“Make the Animals Go to Sleep.”
The term “Bible games” has become synonymous with series of unlicensed Christian-themed titles released through the course of the early 90’s, developed and self-published by Wisdom Tree. Like with so many games that fall outside of the mainstream games market, most folk these days seem to know of them from Internet game reviews. Many likely learned of them from James Rolfe’s Christmas-time videos as the Angry Video Game Nerd,where he ends up hating the games so much that he takes a diarrhea dump on the cartridges and blows up a copy of the Bible (I may be misremembering this slightly). Some might even remember Seanbaby’s “20 Worst” lists from the year 2000, where 1991’s Bible Adventures somehow ranked as both the 19th worst NES game and the 19th worst game in a list that covered games from other consoles as well. Obviously, these are very official ratings from reviewers who never deal in hyperbole, and all of their game opinions should be taken as absolute fact.
Of course, there were those who had actual first-hand experience with these games, likely having discovered them in “Christian goods” stores for themselves back in the day. And while the non-standard cartridges were certainly an oddity when placed in the midst of official Nintendo product, they were the only games explicitly Christian retailers were likely to have on offer. They provided a Christian-friendly alternative to games that aimed for secular (which even occasionally crossed over into what could be considered “sacrilegious” territory), appealing directly to an audience who felt Nintendo and the publishers at the time weren’t sufficiently catering to them. As such, many of Wisdom Tree’s games served as alternative takes on popular games. For example, 1992’s Spiritual Warfare plays similarly to 1986’s The Legend of Zelda, but with biblical themes inserted in order to remind players (and often more importantly, their parents) that this was a more wholesome game than its inspiration. Covering platformers, RPGs and puzzle games, they had answers for all the major genres of the time. And with the advent of the first-person shooter – seeing Wolfenstein 3D bring the budding genre into public awareness – it seemed that Wisdom Tree knew what they had to do.
1994’s Super 3D Noah’s Ark is a game surrounded by misconceptions and misunderstanding. Its place in history has been decided not by its impact at the time of it’s release, but by modern reviews and retrospectives that don’t seem to fully understand what exactly it was. In this article, we’re going to try to get the true story of it’s development across, and give a proper rundown of the game and its features. There are some who have been lead to believe that Noah’s Ark is nothing more than a copy of Wolfenstein 3D with redrawn graphics. I’ll tell you right now that isn’t the case; not exactly. But you know what might really blow the minds of the misinformed? The suggestion that it might actually be an improvement over the DOS classic.
“Psst Noah… Want Some Help?”
To begin to understand what sets Super 3D Noah’s Ark from Wolfenstein 3D, we must first understand how it came to be. And to do that, we must first dispel the myth that most are familiar with. For those unfamiliar with it, here’s the story as most folk seem to understand it:
“id Software was upset with Nintendo for censoring Wolfenstein 3D on the SNES. Either as revenge or simply as a joke, they gave their code away to Wisdom Tree, knowing they would use it to make an unlicensed game. After simply replacing the sprites in the game with their own, Wisdom Tree released the game as Super 3D Noah’s Ark, creating the first and only unlicensed game on the console.”
Sounds too ridiculous to be true, right? Sadly, that’s because it is mostly untrue. Here is an instance where, in their attempts to condense what they probably considered to be too long and convoluted a story, revisionist gaming historians decided they needed to spice it up as well, adding extra details that don’t exactly check out. That being said, the true story is sufficiently ridiculous enough on it’s own, and is certainly a story worth being told. Looks like we’d better get started on correcting things, huh?
So, about that SNES port of Wolfenstein 3D that id was so angry about having censored. First, let me contend that John Romero and John Carmack are probably two of the smartest men in the history of game development (if not the two smartest), and that they were fully aware of the bargains and the compromises they would have to make in releasing their game on a Nintendo console. They were also probably aware of how much money they could potentially make (lots) by re-working and re-releasing their game to the widest audience possible. Maybe Tom Hall and some of the other id staffers may have had a few qualms about “compromising their artistic vision,” but I’m pretty sure a few of them are certifiable geniuses as well, and at some point they would remember that they had already released a largely uncompromised version of their game that they should be proud of. At the end of the day, the SNES deal was one they’d have to have been incredibly stubborn not to make. And hey, whaddya know, it’s the deal they ended up making after all! Whatever frustration they may have had with Nintendo’s censorship policies clearly wasn’t a major issue here. Their frustrations with an independent contractor they had hired to handle the porting duties, however, were very real.
Very shortly after the release of the original DOS version of Wolf3D (May of 1992), publisher Imagineer reached out to id and made them the offer to publish the game for the SNES. Not that Imagineer would be the ones developing the port, mind you: They would be the ones handling the necessary business with Nintendo and other production deals that would allow the game to be released. id could’ve chosen to develop the port themselves, but they were knee-deep in developing Doom already, and so they chose to go the route of hiring an independent contractor to handle the port. By March of 1993, however, it had been discovered that the contractor had made effectively no progress on the port. Some tellings of the story say he was missing in action entirely. Either way, in order to fulfill their contract with Imagineer, id was forced to shift their priorities momentarily, taking three weeks to develop the port themselves. This meant implementing the apparently loathsome censorship, redrawing the necessary assets and willfully abiding by Nintendo’s standards. But as it turns out, they weren’t just trying to reproduce the same game they had produced nearly a year ago by that point: They actually sought to improve on it.
You see, Wolfenstein 3D on the SNES didn’t actually end up being a “port” of the DOS game. It’s effectively its own installment in the series, featuring an original campaign and set of levels that takes place before the events of the original game (but likely after the events of Spear of Destiny, the first prequel campaign). Featuring in-game mission briefings that take place between episodes, B.J. Blazkowicz is given his orders by no less than the President of the United… “Republic?” Your missions see you venture into the heart of the Master State, disrupting their military operations and assassinating their key personnel. Eventually, you confront the fearsome Führer himself; none other than the clean-shaven Staatmeister! So, there’s the first bit censorship at work there, changing the narrative and forcing the removal of references to the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler. Of course it’s all a bit ridiculous, but so is the idea of a “one-man strike team” nearly single-handedly dismantling the Wehrmacht. Let’s try not to think too much about it, okay?
While several of the sprites were changed for the sake of Nintendo’s policies – replacing guard dogs with giant rats, cleaning up the blood, nixing the swastikas, etc. – several others were changed for different reasons. Wall textures, for example, had their resolutions halved from 64×64 to 32×32 in order to improve performance. Enemy sprites retain their resolution and original appearances (save for the removal of blood, elements of the death animations, and Hitler’s moustache and armband), but lack the ability to turn and face in other directions than towards the player. But perhaps the most noticeable changes are the redrawn weapon sprites, which are actually more detailed than those in the original game. This is because the SNES version features a reworked arsenal, adding two new weapons to your potential loadout: The flamethrower and the rocket launcher. These new weapons come complete with their own ammo sources, independent from the bullets shared between the pistol and both of the full-auto guns. Furthermore, the game also includes new backpack pickups, which increase your maximum ammo capacity from the often inadequate 99 bullets to a more generous maximum of 299. The unfortunate trade-off with these new weapons is that you can no longer switch between the different bullet-firing weapons, meaning that once you collect the submachine gun or the chaingun, you can’t switch back to either of the slower-firing guns (which includes the pistol). You also can’t switch to the knife at will, as it’s only usable when you are entirely out of ammo.
Perhaps one of the biggest improvements over the original game is the presence of overhead level maps that can be seen from the pause menu, allowing you a view of your progress through the level thus far. Handy for navigating some of the more maze-like layouts, as well as for those who simply find themselves lost in the hell of largely similar-looking rooms. The map goes as far as to use small sprites denoting exactly which textures line the walls of given rooms, helping you to remember exactly which room is which of those you’ve visited. Of course, much like the backpack before it, these “innovations” were ideas taken from Doom’s development already in progress (though Doom’s automap would be “upgraded,” removing the neat sprite-based walls in the process), but that doesn’t make them any less welcome additions. As another addition, it’s also one of the few games to support the SNES Mouse peripheral! Granted, it’s almost totally unnecessary given the lack of vertical mouselook, but it’s a neat novelty to include nonetheless. Also included, in lieu of saves, are passwords that you can use to resume play sessions from the beginning of any of the campaign’s 30 levels. These additions all do their best to make up for some of the concessions made to get the game running, namely the loss of visual fidelity and a lesser use of decorative objects in level design (though this still doesn’t stop the framerate from sometimes dipping into single digits). And you know what? It’s very nearly a fair trade. For those without home computers – which were plenty of folk at the time – the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D was very much a playable game, and served as a solid introduction to the FPS genre for those who needed one.
Before long, the campaign created for the SNES version and the gameplay improvements it made would make their way into future releases of Wolfenstein 3D, most notably the Macintosh version. Naturally, these releases would be held to lesser “moral” standards, and bring back the blood and Nazism that people apparently find so essential to the experience. At the same time, there were those who found even the censored SNES version to still be too violent; too objectionable to allow it into their homes and onto their televisions. Among these people were devout Christians, who in fairness, found pretty much most of the day’s popular video games to be of questionable moral value. We’re talking about the same sorts of congregations and masses who would go on to protest Pokémon on the belief it was a Satanic recruitment tool. But I’m not here to bash beliefs: The simple fact was that there were only so many games catered to a specifically Christian audience, or which could meet the strict content standards held by those of faith. For as family-friendly as Nintendo was committed to presenting themselves, there would always be those who believed they weren’t doing quite enough, and that the games they were allowing to be released still “crossed the line.” In fact, through the NES era, there had been only one company wholly committed to producing games catering to Christians: The now-infamous Wisdom Tree. Ironically, it was a development team staffed almost entirely by atheist and agnostic programmers, but backed by a proper Christian sales and marketing team who compensated for the others’ lack of faith.
To summate their industry history: They began as a company previously named Color Dreams, founded on the basis that owner Dan Lawton had pioneered an effective method for bypassing the NES’ “10NES” lockout chip for preventing unlicensed games to play on the system. This opened the option to skip Nintendo’s costly and restrictive certification processes, which such a small studio simply wasn’t able to comply with if they wanted to have any chance at producing profits. And so they were able to develop a large number of games in short time, many of which were of dubious quality and which would recycle many of the same mechanics. One of their better games was their 1989 release Crystal Mines, which was produced before they had settled on side-scrolling platform / beat ‘em up foundation that the majority of their games thereafter would be built on. It plays something like Boulder Dash, but with a projectile attack to better allow you to defend yourself from environmental hazards and enemies. This game was actually successful enough to warrant a sequel for the Atari Lynx, of all places; released as Crystal Mines II in 1992. Additionally, several of Color Dream’s releases were actually localization and port jobs for fellow unlicensed developers. The Taiwanese developer Joy Van was a repeat customer of theirs, presenting them with the likes of Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu and Metal Fighter. For several of these titles they didn’t necessarily want to stamp their own company’s name on, they were released under the banner of “Bunch Games,” giving them a bit of distance. Not that this really mattered much, since Color Dreams’ reputation for quality wasn’t exactly stellar to begin with.
The problem with attempting to exist outside of Nintendo’s purview [while still producing games for their system] was that it was very difficult to actually sell your games. Nintendo had a great deal of control over games distribution; including deals with retailers that would prohibit them from dealing in unlicensed games, as well as being the sole manufacturer of officially licensed games. What exactly did that mean at the time? You see, part of earning the prestigious “Nintendo Seal of Quality” was making an agreement that Nintendo themselves would be the ones to send games into production, dictating how many copies of a given game would be manufactured before selling the cartridges back to publishers to deal with distribution. This is what made the prospect of a small studio like Color Dreams working with Nintendo seemingly impossible, as publishers basically had no say in this process, and had to buy their own games from Nintendo before they were able to actually sell them. The alternative for a company like Color Dreams was to handle the manufacture of cartridges on their own – bypass mechanism included – and to sell them through less mainstream means. Hobby shops and mail-order catalogues were the primary means of distribution and exposure, and the scope provided by those resources was limited to say the least. The company was able to stay afloat and keep employees paid, but it sometimes meant seven day work weeks and twelve hour days for those onboard in order to keep the flow of games steady.And even still, their business model wasn’t a guaranteed thing long-term. They needed to expand their demographic, and find bigger and better distribution channels.
And so, the concept of reforming as a Christian-themed developer was born, and quickly put into action. Bible Adventures would be their first release as Wisdom Tree, and become a very successful one at that given their position as an unlicensed developer: 350,000 copies sold was unheard of for an unlicensed NES cartridge. What Wisdom Tree succeeded in doing was recognizing an untapped market and meeting their demand, primarily relying on Christian bookstores (who were doing very well for themselves in the early 90s) as both a means of marketing and selling their products. This collaboration was a fruitful one for a time… Until the bookstore business began to die down as we approached the mid-90s, and Wisdom Tree’s sales began to decline with it. This is partially why – as something of a “backup plan” – there was an idea to return to the Color Dreams branding with a game that could bring them into the spotlight. They were even willing to invest top dollar in securing licenses — not with Nintendo, mind you. Instead, they paid $50,000 dollars for the rights to make a game based on the Hellraiser series of films,as well as an undisclosed amount to id Software for the use of their Wolfenstein 3D engine. Yes, that’s right: There was a proper business deal between Color Dreams and id. As I said earlier, Romero and Carmack were two of the smartest guys in the industry, and they certainly weren’t about to pass on accepting money for their work. Also, yes, we are in fact talking about that Hellraiser, with all the demons and BDSM and other decidedly “sinful” content.
The plans for the Hellraiser game were grand… A bit too grand, in fact. Rather than put the game out on the SNES, which the engine was now appropriately scaled for, they had the idea that they would implement it for use on the NES. This would necessitate a very pricy cartridge that would triple the processing power of the console, trick it into simulating something like a 16-color display, and all other means of trickery to try and get the game running (in addition to still having to override that 10NES lockout, of course). As if all this wasn’t a crazy enough idea, the sales team needed to remind them that the Christian demographic probably wouldn’t take very well to the idea of them developing “Satanic” games on the side, and that doing so could absolutely kill their Christian games business. In the end, what convinced them to cancel the project was the realization that the super-cartridges would have to retail for something like $100 apiece in order to turn a profit, and it was looking less likely that they’d actually be able to sell enough copies to justify the production costs. So at the end of the day, Wisdom Tree were left with two pricy licenses they had already paid for, and seemingly nothing to do with them. They probably realized there was something to the argument that making a Hellraiser game might be bad for their religious reputation. The Wolfenstein engine, on the other hand? They figured they could still do something with that.
However, by the time the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D actually saw release in March of 1994, Doom had already come out on DOS months prior. Sculptured Software would later handle port duties of Doom to the SNES, releasing their version of that game on September 1st of 1995.
According to ex-employees though, these were actually pleasant times, and the atmosphere at company headquarters was actually pretty relaxed. The days were long, but apparently they weren’t always hard. Good for ‘em.
“Do This By ‘Using’ Walls.”
So here we are on the Ark, with a number of restless animals causing a ruckus. What’s Noah of biblical fame to do? Grab his trusty slingshot and force-feed them to sleep, of course! Making his way through his own hand-crafted labyrinthine nightmare, Noah must protect himself from all variety of animals aboard – mostly goats and sheep, as it turns out – seeking out the most cunning and often largest of the lot. But he must take care to keep an eye on his feed counter, lest he be forced to hand feed the animals at dangerous close-range. If he can remember where he hid the secret pushwalls on the Ark, he can access the hidden caches of supplies he brought onboard in the event of just such an emergency. Yes, suffice it to say the story of Super 3D Noah’s Ark is one of Wisdom Tree’s more wild ideas coming from extracting “gameplay scenarios” from Bible stories. I’d still contend that Exodus, their take on the story of Moses, is perhaps the loosest of their biblical interpretations.
What most people choose to point out in the concept of the game is the large number of “duplicate” animals on the Ark, as they remind anyone who will listen how “Noah was only supposed to bring two of every animal onto the Ark!” Well, if you’re looking for an explanation here, there’s a pretty simple one: Only “unclean” animals were made to come in pairs. As God in Genesis 7:2 of the “New International” translation of the Bible states, “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.” The idea here is that the animals would be made to mate while onboard the Ark, with the “clean” animals providing a sustainable source of food in addition to the fruits and vegetables that were to be grown. Say what you will about the logistics of stories from the Bible, but Wisdom Tree had their justification in order in this case.
So, let’s all try to get past the premise here, and see if we can’t examine the game objectively. In terms of gameplay, yes: It is mechanically identical to the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D. It uses the same version of the engine with the same scaling effects and level of graphical detail. It contains the same weapons – including the two new ones – reskinned as wooden contraptions made to fire feed. Your enemy soldiers are replaced by animals, who fire piercing spittle at you instead of bullets. The same strategies that work in Wolfenstein apply here too. Your best bet against standard enemies is to bait enemies through doorways towards you, where you have time to prepare your shot as you begin to see the door open. Boss fights require tactical use of cover, as their attacks cause massive rapid damage if you’re caught out in the open as they fire. I could go on, but you probably get the picture by now: If you’ve played Wolfenstein 3D for the SNES, you’ve already played Super 3D Noa– no, wait! That’s not entirely right! Much like the SNES version of Wolfenstein follows a different set of levels from the original DOS release, the levels in Noah’s Ark are all new too, meaning the game isn’t simply a reskinned clone of it’s source material. Not only that, but Wisdom Tree employed a different design philosophy while creating their new levels; one which contrasts in subtle ways against id’s originals. As a matter of fact, I will go as far as to say that I actually prefer Wisdom Tree’s approach to level design… at least as in the case of using the Wolfenstein 3D engine. (No verdict on how they’d have compared to Romero’s masterwork with the Doom engine at their disposal)
For starters, let’s talk about enemy placement. The dog enemies in Wolfenstein (or rats on the SNES) are among the easiest to defeat in the game thanks to their lack of ranged attack, though they aren’t as susceptible to the door trap strategy since they aren’t actually able to open doors. id sort of phases them out of their campaigns at a certain point in favor of populating levels with more humanoid enemies. Understandable design, but it’s almost like a waste of an available resource: An enemy that they could’ve continued to have used if only for variety’s sake, and to create potentially challenging close-quarters scenarios. Wisdom Tree recognizes this missed opportunity, and uses goats (their replacement for these enemies) throughout much more of the game. It’s a design decision which goes often unnoticed, given that goats fit in so naturally with the rest of the “enemy animal” motif, while the dogs / rats in Wolfenstein stick out more when seen among gun-toting soldiers.
Another conscious design decision by Wisdom Tree was to make the entrances to secret rooms slightly more obvious in many cases. In Wolfenstein, you might find the occasional pushwall hidden behind a painting or variant wall sprite, but for the most part the secrets are well and truly hidden among rows of identical wall texture. This means constantly pressing the “open” button while strafing face-forward towards walls, hoping desperately that one block might lead you to a hidden cache. I’ve always hated this kind of design personally, as I find it incredibly tedious. Mercifully, Noah makes his pushwalls a bit more obvious, more often using variant wall textures to indicate the secrets. It’s something to reward players for paying attention to detail and keeping an eye open for them. Granted, there are still instances of pushwalls hidden between identical textures, but in many of these cases the level layouts almost seem to point towards them, inviting you to check and see if there might actually be a secret. I only remember a handful of secrets among the many hidden in the original Wolfenstein 3D, but I found myself at least vaguely remembering where the pushwalls are aboard the Ark. As a result, the level designs themselves are more easily committed to memory as well, and easier to discern from one another.
Speaking of which, that brings us to maybe my favorite change: An overall more straightforward approach to level design. While not completely devoid of maze sections, the Ark often features more logical architecture and progression through rooms. Even the more complex layouts make at least some sort of sense from a gameflow standpoint, compared to some of Wolfenstein’s original levels which could be downright nonsensical at times (especially given the original releases lack of maps). Some of the novelty levels are fun too, like a layout comprised mostly of small square-shaped interconnected rooms in grid formation. In a nod to the DOS Wolfenstein with it’s hidden swastika-shaped levels (which could be seen from an overhead map view, if the feature had been available), you even have a handful of levels in the shape of more Christian symbols. A boss floor in the shape of the cross actually works quite well as an open arena. I won’t sit here and say the levels in Super 3D Noah’s Ark are “objectively better” — some folk really love getting stuck in mazes, I reckon. But as a matter of preference, I really do tend to enjoy the levels in Noah’s Ark more.
What more is there to say about the game? The new music is well-composed, upbeat fare that gets the “children’s cartoon” vibe of the game across nicely. Animal sprites and animations sometimes leave a little to be desired, especially compared to how smooth many of Wolfenstein’s came across. I suppose it really wasn’t feasible on the SNES though, which struggles enough trying to keep the game running as is. That’s easily the biggest issue players will have with the game; trying to effectively dodge and shoot in combat while the framerate runs as low as single digits. It can definitely lead to some frustrating scenarios where you feel like you’re losing control of Noah, with the game keeping you from doing what you need to do to survive. As you might expect, this is particularly infuriating in scenarios where you’re made to fight as many as a dozen enemies at once. Add to this the issue of the SNES’ primitive sprite-scaling, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out where and what you’re even looking at at times. Of course, these were issues for Wolfenstein on the SNES as well.
But if you can adjust for the at-times sluggish performance and chunky graphics, there’s a fun game to be played here. Though I suppose most will prefer the original Wolfenstein, be it for it’s more contemporary setting (by comparison) or simply for the fact you get to kill Hitler, it’s unfair to write Noah off completely as many seem to do. It’s one thing to mock it for it’s repurposed premise and assets, but it does retain the mechanics of its source material, while delivering new levels and challenges for enthusiasts in want of them. If your complaints are more to do with the technical aspect of things, it’s a little more understandable: I can see how it’d be pretty hard for folk nowadays to “go back” to a game which performs so poorly at times, which struggles to render what many must consider to be the most basic graphics. But you need to remember that while, yes, these graphics weren’t even “cutting edge” back in the day – where DOS could handle pseudo-3D far better and the SNES could even run truly 3D affair like Star Fox – they were at least eye-catching in the sense that they were still an uncommon sight on the console. This was an era where players were far more forgiving of issues like framerate drops, and where anything that fell outside of established genres / graphics conventions still had a novelty factor going for it that players would want to experience for themselves. The fact that Super 3D Noah’s Ark launched within several months of Wolfenstein 3D for SNES meant that, for a small few likely of a certain faith, this was their entry into a new dimension of gaming. And I, for one, think it’s pretty cool that a game like this existed and gave them that opportunity.
“Gather Fruit for Extra Turns.”
As noted, the bubble around Christian goods retailers had already burst by the time Super 3D Noah’s Ark went to retail. As such, it didn’t exactly fly off shelves, certainly never meeting the same level of success that Bible Adventures had seen. It didn’t help that the system for overriding the SNES’ new lockout chip involved inserting an officially licensed SNES cartridge inside of the cartridge designed for Noah’s Ark, working a pass-through system not dissimilar to the Game Genie. Add to this oddity the fact that there were no other known unlicensed SNES games available at that time [in America], and you’re left with a consumer base that might not have realized that it was even possible to play unlicensed titles on the console. But more importantly, even if they had known, would they have even cared to? Probably not, to be honest. By this point, Color Dreams / Wisdom Tree had begun to wind down, perhaps realizing that the space in the market for unlicensed game developers was shrinking past the point of practicality. Before they wrapped up though, they made one last attempt at maximizing the profits of their existing games, re-releasing many of them as Game Boy, Sega Genesis and DOS games.
Noah’s Ark didn’t make it onto the Genesis (or the Game Boy, for that matter), but it did find it’s way onto DOS, bringing the Wolfenstein 3D engine back home. Except this time, it brought the improvements of the SNES version with it, giving us the extra guns and map feature. The DOS version also brought one more gameplay alteration with the inclusion of quizzes, which you trigger by picking up scrolls within the levels. If you can answer a Noah’s Ark-related trivia question correctly, you’re rewarded with extra health and ammo. Get it wrong, and the game will at least take pity on you, giving you just a few extra health points. These quizzes feature in many of Wisdom Tree’s other games as well, serving much the same function and purpose. Most of the questions are easy enough for even a heathen like me to figure out, as the answers are all presented in multiple choice form. Some mock this quiz feature, but you have to look at this from a Christian kid’s perspective: It gave clever children something they could point out to their parents as if to say “look, it’s an educational game!” And hey, some folk actually enjoy playing trivia games, y’know! At the very least, it’s an interesting addition, and it’s cool to see that Wisdom Tree were so committed to their recurring quizzes, they figured out how to implement it into the engine. That’s dedication to a gimmick right there. Add to this the inclusion of floor and ceiling textures – a feature both the original DOS Wolfenstein and SNES Noah’s Ark had lacked altogether – and you can make a very legitimate argument that the DOS release of Super 3D Noah’s Ark is superior to the DOS release of Wolfenstein 3D. Of course, Doom had already been out for a couple of years now by this point and outclassed the Wolfenstein 3D engine in every regard, but never mind that.
In the nearly 20 years after it’s release, Super 3D Noah’s Ark has seen two more re-releases. The first in 2014 – released to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary – was a run of reproduction SNES cartridges sold by Piko Interactive; a company who specializes in “the development of new games for old consoles.” They would also be responsible for publishing the game through digital distribution channels for modern-day PCs, running on the ECWolf source port. This allows for the game to be played with a number of added options for graphics and controls, as well as delivering the smoothest performance possible. With the technical issues of the SNES version completely eliminated in this format, we can finally see the game as something like “the way it was meant to be seen,” and enjoy it without the frustrations of a lacking visual fidelity. It’s in this version that the level design can truly shine, and the differences between Noah’s Ark and Wolfenstein 3D can be better appreciated. It should serve as the definitive version of the game, as it certainly serves as the most accessible version at the very least.
One final myth to dispel while you’re still here: Super 3D Noah’s Ark wasn’t the only unlicensed game on the SNES. Eyup, there were actually a few more, including a couple of hentai games in the SM Choukyoushi Hitomi series, and three or so Pokémon / Digimon-themed bootleg games. There’s also the infamous Hong Kong 97, a game in which your objective is literally to wipe out the entire population of China, and which features a photograph of an actual corpse on the game over screen. Classy stuff, to be sure. But I mention these games not just to wrap up one of the last loose ends of the Wisdom Tree myth, but so that I can make one last point about them as well.
You probably get the feeling from looking at most unlicensed / bootleg games that the developer’s motivations were rarely what you’d call “well-meaning.” They were often looking to make a quick buck on the back of a quickly-produced game, or that they were looking to push the boundaries of good taste simply for the sake of doing so. But Wisdom Tree felt different. Yes, I’m fully aware that their programmers have literally gone on the record as saying they didn’t believe in the Christian content they were including, and that their primary motivation at the end of the day was simply to make money. For more on that, I highly recommend Gabe Durham’s Bible Adventures as published by Boss Fight Books, which goes into more detail on the history of Color Dreams and Wisdom Tree than I can hope to in this format. But reading that book will give you another insight into the developers: They were having fun making games. Somehow, that fact manages to shine through their poorly-programmed platformers and ridiculous top-down action adventures, and I can’t play them without having the thought “someone had fun making this stupid thing.” Super 3D Noah’s Ark might be their game with the least amount of original input, but that unmistakeable charm is still there. Plus, by taking the “having to create an engine” out of their hands, it allowed them to better focus on their design fundamentals and to think about maximizing the tools at their disposal.
Past all the myths and misconceptions, Color Dreams / Wisdom Tree might very well still deserve their reputation as a “bad games developer.” Hell, even those involved joke about “driving into work at noon and making bad games.”But knowing the camaraderie of those responsible for making their games, admit to their lack of craft, I’m hard-pressed to hold their games against them. That they were able to create games that devout parents could feel safe buying for their kids is an added bonus, giving them a potential entry point to genres they might not otherwise have had access to. Say what you will about the actual quality of those games and the motivation behind marketing to that audience, but their games were never intended as some sort of cruel joke at the consumer’s expense or anything like that. You get the feeling that the team behind these games were really trying to give Christian youth something they could enjoy, and give parents the comfort that came with knowing their kids were playing something that reaffirmed their beliefs. You don’t have to like their games — hell, you don’t even have to respect them if you find their ethics questionable. But you should at least try to understand where they were coming from, and what brought them to the point where they were redrawing Adolf Hitler as a grizzly bear.