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Ronin atari screenshot
Ronin atari screenshot
Ronin atari screenshot


GenreAdventure - TextYear1984
LanguageMachine LanguagePublisherBrøderbund Software
ControlsKeyboardDeveloperSynapse Software

Alzofon, David / Mataga, William

Graphic Artist(s)


Medium Disk


Cover Artist(s)[n/a]Serial-
Dumpdownload atari Ronin Download

Additional Comments

Also known as The Ronin (title screen).

Requires two disk drives (place both disks in corresponding peripherals).

When requested for the password at the beginning of the game, press RETURN twice (as the copy protection is not implemented in this prototype, you can bypass this step this way).

Although the title was started prior to the sale of Synapse Software to Brøderbund Software, the latter is kept as the publisher as the game was automatically acquired by the new company and would've been a Brøderbund Software release proper.

Permission from author David Alzofon to share this prototype with the Atari community - 11/28/23
Archived - National Videogame Museum (J. Hardie) - 6/27/2023


Ronin Atari disk scan


Ronin Atari ad


Disk retrieved from the archives of Synapse Software programmer Bill Darrah and dumped by John Hardie.

The game would have been in the vein of Synapse Software's other Electronic Novels - namely Mindwheel, Essex and Brimstone - and the fifth in the series, knowing that Breakers was probably finished or at least close to completion on the Atari but only released on other platforms.

Here are some excerpts from a conversation with author David Alzofon courtesy of John Hardie...

"Cathryn [Mataga] and I started working on Ronin before I joined a Palo Alto startup called Information Appliance, which was formed by the genius behind the Macintosh, Jef Raskin. Cathryn was on the payroll at Synapse Software but I was working for nothing in anticipation of royalties. After hundreds of hours on the project, I never received any money for it. But contrary to what you thought, Ronin WAS finished and it was supposed to be published if sales of the Electronic Novel just ahead of it in line reached 25,000. Sales surpassed that figure, but Brøderbund Software, which had acquired Synapse Software and our project along with it, felt that the technology had moved on enough to make further investment in Electronic Novels a bad idea. The graphic element of games had gotten too prominent with the larger memory and faster processors.

I am virtually positive that the version of Ronin that you have is an early version. In fact, I think I remember seeing it at Synapse before the Brøderbund sale. But the game was not finished until we went to work at Brøderbund where we had to rewrite the program because it contained far too much gore and sex for their PG-rated standards. I almost quit at that point, because I'd invested about two years in the project. Then I invested two more years, rewriting it and improving it. Cathryn and I would meet up in Berkeley and head over to Brøderbund on the weekends. I would sit at one computer, writing dialogue trees, and Cathryn would implement them in real time.

Writing Ronin affected my writing in some significant ways because I had to construct dialog trees, rather than scenes. I found that short sentences, like guttural samurai talk heard in Japanese genre films, worked well in that context. The effects were unintentionally humorous sometimes so I began to use that to our advantage and deliberately design the dialog for laughs. One of the areas of the game that Cathryn and I spent the most time on was a gambling parlor at a roadside inn. We spent MONTHS designing the dice game and you had to win a few rounds to collect the clues there. There was a lot of "table talk", with characters razzing you while you debated how to bet. The characters at the dice table were loosely based on real-life characters I met in the poker rooms around the Bay Area.

Finally, we finished the game, and I do remember the requirement to write a summary of the plot. I think I did it, but I can't be sure, because our project manager, Rich Sanford, broke the news that Brøderbund would not be publishing Ronin. To say I was let down would be a gross understatement. I could've spent that time writing a real novel, but I had faithfully stuck with the project while receiving no money at all, expecting the "book" to be published if sales on the other Electronic Novels were substantial enough. As I said, the Electronic Novel immediately preceding Ronin did well enough to greenlight production of the game but they backed out.

The plot of Ronin concerned a princess who was kidnaped by an onibaba, a demonic sorceress who had a grudge against the princess's father. The princess was being held in a fortress on a mountaintop in Japan (the whole story had a feudal Japanese setting). You roam the landscape, fighting duels and gathering information that will lead you to the princess's location. I had some experience with Zork thanks to my mid-1970's connections at Stanford, and Cathryn and I tried to correct everything I found awful about that title, which I realize was a landmark but felt more frustrating than entertaining to me.

Once you reach the "castle" on the mountaintop, you have to defeat the sorceress. That takes some magic in addition to sword skills. Sword fights were designed somewhat in the vein of an RPG, with dialog and description generated, not only when you DID something, but when you DIDN'T do something. If you fail to defeat the sorceress, the game throws you back to the beginning again, but each reincarnation makes the game easier to do and after a couple of reincarnations, you should be able to defeat the sorceress. The reincarnation feature was to encourage the user to explore the landscape, where a lot of surprises and interesting characters were hidden.

I wanted to include graphic art to the game, even mugshots of the characters, but it wasn't possible at the time. Then, ironically (and agonizingly), it was the lack of graphic art that led Brøderbund not to publish Ronin. Also, I wanted a game in the mold of the great samurai epics, with a lot of sex and gore, but Brøderbund, whose product line was largely for children, was having none of that, so I had to rewrite all the dialog trees when Synapse was sold to Brøderbund. That was one of the reasons the project dragged on for so long. The other Electronic Novels in the production queue did not have any explicit content, so they didn't have to be rewritten. I still think that the game would have been a hit as it was originally coded, but I understand management's decision.

After Ronin, Cathryn moved on to designing multiplayer games. Such titles were unthinkable at the time we started Ronin and I devoted myself to writing interactive user documentation for Information Appliance. My experience with Jef Raskin was particularly enlightening. In 1985, Jef had an idea for a true "information appliance" with an easy-to-use interface (based on cognitive science), and I have to say he was right about everything (see his book, The Humane Interface, which I illustrated and edited). But being right isn't enough. One must also win the backing of big money, which is attracted to people with god-status, such as Steve Jobs. Jef was a genius whose ideas were - and still are - way ahead of what has become the industry standard, namely GUI. I saw GUI - the windows, menus, mouse, interface - at Xerox Parc in the 1970's. One of my old high school classmates was working there, Marc LeBrun. At the time, he qualified to work at Xerox through sheer geekiness and audacity. You could do that in those days. Silicon Valley was interested in new ideas and they rightfully recognized that people who were willing to color outside the lines might be the source for "the next big thing". One of those concepts that Jef was working on at the end was a "ZUI" or "Zooming User Interface", that he thought was superior to GUI. But by then, GUI reigned supreme, and innovation required risks that almost noone wanted to take. I saw the portals for creativity narrowing year by year, until only incremental changes, often hailed as sheer genius, became the norm. By the time I quit, it was down to micro-incremental changes.

I didn't know it, but this was just the beginning of my experience with failed startups in Silicon Valley. Contrary to the Hollywood version, not every startup makes you a millionaire. Most of them fail and I spent twenty years trying for the brass ring with some of the most brilliant minds in the Valley, including Steve Jobs (at NeXT) and Jef Raskin (at Information Appliance and two other companies), and everything failed. In the end, I said "screw it" and bailed out before Silicon Valley stole my life completely. Since bailing out, I've written three books, and I'm working on two more. I also wrote a feature column for American Songwriter magazine for ten years. No bestsellers, but it has been rewarding work. All of my Silicon Valley years, while educational, one might say, have amounted to nothing but dust, like at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I am sickened when I think about it, but looking forward at the time, I was optimistic. I salvaged what I could and the experience was educational."

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