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Wacky Wednesday – Hellraiser (NES)

Hellraiser

Some things are such obviously bad ideas that we don’t even bother considering them unless it’s a matter of life and death.  They aren’t things we have to consciously reject; without someone pointing them out, they’re not even going to pop up on our radar (which is why a guy can walk past a full sink a dozen times and fail to think “I should load the dishwasher”, but cannot resist the urge to check if the paint is still wet).  So when gamers saw this ad in their favorite magazines back in the 1990s, we all did ‘duck face’ and uttered a collective “WTF?” of confusion.  Because if any game didn’t belong on the NES, it was one based on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, right?

Damn straight.  Thanks to LJN’s license-happy publishing, we’d been introduced to NES translations of the Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jaws, three of the greatest horror franchises of the 80s, all of which had been boned to death by story lines that made no sense, confusing controls, or just plain dumb gameplay.  Is it possible, even remotely, that Hellraiser could, er, raise the bar on these non-scary scary video games?

The world will never know, since developer Color Dreams never got anywhere near finishing this cart despite featuring it heavily in its magazine ad campaigns.  Those of you familiar with Color Dreams know this isn’t anything new as the company frequently failed to deliver on promised titles even if they’d spent thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire the rights to make a video game for a particular license.  But Hellraiser was their own special breed of jaw-dropping, head-spinning insanity.

Take a look at this ad.  No, really, take a look at it:

Hellraiser

Over one million worlds?  Over one hundred demons to escape from?  On the NES?  This is going to work how, exactly?

As it turns out, Color Dreams had nothing but grand ideas for this bad boy.  Using a version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine (which they hadn’t paid to license from iD, mind you), Hellraiser was going to come at you in glorious, eye-biting first-person action.  “But there’s no way the NES hardware could handle the Wolf3D engine!” I hear you cry.  And you’d be correct, but Color Dreams viewed that as nothing more than a temporary setback.  Of course, the NES had seen games before (and would again later) that could do things the console wasn’t supposed to be able to handle, like the multi-scrolling backgrounds of Super Mario Bros. 3 or the absolute hugeness of the world contained in Dragon Warrior IV.  These games used different memory mappers and additional chipsets to augment the abilities of the NES.  So Color Dreams decided to attack the problem head-on and design the ultimate NES cartridge: one that did nothing less than turn the little grey box into a 16-bit monstrosity.

Yes, you read that right.  Color Dreams’ bright idea for Hellraiser was to create a cartridge so powerful that the NES couldn’t play it without a special cartridge.  The custom cart would have an additional Z80 processor, a bevy of programmable logic chips, and an additional four megabytes of RAM Frankensteined into it.  All these additions would work hand-in-hand with the NES hardware itself to create the ultimate 16-bit game experience on an 8-bit system.

And monkeys might fly out of my butt…

Surprising no one at all, R&D at Color Dreams started hacking together these carts and quickly came to the conclusion that, holy shit, this was going to be the most expensive game in the history of video games.  Not only that, but their dreams for a seamless 16-bit experience at 60 FPS crashed and burned when they learned that the NES hardware wasn’t capable of outputting video at that level without a seizure-inducing level of flicker.

In light of all this, you might expect Color Dreams might have thrown out Plan A and diverted over to Plan B, which would have been to make a simple 8-bit game with slightly lower specs that they could bring to market for less than the GDP of Ghana.  But as it turns out, there was no Plan B.  Color Dreams fiddled around with Hellraiser for a few more months, then moved all their programmers on to other projects and quietly cancelled development in the hopes that gamers would forget about all the ads they’d taken out in the likes of EGM, GamePro, and Nintendo Power.

Yeah, you can see how that went.

Anyway, you can see some more great information, including prototype screenshots, developer commentary, and images of the hardware, over at The Man-Cave and The Universal Videogame List.  Check ‘em out, and tell ‘em Gaming On Nintendo sent you from none other than Wacky Wednesday.

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