On the ashes of Atari, Nintendo forged an empire in the late 80’s through a mix of good games and evil business practices. Nintendo of America’s early days were marked with anti-competitive practices that broke down in the 90’s under the weight of how illegal they were. That’s a topic for another day, but suffice to say that Nintendo held its developers in a stranglehold. If you wanted to publish on the NES, you had to play Nintendo’s game.
Color Dreams was one company that dared to oppose Nintendo’s tight hold on publishers by releasing their own line of unlicensed games. Most were awful. Combine this with the fact that Nintendo’s policy restricted retailers from selling unlicensed games alongside official Nintendo titles, and you’ve got a recipe for crappy sales.
The solution for the company was to rebrand as Wisdom Tree and start releasing Christian themed games. Popular internet legend holds that the re-branding was to prevent Nintendo from suing them, reasoning that Nintendo wouldn’t want to be known as the company that sued Jesus, but the truth is likely more mundane. In all probability, Color Dreams saw the potential of having Christian retailers carry their games. It’s unlikely that a Christian bookstore would be stocking official Nintendo games, so they didn’t have to worry about conflicting with Nintendo’s restrictions. Then if you slapped Moses on the game’s cover, suddenly it’s wholesome and can be sold right alongside the pre-teen books about solving mysteries by opening your heart to God.
One such game was Super 3-D Noah’s Ark for the Super Nintendo. It was contained in a unique cartridge that required a separate SNES cartridge to be plugged into it in order to defeat the regional lockout chip. It’s a bit of a notorious game, and being a company with an eye for a potential market, Wisdom Tree has re-released it on modern PC operating systems.
Super 3-D Noah’s Ark actually has yet another popular gaming legend attached to it. When Wolfenstein 3D was released on Super Nintendo, Nintendo’s censors hacked it apart and removed a lot of the Nazi references. According to the legend, id Software then retaliated by handing its source code over to Wisdom Tree so they could make an unlicensed game based on it. The retaliation part is unlikely, but the part about it being a Wolfenstein 3D clone made on the same engine is entirely true.
Of course, it was made to be more family-friendly. Based on the story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis, you play as the eponymous Noah as he tries to settle a mutiny among the animals by drugging them with food. It’s, uh, a unique way to make something child-appropriate from a first-person shooter, but frankly, I’ll stick to Chex Quest.
DRUGGING ANIMALS FOR GOD
The game, like Wolfenstein 3D before it (after the additional prequel episodes were added), consists of six episodes, though Noah’s Ark‘s episodes are considerably shorter. In every level you fight animals like oxen, goats and… other types of goats, I guess. Except you’re not really fighting them, you’re force feeding them with your slingshot until they lapse into a food coma. But then, the more powerful weapons launch coconuts and watermelons, which would probably do a lot of damage to an animal’s skeletal structure. I’m not sure this was entirely thought through.
Things progress predictably. You start with a crappy little slingshot before eventually finding a bizarre little contraption that rapid fires kibble right down the throats of the animals you’ve been charged with protecting from God’s genocidal rage. The animals protect themselves by spitting in your face. Each level requires you to locate the exit in a maze consisting of identical looking corridors, sometimes necessitating you locate keys to get through locked doors. If you hump the walls enough, eventually one might move and reveal a bunch of band-aids and animal feed. You know, it’s exactly like Wolfenstein 3D, but with fewer people spouting bad German at you.
Okay, so it actually does change a number of things from Wolfenstein. For one, certain pick-ups splash a Bible quiz in your face. It being years since I last touched a religious text of any denomination, I did poorly on these quizzes. I bounced some of them off my husband, who went through a theological phase in his life, and even he couldn’t remember how many days it took for floodwaters to recede. The game also doesn’t tell you the correct answer when you get it wrong, so it’s hard to say I learned anything, aside from maybe the fact that Noah had a son named Ham.
It also includes all the additions that were added for the SNES port. This means an increased number of weapons, providing slots for the watermelon and coconut slingshots. There are also Doom-style backpacks which expand your ammo capacity, which is nice considering Noah’s kibble blasters absolutely hoover up his inventory.
This means it also suffers from Wolfenstein’s problems, such as its utterly generic level design and poor variation when it comes to enemy and weapon designs. Which level was your favourite in Wolf 3D? The maze with the blue walls or the maze with the red walls? Here, the brickwork of bunkers and castles has been replaced by several shades of wood paneling, and pictures of Hitler have been traded for sleeping ducklings and testaments to Noah’s insatiable narcissism. Rather than capping off each episode with a gunfight with a mechanized Nazi, you fight a more exotic species of animal, such as a monkey or kangaroo. To be fair to Super 3-D Noah’s Ark, it isn’t substantially worse than Wolfenstein 3D in terms of pacing and level design, for what that is worth.
Super 3-D Noah’s Ark does suffer from some setbacks not seen in its progenitor. For starters, it’s never clear when your bullets are actually hitting something, since the animals don’t really flinch like their German counterparts. Likewise, it’s hard to tell where you’re being hit from, since their shots only make a soft “ptoo” as they hork in your beard from across the room. Couple that with the fact that, like in Wolfenstein 3D, the damage you take seems based on a bunch of mystifying factors — like range, relative position, and the speed you’re moving — and you’re likely to be turned into a saliva drenched corpse without much warning. The game then plops you back at the beginning of the level with just a slingshot, so it’s in your best interest to manually save as often as possible.
Contrary to that, the port of Super 3-D Noah’s Ark had a lot of work put into it. Rather than simply throw the original game through DOSbox, Wisdom Tree dove in and added some modern conveniences like widescreen support, a scaling UI, two-button strafe keys, and horizontal mouselook. I don’t know the backend details about this version, but it’s easy to appreciate that it’s not just a lazy port dump. On the other hand, it really didn’t want to run for me in 4k resolution, but that would probably be needless excess anyway. It’s fine in 1920×1080.
It’s pretty easy to figure out if you fit into the target audience of Super 3-D Noah’s Ark. You’re either nostalgic about a period in your childhood that you spent with the original version on DOS or SNES, you really super love Wolfenstein 3D, or, like me, you’re a masochist who is drawn to the curious corner of the video game cafeteria where the smelly kids dwell. If you’re none of those, give it a pass.
However, if you carry any of the particular kinds of emotional damage needed to approach the game, here’s what you’re getting: Wolfenstein 3D without the historical significance. I didn’t find it better or worse. It’s basically just a total conversion with competent level design.
Except, I don’t particularly like Wolfenstein 3D. I respect it for the impact it had, but if it didn’t provide me the opportunity to kill a robot-clad Hitler, I wouldn’t have bothered playing through it. Likewise, if Super 3D Noah’s Ark didn’t have such a dubious history, I wouldn’t have even given it a look. You probably already know if this game is something you want to play, I just want to let you know it’s not a total waste of time.
This review was conducted on a digital Steam version of the game. It was paid for by the author.