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Name Jon Valesh
Profession Programming
NES Reference Color Dreams

Oh yeah! Another interview given to you by NES WORLD, who else? ;) This time it's yet another of the former Color Dreams programmers, Jon Valesh. You might remember his name from the Saddam Hussein NES game called Operation Secret Storm. I might have another interview ready soon, as I had a small chat with Franz Lanzinger a couple of days ago and Phil Mikkelson from AVE contacted me today about my Richard Frick interview :)

Hope you find this interview with Jon Valesh interesting.

First off, the heavily rumored Hellraiser, which I think everyone wants to know more about. Rumors on the net have told that it was supposed to have 16bit graphics and an Z80 prosessor and also using the secret port underneath the NES to access a second, unused, prosessor inside the NES. Could you tell me what you know, like was anything of the game ever coded?

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.

The fact is that while I did see a working Hellraiser level (and even helped test some of the code), I never saw one which was intended to run on the Super-Cartridge.

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.

It started out very blue and very red, and then there was less red. Once the red is gone, what's the point of the blue?

Happy Camper, what was that game like? Was it ever thrown on a cart and ready for release? If not, why? (I mean, a full working game does exist, on a disk or something somewhere, right?)

It was very um ...Camp... I guess you'd say. It actually started out life sort of poking fun at the environmentalist/camping scene and at the same time trying to blend the Paperboy/California Games/generic skateboard game with an outdoor theme. There was going to be a fishing section where you rowed your boat around and every time you saw some fish, you'd throw some dynamite at them, and so on... Basically just the American RV camper destroying the environment as he entertains himself.

Unfortunately, due to some limitations in the development environment in use at the time, it sort of shifted into a shoot'em-up in which the 'camper' was fighting space aliens... Similar theme, in some ways, but more conventional.

The staff testers at Color Dreams liked it very much, or so they told us, but it turned out to be VERY difficult to play. (Out of the entire staff of Programmers, engineers, etc. Only I and the testers were able to get out of the first level!)

Some revision was done to make it easier, but by that time CD was swinging seriously to Wisdom Tree and the margin in selling that game was too low to justify it.

Who is Al Bunch? Seems like he was the guy who made the Bunch Games Label.

All bunch was another Ex Co-worker of Dan's, who had been working as a customer service manager. When the idea of a low-price label was invented, Dan wanted somebody who would "really get out there and push the games" to come in, and Al Was the choice. Now, I had known Al for about 5 years prior to Bunch games, and he is a great guy, who tackles every job with a determination and drive second to none, but he had very little knowledge of games.

Al's favorite computer game of all time was 'adventure', from the CPM days. He loved that sort of text adventure, and he believed that the graphics in a video game reduced its enjoyability. He also didn't understand how kids have fun with games. A few years earlier, I had been playing the then-new Microsoft Flight Simulator, and enjoying myself immensely, taking off from the airport, flying over to the sears tower, or one of the other convenient skyscrapers, and trying to land on the side of the building. (CRASH!) I had been doing this for about an hour when he came over, visibly perturbed, and asked why I wasn't playing the game properly.

In other words, he was a little too serious.

In the end he got married and moved to Colorado, where he owns and runs a small cafe, and I believe manages a ski resort in the winter.

I've got one of the games you programmed, Operation Secret Storm. It's said that it is a very rare cartridge, do you remember how many OSS carts Color Dreams made? Also, why did it change name from "Who's Sane Now" to "Operation Secret Storm" (the new title does sound better if you ask me ;)

I've heard it was rare, and since I've never even seen one of the finished games, I'd need to agree with them.

I finished that game and left for a new/better paying job in quite a hurry. In fact, it was about 8 years later before I even found out that it had been shipped. I figured they had dumpstered it like Happy Camper.

I found out later that supposedly an American general actually sent a letter to Color Dreams saying they liked the game.

I've never seen the letter. I've never seen the game they shipped.

I hope it isn't too bad...

On your own page you write "They managed to find an outfit in China to program some games, coming up with such wonderful titles as Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu". Remember what that company was called?

Actually, no. One thing to remember about Color Dreams was that it was largely held by Chinese investors. It is entirely possible that they were technically employees of one of those investors, or it could have been the "Lucky Green Software Company, HK" for all I know. :)

When did you leave Color Dreams? I havent seen your name in any of the Wisdom Tree releases (Only got 3 anyway).

I left when the first bible adventures game was about half way done.

How long did it take to invent the Color Dreams NES dev kit?

It was about a year, by my recollection, from the concept to the first game. Most of that time Dan was working as a consultant and doing the reverse engineering in his spare time.

Color Dreams were the only ones able to produce a chip which would allow their games to work on a European NES units. This new chip was installed in all black carts, I guess. Did CD ever plan to release their games in Europe, like American Video Entertainment (though their games didnt work on European NES units).

I think it was actually the lack of a chip that did it. The lockout-zapper (somewhat detailed on my web page) in its final form would work on any NES machine.

How did you start working on Color Dreams? Did you have experience with game programming before starting at CD?

Actually, I had known Dan, Al, Ken, Ron, etc. for some time and I got in that way, just sort of being there. The first game related job I did was the graphics for one of the games, and I just started programming and it all went downhill from there.

Remember who coded the NinDraw NES sprite program? I've had the chance to try it out (version 1.10), it seemed a bit hard to use.

The PC version, or the one that ran on a Nintendo?

Ken Beckett wrote the PC version, while I programmed "His" game, Pesterminator, and it was so much better than the old Nintendo based Graphics editor it would make your head spin.

Ken is the same person who wrote Crystal Mines, which was later converted into a number of religious games.

Amusingly, almost all of the people involved in the original Color Dreams came from one company, which made hardware and software for banks. Ken, Al, Ron, several other people, and I all met in and around that company.

I wonder which CD/BG/WT game was the best selling one, do you know?

I believe it was the first of the Wisdom Tree Games.

Would you ever make another videogame? :)

Sure. The whole way games are envisioned has changed dramatically from '89 to today, and it would be so much easier to do something you are proud of. Back then, we were ecstatic when we could go from 16 to 32 BYTES of available RAM for variables such as player health, etc. We were constantly fighting to cram our concepts into a machine which just wasn't built for them. There were numerous games which were started and abandoned (before they even got a name) because the idea just wouldn't fit.

Today, the problem isn't limiting your vision, but being able to type fast enough. A staff of programmers, artists, musicians, and fools could run 24 hours a day for a year, and still not make a game which would saturate a modern computer with a CD drive. Even the largest games, which take 6-7 CDs, are mostly video clips and music. The GAMEPLAY takes a few meg. The engine a few hundred K, and with PII-300's and 3d Accelerators, you can make a PC game which is even fun to play.

What do you do today? Do you work at StarDot with the others from Color Dreams.

I am running the technical department of an Internet Service Provider here in California. I do custom programming on the side for anybody who wants it.

There's something I'm still not sure of, does Color Dreams still exist as a company, or is it completely dead? (would be cool to see another CD game someday, or maybe a NES multicart with all their titles on it. I bet they would be able to sell a few thousands to collectors, I for sure would buy one ;)

Color Dreams does exist (I just drove by the new (for the second time this year) office, in Buena Park California. Two offices side by side, one reading StarDot Technologies, and the other reading Color Dreams.

StarDot, the spin-off company, makes digital cameras and web cameras, and I think they are keeping the color dreams name so that someday if Dan wants to, he can start building robots using Color Dreams for the company name. :)

Were you told what you had to program, or did you come up with the ideas for the games you programmed.

We were left alone to sink or swim, and then second guessed. A very popular "in joke" around CD at the time was "You've got to add a Pink elephant, Pink Elephants are fun.", referring to the tendency of some of the managers/investors to make strange requests which were in no way based on gameplay or wester culture. The two final enemies in Secret Storm was a good example.

It was an interesting time, and I am glad that it is still bringing people enjoyment.