Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2004 10:47 am Post subject: Hellraiser
I wrote this little something about Hellraiser. You guys want to tell me what you think? Thanks.
There is a definite mystique behind Hellraiser. It had developed a great interest in me when I first read about it on TSR’s site. It was before I ever started collecting NES games or becoming involved with the NES internet scene, and it gave me a certain fascination that I cannot describe. It was because of this fascination I studied written works on it and wrote many people who had a hand in developing it. I started all this over a year ago. I have learned much about the game I never knew and many things that are unrecorded on any sites. I have decided to put this knowledge in a document so people with the same fascination as I had when I first read about it can gain some insight in this truly extraordinary story and game. I am aware some people will be skeptical that I know as much as I claim and think this will be the same as all other writings on the game. I can guarantee that no one else has put as much time into researching it on such a level as me, and the only other way you would get this kind of disclosure on the game would be to talk to the developers, like I did. This is essentially a collection of facts I learned over dozens of emails to and from the developers and several NES webmasters. It has been many years since the game was in development, and some of the facts may be off slightly. For the most part, everything you read will be true.
It is 1990. Trying to cash in on the recent movie themed games craze that has been making considerable revenue for the last few years, Brea based unlicensed game maker Color Dreams decides they are going to produce a movie themed game. Phil Mikkelson was going to attempt to get various licenses from several firms. There were many concepts and attempts, all of which ultimately failed, including Hellraiser. However, Hellraiser was the most ambitious project ever started at Color Dreams. An original concept game, called “Cop Slapper” was supposed to star Zsa Zsa Gabor, however her publicist had a quarrel with some Color Dreams employee(s?), and the game was canned before any serious development started because they couldn’t get the license. Another game was supposed to be based on the Six Million Dollar Man; however they could only get the license to Lee Majors, the actor who played the Six Million Dollar Man without the Six Million Dollar Man angle, for the price of $15,000 USD. This was acceptable at first and production began on the Lee Major’s game. Later, however the game was changed into what is now the released game Secret Scout, because Color Dreams didn’t want to shell out the fifteen grand in the end. If you look in the first line of source code for Secret Scout, it actually contains the words “Lee Majors Game”. Other options that came out of the same firm were a Bella Lugosi game and a Marilyn Monroe game. Neither of them was considered. At a last ditch effort of making at least one movie based game with a license, Dan Lawton convinced the owners of Color Dreams to go with making a game of his favorite movie at the time, Hellraiser at a cost of $50,000 USD for the license for a unknown time period of between 1 and 3 years. It was bought and Color Dreams put off development on the title for several months.
Eddy Lin, the half owner of Color Dreams, once complained that he had a friend who was making toilet paper tubes, the cardboard in the middle. He was making more money than Eddy was selling games.
- Dan Lawton
Dan Lawton was in charge and had quite a vision imagined when Color Dreams finally started the project. He imagined a mind blowing puzzle game with 16-bit graphics and the most amazingly complex level designs for the NES at the time. Not a very easy thing to accomplish using the mostly ‘70s technology that composes the NES. To make his ambitious aspiration reality, Color Dreams hired an engineer/cryptographer, Ron Risley (a friend of Dan Lawton) to come in and work on the ‘Supercart’ that would host the Hellraiser games 16 bit graphics.
So Ron Risley got to work on the Supercart. It is physically impossible to get the NES to display 16-bit graphics with the types of carts they had back then, so instead of manipulating the NES hardware to experimental extents, Mr. Risley designed the Supercart with a Zilog Z-80 processor and a crap load of DRAM mapped into the Z-80’s address space. The Z-80 was very popular at the time and was the world’s best-selling chip for many years. The big plan was to run the game off the Z-80 for the most part, and limit the work the NES’ processor, the Motorolla 6502 did, to keep the game’s refresh rate as fast as possible.
By using the DRAM as character generators instead of ROM’s like in normal NES carts, it was possible to simulate a bitmapped display and have the Z-80 run as a graphics coprocessor to the NES’ 6502. The cart synthesized horizontal retrace so that it could synchronize character generator updates with the horizontal retrace, meaning faster, smoother and overall better looking graphics.
Besides the Z-80 and the DRAM, the Supercart also sported an amazing ROM array comprised of a total of four ROMs (two banks of two ROMs) and several custom programmed PAL (programmable array logic) chips.
There was shared memory between the NES and the Supercart because the Supercart mooched off of the NES RAM. This occasionally caused problems because of the NES’ 6502 and the Z-80 conflicting with each other, but Ron Risley says it was not a major problem, but it could have made the proto buggy. The idea of the “16-bit” technology was the cart flashed two colors so fast that your eye would blend them into a totally different color (that’s why the horizontal retrace was so important), giving the illusion of a 16-bit game. The cart was never actually had the NES’ display 16-bit graphics, contrary to the belief of many NES fans. The flickering between the colors was noticeable to the human eye, and the project was canned before it was ever fixed.
It is estimated that Ron Risley was paid a whopping $195 USD an hour for his work on the Supercart, for a total of anywhere from $30,000 USD to $125,000 USD. It’s amazing to think that Color Dreams readily paid a man $30,000 USD when they weren’t willing to cough up fifteen grand for a license.
By the time Ron Risley had left Color Dreams, he had created a working wirewrap prototype of the Supercart and had a test game for it, Koala Chase running to make sure the technology worked right. From there, Dan Lawton took the wirewrap prototype and made it into a PCB in about eight hours (with some problems because of Ron Risley’s confusing design), quite a while less than Ron Risley had estimated when he ditched the project on Dan. A development board was built and a picture of it was taken for advertising and promotional purposes. That is the picture that has been floating around the NES scene for the last several years stirring things up. There is also a title screen screenshot taken off the Amiga version Phil Mikkelson worked on; however there is also a real screenshot taken off the NES version floating around. You know it’s the real screenshot because if you look inside the lettering of the word “Hellraiser” you can see lines of different colors parallel to each other throughout the word, these are the lines that are supposed to flicker when the game is running, that is why when it is a still shot it looks like shit, and possibly why there is only one. It is rumored that Color Dreams 1990-1991 Consumer Electronics Show display had a demo of what it looks like to walk down one of the corridors of the game, however that was probably off the Amiga version. Development for the game was stopped soon after the 1990-1991 Consumer Electronics Show. Hellraiser would never see a child’s NES.
The actual Hellraiser game was programmed mostly by Phil Mikkelson, he did all the coding on both the NES and Amiga versions, however Nina Stanley also helped out with the art and Dan Burke had something to do with the project at some point (probably art also). Roger Deforest worked on art as well, only it was probably mostly for the Amiga version. Similar to the unreleased game Gil (Another of Roger Deforest’s projects), Hellraiser was supposed to have very large, detailed sprites the likes of which the NES had never seen. The game play concept alone was quite amazing. Dan Lawton had the following to say to me about it:
The game was supposed to have you inside the cube, trying to figure out how to get out, with an assortment of Hellraiser characters as the games enemies. At each level the cube would turn and solve itself a little more.
- Dan Lawotn
If you can imagine this with 16 bit graphics and animated walls in a Wolfenstein 3D type atmosphere, it sounds very cool. Even the box the game came in sounds cool, it was supposed to be a large version of the cube from the movie. Of course none of the boxes were produced for Hellraiser; only the labels for the carts. I am lucky enough to have one myself.
So why is it that we don’t have this wonderful game sitting in all our NES’, waiting for us to play? It sounds so cool and probably would have sold well if all the rumors about its technology were true. Dan Lawton shed some light on the subject.
Production and design are not particularly important parts of making a product. Marketing and demand are the main things. It's a common mistake of nerd inventors to think that ideas are valuable. Perhaps a new thing, like electricity, would be worth something by itself, but ordinary ideas are practically worthless without someone who knows how to market them.
- Dan Lawton
So marketing killed the Hellraiser? Not quite. The marketing was so good; they had advertised for the game well before it was released, so long before, we are at 14 years (as of 2004) and counting without any Hellraiser game. But the real reason Hellraiser was never released:
It’s damn expensive to make games.
- Dan Lawton
Too damn expensive, especially when the game has a $50-60 USD production cost. That is what caused the end of Hellraiser, to manufacture each cart with its own Z-80 would cost a fortune compared to usual carts. It would cost at least anywhere between $60 and $80 USD just to make up for the carts. To pay off the license, the workers and the manufacturing cost and actually make a profit, the game would need to cost well over $100 USD each. Not many people are willing to go out and spend over $100 USD on an unlicensed NES game company; that very thing is what killed Active Enterprises. This is also a violent game we’re talking about here, not some kiddy SMB clone. There is little to no chance in Hell that a kid would get it for Christmas, and that is after Color Dreams magically convinces the stores to take a chance on them, despite Nintendo’s threats.
That’s pretty much what I have so far. Thanks for reading, and I’ll accept all criticism and advice.
Joined: 28 Aug 2003 Posts: 1605 Location: Dayton, OH
Posted: Thu Jul 15, 2004 12:10 am Post subject:
Heh. I like that idea, Klarth.
Brenda, the current owner of Wisdom Tree, has said that she had everything non-Christian (meaning the old Color Dreams stuff) thrown out when she took over the company. The exception, of course, being the stuff she sold to sfsurvivor, which she didn't realize she had until long after the big purge. And, for those who don't know, there wasn't any Hellraiser stuff in the box of things sfsurvivor got. That's not saying that one of the programmers doesn't still have some demo versions in their closet or something, but don't expect anything to pop up in WT's warehouses.
Ron Risley has his wire wrap proto (or part of it). Dan Lawton probably has the PCB in the picture and the labels (most of them I think). He said if he ever finds the board he'll take a camera around it for me. Great guy. Everything else was destroyed as far as I know.
Joined: 25 Jun 2004 Posts: 7 Location: Vancouver, BC
Posted: Sat Nov 27, 2004 2:35 pm Post subject:
I'm quite sure there never actually was a Hellraiser for NES. Sure, there was the game for other platforms, but from what I know, the Z80 cart never fully worked, and what did work had nothing more than a small test game.
Posted: Sun Jan 16, 2005 7:41 pm Post subject: Hellraiser insight
I worked on some of the graphics for Color Dreams' Hellraiser. I don't believe it was ever put on a cart. I remember seeing it run at work, and even played it for a little bit. But I believe it was on the hard drive, not a cart.
Just imagine Wolfenstein 3D with Hellraiser characters and backgrounds. It wasn't much different from Wolf 3D actually. If I remember correctly, the sky was a deep purple, and the walls were dark gray. Some of the enemies I drew were in the game and they seemed to pop out a little too much color-wise. There might have been a lightning effect coded in as well, but I might be imagining that part. It's been over a decade, so forgive me!
Anyway, I wish we had finished it and released it. For whatever reason Dan Lawton kept putting it off until we lost the license. At the time we knew we were losing something cool. Dan wanted to concentrate on the Christian games. He was right to do so, probably.
Joined: 16 Jan 2004 Posts: 279 Location: Murfreesboro, TN
Posted: Mon Jan 17, 2005 4:37 am Post subject:
Nope, it actually was an official Wisdom Tree game.
This was a long time ago, but a story I read suggested that ID Software gave WT permission to use the Wolf 3D engine for free, because they were still pissed at Nintendo over their insisted censorship of SNES Wolf 3D.
It seems like I read somewhere else that a WT employee said that they did, in fact, pay for the rights to the Wolf 3D engine though. Either way, they were authorized to use it.
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