Year: 2000 | Publisher: Atari/Hasbro | Developer: Llamasoft | Original format: Nuon | Version played: Nuon
Some time in the early 2000s, I remember reading an anniversary issue of EDGE magazine that statistically determined which was the best games console available, based entirely on the average score of all games reviewed. Technically it was the Nuon that came out on top, because EDGE had only ever reviewed one of the system’s small handful of games, Jeff Minter’s 9/10 scoring Tempest 3000. It’s fair to say my interest was piqued!
Now long forgotten, the Nuon is a true relic of early 2000s technology. The idea, thought up by Silicon Valley based VM Labs, was to produce and manufacture a chipset that could be licensed for inclusion in multiple DVD players from various manufacturers, effectively turning that DVD player into a fully functioning games console.
It wasn’t a terrible idea. After all, the popularity of DVD was booming around this time, so if VM Labs could get their tech into enough players, like the Trojan Horse, they could sneak the Nuon into millions of homes. There were more than a few snags to this plan, though the biggest may have been the PlayStation 2, which offered a more compelling prospect the other way around: a credible games console that also happened to be a DVD player.
With the strong brand identity of the PS2 and its enormous catalogue of top quality games, any gamer who also had a need to watch DVDs was well catered for. So the Nuon was left only with a smaller niche… Movie fans who wouldn’t mind playing a game or two here and there. To be honest, I suspect those people bought a PS2 as well.
The Nuon was so short-lived and under-supported that only eight games were ever released for it, and I probably would have ignored it altogether were it not for its one killer app. Tempest 3000, developed by UK programming legend Jeff Minter, was the follow-up to his Atari Jaguar cult classic, Tempest 2000. Like that game, it too modernised the 1981 arcade original by Dave Theurer with trippy visuals and electronic dance music to create a dazzling synaesthesia experience long before Tetsuya Mizuguchi would popularise the notion with Rez.
The idea of getting myself a Nuon and Tempest 3000 has remained a tantalising dream ever since that EDGE review. I owned and loved the Jaguar game around the mid-2000s, and the idea of a sequel that took things to the next level, exclusively trapped on an elusive and idiosyncratic console, was like catnip to me.
I’ve considered taking the plunge for the best part of two decades, but it’s always seemed like a fool’s errand due to the high cost. The console itself isn’t that expensive, since there’s a relatively high number of a compatible player out there. But the game is now rare and pricey, and the controllers cost even more than the system itself! It all adds up to a pretty expensive way to play just one game that probably isn’t dramatically different to other entries in the series. But the longer time went by and the more elusive the complete package became, the more I wanted it. So, when Atari 50: The Anniversary Collection was announced earlier this year and was confirmed to feature Tempest 2000, but not 3000 due to difficulties with Nuon emulation, I thought “Sod it! Let’s finally do this.”
I’ll spare you my thoughts on the Nuon as a whole, since I plan to write about that at another time and place, but let’s get into Tempest 3000. Because, let me tell you, it’s a banger!
Yes, at its heart, this is yet another Tempest game. But that’s certainly no bad thing. The core gameplay of the original arcade game has stood the test of time for a reason. Quickly skimming around the top of a geometric tunnel and shooting baddies before they crawl up from the bottom is a supremely addictive and satisfying game mechanic, designed with the sort of perfect difficulty curve that could only have come from the hand of God. It’s the core reason that Minter’s sequels, with a proven design at their heart, are so consistently good fun. Yet it’s Minter’s unique and unmistakable audio-visual flair that elevates the original arcade formula from addictive to hypnotic.
As you might expect from a sequel that jumps 1,000 digits in its numbering, everything that’s great about Tempest 3000 is what was so good about Tempest 2000, only more so. But it’s exactly that “moresoness” that makes Tempest 3000 so special. It’s such a bold exercise in excess that the game seems to leap out of the screen and command the attention of your major senses in a way that barely leaves any room for conscious thought.
Where Tempest 2000 dazzles you with an assault of colour and shapes, Tempest 3000 seems to break the laws of nature, pushing its visuals beyond the limits of both technology and human perception. The colours span a seemingly infinite palette of hues. Light bleeds from the screen. Shapes distort, blur and repeat while particles dance across your eyes like a neon lit snowstorm. All while a thumping techno beat pounds away at your soul. A clap of thunder dramatically snaps your mind to attention at the start of each new stage, and as you hurtle down the tube at the end, desperately praying you don’t smash in to a spike, you might swear you hear the digitised baa of an electronic sheep amid the cacophany. It’s a lot to take in!
There’s so much going on that it should feel visually confusing, but somehow, even at its most chaotic, it still all makes sense. Presumably because the actual game design has enough restrictions that you never have to think about too many things. Just move left and right to dodge and keep shooting!
As the levels progress, they do of course increase in complexity. The game starts with a simple cylinder, progresses to a square, then a straight line and then…. Things start to get a little weirder. A heart shaped level here, a looping figure of eight there. Before you know it, you’re gliding along an undulating curve that simply won’t stay still.
At first it can be tricky to get past the first ten stages or so, but the beauty of Tempest 3000 is that the more you play the more your skill ceiling just grows and grows. Levels that seemed impossible on first attempt almost become second nature as your Tempest instincts are sharpened over time. Every play session sends you deeper down the rabbit hole, playing for longer each time as you conquer one level after another. It’s a ride that would be satisfying enough on its own, but that Minter presentation makes a hell of a difference. The longer you last in a single sitting, the more absorbed you become by the audio and visuals. The deeper you’ll feel yourself being pulled in to the screen. In a darkened room at night, it’s almost like being inside VR. Like the very best games, you’ll forget the world exists.
As an aside, it’s no surprise to me, in hindsight, that Minter has developed a significant number of VR shooters in the past decade. It’s a natural fit for his style and I highly recommend you check out 2017’s Polybius if you can. It’s a corker!
My understanding is that Tempest 3000 draws upon the VLM-2 built into every Nuon to create its trippy visuals. VLM-2 was a “Virtual Light Machine” developed by Minter himself as a visualiser for audio CDs and the follow-up to his own VLM-1 from the Atari Jaguar CD add-on. In his blog over on the Llamasoft website, Minter proudly states that his guiding aesthetic for VLM-2 was “no visible pixels” and I think I know exactly what he means when I play Tempest 3000. There’s something about the way it looks that almost doesn’t seem digital at all. The way the colours and light so naturally blend together, I’d say it’s less digital and more chemical. A unique combination of visual elements that moves as naturally and fluidly as oil in water or sunlight through a stained glass window. It’s hard to believe that a cold, unfeeling computer chip could generate something so beautiful.
To put Tempest 3000 into stark contrast, I’ve also recently been playing Tempest 4000, released for modern consoles in 2018. This fellow Minter creation is a perfectly worthwhile update of 2000 but it doesn’t have that same magic touch that makes 3000 so profoundly distinct. Yes, the pounding music is there, and yes, there’s a great game design at its core. But the visuals are so crisp and clean, and set against the sterile backdrop of pitch-black space, that they just don’t compare. It’s a perfectly fine 4K rendition of an arcade classic, but it’s no Tempest 3000… I can only assume that modern games consoles, despite their raw power, just don’t have the quirky innards that made the Nuon so well suited to Minter’s psychedelic vision.
Maybe this is me desperately trying to justify spending several hundred pounds to play an obscure game that has much cheaper alternatives readily available, but I really don’t believe that’s the case. Powered by its strange early 2000s technology, designed by a man who had a hand in both the game and the hardware, and pumped out through a hazy CRT screen, Tempest 3000 doesn’t feel so much like a videogame as it does a voyage of the mind. Under the right conditions, every play session is a wild, mesmerising trip, and I’m so glad I finally bought a ticket.
SIX LITTLE THINGS ABOUT TEMPEST 3000 THAT I RATHER LIKED
1. The title screen doesn’t just invite you to start; it gently encourages you to “have a go…” How lovely.
2. You’d only see this stage name in a British game!
3. Each of the 129 level names was handpicked by Minter, but if you fancy a change you can set them to be procedurally generated.
4. The score entry screen also uses procedural generation to congratulate you with different text every time, changing up both the superlative and the noun so even standard screens like this have something interesting to see every time.
5. The wireframe model viewer in the options is a nice touch. Like the rest of the game, it’s pretty trippy and fun to chill out with.
6. The last screen of the credits proudly boasts that the game was made in Wales… In Welsh!
Finally, how about some music from Tempest 3000…