The Shadow enters a room, any collectibles will vanish until you exit the room and return. This is especially annoying when the room contains a key or keyhole; those will also vanish until you exit and return, and you need them to beat the game. Sometimes you just can't rush your way through a heavily defended room, and you run out of time.
  • The rooms where you find the keys are semi-random. It seems like for each key, there's between 1 and 3 rooms where it might be found. The potential key rooms that don't contain keys will have extra lives instead.


GAB rating: Good. It's a bit too difficult and too long, but Shamus is overall a good take on the Berserk formula, and feels better suited to the home experience with the addition of a structured game world and end goal. It's crying for a pause button though - thank heaven for emulation!

My Trizbort map:


  1. OOhhhh another game I played when I was a kid but that I had TOTALLY forgotten.

    For some reason, the diskette we played with was called "SAMU", not "Shamus", and I remember it being slightly different (less enemies for instance, also if you spent too much time on a place an invicible wall-crossing enemy would appear and track you. Not sure if my memory if faulty, or if there was a low quality copy.

    On the other hand, Alley Cat, I remember very well - haven't forgotten that one at all. It was one of my go-to games.

  2. I am confused about the premise of this game. At the beginning, you mentioned that there is little sleuthing and a lot of shooting... Does this mean that Shamus is a detective?
    Who is the Shadow? You said his "yellow keister" but he looks red to me... But you have mentioned color blindness...

    1. "Shamus" is period slang for private detective, and for a game called that, you don't do very much detective-like work.

      The Shadow is some criminal mastermind. You have to kill him to win the game. By "yellow" I mean "cowardly."

    2. "Shamus" is a corruption of "Seamus", the Irish equivalent of "James". In the early part of the 20th century, Irish immigrants in New York were heavily associated with law enforcement, so the name came to be metalepsis for "generic detective" similar to, say, the british "Tommy" for "generic soldier"

  3. Lol. I had never heard that particular term before, but I guess it is better than if the game was called "Dick".
    Looks like a neat game, I have always been fond of maze games.


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