Color Dreams: Blasting Babies, Pinhead, Saddam Hussein & More

Color Dreams was founded in 1989, a few years after the Nintendo Entertainment System first became successful. The company founders were Dan Lawton, Eddie Lin, and Phil Mikkelson. “At the time they wanted me to be a partner for a percentage of the company” Jim Meuer comments, “but I opted instead to take a higher than normal royalty on the first game and remain an independent contractor.”

As for obtaining an official license to produce carts from Nintendo, Color Dreams decided against it. In a prior interview, Dan Lawton recollects the reasoning behind this decision.

“Here was Nintendo’s deal for licensing:

  • Commitment to about $350,000 in cartridges
  • They had to approve the games, in their own schedule
  • They manufactured the games when they felt like it (6 months as I recall)
  • You pay for the cartridges at about 3 x the actual cost you could make for yourselves
  • They could reject or approve your games and also refuse to allow specific games based on the subject matter”

The major problem with engineering games without an official Nintendo development kit was Nintendo’s lock-out of the chip. This chip made it impossible for an unlicensed Nintendo game to boot unless the chip was bypassed in one way or another. Jim Meuer and Dan Lawton spent quite some time figuring out the inner workings of the Nintendo and they eventually developed a way for the cartridges to legally bypass Nintendo’s lock-out chip. “I was a hardware person that mainly worked on the development system and the enable circuit that made the games run on NES. Dan and I had worked together in the past developing hardware projects together. Dan was a machinist when I met him and he took an interest in programming. It turned out that he was a natural at it. I never saw anyone learn to program as fast as he did.” Jim once stated.

Color Dreams’ first Nintendo game was titled, Baby Boomer. “Dan was writing a gaming language for all of the programmers to use. I used that language to write the game, which helped him debug it. I also did the backgrounds, and characters, and a friend of mine, John Borchert, did the music for the game. I was also getting the bugs out of the development hardware” Jim added.

Jim also mentioned that Baby Boomer “actually started out as Baby Blaster. I liked it better because it implied more action and excitement and it was more descriptive for a light gun game. I was in my 20s back then and didn’t think about all the mothers that would interpret the name as blasting babies. Anyhow the name was changed to Baby Boomer.”

A second Color Dreams game was in development around the same time as Baby Boomer, maybe slightly later. Michael Denio, Anthony Henderson, and Judye Pistole teamed up to port Mike’s PC game (Captain Comic) to the Nintendo. Judye remembers that “Occasionally Anthony would show me the artwork for me to critique. He was also trying to find time to manage to choose the music and program it. I offered to do it, having some music background. We used Classical (music) because I liked those melodies and because it was in the public domain and therefore we did not have to worry about copyright infringement.” Bunch Games would later publish another one of Anthony/Judye’s works: Castle of Deceit. Michael would move on to other projects (unrelated to Color Dreams) such as Captain Comic 2 for the PC.

A few months later, Color Dreams would display their games at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Jim clearly remembers, “When Dan and Eddie and myself went to the CES show in Chicago. The only games we had finished were Baby Boomer and an imported game called Captain Comic. We had a demo running on a screen and buyers from major companies came by and placed orders for hundreds of thousands of copies. We were all instant multi-millionaires. It was very exciting! That night we went to our hotel, which turned out to be a dive in the worst area of Chicago with hookers, fights, and gunshots in the hallways and out in the street. We lasted about an hour there and got back in the car and headed for the suburbs. It was fun while it lasted, but it turned out that Nintendo allegedly pressured the companies into canceling their orders by threatening not to sell them their own licensed games if they bought from us.”

The majority of the Color Dreams crew had known each other from prior job experiences. Jon Valesh recollects that “Most of the technical people knew each other. Ken Becket, Rick Waldron, Ron Degan, Ron Risley, Mike Hunley (though only briefly), and my father all worked together at a place Dan did a fair amount of software consulting for. That was where Dan wrote some terminal emulations, signature imaging stuff, etcetera. Rick did bank teller software. Ron Degan and Ken Becket did telephone banking software (though Ken had always been interested in Games…I had purchased an Amiga 1000 from Ken a few years earlier). Ron Risley did various software (mostly communications, I think) and (as I’m sure you know) was later an author for MacWorld (or one of the Mac magazines) as well as writing a few popular shareware titles for the Mac. My father was a hardware designer there. Before I forget, Al Bunch was the customer service manager of that same company. Oh, one more; Jim Meuer did some hardware design for them as a consultant.

Most of the technical crew were siphoned off that one company, one way or another. Treadway came through Mike, Robert came through the newspaper, Vance came through Robert… I don’t know where most of the others came from. Some others (Ron Degan, and Rick Waldron) did work on games but never left the old company. That gave us all a pretty clannish view of the world. We had one office, near Dan’s house, and we had all known each other for a while.

The Lins came through Dan and IBS. That means the warehouse, sales department, and production where the carts were assembled. That was a different location, and we often didn’t agree with them. Even there some of the relationships proved to be lasting. Last time I checked, one of the original guys who had been on the production line at IBS/Color Dreams, assembling carts, was working at Stardot assembling cameras. For the most part, however, we had an adversarial relationship with the folks in Brea (Lin’s crew).

Eddie in particular was constantly requesting changes to gameplay that nobody could understand, and following the advice of a couple of testers (the Sumos, we called them) that were EXCELLENT game players. They could get through a brand new game in half an hour, and once they had played it they could run through any of ours in 10 minutes. They would say it wasn’t challenging enough, and we’d be expected to “fix” it. That led to situations like the first level of Happy Camper, which at one point got to where they always breezed through easily and were saying it was too easy, where the other guys (Treadway, Dan, Vance) thought it was broken and unpassable. It is because of Eddie (or maybe his brother Tom) that there are two Saddam Hussein’s in OSS.

Another person who had started his work for Color Dreams in 1989 was Dan Burke. Dan had previously told us that “At that time I was the Art Editor for the Saddleback College Lariat, the college newspaper. I had met someone on staff, a writer named Leo Gilreath, who had met a programmer in an arcade who happened to be affiliated with Color Dreams. It was a tenuous connection at best, but Leo thought I might like to participate in making Nintendo games. At first, I did not totally believe that the programmer was legit, but was willing to meet him and see what was going on. I figured it is some kid making games out of his garage. Frank (Waung) turned out to be a very bright programmer and the company, Color Dreams, was a legitimate effort to put out Nintendo games, albeit, reverse engineered.

Frank and I became fast friends at Round Table Pizza over some Coke and Garlic bread, and the three of us became a team, as Leo the writer, Frank the programmer, who was then working at Unisys, and myself, the artist, who was employed at Sterling Art, a local art store.”

The game that Dan, Frank, and Leo created was Raid 2020. Originally titled Drug Czar, the object of this game was to fight the war on drugs. Does this sound familiar to the objective of Narc, a popular 80s arcade game? It should since Raid 2020 was inspired by Narc.

The other noteworthy game released in 1989 was Crystal Mines. This game was designed and programmed by Ken Beckett. Crystal Mines neared completion around November 1989. Overall, this was probably one of Color Dreams’ best-selling games.

By the time 1990 rolled around, the number of programmers, musicians, and artists at Color Dreams had nearly doubled.

One of the first games released in 1990 was Robodemons. Dan Burke recollects “I designed this almost all by myself and had it done in under a month, but this was while I was under contract to work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for $555 a day!” As far as the game is concerned, Robodemons is quite sinister. The atmosphere generates a gloomy/evil feeling that chills the bones in one’s body.

Dan Burke also cranked out Challenge of the Dragon sometime during 1990. We thought that Challenge of the Dragon was extremely well done. The artwork for the game is quite nice…be sure to check out the box. This was another one of the projects left almost completely to Dan.

Although Nina Stanley had previously done some work for Color Dreams in 1989, she got a permanent job there in 1990. In an old interview, Nina told us “I started working at Color Dreams in 1989, part-time as a contractor. I met the chief engineer while working at a coffee bar he used to come in at the crack of dawn after a long night’s work and he would talk about stuff. When he found out that I was an artist he offered me a job. At first, I didn’t like it as the technology was extremely primitive and I swore I’d never get involved with computers, so I quit after a couple of weeks and went back to making cappuccinos.”

Before we continue with Nina’s story, we’ll try to provide a bit of background information here. Ken Beckett’s graphics program Nindraw was in a useable state in 1990. This had occurred around the same time that Jon Valesh had programmed Pesterminator, an awful bug-squashing game, for Western Exterminator. Since Ken spent his time programming the Nindraw program, it was decided that in return Pesterminator would be designed for Ken.

“We remained friends,” Nina added, “and a few months later he had come around and said that they were expanding their operations and he had some new software that made the graphics easier to create so I gave it a try again. By this time I was going through a divorce and starting on my master’s degree in art and had a young child to support – Color Dreams paid better and had more flexible hours than the coffee bar so it seemed like a good thing to do. Plus the guys were pretty fun to work with.”

Two of the games Nina did graphics for in 1990 were King Neptune’s Adventure and Menace Beach. King Neptune’s Adventure was a joint effort between Robert Bonifacio (programmer), Nina Stanley and Roger Deforest (graphics), and John Dwyer as the musician. The game can easily be thought of as Captain Comic set underwater.

Vance Kozik programmed Menace Beach, while Nina took care of the graphics. Vance had joined Color Dreams in 1990 when “Robert Bonifacio called me at home in Texas to let me know there was an opening at the videogame company he was working at. He said I had three days to decide or I would lose out. Three days later, I was on my way to California.” According to Nina, “it (Menace Beach) was the most fun to make. The graphics were whimsical and funny. A lot of the characters I based on the guys that worked there.”

Not only was Menace Beach fun, but it was also one of Color Dreams’ more controversial games. Rumor has it that a gaming magazine (Game Players Strategy Guide to Nintendo Games?) had warned parents against the game since Bunny’s clothes rot away until she is wearing nothing but a bikini. Whether this is true, we cannot confirm it. If anyone has a copy of this article that they can scan, we are more than interested in seeing it.