Monday, August 5, 2013

Noah v. Pinhead

Happy tenth anniversary to the Lost Levels crew! For years they've been collecting info on unreleased video games, in many cases even finding alpha or beta versions of the game and releasing it, in ROM version, to the public.

I especially like Lost Levels because they do such rigorous historical work. A lot can be learned about the early years of video games because so many of the programmers who made the games are still around. Sometimes the challenge is finding out who did what (for instance, the composer for Blaster Master was a mystery for a very long time, as the musician used an alias), and sometimes the challenge is a language barrier, but frequently bogus historical rumors float around just because they're appealing and we don't do our homework.

Today's story is about one such rumor.

Super 3D Noah's Ark (or Super Noah's Ark 3D) is a Wolfenstein 3D knockoff made by Wisdom Tree. Wisdom Tree published exclusively Christian games. Where I was from, in the south, they were very common, and I happen to have bought a genuine copy of this game in college for only $12:

Because Wisdom Tree games were not licensed by Nintendo, and because the SNES had better copyright protection than the NES, the cart is designed such that, like a Game Genie, you have to plug a licensed SNES game on top of it to act as a dongle. In the above picture I used Earthbound, for cool points. This was the only unlicensed SNES game ever commercially released in cartridge form in the U.S., and it goes for about $200 now on ebay (best investment return I've ever gotten).

When I say it's a Wolfenstein 3D knockoff, I mean it. The game looks and plays exactly like Wolfenstein, though it has different graphical assets. There are some dumb rumors still going about, like, "All the levels are exactly the same as Wolfenstein's, it's still got swastikas in it," which is plainly false. Though it is a new game with fresh levels, it's clear the game engine is the same, or almost the same. How did Wisdom Tree get ahold of the engine for Wolfenstein? As of writing, this explanation is still on the Wikipedia page:
id Software, angered with Nintendo of America's censorship in the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D, gave the source code for that game to Wisdom Tree as part of a kind of "revenge" for them to make an unofficial clone to mock them.
The only citation is to the book Masters of Doom. On the talk page, someone comments, "it mentions on page 121 that Wisdom Tree licenced the Wolfenstein Engine from id software to make Super 3D Noah's Ark. It doesn't say they were mad at Nintendo for making them tone down the game for the Super Nintnedo port of Wolfenstein 3D." I don't have a copy of the book and don't expect I can find one easily--a hard-to-find book is what's known on Wikipedia as a "reliable source." I will take the talk page's word for it, because the story makes no sense, for several reasons.

1) Nintendo's censorship practices were well-known at the time; even up through the N64 era they would censor the color of blood from red to green in some games. id Software would have had to have been totally clueless to think their violent game wasn't going to be censored somewhat.

2) Giving the source code to Wisdom Tree doesn't get "revenge" on Nintendo in any way. Yes, Super 3D Noah's Ark was unlicensed, but Wisdom Tree could have easily released an unlicensed game that didn't use the Wolfenstein source code, and if you've played any Wisdom Tree games or grew up where they were common, you know that the reason they sold was Christianity, not quality, so giving them the ability to make a decent game doesn't change much.

3) In a weird sort of way id Software could have seen it as a humorous response--"You won't let us have violence in our violent game? Here's what games would look like if Nintendo had it their way!" But Wisdom Tree wasn't very commercially popular, and there are better ways to say that than giving competitors your game engine, so if they wanted to send that message they could have done so many different ways.

4) And if they were trying to send that message, they sure didn't publicize it at all. As well they shouldn't have--it's usually not good for your business to mock Christians. So why send a message that you have no intention of sending?

5) Giving away a popular game engine makes no business sense when you can license it out for money.

The claim is implausible and we don't have any real sources for it anyway. So what did happen? Wisdom Tree said, "Hey we'll pay you for the game engine" and id said "Ok"? Well. . . yes. But the full story might be more interesting than that.

Wisdom Tree was actually a branch of a parent company called Color Dreams. Color Dreams, like its offspring Wisdom Tree, released unlicensed NES games that were not very commercially successful. They established Wisdom Tree to generate some sales from the Christian market, and it worked relatively well--Bible Adventures, for example, sold 350k copies.

One of Color Dreams' last projects, which was never finished, was a video game adaptation of Hellraiser for the NES. It was an ambitious project. Because NES games were on cartridges, it was possible to add extra power to the system by putting more hardware in the cartridge. (For example, consider the Super FX chip on a few SNES games.) Color Dreams' plan for Hellraiser was to have an add-on that would increase the processing power of the NES and would be able to do the same for future game releases. uvlist has some of the particulars of the hardware stunts they were trying to pull, and The Man-Cave has magazine scans advertising the game. It was going to be a Wolfenstein 3D clone, and for this purpose Color Dreams licensed that game's engine from id Software.

Hellraiser fell through, the costs being deemed too high, but because Wisdom Tree was a Color Dreams branch, they also had the rights to the engine.

So what about the relationship between the two games? Here are the things I think we can say for sure:

1) Both Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree legally had the rights to the Wolfenstein 3D engine. Rumors of Wisdom Tree reverse-engineering the code and of id Software handing it to them as "revenge" are very probably false.

2) From a Lost Levels poster who claims to have worked on Hellraiser's graphics (Roger Deforest, maybe?), the president of Color Dreams was more interested in focusing on the Christian market with Wisdom Tree, since it was more profitable than Color Dreams. This is why the company sat on the Hellraiser license for so long before eventually losing it.

3) Roger Deforest claims to have done work on both games, so their development times must have overlapped. If Super 3D Noah's Ark was always intended for the SNES, it's probable Hellraiser's development started first. There were very long lead times in magazine advertisements back then, and I know of no ads for Super 3D Noah's Ark for the NES, so that would also weakly imply that Hellraiser's development began first.

4) It is unkown whether Color Dreams acquired the Wolfenstein engine in plans for use in Hellraiser, Super 3D Noah's Ark, both, or neither, coming up with both games' designs only after acquiring the engine.

We don't know the full history of Super 3D Noah's Ark. Specifically, we don't know if it was always intended for the SNES. It could have been intended for the NES, with a powerup using the addon from Hellraiser. This doesn't necessarily imply that Hellraiser directly led to Super 3D Noah's Ark, because the idea for both games and the addon could have been invented simultaneously after buying the engine.

But if Hellraiser's development began first and Super 3D Noah's Ark was originally intended for the NES with the graphics addon, both of which are reasonable, then we can say that Super 3D Noah's Ark exists thanks to Hellraiser. The only strong counterevidence is the fact that Color Dreams' president was more focused on Wisdom Tree games than Hellraiser, meaning Super 3D Noah's Ark could have been the prior focus.

Regardless, isn't this connection much more interesting and plausible than the "revenge" story?


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