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Color Dreams ... The Story of (Part 2)

Well there wasn't supposed to be a part 2 to my previous Color Dreams article. However a few days after I had published the original article, I decided to e-mail a few people, people I wasn't really sure would answer, but they did and they actually had some pretty interesting stuff to add to the story. So here I am again with more information about Color Dreams.

One of the people I decided to contact was Dan Lawton. Dan was one of the founders of Color Dreams and surely someone who would know some detais about Hellraiser. I believe it's time to put all those rumors to rest that are doing rounds, or maybe verify them as actually being true.

The idea of making a Hellraiser game came about after Dan Lawton had seen the Hellraiser movie and liked it. He convinced his partners that Color Dreams had to make a game based on the movie. So they bought the rights, costing around $35.000 to $50.000 to acquire the video game rights for a few years.

Dan Lawton knew though that the NES would not have the internal power he wanted for his Hellraiser game, so he hired a guy called Ron Risley, an engineer and pre-med at the time, to create a new type of cartridge. The cartridge we all came to know as the Color Dreams Super Cartridge. The idea for the cartridge was Dan's, but Ron designed it and wrote the supporting operating enviroment. 

I'm not a gamer, and lost interest once I had the technical details worked out. The SuperCartridge was a Z-80 based system that intercepted the NES processor's ROM and RAM accesses to manipulate video in real time. It allowed pixel-by-pixel manipulation of the screen (NES was character-based) and also supported panning and zooming in 'hardware' (actually background software on the zed) as well as some sprite manipulation.
Ron Risley

Ron was also able to confirm what others claim wasn't supposed to be, that the Hellraiser game was indeed supposed to have been published on the Super Cartridge.

As I said, I lost interest in the project after the SuperCart was actually running. I'm a total geekazoid and don't know squat about gaming, so figured I'd probably write dain-bramaged games. I assumed that Color Dreams never did anything with the SC, since they never called with any questions or problems with the design (though Dan could probably have handled all that without my help, it was a pretty complex piece of hardware and the inevitable production snags should have prompted a call)
Ron Risley

In addition to Ron's statement about Hellraiser indeed being developed to make use of the Super Cartridge, Dan Lawton had following to add.

I liked the movie, and convinced my parteners that it would be great for a game. But the nintendo didn't have enough power to do it justice, so we came up with the idea of doubling the processor power in the nintendo by adding another processor to the video space. The nintendo fetches it's background and sprite images from a seperate memory from the main program memory. Our idea was to share that memory with a second microprocessor which could execute and change those video 'tiles', without adding to the overhead on the main nintendo processor.

The nintendo had some kind of 6502 as I recall, but it's been a while. We put a Z80 with DRAM into the video memory, and 'dual ported' it so that the nintendo main processor would be able to access it at the same time. Finally, we added some extra zip by putting the video color palette registers in the same place, so that the Z80 could also change those on the fly. The idea was that we could alternate colors between scans of the TV and increase the effective number of colors on the screen.
Dan Lawton

But Color Dreams also concluded that making a good product didn't really matter, you had to get the product into the hands on consumers, which meant it had to be on store shelves. This was already a struggle for all companies producing Nintendo games without a license. Nintendo went to great lengths to make it very difficult for anyone, without a license, to sell their games. There was a video game shortage at the time and store owners were afraid that Nintendo would not ship all of their orders, if they sold unlicensed games.

So if no one was be able to buy the game, because stores refused to carry Color Dreams games, then there really was no point in finishing the Hellraiser game. Who knows, if they had finished it, it could've put Color Dreams out of business because of low sales and money tied up in unsold cartridges. 

We couldn't afford to spend about $2 million making a very good game. Even a very bad game costs about $200,000 to produce.

The cartridge worked fine, although I was a bit disappointed by the palette register switching effect. You can't alternate colors fast enough, the human eye can catch it. But the extra processor power was incredible. The entire background could be moving with no extra strain on the little nes microprocessor. It would have been perfect for a maze oriented game like HellRaiser was planned to be.
Dan Lawton

About the possibility of a Hellraiser prototype existing, or at least the game ROM, Dan Lawton explained...

The hardware was done, and the artwork was 20% done, there was no programming. It was a 45 degree down angle view, with a maze of stone and walls and pits.
Dan Lawton

So there you have it, there's most likely not a Hellraiser game out there to be found.

By then the people at Color Dreams had had another idea of what could earn them some of money, make them stay in business and even have enough stores to sell their games at - there was a market for Christian themed games and as Dan Lawton puts it...

The christian market was attractive because they didn't have any nintendo games at all, and didn't give a fig about japanese distribution. In fact, if you told them that nintendo might be angry about them selling our games, that made them want to sell them even more. Christian book stores number about 9000 at any given time, and they all wanted to have our games. That's even more stores than Toys R us.
Dan Lawton

I asked Dan what made him and a few others start a company making unlicensed NES games and it basicly boiled down to "Because we could". But wouldn't it have been a lot easier just to get the official license? 

No. They charged us $11 for each game cartridge, with a minimum purchase quantity and 6 months to deliver. We could produce them for $3, make just 100 if we wanted to, and do it in 2 days. Nintendo had it all set up to drain all the money from companies and give them nothing in return. It was a really bad deal.
Dan Lawton

In addition to this, and a follow up on Happy Camper supposedly being complete and ready to ship, but didn't, Dan Lawton denied it - all completed games were released.

Also, it seems that the first part of the Color Dreams story was slightly incorrect in more than one place. It turns out that Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree never really split into two companies, here's what Dan Lawton had to say. 

We didn't break with Wisdom tree, we just couldn't afford to make the games anymore. It's very expensive to make them. One of the sales persons decided to continue selling the old titles and bought the rights to the name.
Dan Lawton

He wasn't really sure who owns the game rights today.

We just had a handshake type deal with her. It hasn't been a big issue. I suspect she can sell the games to the christian market, but if we wanted to put the games into something new we also could do that. And StarDot (Color Dreams) actually did, the NES clone with the 15 Color Dreams games built-in is in fact 'licensed by Color Dreams', they supplied the games.
Dan Lawton

To end the article, here's a little Color Dreams anecdote from Dan's memory.

We used to jump into Jim's convertable and head to Jim Meuer's house in the hills, because he had a swimming pool. Like most programmers, we lived at the coffee shop. We worked mostly nights, very late. Sometimes we'd work 80 hours per week to finish something. At one point we hired 5 artists in mexico to draw games for us, but it turned out that an artist couldn't really do anything useful unless they worked closely with a programmer.
Dan Lawton

At the time of writing this article, Ron Risley is a successful doctor. Dan Lawton went to work at StarDot Technologies, just like a lot of other Color Dreams employees. StarDot Technologies makes remote imaging solutions (cameras) . Eddy Lin, another of the founders, is selling custom frames for artwork.

But wait, we are not done with Color Dreams just yet. Even though this was meant as just one article based on some old interviews and a few new bits of information. Part 2 is done and part 3 is actually in the works already. The next article is based on an interview with Dan Burke, one of the first persons to start working at Color Dreams.