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Color Dreams ... The Story of (Part 1)

Sometime, somewhere America, in 1988 a man walked into a coffee shop, called Diedrich's Coffee. He became a regular at the coffee shop, visiting at 6 am, right when the shop opened. He ordered cappuccino and a mexicano, a shot of espresso with spices. He would sit there and read Carlos Castenada books, not much of a talker.

At one point he started talking to one of the girls working at the coffee shop and learned that she was an artist, so he offered her $100 if she would do some work for him. The guy was Dan Lawton, founder of Color Dreams. Dan is also the guy who reverse engineered the NES for Color Dreams. The girl working at the coffee shop was Nina Bedner, now Nina Stanley.

The $100 payment was for her to come up with a Color Dreams logo and after doing that, Dan Lawton asked if she would try making video games. Nina Stanley was an undergraduate in art at Cal State Fullerton, she was in a terrible marriage and had a 3 1/2 years old son she had to take care of.

However she accepted the challenge and was equipped with a drawing tool. Nina Stanley explains in an old interview.

It was a NES unit with a cable and the pixels had to be laid down and adjusted by manipulating the control pad. Mostly had to cycle through the palettes each time you wanted to change a colour. It was really miserable! I lasted a few weeks and told him I just really didn't like this and that I'd rather be a coffee wench!
Nina Stanley

So Nina quit her job at Color Dreams after only weeks. Around 6 months later Dan Lawton asked Nina again, if she would give it another try.  He was opening an office near where she was living and they had just finished developing a proper drawing tool, called NinDraw.

By this time I was divorced and trying to support a small child, and the idea of making twice as much and not having to do retail anymore was very appealing! So I tried again, and it was actually kinda fun. There were crazy all nighters and stuff, but I could bring my son with me (he would play for a while and then sleep under my desk) and I could still go to school.
Nina Stanley

Nina became the famous Color Dreams artist with her last name never written in any game, she was actually the only in-house artist for 3 years at one time. By the way, did you know that her father was Owsley Stanley (Bear), quite famous in the LSD / Grateful Dead circles?

At the time of writing this article, Nina Stanley is a lead artist at the 3DO company and she has worked on at least three Nintendo64 titles, Battletanx, Battletanx Global Assault and Army Men: Sarge's Heroes.

In May of 1990 another person started a Color Dreams, his name was Vance Kozik and at the time Color Dreams staff was no more than 10 people, it quickly grew though and had around 60 employees at one time. Vance was working at a TV station in San Antonio, Texas, when an old friend of his offered Vance a job at a video game company the friend was working at.

Vance got the job and became a programmers/artists superviser, his task was to make sure that games were finished on time and the quality was good. In an old NESWORLD interview, Vance kozik said.

I did not know how and did not want to manage people... I figured I would get my foot in the door and then work my way into game design / programming.

As it turned out, my first assignment was to evaluate Pesterminator and offer suggestions on how to improve it. The game was and is still just awful, levels were boring, game play was awfull, joystick/here response was choppy, etc. When I wrote up a long list and told my opinions to the programmers and artists, they wouldn't even turn to look at me, it was a really bad experience.
Vance Kozik

Vance got tired of bossing people around, he just wasn't that kind of guy anyway. Instead he decided to try programming and met up with Nina Stanley, who was going to make graphics for the game Vance would program, and so Menace Beach was born. The skater dude featured in the game was actually modeled after Nina's own son, who was 4 at the time.

Vance Kozik, sort of, became one of the main programmers at Color Dreams, working on a lot of titles such as Pesterminator where he made a couple of levels, coding Menace Beach and then worked on all the Wisdom Tree titles Bible Adventures, Kings of Kings, Spiritual Warfare, Exodus, Joshua and Bible Buffet, as well as a few unreleased ones such as Jericho as well as the last game to be released under the Color Dreams label, Hellraiser. He also made the all of the music for Super 3-D Noah's Ark, the only unlicensed SNES game ever released.

What is Vance doing today you might ask?, well most of Color Dreams turned into StarDot, a company who makes digital web cameras. The remaining part went with Wisdom Tree, which was formed as an indepentant company owning the rights for the name as well as selling the games. Color Dreams still owns the game rights though. Vance had wnt camera crazy, surely not camera shy, creating his own "big brother" world by installing 12 or so cameras all over the StarDot office as well as installing another 6 at his own house.

Since I've just mentioned the strong-rumored Hellraiser game, why not continue down that road a bit and talk about some of the rumored and confirmed about the game. I've tried to get in touch with the ex. Color Dreams workers again, but it seems that most enjoy all the rumors and refuse to even make the smallest comment about the game.

But here's what I've been able to piece together so far. The cartridge , better known as the Super Cartridge, did exist as a prototype piece of hardware, but no software was never written to be used with the Super Cartridge, not even Hellraiser. The game featured "normal" 8bit graphics and a few levels were designed, Nina Stanley worked a little bit on the graphics for the game.

Another guy who worked for the unlicensed game company was Phil Mikkelson, who later moved on to work at American Video Entertainment. Phil also worked on the Hellraiser game, and he was the one who designed the titlescreen, and probably the box art aswell.

If we take a look at the Super Cartridge again, rumours says that it could show graphics like a 16-bit system game on the NES. It had a special cversion MMC chip, short for Memory Manager Controller, that contained an extra 8bit processor, called Z80. The crazier rumors suggested that the cartridge used the bottom connector on the NES system to connect to an unused duplicate 8-bit processor on the NES motherboard.

The rumours aren't that far from the truth though. The cart was engineered during 1990 and Color Dreams bought the Hellraiser rights that same year. The cartridge did have a Z80 processor running at 2 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second), which gave the cartridge 3 times the computational power of the NES console alone. It also had 64k of RAM (Random Access Memory) on-board. This means that the game could store 64 thousand characters of information independent of the NES console.<P>

Another former Color Dreams worker, Jon Valesh, had the following to say about Hellraiser and the Super Cartridge..

Well, the Hellraiser game and the mysteries surrounding it seem to have a lot of politics or market positioning in them. I was around when the Hellraiser project was first started, and it seemed a lot different than everybody seems to think it is now.

First, The 'Super-cartridge'. This was a Z80 based computer designed by Dr. Ron Risley, M.D., who was at the time in med. school in San Diego, California. He and Dan Lawton had worked at the same company for a brief period a few years earlier, and since Ron is a very intelligent person who had been involved in the computer industry quite heavily. (Mostly in the Mac. world, he wrote the some famous share-ware, the front end for the Genie Online service for the Mac, had a regular column in Macworld, etc.), he was asked to build a coprocessor for the NES. It did not tap a 'second processor' (which to the best of my knowledge didn't exist), but instead used the fact that the NES used the cartridge ROM as a real-time source for graphical data and code. It didn't load the program into RAM and run it there, like a PC game or a Playstation does.

The idea was that the parts of the cartridge which were normally ROM accessed by the Nintendo for displaying graphics, etc. was RAM in the Super-Cartridge, and since the cartridge was in fact a whole computer, a game could have bitmap and complex graphics by using the coprocessor to change the contents of the 'ROM' as it was being read by the Nintendo's graphics chip. (If each time you display a character, it is slightly different, you can have very dynamic sprites and background objects.) By modifying the code space as the game ran, you could create a far more dynamic game, and since the z80 could figure out what part of the game was being played, it could run it's own code to further enhance both the graphics and gameplay. In effect, you would be able to program enemies which were controlled by the Z80, which had bit-mapped spites, and could have a lot more smarts than would be practical for the CPU in the NES.
Jon Valesh

Jon Valesh also explained that he did see a working Hellraiser level in action, he also helped test some of the code, but never saw a version of Hellraiser intended to run on the Super Cartridge. He continues...

There was a fatal flaw with the Hellraiser game for Color Dreams. It was the wrong sort of game for that company... And the machine. that meant that it was doomed from the start. Just think about it, 'Color Dreams', makes a game about a bloody nightmare? Doesn't work. The company was being managed by people never who had never played a video game and never would, and were not strongly attached to the western culture which would produce a movie like Hellraiser. To expect them to produce a game which was Gory enough, sick enough, and mean enough to fit the movie is to expect too much. To expect anybody to produce it on a Nintendo is even worse.
Jon Valesh

The rumored $80 price for Hellraiser just isn't true either, as the main reason for that price tag would've been the Super Cartridge. Hellraiser would probably have been very violent, in the Color Dreams type of way. It  would've made you laugh by todays standards, but a kid back then would probably have had nightmares and parents wouldn't buy a game with Mr. "I will probably cause nightmares" Pinhead himself on the cover. It was really rather simple why Hellraiser never really got anywhere. There was not a lot of potential buyers, most players were kids back then unlike today where there's a lot of players aged 20-30 and are demanding violent video games. Oh and not forgetting that this was by the time Color Dreams received "a call from above" to make christian games.

From what I've heard, another company picked up the Hellraiser rights when Color Dreams license expired and it's said that they announced a PC and a SNES version of Hellraiser to be released sometime in 1994 or 1995, however I don't recall any SNES Hellraiser game being announced, and sure havem't seen any PC games either. 

Jon Valesh also worked on a couple of other games, of which one was released, before he left the company. The game released was Operation Secret Storm, originally called "Who's Sane Now". You're this G.I. guy who has to rescue the world and kill Saddam, "the dicktater" (Inside joke at Color Dreams I guess).

A story was once spread by Jon Valesh himself, that the Color Dreams executives were afraid of being bombed by Saddam by releasing a game such as Operation Secret Storm. However no one else has confirmed that story. Besides OSS he worked on Pesterminator, while Ken Beckett, who originally started making the game, was busy making a new NinDraw program for the PC. Jon Valesh was also the guy responsible for an unreleased, but said to be packaged and ready to ship, game called Happy Camper, sort of a shoot-em-up. One can only hope that these unreleased games will surface eventually.

Jon Valesh was also the first one to spread a rumor about a NES clone being made, supposedly in co-operation with StarDot (Color Dreams). The system would include all Color Dreams titles, but no Wisdom Tree titles. I honestly thought it was a joke, but when the system started to appear on different online stores, I guess the rumor was a reality. The system reached US stores as "Game Arcade System" and was distributed by Pelican Accessories in California. I haven't been able to find anyone who could confirm if Color Dreams actually did help making the NES clone, but I guess they must have sold their games to the company producing the system at least.

At the time of writing this article, Jon is working at StarDot along with most of the other old Color Dreams employees. I guess they always have room for their old buddies there, since it's something like 9 years
since he left Color Dreams, and didn't start working at StarDot until at around 2000.

Color Dreams also created their own low-price label, games they felt didn't belong on the Color Dreams label. When the idea of a low-price label became a reality, Dan Lawton wanted to find someone who, as Jon Valesh puts it, would "really get out there and push the games" to come in. Dan turned to another old co-worker, who had been working as a customer service manager, his name was Al Bunch. That's how the Bunch Games' label was created and the games were mostly bought from Sachen in Taiwan. However a few were also developed in the US, such as the awful Moon Ranger game, developed by Odyssey Software. Al Bunch later got married and moved to Colorado where he runs a small cafe.

To me it sounds like they had a lot of fun when making those games, which most people claim are incredibly bad. Sure they had their share of crap, but they must've sold a great deal of games to pay 60 employees, and games such as Captain Comic, Menace Beach, Crystal Mines, Spiritual Warfare are actually games good games and not forgetting what Color Dreams added to the history of the Nintendo Entertainment System, it sure would've been boring without them.



The first Color Dreams logo, made by Nina Stanley back in 1988.


The logo was later revised to look like this.