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Nuon - An English Opinion
by Mark Crutch

Okay, so I know this isn't a review as such, but at the time of writing there are so few Nuon-related items available that they've all been reviewed to death already. However at this time the Nuon has not yet seen its official debut in Europe, so what I have decided to do is to write about one Englishman's first experiences with a US Nuon in the UK, courtesy of Ebay.

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The first problem facing me was whether or not my new Samsung N2000 would actually work. I knew the mains would need transforming from 110V 60Hz to the European standard of 230V 50Hz. Somewhat naively I thought this would be a simple problem to address - surely as someone working in the electronics industry it couldn't be too hard for me to track down a ready-made transformer? In fact finding one wasn't at all difficult. The Maplin catalogue - a standard fallback for such items in the UK - had one listed relatively cheaply. I rang up: discontinued.

Next I tried the web - surely a search for "US UK step down transformer" or similar would yield a host of links. It did. They were all for companies in the US. With a Nuon due to arrive any day, I didn't have time to be dealing with transatlantic purchases, so I resolved myself to picking a transformer from Maplin's higher spec (and higher priced) range. I scoured the pages of the catalogue once again, and rang to order a 100VA device - more than enough for my needs. Out of stock.

Eventually I had to buy a 200VA transformer at nearly three times the price I had originally intended! Thankfully my other concern - of whether or not my TV would handle the NTSC signals - proved to be less of an issue. I just plugged everything together and, thankfully, it worked.

So having been too impatient to wait for an official European release, what did I think of the system as a whole, and of the games (Ballistic, T3K, Merlin Racing and Freefall 3050) that I received with it? Was it really worth the effort and cost involved? And could anything live up to Tempest 2000 and the original VLM - my two great loves from the Jaguar?

N5016.jpg - 41075 BytesThe VLM was the first to get tested. I put on the album "Surrender" by The Chemical Brothers. If you've not heard of them, they're a group that does good quality dance music, and are very popular in the UK. What made their CD a great choice for the VLM, however, is the fact that whilst their chart singles are largely up-tempo dance pieces, the album includes quite a mixture of tempos and volumes. If my experience with the Jag was anything to go by, I knew that anything which transitions from quiet to loud and back again is great for showing the VLM at its best.

But, alas, here was my first disappointment. With the Jag, upon inserting a CD, I have to go through an extensive series of button presses to get it to play with a full screen VLM set to randomly change programs. I always found this to be quite odd - after all if I had been in charge of product development at Atari I would have ensured that putting a CD in would automatically start it playing back with a suitable mass of spiralling swirling colours. What better way to make the system sell itself than to ensure that it shows its' best side even when faced with some pimply youth in the local electronics emporium who hasn't even looked at the manual once?

So I wondered if the staff at Samsung had seen the light, and if my CD would play automatically in full VLM glory? No such luck! Sure, it plays automatically, but with some dodgy spectrum analyser on the screen. To make matters even worse, switching to VLM mode mutes the audio for a few moments! I wonder exactly what mental process led anyone to conclude that most people would rather watch the spectrum analyser mode, and that this should therefore be the default? So now I find that I have to put a CD in, switch to VLM mode, then skip the CD back in order to start again from the beginning without any interruptions. On top of that it seems to be impossible to switch to VLM mode from the front panel of the player, so there's no chance of using the N2000 as the main CD player and light show at a party without the addd danger of somebody dropping the remote control into a pint of beer.

But niggles like that aside, the VLM itself is tremendous. It really does put the VLM on the Jag to shame, and the beat detection triggered beautifully on some of the punchier tracks of the album, bathing my living room in hypnotic flashes of light. The mostly dark backgrounds of the Jag VLM have been replaced with a host of pastels, and the blocky patterns of the original have now turned into beautifully blurred objects which distort and rotate in mesmerising patterns. If you're reading this as a prelude to buying a Nuon machine then believe me, you have to see the VLM in action to appreciate it. Screenshots just don't do it justice.

After tearing myself away from the VLM, Ballistic was the next item to try. This is a colour matching puzzle game, in which you have to destroy a series of coloured balls that are spiralling towards you by shooting them with other balls. If the ball you shoot fails to combine with those in the spiral in a group of three or more, then it too joins the spiral, pushing the end a little closer to your gun emplacement.

Graphically this does nothing for the Nuon, looking more like a throwback to the ST and Amiga games of the late eighties. That is a real shame, because as the pack-in game it would be useful for it to show a little more of the capabilities of the Nuon system. Simply changing the background for something more exciting, and replacing the balls with nicely raytraced versions would have helped. The sound also leaves a lot to be desired, having very few music tracks (I've only spotted two so far). The sound effects - stolen from an illicit liaison between billiard balls - work quite well though.

Despite lacking a little in the multimedia department, this game is actually surprisingly addictive. It certainly has that "just one more go" quality that is needed in a good puzzle game. From that point of view it's a nice addition to the Nuon range. When it comes out in boxed form I would advise non-Samsung owners to buy it - but only if it's relatively cheap.

Next for testing was Merlin Racing. At this point I've only had the Nuon for about a week, so haven't had a chance to have a go at the Adventure mode of this game, but in arcade and tournament modes it's a fun little game. Essentially it's a karting game - written by the same people who wrote the excellent "Atari Karts" on the Jag. There are plenty of tracks to choose from, together with the now obligatory power-ups, including missiles, mines and hand-grenades. Depending on what track you choose you will either find yourself in a kart, a boat or a "hovercraft" which looks suspiciously like those in the Playstation game "Wipeout". The track itself could range from a simple circuit (round a castle moat in this case) to something far more complex which twists and turns around an amethyst mine or the gardens and walls of a palace.

The background graphics are very good, with plenty to see on the more complex tracks. The characters themselves seem a little blocky by comparison, but that doesn't detract from the overall gameplay. If I had to make any suggestions for a sequel, I'd definitely like to see the stats (acceleration, handling, etc.) for the characters listed on the character selection screen rather than just in the instruction manual. A chance to race at dusk, with the road illuminated primarily by headlights would also be fun, and would effectively increase the number of tracks without actually needing more to be designed. On the whole though this is one of my favourite games - I'm just looking forward to getting a second controller so that I can go head-to-head against some friends on this one.

Freefall 3050 was put into the Nuon next, but I have to confess that I couldn't get to grips with it immediately, and decided to move on to Tempest. I think Freefall is one of those games for which reading the manual is a must - but after a week I still haven't got around to it!

t3k1.jpg - 68445 BytesI had deliberately saved Tempest until last, hoping for the same mind-blowing experience that I had when I was first faced with Tempest 2000. Unfortunately I was a little disappointed. The music is good, but when you get hit with "Mind's Eye" at the start of 2000, you really know you're in for something special. In 3000 you have to make it some way into the game before hearing those familiar notes.

The balance between music and sound effects is also a little heavy on the music for me. I would rather hear the sound effects a little more - especially the all-important "Warning: Pulsar Landing". The balance between music and effects can be changed in the game, but without the ability to save that data, it needs to be changed every time you play. Whilst on the subject of sound effects, the main weapon sounds a little damp compared with the piercing zap of 2000's particle laser.

Graphically the game is stunning, and far more of a tribute to its' vector-based ancestor than 2000 was. All the text and nasties are rendered as vector graphics, but this does lead to a loss of detail in the game itself - which is a shame because viewing the vector objects from the "goodies" screen it is clear that there is a lot more to them than is ever apparent in the few seconds before they are (hopefully) obliterated by your laser.

For anyone used to 2000, you may have a bit of a shock. The levels on 3000 are much shorter, the spikes are far more deadly, and even familiar nasties have evolved slightly different behaviour. In particular the pulsars - which I can deal with quite adequately in 2000 - have a tendency to get you by landing on the web in a fully active and electrifying state.

The way the webs move and wobble also makes it more of a challenge - and when a "Rotor" appears and starts the whole thing spinning it really gets fun. At the moment I haven't got far enough to be troubled by "Unmaker Spiders" or several of the other nasties, but I get the impression that 3000 will keep me coming back for more for a long time yet.

What is great about this is the fact that it is sufficiently different from 2000 for both games to stand on their own two feet. I have to say that at the moment I still prefer 2000, but perhaps that's just because I'm a lot better and a lot more experienced at that. But 3000 is still a great game, and one I shall return to again and again. Together with the VLM it shows that Yak has found his way around the Nuon hardware as only he can, and I'm looking forward to his next projects.

So, if I win this little competition, what do I want to win? I've already got all the games, so unless I can bat my eyelids and beg a second controller instead, I'll end up with a duplicate. Once the Nuon recieves its official European release, I will certainly be buying a second player. For a start the beauty of the VLM means that the promise of an extra 52 programs, plus user control, will make it worthwhile just for playing CDs. But one of my Nuons will stay in the living room, and the other will move to the bedroom. So when I wake up on a dark, wet English winter's morning, what will I want to play to liven me up? There's no competition really: whilst Merlin Racing is great, Jeff Minter on his worst day still writes code that blows most other games out of the water. I'll take a second copy of Tempest any day.

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