Untold NUON Tales: Native II…or is it Feuerland?

V-SNES

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On May 27, 1997, German studio Duranik released a game demo online called Native for the Atari Jaguar. Native was a futuristic spaceship side scrolling shoot ‘em up, containing a single level with no audio (gameplay can be found below). But who is Duranik one might ask? Duranik was run by two brothers, Roland and Johannes Graf, and they worked on projects in their spare time while working their day jobs. Unfortunately, this demo of Native they released would be the first and last one to see the light of day as the decision was made to shelve the project. Between not being an official developer with Atari, Atari no longer producing Jaguar games, and the lack of encryption keys, they had no way to release the game even if it had been finished. Hope of seeing Native become a full game was not completely lost however as fans would come to find out years later.


On May 16, 1999, VM Labs announced a lineup of new software developers for the NUON platform. One of these software developers was Eclipse Software Design. They were known for releasing Iron Soldier and its sequel for the Atari Jaguar in 1994 and 1997 respectively and went on to release Iron Soldier 3 for the NUON in June of 2001. However, you might be wondering as to what this has to do Duranik’s Native? Well, Johannes Graf of Duranik ended up working at Eclipse Software Design for the duration of the pre and post launch of the NUON platform. As such, he was part of the Iron Soldier 3 team, having worked on the video sequences and status screens. Little did people know at this time that another NUON project was looming in the background.

On November 30th, 2003, yAronet! forum user Arethius released an interview he did with Johannes Graf. In this interview, Johannes was asked about the improvements made to Native that were featured in two conceptual videos available for download on Duranik’s website. Johannes said that some of the graphics on his website were made two months after they stopped work on Native (December 1997). He went on to say that “they were planned for a Native on NUON, but VM Labs was not interested in 2D games these days.” Looking at Johannes’s answer on the surface, it sounds like the two conceptual videos were intended as concepts for the NUON version despite being posted in the Native Atari Jaguar section. From this point on, it is this sentiment that people considered to be fact. However, why then were these videos listed as part of the Atari Jaguar version of Native? It does not help that there is not a page on Duranik’s website for the NUON version either. Here are the two concept videos in question that were posted on YouTube years later:



In February 2004, MyAtari Magazine released an interview they did with Duranik co-founder, Roland Graf. In this interview, Roland briefly mentioned Native II, saying here “are some pictures for an updated and improved Native II”:

1677183957463.png


This is everything that Roland had shared about this game in the interview and these screenshots are the only ones that fans have seen to this day. It is also notable that this is the first instance in which the game was publicly referred to as specifically "Native II". So exactly what happened to Native II? I first got the chance to speak with the Duranik man himself, Johannes Graf.

V-SNES: How were you introduced to the NUON? How did ideas for making Native II start?

Johannes: I worked for Eclipse at that time doing all rendering for the Iron Solder 3 FMV sequences. As they are started working on the NUON (at that time it was still called Merlin) we talked about the possibility to bring Native to the new platform. At that time, they only got 2 devkits they needed for the work on Iron Soldier 3, so it was not possible to start. 1-2 years later Marc Rosocha of Eclipse brought the topic on the table again and prepared a proper pitch document for VM Labs. I don't know why they didn't want it, probably they were already low on money. No code got started and it was supposed to use the Iron Soldier 3 engine.

V-SNES: What inspired you to want to develop for the NUON? What was your perception of the platform at the time?

Johannes: Well as the VM Labs stuff was based on 95% ex Atari and Jaguar developers it was of course very interesting to see what they would come up with. At the beginning they were very optimistic and thought that thing would rule the world and no other chip could ever touch it, but it got postponed all the time, then the Dreamcast was released and it was miles ahead of the NUON, later the PS2 with DVD Player was announced and they suddenly changed their mind from being the Mario Killer to "they are not our competition we are a DVD Player that can also play casual games."

V-SNES: Could you give more context for the Native NUON concept videos? What were they used for?

Johannes: That's from the original native Atari Jaguar version, not the NUON version. The hud was completely different on the NUON, and the mantis was the boss of the first Atari Jaguar level. There is nothing about native II on Duranik’s Native page. In the jaguar download sections are these two videos marked as boss level concepts, but for the original jaguar version. They were just pulled out much later and maybe confused some people. The jaguar version was an actual project with a working demo, code, an engine etc, the NUON version was just a html and some screens, nothing else.

V-SNES: I think I read something about you going to VM Labs to pitch the idea and it didn't work out. Could you provide some more incite into what happened? How did this whole process work?

Johannes: You prepare a document and try to sell your idea or game to a publisher, that’s called a pitch. Basically the same as it is today. Of course, everything is much more expensive today. They then decide if they like what they see, if it fits their vision, etc. The NUON shifted around a lot regarding what people they wanted to target. Iron Soldier 3, Tempest 3000 etc. are not really well suited for a casual audience which you would expect on a DVD Player with gaming features. I think they never had a real idea how to make that thing work.

V-SNES: Were there any features that stood out to you or anything about the NUON architecture that interested you? Were there any NUON features that you were interested in using in Native II?

Johannes: The NUON is a highly parallel architecture. In that sense it was ahead of the time because that’s the way everyone is doing now, it was a 4-core architecture back in 98. The downside is it was extremely hard to code for because you could execute 7 instructions on one core in parallel, an assembler coder nightmare without the proper tools. There were no hardware features like sprites or polygons, it all had to be done in software on the 4 cores.

V-SNES: After the pitch for Native II on the NUON was turned down, where did you go from there with the game?

Johannes: Nowhere, we shelved it, years later we had the idea to do Sturmwind on the Dreamcast, but that’s a completely different story.

V-SNES: Had VM Labs approved the pitch, would Native II have been developed by Eclipse? Given that the Native demo on Atari Jaguar was a Duranik creation, would your brother have worked on the project too?

Johannes: Probably would have been a Duranik game co-developed with Eclipse. But the writing on the wall was very clear that VM Labs would go bust very soon, so we didn't put to much hope into it.

V-SNES: If you had the chance to develop Native II for the NUON, is that something you’d be interested in doing?

Johannes: I'm all for retro and old obscure systems like the 3do and Jaguar, but the NUON is too much even for me. So no, we won't develop anything on it as the audience for a game is too small. Of course, all the retro gaming is not about money, but spending years on game for a handful of people, hmm no.

Seeing as Native II was going to be a Duranik game co-developed with Eclipse, the next logical step was to contact Marc Rosocha, founder of Eclipse Software Design, and the director of development and game design for Iron Soldier 3:

V-SNES: What do you recall about the cancelled Native II for the NUON?

Marc: I don't think it was called Native II at the time. And it wasn't exactly turned down. I'm pretty sure this would have gone into development if the NUON Platform would have been even mildly successful. We were also approached by Samsung and Motorola to do projects together, so it was not just VM Labs' call.

Marc: We were the only developer who succeeded to mix the DVD video decoding capabilities with real-time graphics, as realized for menu screens in Iron Soldier 3. For the arcade shooter we wanted to further integrate video streaming technology into the core gameplay, because we saw this as a competitive edge of the NUON. But of course, dev time for such an ambitious project was a big obstacle, and in the end, we even struggled to get Iron Soldier 3 done before VM Labs ran out of funding.

V-SNES: Do you recall the name it was called before being referred to as Native II? Also, are you saying that since the NUON wasn't successful, VM Labs couldn't afford to provide funding for the game? Could you elaborate what you mean by "it was not just VM Labs' call"?

Marc: The codename in the project brief was "Feuerland". At the time of these discussions (probably late 1998) NUON's future was still undecided, but progress to roll out first players was slower than expected, while Sony PlayStation got aggressive investment to overtake the console market by brute force. But VM Labs also had potent industry partners with Samsung, Toshiba and Motorola. The fate of NUON and lack of game industry support can't just be blamed on VM Labs alone. Samsung for example could have easily acquired NUON and pushed production 20x harder. In the end everybody involved had to realize the bitter truth that none of the licensees understood what investment and marketing effort it takes to kick-start a software driven business model. That's what I mean when I say it wasn't just VM Labs' call.

V-SNES: Feuerland is German right? Google Translate says it means fire land. Is this accurate? And how was this name decided for the project?

Marc: Yes, that's correct. It was just a code name decided by the graphics artist Johannes Graf. We were nearly all Germans or Austrians, so not that exotic to us. Johannes and his brother Roland later released a similar game on Dreamcast and called it "Sturmwind", so they definitely liked to name their games in German.

V-SNES: To clarify more about the game pitch, was it made not just to VM Labs, but also to Samsung and Motorola? Would the game have been pitched multiple times? Or perhaps representatives from each in one place?

Marc: I can't remember all details, but there were separate lines of contacts and communication. One time I interrupted my visit at VM Labs in California to fly to Texas and secretly meet Motorola. We spent a few years to develop a deeper understanding of this technology than most other companies involved. So, we definitely explored all avenues to market this knowledge, be it to propose new game projects, productize our 3D engine, or offer consulting services to help fix specific problems.

V-SNES: Were there any other NUON projects that were in development or reached the pitching stage? By extension, were there any games that you personally wanted to bring to the NUON?

Marc: Can't really think of anything else at pitching stage. The reason we did this for Feuerland was mostly a favor to the Duranik guys, since Johannes impressed us with his skills to create arcade shooter artwork using Lightwave. And we managed to isolate the MPEG code out of the bloated video presentation layer, something VM Labs considered being impossible. Kind of weird how they didn't provide a library to decode video while running real-time graphics in parallel. So, we would likely have looked into shooters that would use these capabilities, and of course 3D titles based on the Iron Soldier 3 engine.

V-SNES: How many devkits did Eclipse have?

Marc: Probably around 5 units, not counting replacements. I can't remember if we had broken units, but since we started R&D very early there was an evolution of the NUON silicon and updated devkit revisions. Later, when first player protos came into the mix, we saw strange freezes that were only reproducible with our game, probably pushing DMA harder than others, and certain devices. We spent weeks with engineers in Mountain View analyzing this problem, but I think a solution was never found.

V-SNES: Would the broken units have been sent back to VM Labs?

Marc: Yes, and in some cases, we might have just replaced the mainboard.

V-SNES: What happened to Eclipse Software Design after Iron Soldier 3 and the fall of VM Labs and the NUON platform?

Marc: We created a prototype of Iron Soldier 3+ for PC and PS2 to explore performance, higher res textures and upgraded 3D models. There were discussions whether to do a next gen Iron Soldier game and other ideas. But on the other hand, I was really fed up with again having to write off payments due and with the circumstances how this happened. So, I concluded that it was finally time to somewhat de-risk my life and moved on to ventures other than developing games with my own company. The Atari and NUON years were a fascinating time and I have no regrets whatsoever, but with NUON the last platform with Atari connection was gone. So for me it was the right time to move on.

After learning that Native II was originally called Feuerland, I reached back out to Johannes to clarify the details around the name Feuerland:

V-SNES: What was your reasoning behind initially calling the project Feuerland? Do you recall when the name changed from Feuerland to Native II? Also, what was the reason for this change?

Johannes: "Feuerland" is the German word for "fireland", just something that sounds cool.

Johannes: Hmm no not really, I have no idea, as it was at such an early stage, it was probably more a project name than the final name for a game.

Indeed, Feuerland appears to likely have been just an early project name, similar to how the NUON was originally called Project X before its name and branding was finalized. The story doesn’t quite end here, however. Throughout this story so far, Native II/Feuerland is said to have gotten as far as the pitching stage. As Johannes said, “You prepare a document and try to sell your idea or game to a publisher, that’s called a pitch.” This very pitch document for Native II/Feuerland has indeed been found. It was first found with the graphics missing. Then it was handed off to Marc so that he could restore it with all the missing graphics. Therefore, I have attached a folder at the bottom of this post that contains the pitch document (can also be viewed online here), as well as the individual graphics that were used in it.

In addition to the pitch document, eleven more mock-up screenshots of the game have been found. Check them out below and they can be downloaded at the bottom of this post for the individual copies in their normal size/resolution.

1677183060597.png


1677183203500.png


1677183295056.png

That’s where this story ends. Iron Soldier 3 was the last game that Eclipse Software Design would release. Their legacy however would live on with the licensed rerelease of Iron Soldier 3 for the NUON by Songbird Productions in 2021. Duranik on the other hand went on to release Sturmwind for the Sega Dreamcast in 2013, followed by a remastered version called Sturmwind EX for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows in 2019. Duranik’s official website states that they would consider the “Native engine a subset of the Sturmwind feature set.” While we never got Native II on the NUON, remnants of it still live on in Sturmwind EX today.

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Interested in reading more NUON stories? Check out more in the Untold NUON Tales Series!
 

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  • Feuerland Pitch Document.zip
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  • Native II Mock-up Screenshots.zip
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  • Pitch Document and Screenshots.html.zip
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V-SNES

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I’d like to give a huge thanks to Johannes and Marc. This story could not have been possible without either of them as it was an overall big team effort. Between having the pitch document found and restored, sharing new mock-up screen shots, and getting to chat with some amazing people, it’s been a hell of a ride. In addition, I’d like to thank @K3V for his help in providing me with some critical information in the internet research portion of this story. Thanks again!
 

The Helper

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Wow! That was a helluva a read. Lots of new information there and especially interesting as it crosses over with the Jaguar. Nice job and look forward to MOAR! :)
 

mgarcia

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Great interview! I read it twice :)

It's great of them to do interviews and share the pitch :)

Multicore programming is hard in modern languages, to do it in assembly is hardcore! so much respect to them!
But, that's what makes Nuon such a freak, the beautiful software rendering... in a DVD unit :D

"And we managed to isolate the MPEG code out of the bloated video presentation layer, something VM Labs considered being impossible."
Wow, I never thought that was the case, I hope Nuon fixed it in later SDK's... i'll need to check it out.

It's a nice pitch, looks like the HTML was created in windows, which isn't case sensitive, so in linux (mac etc) it loads without the images, I wanted to see it with the images so, here's my html changes. (edit - removed see below)
 
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cubanismo

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Wow, I never thought that was the case, I hope Nuon fixed it in later SDK's... i'll need to check it out.
They did not. They allude to providing such functionality, and I believe the API is documented or in the headers, but it's not present in the libraries shipped in the latest SDK.
 

The Helper

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I wonder if they would be interested in reviving the game for Linux and Unity? I think they would definitely have brand recognition on the Atari VCS.
 

mgarcia

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Re:
"And we managed to isolate the MPEG code out of the bloated video presentation layer, something VM Labs considered being impossible."

Wow, I never thought that was the case, I hope Nuon fixed it in later SDK's... i'll need to check it out.

They did not. They allude to providing such functionality, and I believe the API is documented or in the headers, but it's not present in the libraries shipped in the latest SDK.

That's a shame, it seems like a trivial thing for a DVD player :/

@V-SNES If you're still in contact with them, maybe ask them, in the spirit of Nuon community, if they could share any information regarding the direct access to the MPEG API to get video playing as the background? or ideally the source code (CC-BY, GPL etc)?

These guys were pro's with pro hardware and access to the HW developers, if they don't pass it down, it'll probably be a long time before it's figured out again.... or point them to this forum/thread.... we need more developers talking here ;)
 

V-SNES

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@V-SNES If you're still in contact with them, maybe ask them, in the spirit of Nuon community, if they could share any information regarding the direct access to the MPEG API to get video playing as the background? or ideally the source code (CC-BY, GPL etc)?

I passed on your question to Marc Rosocha @mgarcia. Here is his answer:

"That's unfortunately impossible for a number of reasons that I don't even want to discuss due to their complexity. Any such information would have to come from the current IP owner STM, or be found within leaked VM Labs materials. And if you read through below thread from 2013, it looks like STM isn't that easy to deal with even if some ex VM Labs staff would support releasing stuff. https://opencores.org/forum/Cores/0/5343"
 

mgarcia

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Thanks for that @V-SNES :)
I thought the SDK being officially made public and VMLabs IP being sold twice, that for game dev's it was ancient history... I thought it might have been something like BIOS calls or private low level API calls.

I guess their solution involves direct hardware access, which obviously requires knowing the hardware... and that's a very fair reply.
Amazing that forum thread even happened!

Thanks again! :)
 

The Helper

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Here is a copy of the PDF that was referenced in the linked forum
 

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  • 1383659488_NUON-Architecture-26-OEM.pdf
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