The Nuon is a fascinating system. Released in 2000 and positioned as a DVD player that came packed with relatively powerful 3D hardware inside, it promised to put a games console inside every living room – often without the customer even realising it. Supported by hardware partners such as Samsung and Toshiba, it only ever got seven games in the West and, by 2004, had effectively ceased to exist as an ongoing concern.
It has to rank as one of the most obscure gaming platforms of all time, yet it has become highly collectable on the secondary market in recent years, with some of its games changing hands for hundreds of dollars. As the only platform on which you can play Jeff Minter’s incredible Tempest 3000, it's still worthy of investigation – so let's get on with it, shall we?
A Brief History Of The Nuon
Nuon was the creation of VM Labs, a California-based tech company founded by ex-Atari VP Richard Miller in 1995; the same year that DVD was invented. While CD was still an exciting new format for games console in the mid-Nineties, VM Labs was thinking ahead with a bright idea: integrate a chip into DVD video players that would also allow them to play games. VM Labs cleverly foresaw the phenomenal popularity of DVD and believed that if it could sneak its chipset into millions of players, like a Trojan Horse, then success would naturally follow.
VM Labs’ early start ensured that its technology was ready for public release in the year 2000, just as DVD was exploding in popularity. The Matrix had released on DVD in September 1999, several months ahead of its VHS release, and was just the sort of exciting, futuristic movie needed to propel movie lovers to a new generation of technology. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace followed in 2001, the first year that DVD sales overtook VHS. Nuon was primed to ride the wave, and VM Labs was able to license its tech for inclusion in several DVD players from major manufacturers Samsung, Toshiba and RCA.
The Nuon chipset offered DVD manufacturers some clear advantages over other players of the time, such as smoother forward, reverse and zoom functions, as well as interactive bonus features not possible on other systems. The technology also included the VLM-2, a virtual light machine designed by Jeff Minter as a follow-up to the VLM-1 in the Jaguar CD, to display a series of trippy visuals whenever a music CD was played. All attractive features, but the real selling point was the ability to turn your DVD player into a full games console, capable of playing 3D titles with one or two players.
Like similar set-top box consoles before it (most notably the Philips CD-i), the Nuon allowed users to play games using the infra-red remote – which included a miniature directional stick – or plug in up to two separately sold controllers, some of which boasted an analogue stick for more sophisticated gameplay.
The idea was potentially brilliant. With DVD players entering homes all around the world, movie lovers would discover they also now owned a games console and may pick up a couple of titles to see what it could do. Looking back at the initial releases suggests VM Labs had a sensible release strategy, too. Accessible and familiar games like Tetris, Ballistic and Space Invaders were perfect for drawing in consumers with a passing knowledge of games, while more sophisticated titles like Merlin Racing and Iron Soldier 3 offered dedicated gamers something more akin to contemporary console hits. Tempest 3000, meanwhile, is more of an outlier: a hardcore gem for the truly informed game fan. Though, even that dates back to Atari’s 1981 original, so you can see the logic that VM Labs believed it might also appeal to lapsed players who remember the coin-op games of their youth.
It’s intriguing to imagine where Nuon’s game library might have gone next. There’s a long list of cancelled games, including the likes of Dragon’s Lair, Myst, Breakout, Monopoly, Speedball 2100, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure and Bust-A-Move 4 that suggest the balance of casual and hardcore brands would have continued, though it’s unclear how, if at all, they would have increased in complexity. One thing that really held Nuon back is that the planned memory card, announced in 2001, was never released. This would have potentially helped Nuon compete with console and PC games, encouraging more sprawling adventures and RPGs. Without it, Nuon’s software was limited to simpler arcade genres or old-fashioned password-based progression.
Unfortunately, Nuon’s promising head start was abruptly cut short in late 2001 as VM Labs’s funding fell through; the company was soon declared bankrupt and sold off to Genesis Microchip, where it was stripped for parts. The Nuon tech was integrated into HDTV technology, but no more DVD players or games were produced.
Around the same time, of course, Sony’s PlayStation 2 had released in March 2000. Sony was one of the key developers of the DVD format and was notable by its absence among Nuon-enabled DVD players. Instead, it took the opposite approach. Rather than build a games console into a DVD player, it included a DVD player in its console, which proved to be an insanely popular selling point.
The rest is history, and the Nuon became little more than a footnote.
Release date: July 2000
Also on: Game Boy Color, PlayStation
You may be more familiar with Ballistic by its arcade name, Puzzloop, in which coloured balls must be fired into a moving loop of matching coloured balls to stop them reaching the endzone. The disc features arcade, endless and versus modes and offers a fun and addictive version of the classic game. There are few feelings in gaming more satisfying than popping a trio of balls and then watching as a whole series of them combo away. Ballistic is the most common and affordable game on the system, so this should definitely be part of any Nuon collection.
Publisher: Okiyasu Lab
Developer: Okiyasu Lab
Release date: 2000
Also on: PC
The rarest game on Nuon, and quite possibly the rarest game ever made. This licensed anime game was released exclusively in Korea and is region locked so that it only runs on a single Korean model of DVD player. Very few people can claim to own a copy of this one, and it has never been dumped online, so only a few screenshots and videos exist. But, honestly, it doesn’t look like we’re missing much. Game footage suggests little more than a very simple scrolling beat-‘em-up with rudimentary gameplay.
Publisher: VM Labs/Songbird Productions
Release date: December 2000
Also on: PC
Freefall 3050AD is one of the more ambitious games on Nuon. Set in a cyberpunk future, the game puts you in control of a “Drop Cop” who must shoot at and dodge highflying criminals while falling thousands of feet at high speed. The action is fast, frantic and challenging, as you aim in 360 degrees while managing your descent. Unfortunately, the Nuon controls are a bit fiddly and would have been better suited to a twin-stick controller. Thankfully, the game was re-released on Steam in 2019, where it can be had for the bargain price of $2.99.
Publisher: VM Labs/Songbird Productions
Developer: Eclipse Software
Release date: June 2000
Also on: PlayStation
The final game in the mech action series which began on the Atari Jaguar, Iron Soldier 3 is perhaps the closest thing Nuon had to a contemporary mainstream game. Similar in style to MechWarrior or Armored Core, it offers satisfying mech action in first or third person across a variety of missions and locations. The visuals are some of the most impressive on the system and really show off what Nuon can do – it looks crisper than the PlayStation conversion – and the gameplay is meaty enough to keep you playing for some time.
Publisher: VM Labs
Developer: Miracle Designs
Release date: December 2000
Also on: PlayStation, sort of
An N64-style cart racing game with more than a passing resemblance to Diddy Kong Racing, complete with cute animal racers, a hub world, hovercraft and flying stages and cheating-scum bosses. The visuals are pretty impressive, almost PlayStation 2 quality, and the game is good fun, if a little unbalanced. You wouldn’t buy a Nuon for Merlin Racing, but if you do own a Nuon, it’s worth trying to add this to your collection. Curiously, Merlin Racing was ported to PlayStation in 2003, with its content split across four completely separate titles: Miracle Space Race, Rascal Racers, ATV Racers and XS Airboat Racing.
Publisher: VM Labs
Developer: Matahari Studios/Taito
Release date: June 2000
Also on: Technically a Nuon exclusive, but very similar to Space Invaders for Sega Saturn
This collection initially feels anaemic, offering just four versions of the original 1978 coin-op in monochrome, colour or screen overlay renditions, but it’s the bonus modes that really appeal. Time Attack mode boasts trippy visuals that are a bit more attention-grabbing, and varies the gameplay in nice ways between waves. Battle mode, meanwhile, is the highlight, turning Space Invaders into a head-to-head competition in which shooting certain coloured invaders will have an impact on your opponent’s screen. Of course, there have since been better Space Invaders compilations on other systems, so it’s hard to truly recommend this at sky-high eBay prices.
Developer: Blue Planet Software
Release date: November 2000
Also on: Dreamcast, PC, PlayStation
This release was never sold separately and instead was offered free to owners of Toshiba’s Nuon player. As a freebie, it’s not bad, offering a solid but bare-bones version of the classic game. But as a $600+ collectible, it leaves a lot to be desired. On the disc, you’ll find a classic version of Tetris as well as 'The Next Tetris', which is really just a series of puzzle stages in which you have to clear junk pieces. For the same price, you could buy a PS5 with Tetris Effect!
Developer: Blue Planet Software
Release date: January 2001
Also on: Nothing. Tempest 3000 is a Nuon exclusive
The crown jewel of the Nuon library, Tempest 3000 takes everything that made Tempest 2000 on Jaguar so great and turns it up to 11. The raw arcade thrills, the pounding dance music and the dreamy visuals combine to create a hypnotic experience that draws you in and makes the real world disappear for a few minutes. Jeff Minter recently followed this up with Tempest 4000 on modern HD systems, but 3000 still has a unique look and feel that remains exclusive to Nuon. If you love his games, then this is worth buying the system for alone.
Buying A Nuon Today
Starting a Nuon collection decades after it was released is certainly no easy feat. You’re unlikely to find the hardware or games in your local retro game store, especially if you live outside the US. But they can often be found on eBay… at a price.
Curiously, the console itself is the cheapest and easiest part to get hold of, since they’re literally just DVD players, with several models available and, presumably, manufactured in much higher numbers than the games. We bought a Toshiba SD-2300 on eBay for $130. A price we were very happy with, though Kevin Manne of Nuon-Dome.com tells us it’s possible to find players in US thrift stores for a fraction of that price if you’re lucky. There was only one player released here in Europe, but it will be much harder to come across. eBay is the best bet for those of us not in the States.
The really difficult part, however, is the controller. Though many games can be played with the Nuon’s remote, most play best with or require a controller. There were several released for the system, but all use a bespoke connection and are now very pricey. Ours is a HPI Stealth, which seems to be modelled from the same mould as a third-party N64 pad. It set us back an upsetting $275!
Thankfully, some more reasonable controller options have become available since we bought our Nuon in 2022. Songbird Productions sells the Aries64 adapter, which allows any Nintendo 64 controller to be used. At $50, it’s still not cheap, but if you already have an N64 pad to hand, it’s a very good option. Alternatively, there’s also the slightly more expensive ($60) USB adapter, which is currently up for pre-order. This opens Nuon up to a wide variety of readily available controllers, including wireless pads and even a mouse with scroll wheel to simulate a spinner for Tempest.
Then there are the all-important games. If you’re a collector and you want the original boxed releases, then get ready to start saving those pennies! Though the very good Ballistic is easily acquired for about $15-$30, most Nuon games will set you back hundreds each. We just had to have Tempest 3000, for example, and that cost an eye-watering $330. We're yet to buy Tetris, and probably never will. A copy was recently listed on eBay for just shy of $1,000 – and it’s just the disc!
Thankfully, there are some much more affordable alternatives for games, too. We highly recommend checking out Songbird Productions, where officially licensed versions of both Iron Soldier 3 and Freefall 3050AD are available for about $80 each. Be warned, though; if, like us, you own a Toshiba SD-2300, you’ll find these re-releases are incompatible with this particular player. We spoke to Carl Forhan at Songbird, who provided the following statement:
Songbird is aware there are compatibility issues with the recent Songbird Nuon DVD reprints and the Toshiba SD2300 player. There are both BIOS variations and DVD layout variations, which result in these compatibility issues. Songbird has worked with affected customers to help them find a way to play these games. Additionally, Songbird has now acquired an SD2300 player to assist with compatibility testing for any future Nuon DVD releases.
For those who only want to play the games and don’t care too much about a collection, it’s worth knowing that Nuon works just fine with DVD-Rs, which could save you thousands of dollars. Most of these games have long since been out of print, so it’s either this or paying exorbitant fees to re-sellers, although we’d recommend checking in with Songbird as a first port of call. They’ve gone to the trouble of officially licensing Iron Soldier 3 and Freefall, and potentially have more affordable releases to come. We’d highly encourage supporting a company like this, which are performing a great service for the retro community and making relatively tiny sums of money from it in the process.
Finally, there’s the blossoming Nuon homebrew scene. VM Labs happily released the SDK into the public domain in 2001, and there’s now a growing library of homemade games that can be burned to either CD or DVD, depending on your individual player’s compatibility. There’s a port of Doom (of course), Breakout, an Atari 800 emulator and, our personal pick, a tribute to Amiga classic Bombuzal.
This homebrew library is a great way to expand on the small selection of commercial games and breathe more life into your Nuon. Check out the growing list of games over at Nuon-Dome.com.
...But is It Worth It?
Nuon is one of those consoles that’s best thought of as a curiosity piece; a fringe obsession for those gamers who’ve been collecting for a couple of decades already and feel like they’ve seen it all. This isn’t a system with scores of great games to try, but it is a fascinating piece of hardware, and, if you’re a Jeff Minter fan, it has at least one must-play game.
Building a full Nuon collection is a distressingly expensive prospect, but if you just want to try out the system, then there’s never been a better time. To get started, a DVD player and a controller adapter will get you going for as little as about $150. Just don’t blame us if you get addicted and start spending more after that!
Kevin Manne Of Nuon-Dome Interview
Kevin Manne is a Nuon super fan and host of Nuon-Dome.com.
Time Extension: How did you get into Nuon?
Kevin Manne: I was a huge fan of the Atari Jaguar in the Nineties, and there was a lineage from the Jaguar to the Nuon. I’d loved Iron Soldier on Jaguar, and Iron Soldier 3 was coming to Nuon. Then there’s Tempest, which is one of my all-time favourite games. I have the arcade cabinet, Tempest 2000 was incredible and now Tempest 3000 is the best of them all. Miracle Designs had done Atari Karts and then they did Merlin Racing for Nuon. Before Nuon-Dome there was Jagu-Dome, where we reviewed Jaguar games, so Nuon-Dome was like an evolution of that. In the late '90s, early 2000s, fansites were the place to get all your information, so I thought I’d do that for Nuon.
TE: Take us back to 2000. What was it like to be part of the fanbase at the time?
KM: The launch was really weird. I heard about it in a DVD review magazine and had to order it by mail order from an electronics supplier, rather than from a gaming store. There was a website called DVD International that sold some Nuon games. They did eventually get placement in Best Buy, but that was once the Samsung N501 came out. It was neat seeing Nuon on the shelves in a physical retail store, but by that time the writing was already on the wall. You had to really be into it to know it existed. If you were looking at a row of DVD players, you’d never know that one of them also happened to be a games console.
TE: Tempest aside, what would you say are the highlights of the Nuon?
KM: Iron Soldier 3, definitely. It eventually got ported to PSOne but the Nuon version is graphically superior and seems to run a little faster. I like Merlin Racing, which reminds me of Diddy Kong Racing. I played through all of that and played through all of Iron Soldier 3… On easy! There’s not a lot of love for FreeFall but I played through all of that back in the day. The controls are a little quirky. It’s ambitious, but it’s fun.
TE: What’s your experience of Korean-exclusive, Crayon Shin-Chan?
KM: I saw one copy of it in person just once at a retro gaming show around 2004, but the collector who brought it didn’t have the player to play it. There’s a gameplay video on YouTube that’s the only footage I’ve ever seen. I’ve never played it. Now that Nuon authentication has been cracked, in theory, someone could dump the game and someone might be able to make it playable on non-Korean players. But who knows how many copies of the game even exist. I’d love to see it someday.
TE: A lot of games were announced and then cancelled. Which were the biggest losses to Nuon?
KM: Amaze is one they pushed a lot in the lead-up to launch. It looked cool because it had realtime raytracing on the ball. I always thought that would be cool, especially because it would have been Nuon exclusive. Myst is one they pushed a lot. That’s not really my thing, but it would have been cool to have on the system. They had made an announcement that EA was going to bring sports games like Madden to Nuon. That would have been a big boon for them.
There was also Native II, which would have been awesome. That started out as a homebrew Neo Geo-style shoot-‘em-up demo on Jaguar, was proposed for Nuon, and eventually evolved into Sturmwind, which was released on Dreamcast. A lot of the things that went into Sturmwind were originally proposed for Native II.
TE: And you own a copy of the finished but never released Bust-A-Move 4?
I was sent it by VM Labs for playtesting before it was cancelled and created a box by printing the box art they released. I would love to someday see this released but I don’t want to dump it and have Taito come after me. I’d prefer to help make an officially licensed release happen if somebody out there has connections with Taito and can make it happen.
TE: If Nuon had survived, how do you think the games would have evolved?
KM: I do wonder what capabilities of the hardware we never got to see. Most of the games we got look somewhere between PSOne and N64 quality, but Merlin Racing is graphically impressive. I think it’s better looking than an N64 game. I think Nuon could have ended up on par with Dreamcast quality.
Bill Rehbock (VP of Third Party Development at VM Labs) Interview
Bill Rehbock was VP of Third Party Development at VM Labs and was responsible for helping developers publish games on Nuon.
Time Extension: Looking back at your time at VM labs, what was the feeling like internally, as you were working on Nuon?
Bill Rehbock: I think Nuon received a lot of buzz because the promise of a democratized gaming platform is what gamers and developers would like to see fulfilled, even to this day. 3DO made that attempt, but it was too expensive and it was solely a gaming system, so if a consumer wasn't predisposed to gaming, they'd have no interest in it. Nuon made for both a better DVD player and it promised to bring full interactive gaming to a new audience.
TE: How did you attract game developers to Nuon, and what were some of the biggest challenges in getting talent onboard?
BR: We didn't have the typical big budgets available, so the business model was attractive and the relationships that we carried in were important. Jeff Minter is simply amazing. Several of us had worked with Jeff during our Atari days and Richard Miller (CEO of Nuon) is very old friends with Jeff. Tempest was so well executed and Jeff did a great job of leveraging the capabilities of Nuon.
TE: Which developers do you think got the most out of the Nuon hardware?
BR: Naturally, Jeff Minter extracted the most out of the hardware - the VLM music visualizer and Tempest 3000 are outstanding pieces of visual art. Iron Soldier was amazing and certainly impressed the folks at Electronic Arts at the time. The quality of Iron Soldier was partly responsible for Bing Gordon and John Riccitello giving the go-ahead for the licensing deal that I did with EA. Miracle Designs (now part of Nacon) did a fantastic job leveraging the performance and flexibility of the Nuon hardware to create porting libraries that made it possible to easily do Mode-7 style graphics and port PlayStation games to the platform.
TE: What can you tell us about the Crayon Shin-Chan release? How did Nuon end up with a single Korean-exclusive title?
BR: Crayon Shin-Chan happened because of Samsung. They had a development studio in Seoul that wanted to develop for Nuon because Samsung was doing the DVD-N2000, so it made good internal business sense for Samsung to bring the very popular property to Nuon.
TE: There were a few games announced for Nuon that were later cancelled. Which do you think were the biggest losses?
BR: I really wish we could have gotten Star Trek Invasion done earlier, because I think that games with good TV and movie franchise tie-ins would have introduced games to the DVD player audience and that would have been great for Nuon as a platform. The same goes for Spider-Man.
TE: At what point did you realise the writing was on the wall for Nuon?
BR: In my opinion, the biggest issue was that a few of the partners, Thompson/RCA in particular, really wanted to invest and own a piece of VM Labs. Similar to how Sony made and continues to enjoy royalties from CD and Blu-ray and Toshiba gets royalties from DVD, the notion of owning a portion of the revenue stream from Nuon, assuming wide adoption, would have been lucrative. The terms being offered were pretty onerous, and no agreement ever could be agreed upon.
TE: Finally, what part of your involvement with Nuon are you most proud of?
BR: The fact that Greg LaBrec and I were able to get a Nuon software section deployed at Best Buy without paying huge slotting fees - and that the section persisted for a while, even after VM Labs was out of business, says a lot about the games that we delivered and the overall interest in the platform concept.
Ashley Day is a (mostly) ex-games journalist, who edited the Retro section of gamesTM magazine from 2006 to 2012. These days he works in the games industry and occasionally writes about the old games he’s been playing on his personal blog, Games From The Black Hole, where you can find an extended review of Tempest 3000.