clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
At one point, many felt full-motion games would be the future of the video game industry.

Filed under:

The story of NEMO, Hasbro’s console that never was

Developer Mark Turmell sheds light on the most influential game system never made

The recent arrival of infamous full-motion video adventure Night Trap on Switch draws an amusing line under one of the most contentious moments in video game history.

Two and a half decades ago, Nintendo of America’s president at the time, Howard Lincoln, stood in front of Congress and vowed that you would never see egregious filth like Night Trap on a Nintendo console. That sort of moral turpitude was exclusively the domain of Sega systems, thank you very much.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Night Trap is available for purchase by any of the more than 20 million Nintendo fans who own a Switch. The real kicker, though? The 25th Anniversary Edition of Night Trap, the game that served as the poster child for the games industry’s clear and desperate need to institute a content ratings system, the game that surely would seduce children to perform acts of despicable violence if it somehow got into their hands — you know, that game? Today, it clocks in with a mild “T for Teen” rating.

If anything, Night Trap makes for a charming time capsule into the early ‘90s. There’s some irony to that, though. At heart, the game is quite a bit older than its 1992 original release date would suggest. By the time it debuted on Sega CD, it already seemed rather hokey and dated. The game was fundamentally half a decade old by the time it reached consumers, the victim of rapid upheavals in game technology. Night Trap was laid low by the eleventh-hour demise of a console that never got off the ground: Hasbro’s NEMO, also known as Control-Vision.

For game history buffs, the NEMO project is notable as much for the people who worked on it as for the hardware itself. That includes Tom Zito of Digital Pictures, Pitfall! creator David Crane, Atari programmer Rob Fulop and current Zynga studio manager Mark Turmell. Just about everyone associated with NEMO made it out of the venture’s implosion with their careers intact, but Turmell may have fared best. Not only did he end up as a creative director at one of the world’s largest mobile game companies, his CV includes a high-level gig at Electronic Arts and design credits on a string of all-time arcade classics including NBA Jam.

Crashing into the future

With his tall, solid build and easygoing joviality, Turmell offers quite a contrast to the unflattering stereotype of nerdy game programmers. Nevertheless, he’s a pioneer of the industry, having cut his teeth designing Apple II games as a high schooler. But then, Turmell got into making games not because it was the only thing he wanted to do in life, but rather because it was something he did well ... and something he could make bank on.

Turmell realized the lucrative nature of video games at a pre-college job fair, as he compared the income of typical office jobs to the revenue he had already collected on his homebrew game projects. “When I looked at the income of all those,” he says, “they were $35K, $40K [per year]. Here I was, collecting $10K a month on royalties for a game that took me a few months to make. It didn’t really make any sense to me.”

Turmell decided to follow the money. The games business treated him well ... right up until it didn’t. Atari’s infamous crash in 1983 put the squeeze on everyone who made their living in video games, forcing console and computer developers alike to ask, “What’s next?”

“It took a few years before the video game business flamed out,” Turmell says. “Things really hit the wall. We were truly wondering if video games were a fad. We thought they might be over.”

While retailers became notoriously shy about selling games, the people and companies that created them weren’t quite ready to call it quits. The question was, what would be the trick to resuscitating the ailing market? The arcade industry hadn’t been hit nearly as hard, and flashy video-based games like Dragon’s Lair remained lively and profitable — even amidst the doldrums that sank Atari’s 2600 along with all its competitors and hangers-on.

The problem was, Dragon’s Lair wasn’t really a game that could be easily matched. Anyone could make their own Pac-Man — certainly just about every coin-op manufacturer worth its salt made an attempt. Dragon’s Lair, however, required more than mere coding skill and a willingness to clone Namco’s circuit boards. It revolved around the impressive cartooning skills of Don Bluth, a former Disney artist who had positioned himself as one of the biggest forces in animation during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Dragon’s Lair also revolved entirely around the LaserDisc video format, a pricey optical-based analog precursor to the DVD. This combination of tech and talent made Dragon’s Lair fairly untouchable. The few imitators to crop up in its wake either fell far short or relied on shortcuts: Stern’s Cliff Hanger, for example, made heavy use of footage scraped from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki theatrical release Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro.

At the time, Turmell was forced to recognize his own limits. “You had games like Dragon’s Lair that stacked up against me. Well, I can’t make Dragon’s Lair. So I joined a company that was called Axlon.”

Axlon was no small fry, though: It turned out to be affiliated with a massive toy company. “It was really a Hasbro division,” says Turmell. While the notion of a toy company entering the games market wasn’t unheard of, Hasbro’s video game ambitions seem curiously timed in retrospect. One of its chief competitors, Coleco, had nearly been destroyed by its console and computer efforts: The ColecoVision and ADAM platforms had a lot working in their favor versus competing platforms, but the collapse of the American console market had disastrous consequences for those systems. If not for the Cabbage Patch Kids doll line, Coleco likely would have vanished along with ADAM ... and even so, Hasbro ended up acquiring Coleco before the ‘80s were up.

Still, this was 1984, and Hasbro was riding high on the breakout success of its G.I. Joe and Transformers toy lines. Those products had become instant hits due in large part to the strength of their multimedia tie-ins to television and comics. The Rhode Island-based toy giant unsurprisingly looked to video games as another medium in which to promote its bread-and-butter products. The math worked out. After all, the company’s collaboration with Marvel Entertainment to promote G.I. Joe toys had taken the form of elaborate, animated commercial spots that performed so well the ad agency behind them created its own animation studio to build on that success. It’s impossible to say how heavily this factored into Hasbro’s video game plans, but the fact remains that the toymaker’s vision for its game system eschewed the traditional sprites and bits of arcade games in favor of something closer in spirit to the animation-based Dragon’s Lair. In other words, Hasbro’s entrée into video games didn’t fall too far from its existing television work.

Unlike the pricey Dragon’s Lair arcade cabinet with its integral LaserDisc system, Hasbro’s NEMO system looked to a more affordable home video technology that had recently hit mass-market penetration: VHS cassettes. While the quality of that format’s output didn’t hold a candle to that of LaserDisc, a VHS tape could hold substantially more footage than a disc while costing considerably less. By drafting off technology that had become a standard household fixture, NEMO’s creators hoped to bring LaserDisc-like experiences to home players at something like a reasonable price. The Control-Vision system would reportedly have sold for around $300 and attached to a standard VHS deck — not cheap, precisely, but far more affordable to the average household than pricey LaserDisc devices.

Control-Vision was designed to take advantage of the interplay inherent in VHS and analog television technology’s quirks. The idea of its video-buffer tech can be seen in games like Night Trap, which gives players the ability to run a simulated security station. Control-Vision’s tech would have allowed players to alternate between different “cameras” by changing its stored fields. But it could also allow for Dragon’s Lair-like choose-your-own adventure video experiences in which a player’s inputs would activate different fields based on their actions, giving a real-time indication of success or failure.

This wasn’t an entirely new concept. It dated back at least to the ‘70s and projects like Nintendo’s original Wild Gunman arcade cabinet. In that game, the player’s trigger reflexes caused alternate film reels to play out the results of a pistol duel, whether that meant the opposing gunman staggered and died or the screen turned an ominous red as the victor leered at the defeated player. The reel-switching device was clever, but it involved a complex mechanism that was prone to breakdowns and was far too large and costly for home use. By comparison, Control-Vision hooked up to any TV-and-VHS combo and provided more immediate feedback.

Many game studios found it difficult to replicate what had been done with Dragon’s Lair.

Reading between the lines

The idea behind NEMO was, essentially, to bring the multi-track capabilities of optical media like LaserDisc and CD-ROM to VHS. That’s no small task; unlike optical discs, analog tape is a linear medium. Discs contain multiple indexed sectors of data, and switching tracks takes a split-second as the system moves the laser to the appropriate location on the disc. To achieve the same effect with a tape, you would need to rewind or fast-forward the entire mechanism to the appropriate spot — which, as anyone who has ever used an 8-bit microcomputer powered by a tape drive knows, can take minutes rather than instants.

The NEMO team’s workaround? Effectively, it crammed more video onto a tape than a television could display per second. The console contained a memory buffer that would store the excess video as it streamed, allowing for a limited but convincing simulation of a multi-track setup that could swap between video streams faster than was possible on contemporary optical devices.

According to Turmell, the console divided this stream of video into separate fields, each given its own ID code, and the console would play back only the currently designated portion of video. Meanwhile, the “invisible” video elements would remain in memory. NEMO could jump freely between fields at the player’s command, allowing instantaneous switching.

“When I first saw this demo, it was magic to me. ‘How are you doing this?’” he says. “Of course, it was all in the hardware, to be able to freeze those frames and store them and keep them displayed. It just pulled in every single field. There are 60 fields per second, and they would read in a field and then display that field into a buffer that was then being displayed on your TV, and that could be for multiple frames.”

As Turmell describes it, NEMO took advantage of the video interlacing commonly used on older televisions. It’s a tech legacy that still lingers today — as in 1080p versus 1080i video, where the i means “interlaced” — but NEMO specifically exploited the way interlacing worked on cathode ray tube TVs. The image on a standard CRT was created by an electron gun that “painted” the picture on the television tube. The TV’s interior mechanism drew a full-screen image 60 times per second, line by line, its rapid action creating an illusion of motion. While standard American CRTs had 480 lines of resolution, the gun would only draw half of those frames per cycle, skipping every other line. On its next cycle, it would draw the 240 lines it had skipped. Because this alternating cycle operated at roughly the same speed the human eye processes information, this interlaced effect resulted in the sensation of a full image, even though the TV was only technically rendering half an image every 1/60 of a second.

How does this relate to NEMO? According to Turmell, the system allowed developers to encode completely different video streams in each of those alternating frames. The video stream on the “even”-line frames could contain, for example, a video of a hero fighting a monster, while the “odd”-line frames could depict the same hero running away to safety. NEMO would only display one stream or the other — only even or only odd — and the console could switch between the frames. Not only that, but Turmell says that these video streams could be further subdivided by lowering their playback frame rate, allowing a completely different stream to be stored in alternating frames of one track, or by breaking up a video stream into sectors.

“I was doing a thing called Citizen X right when they shut down,” says Turmell. “Citizen X [had you] going through tunnels, almost like a Pitfall! type of a game where you’re advancing around. You had a character running, and when you would run off the screen, we had a big flow chart, if you will, of which scene to pull up next. Sometimes it might take you a second for that new screen to appear. The old one would just sit there, then the next one would be able to stream in off the tape a second later and then it would pop into place. So you could have as many tracks as you wanted, [with the trade-off that you would be] degrading the frame rate.”

While this concept may seem a little abstract in text, the idea of encoding separate information into an interlaced video stream is hardly unheard of in gaming. The Sega Master System’s SegaScope 3-D Glasses, which shipped in the U.S. around the time that NEMO was nearing the end of development, used a similar principle. There, the left and right shutters of the glasses would alternately close and open in synchronization with the TV’s refresh rate. The game would render a slightly different image in each alternating frame, allowing each eye to see its own separate viewpoint, creating an illusion of 3D.

NEMO used the same fundamental principle, the difference being that only one of these viewpoints would be rendered at any given time and the console could alternate between them. Instead of creating a 3D image, it would simply allow players to toggle between video feeds. This is the entire principle behind Night Trap, a game in which players leap from one camera feed to another in order to keep watch over a sprawling mansion.

Promises unfulfilled

Turmell work closely with designers like Crane and Fulop to come up with game concepts built around the Control-Vision’s tech. The team Axlon assembled possessed both practical game design experience as well as Hollywood ambitions. Together, they conceived a number of cutting-edge projects that used Dragon’s Lair as a foundation but nudged the overall experience toward more involved game action rather than the simple memorization and timed actions seen in arcade LaserDisc cabinets. Control-Vision games were games, not merely elaborate sessions of Simon Says.

For its time — the mid-to-late ‘80s — Control-Vision was quite a standout. Projects like Sewer Shark sat at the bleeding edges of game technology. For context, proper polygonal games like Hard Drivin’ and Virtua Racing were still several years away; the Nintendo Entertainment System had only just begun to find traction with U.S. retail; and most PC games were still pokey crawls through murky EGA-color spaces. Had Control-Vision launched as intended in 1988, it would have brought a kind of real-life fidelity to home video gaming. While the system probably wouldn’t have had much luck with traditional run-and-jump action games, the variety present even in the initial wave of games that Turmell and his peers worked on hints at the possibility of richer and more inventive releases further down the road.

“We had a lot of ideas,” says Turmell. “I mean, we had Jane Fonda workout videos and so many interesting ideas that we were anxious to fund. But of course, you can only fund so much.”

The NEMO team never got the opportunity to test the horizons of its platform because Axlon’s device never made it to market. Hasbro had plans to launch the system in 1988, but a matter of weeks before the system’s arrival at retail, word came down: the entire project was to be scuttled. The corporation had come down with a case of cold feet, and Control-Vision died.

In hindsight, it’s not too hard to see why. Promising as its concept may have been, Control-Vision would have been practically obsolete on arrival. You see, after an extraordinarily complicated birthing process filled with countless competing standards and corporate drama, CD-ROMs had finally emerged as a commercially available computer storage medium in 1986. It would take a few years before CD-ROM drives became as pervasive as VHS decks, but the format’s arrival more or less mooted the entire concept of NEMO. It gave developers a high-capacity non-linear storage device that, unlike Control-Vision, didn’t need to rely on clever analog TV tech hacks. Indeed, shortly after Control-Vision’s cancellation, NEC launched the world’s first CD-ROM video game add-on for its PC Engine (aka TurboGrafx-16) console in Japan.

Even then, that might not have been the end of the road, but Control-Vision lost something even more important than technological relevance — it lost its champion.

“We were in the mix there for a few years before Hasbro decided to pull out of the financing of that project,” says Turmell. “As I understand it, [company president] Stephen Hassenfield fell ill ... And he was the champion of this investment that was a significant investment for Hasbro, creating a new hardware platform and controllers. He basically came out to California, where we were, and said that he had to button up everything that had put the company at risk. They were going to stop the financing on it, and he would be moving on to a different role.”

Hassenfield’s subsequent passing left Control-Vision without an advocate within Hasbro’s ranks. The corporation had developed into the world’s largest toy maker over the course of the ‘80s, and its priorities shifted away from becoming a video games innovator as it grew.

“We were all left saddened, because we were onto something, and we were really passionate about the product and the potential,” say Turmell. “We all kind of went our separate ways and continued to make our mark elsewhere.”

For developer Mark Turmell, the NEMO Police Academy game was the one that got away.

Worlds apart, separate ways

Indeed, while Control-Vision never saw the light of day as a product, the games industry continues to feel the ripple effects of its brief and benighted existence. Again, just consider Night Trap’s continuing relevance. Turmell’s peers, particularly Zito, continued to plug away after the NEMO skunkworks projects even after the project’s demise. Several of these made their way to Sega CD half a decade later. While the games did suffer some technical compromises in order to work on CD-ROM, they still proved an excellent match for the format, with Sewer Shark and Night Trap becoming key titles for Sega CD several years after Control-Vision’s cancelation.

It ultimately wasn’t the tech of these games that failed to weather the ravages of time but rather the contents. Having been shot in the mid-’80s, the live footage of games like Citizen X and Night Trap felt decidedly dated by the time they finally saw the light of day. The live-action full-motion video games almost always had a campy, low-budget feel to them — even when the companies involved threw money at silver-screen luminaries like Mark Hamill and Tim Curry — and the NEMO holdovers felt more egregiously “cable access” than most.

And apparently, the game that might have proven the exception never materialized. For Turmell, it’s the one that got away — a video game spin-off of a major Hollywood franchise.

“We actually made an interactive Police Academy game,” he says. “With the actors. We actually went down and had all of the production, weeks of filming, and it was all interactive. You could choose this path or that path. Everything was a big flow chart — that was a very exciting project.”

This abortive venture was, in Turmell’s estimation, effectively a “lost Police Academy movie.”

“I have a stack of tapes probably five feet high of all that footage,” he says. “It was such an amazing project. I worked with the writer and the producer. Every night, we were rewriting scenes, preparing scenes for the next day that we would film: the A, B, C, D directions, the outcomes. A kid might be riding his bike and gets caught by one of the characters; but on another track, he gets away; another track, he wipes out. So it was really a big flowchart. We filmed all of it. We just never executed on the code.

“It’s kind of like Dragon’s Lair, you know, like if Dragon’s Lair had [only] footage. We’d just need to do the windows of interaction.

“You know, we should probably do something with that someday,” he says.

Of course, that’s more easily said than done. Clearing the rights to vintage Police Academy footage would involve unraveling a tangle of likeness and property rights, but the end result would certainly make for a historic moment in both video game and Hollywood history: a lost project completed and shipped more than 30 years later.

Who knows? Maybe Hasbro’s console still has a little more to offer.