by Roger Deforest
Early in 1990, I got a call from my high school friend and college art classmate Dan Burke asking me if I'd like to work as a graphic artist for a video game company called Color Dreams. He informed me they made unlicensed games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I wasn't sure what that meant, but seeing as how I wanted to get into some kind of art career, I jumped at the chance and took my portfolio of nude models to co-owner Dan Lawton a few nights later. He hesitantly hired me, and the next day I quit my job at a retail clothing store and started my journey in the world of unlicensed video games.
From the beginning of 1990 to near the end of 1990, I worked as a graphic artist on King Neptune's Adventure, and the unreleased Frantic Fruit, and probably a couple other titles I'm forgetting at the moment. I was only an official employee of Color Dreams for about 6 months until one evening when I got a call from co-owner Eddy Lin. He informed me, there at work, that I was no longer needed and I should get my stuff and leave. I was shocked, and heart broken. I really loved working there. It was a fun, creative job with people that I liked being around. Lawton called everyone into a room and told them not to be fearful of losing their jobs. He showed off some of my current graphics (for an unreleased game I am forgetting at the moment. I only remember a gravestone.) saying my style has a bit of humor to it, trying to look at the positive angle (he was always like that). The reason I was let go was because Eddy didn't think my artistic style was "Japanese" enough. He would often set a video game magazine in front of me and ask me to copy the graphics. I did my best, but what can I say, I'm not Japanese. There was a somber, quiet mood in the room. Lawton asked me to go get coffee with him. On the drive to getting coffee, not only did we both witness a pick-up truck slam into a cement wall (true story), but he also asked me if I'd like to program games using his proprietary programming language. If memory serves me correctly, I had learned some of the language rather quickly during my employment, but I can't remember in what capacity I was using it. Lawton said if I could learn BASIC, then I can program in his language. Well, it just so happens as a teenager I taught myself BASIC on a Texas Instruments T1-99/4A, so I figured it was meant to be! I said I'd do it because it sounded like fun and I had nothing better to do anyway. I was not prepared to go back to retail sales, and a freelance income sounded better than nothing.
My first assignment was a game titled The Aztec Game. I believe the engine was the same as Raid 2020 or some other Color Dreams side scroller. Basically the game was about a guy trying to escape the Amazon jungle while battling indigenous tribes and booby traps. I created the characters (I think Nina designed some too, like "Treadster"), background graphics, music, and also programmed it (which really meant editing the previous code). I got to do a little bit of everything! I felt like this was truly my game. Lawton had this idea to have the actor Lee Majors (Six Million Dollar Man) endorse the game, but Majors wanted too much money so that deal fell through. As the game neared completion, Lawton asked me to come up with an official title. He said the hero looked like a boy scout. I pondered for a few minutes and came up with the title Secret Scout, like he was some sort of boy scout/CIA adventurer, I don't know. The game reminded me a bit of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (partly because of that little kid in the movie who wore a baseball cap), so as an homage I tacked on in the Temple of Demise to the title. And basically that's how the title came about, in like ten minutes. Hey, that's the Color Dreams way!
Click here for more video reviews of Secret Scout
I finished the game and it was only so-so...okay it was damn awful, as evidenced by the YouTube videos above. But the clock was ticking, and I was pressured to release the game. Yes, I know the hero's movements are terrible. I swear I tweaked the gravity and friction the best that I could! Dan Lawton was not too thrilled with the graphics and asked Nina Stanley to clean them up, so she did. I think she did a great job with what she had to work with. Check out Nina's website if you want to see some of her beautiful art. The code for Secret Scout would soon morph into another Color Dreams title, Operation Secret Storm, about the first Gulf War.
At this point it is 1991 and Secret Scout is released, and little did I know it'd be the very last Color Dreams game. By now Color Dreams had shifted its attention to making Christian-themed games under the company name Wisdom Tree. None of us developers were really hot on the idea at first. In fact we turned down a percentage of the game profits in lieu of payment up front. We just didn't think Christian games would sell, but that didn't stop us from having fun putting together the first Wisdom Tree game Bible Adventures. For whatever reason, I was asked to do the music for the game. It wasn't easy pasting together the notes since each note is a piece of code with its own attributes for tone, duration, volume, etc. In the photo below, you can see in the background just behind my left shoulder, sheet music of traditional Christian hymns I was recreating note-by-note for Bible Adventures, with a Casio keyboard laying around for musical support. I know some higher-ups at the company weren't too pleased with the music, but they were somehow convinced to use it anyway. I was also a tester for the game, but I guess unofficially we all were. During this time we had moved into a modest-sized office in Brea, California. The development team was rather small, consisting of just several of us: Dan Lawton, Dan Burke, Jim Treadway, Vance Kozik, Nina Stanley, and myself. We worked together in a two-room office, which was very cozy. The comraderie among us was very strong. We actually all liked each other (as far as I can tell). Four of us rented a house in Newport Beach where we spent plenty of nights going to bars and coming home to party some more and play Sonic The Hedgehog. Then we'd drive in to work around noon and make bad video games. That was the life!
Around this time, we were still developing a game based on the movie Hellraiser which was to use the Wolfenstein 3D engine we licensed from id Software. The game proved too expensive to make, but I did play a working prototype, just one level. I was asked to create some graphics for the game, including enemies. Here is what the title screen would have looked like:
Also around this time Lawton acquired a Nintendo Super Famicom (SNES), I believe from Japan, since it wasn't released in the U.S. yet. We marveled at the better graphics and processing power on Super Mario as compared to NES. Lawton, of course, reversed engineered it and wanted to port our Christian games to the system. I remember during my last days at Wisdom Tree I sketched out a design for a Christian game, but I can't remember if it was for 3D Noah's Ark, or some other game that was lost to time.
The rest of my time at Color Dreams was spent developing odd games here and there that didn't really go anywhere. Lawton asked me to program a game called Maggots, where you play a maggot trying to escape from inside the human body. Come to think of it, that is a dumb idea, but it does fit the Color Dreams mold! I had created background graphics and a little maggot hero and some enemies. Then we scrapped the idea. Lawton then had the idea for a cart containing small, addictive games, instead of one major theme. I started work on a few of them, one of them a dog racing game. Another was kind of like a cross between Berserk and billiards. Another was this giant man jumping on platforms that I called Gil. None of these were ever finished. The last one I developed, however, did see the light of day. Inspired by the game Lemmings, I came up with a game about little people falling off a cliff and the player has to save them with a giant hand, while dodging obstacles. I wrote the game rather quickly, and had fun making it. The working title was Hand Job, but I eventually changed the name to Free Fall, because well basically these little people were free falling. Maybe the title was somewhat inspired by that Tom Petty song too, I don't know. I'm not sure why the boss at the end is named Squishy or hates pickles. This is more than likely some inside joke from my bizarre friend Tony who gets credit at the end. During the making of this game, I was heavily into the Dada art movement, so I'm sure there was some influence there. Here is an entertaining review of Free Fall for which I provided the emulation ROMs so you can actually play it (if you dare). Free Fall was never released, but Lawton was eager to put together a Christian-themed multi-game cartridge, so he bought the rights from me to alter Free Fall into Fish Fall and release it on Wisdom Tree's Sunday Funday with other games.
By this time, 1992, Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree seemed like a road to nowhere for me, and my friend Dan Burke got me a job at Mindcraft Software in Torrance, CA. There I worked on a few PC games including Tegel's Mercenaries and I co-developed Strike Squad with Burke and Robert Bonifacio. Then the company folded (hopefully not due to our game!), and my friend Tony convinced me to go to art school in San Francisco, so that's what we did. Disillusioned with the whole scene, I dropped out after one semester, and went to work for SEGA of America as a game tester. I worked there for a few years and then moved on to Sony Computer Entertainment, also as a tester. Then I worked for a company that made interactive television. They eventually folded, but not before I moved to Central California to marry my girlfriend in 1999. Now I am out of the video game business, but I still love playing them. It's probably best that way!
It is 2010 as I write this, and looking back at my stint with Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree from 1990 to 1992, I am left with fond memories. To some, we made crappy games, to others, they were enjoyable. Secret Scout is frequently found on lists of rare and collectible NES games. I am proud to be a part of that and to somehow in some small way be a trivia question in the video game industry. I just wish I made a better game! One of the last times I saw Lawton, he was reverse engineering a video camera to figure out how to make web cams. That idea eventually turned into his successful IP camera company StarDot Technologies. Wisdom Tree was sold off and is still in operation selling Christian games. Visit their site at WisdomTreeGames.com
Well, if you've made it this far, I guess the article wasn't too boring. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your interest in our games. If you ever want to chat about Color Dreams, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree Fan Club on Facebook. Cheers!
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