Genesis of the Demo Scene
by Jacques Morel (Trente Trois)
Being a demo scene enthusiast since 1985, I thought I should make a point on how I saw the scene before. It's a far ride backwards but well worth it! In this article.
Note before continuing:
- Not all the information has been verified
- The historical facts may vary just one bit
- I'm new to this article writing thingy
- I'm not a good story writer (not yet!)
It all began in 1985, when I bought an Atari 130XE home computer. It was nice looking, with the gray color scheme keyboard box and the green power light and those perpendicular lines giving it some sort of fresh new design. It really had a style of its own. Anyway, I made some friends in the computer scene at that time even though it was new for me. Well, I have to admit, I exchanged software illegally. At worst, I paid for copies of games, which is bad but made the floppy disk business grow at the same time, I guess.
The point is, I had my first demo experience coming out from one of those disks I got from that random local pirate friend. The coolest thing, I have to explain: It is a robot rendered in semi 3D, and it walks on an animated floor towards me (the viewer, or audience) with some funky intergalactic music playing in one single event in time. Isn't that amazing? The red eyed cyclops robot was displayed in full 16 shades of gray. A little extra touch was with the legs, shading differently depending of their angle even though the robot was in front view. The floor was in sync, moving out in 2 shades of green. It was as if the droid stood inside my CRT! This, actually was my new 1985 year model Atari 1,78Mhz computer doing this fancy trick! I was amazed, and stayed in this state of gaze for demos since that particular time.
Imagine the days when samples were first introduced to the home computer world. It's that 1982-85 time I'm talking about. The time where we first had porn on computers too. It was hard to distinguish the details, but imagine two individuals doing it, animated on the sofa using generous shades of orange (8 tints) and square eyes, if they were ever visible. All this in 80 pixels horizontal by 192 lines of resolution (Atari 8-bit specs). It was really horrible but it was never seen before on a computer. Same with the IBM's baby blue and pink colored CGA features that were used giving a new sense to what people called porn flicks; a digital nightmare! Of course, when VGA was introduced, all of that got changed. Should I mention what's pumping most of the bandwidth from the internet (besides the emulation scene of course :))?
Sooner than later, rips of popular songs were sampled like the Beverly Hills Cop theme named "Axel F", or the Miami Vice theme. Those samples were available as floppy disk images in a neat little package of 4 or 5 music samples held on those 5 inch 1/4 128Kb floppy disks. The disks were auto bootable and had those funky menus. Still in the Atari world was that famous Fugi sign. There must of been 4 or 5 animated Fugi demos that I had the pleasure of disassembling in my spare time. There was one particular Fugi demo which stood out. The Fugi was displayed in 128 rainbow colors just like the good old Atari 8-bit rasters are able to. On top of this, it was spinning counter-clockwise, and had an animated bird flying right through it from right to left going slightly upwards. The other demo series that I enjoyed on this computer was the several bouncing ball demos it had, ranging from 4K to 32K of executable code. I have to recall the BOINK demo that clearly displays the same white and red tilted 45° ball that spins and bounces to the floor doing lefts and rights, as seen later on the Amiga (or was it the other way around?).
Ah!... That time I hanged out with a bunch of Atari 8-bit wizards. I remember following this 6502 assembly language course given by an 8-bit game programmer right in the living-room of his home apartment. Most of the time, his wife was there. We had regular supplies of coffee, and on some occasions some cookies while attending (3 of us) the course. We once had Space Invaders completely macro-disassembled, where we had to study all of its functionality (DLIs, sprites, player/missile movements, etc...). I barely had the guts to actually build a game in assembler on an 8-bit computer at the time, but it was fun to attend the courses, and pretty cheap. There was this team of three programmers I met in a group reunion. They were once showing a game they had completed that is called POUSSINET. They made it on the good old Atari 8-bit computer. If I remember, POUSSINET was some sort of Super Mario Bros. type, where the player controls this little yellow bird in a maze that resembles some sort of automated factory. Too bad they only sold like 2 copies!
Of course, there was (in 1985-86) a Commodore 64 scene starting up. Most of the demo productions made in that time had rips of either Rob Hubbard's, Barry Leitgh's or Ben Daglish's music playing in the background with some big scroll text saying "Hello World!!!". Occasionally, some tried to make color fades and copper effects with seldom success, but it still looked cool on the Commodore 64. Remember, when we used sprites to make a scrolltext? Well, some of today's sceners where not even born yet when that first happened! As a note, I have to congratulate Commodore for the quality of their color tube monitors.
Moving onto the 16-bit era now. What happened with the good old time of the Commodore 64 suddenly changing into this totally genius piece of material, just out of the blue? Remember the Boink demo? On a slightly different path from the 8-bit machine demos came the Amiga demos! Incredible amount of colors displayed on very nice and new Commodore high resolution monitors. I first saw those nice images at a local computer boutique called Compucentre. On a nice wooden desk lay a brand new Amiga 1000 with nothing else than the Juggler! What amazed me most is the Amiga's output images which where so sharp you almost couldn't find the pixels, as if they where hidden behind this flood of colors. That was the prodigies of the HAM trick-mode invented within the Amiga Company's research lab. Those are (BTW) the same gurus who created long time ago the Atari 8-bit machines (this is a downright facts, talking about the 1977-78 period)! The Commodore Amiga had such a great technology advances that no computer could compete in terms of graphics and sound (at the time). But do I have to point out that the Amiga is a very complex piece of circuitry? A computer that had incredible potential, but was faced out with hard to understand technical notions. The complexity of the machine (and it's price) is probably what held back programmers for a couple of years into this meditation period (1985-87).
Back to the roots of the changes from 8-bit era to 16-bit era. Let's say the confusion starts here, in 1984. We got Jack Tramiel quitting his Vice Presidency at Commodore and buying out a company on the verge of collapsing (which is Atari). Jack decides to becomes president of the company in 1984. Needing a new generation machine, he got back to the deal that was in hands with the Amiga Company. What happened in the earlier times was all about this old team of Atari computer designers who have left Atari to form their own company. They had this dream of making a totally insane computer, on the memories of their older creation; the Atari VCS game console and the Atari 400 and 800 home computers. Needless to say, their journeys began early, in 1982 when they started designing the whole system. The Amiga Company (that's how they called themselves) had big money problems and needed funding as they went along the development stages of their new dream machine. Finally, 1984 saw the birth of a new generation computer: Amiga 1000.
Now, let's get back to the "Atari needing a new generation computer" time. Jack needed this Amiga computer real bad. After Atari has invested in Amiga and Mr. Tramiel looking forward into getting the computer, Commodore comes in the way of Atari in this new generation machine fight. Same questions arise on that side. Commodore needed a new generation machine to propel themselves back in the market of computers. Commodore wanted to change their consumer offerings with something fresh, out of the common and specially; out of the 8-bit computer business.
This turnaround of events made history for both Atari and Commodore. On one side, we have Atari who have invested in the Amiga but is trying to get it cheap (Jack Tramiel's way). On the other side, there's this more desperate company, ready to invest a larger amount of money to move forward. Remember, the Amiga was all thought out in the first place, so all that Commodore needed to do was to manufacture it. The palm goes to Commodore, obviously! Commodore was able to attract the developers of the Amiga, financially, by buying out the debts owed to Atari and finance the production of the Amiga machine under the Commodore brand label. Furious, Jack Tramiel finds himself loosing a lifetime opportunity with the Amiga machine and a new relationship with the old Atari team that got then sold out for the competition.
So, basically Jack Tramiel had to build a new team of hardware designers. He also had to find an operating system, which he did find at the time was the GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) from Digital Research. The choice of processors wasn't very hard, Atari chose the Motorola 68000 CPU, just like the competition did. As for sound, it was a bit harder. Atari wanted to have a fully featured sound engine, a bit like what the Commodore 64 had but more sophisticated. The only synth chip production company who had something descent to offer for computers at that time was Yamaha, with the FM line of synth chips. But with greedy guys like the Tramiel bunch, it's pretty hard to convince to spend so much for something which doesn't add any functionality to a system. So basically, Atari ended up choosing the least expensive sound chip, the YM-2149. That sound chip by the way is the same one as found in all the MSX computers ever made.
Stuck in the dirt with this cheap sound canvas, the team hardware at Atari proposed to their president an alternative for the consumer; the MIDI interface. That way, people wanting to have better sound could plug in a family synth or a MIDI soundboard. That was in fact the decision that made the Atari ST the music computer that it was renowned for. The MIDI implementation was perfectly rendered, and timing was right on. In terms of operating system, the Tramiel family did it pretty strong; they invented the TOS. The "T", "O" and "S" letters actually stand out as "Tramiel Operating System"! Like an IBM look alike, it has a BIOS (Basic Input Output System).
So we ended up having an Atari 16 bit line of computers with a graphics environment called GEM and another 16-bit "from" Commodore called the Amiga also with a graphics environment called the Workbench. Both computer ran using the Motorola 68000 line of processors, except the Amiga was several cycles slower at 7,18 MHz than Atari's more formal 8 MHz. Both computers came with a mouse and numeric keypad. They also both had the newer generation 3 1/2 inch double density disk drives (floppy disk time was over). On the Amiga side, the disks were formatted in 11 sectors per track, which created 880 Kb disks, compared to the more standard 9 sectors per track 720 Kb formatted double density disks with the Atari ST machine. On the Amiga, the user had access to tweaked video resolutions enabling those HAM 4096 color modes. Actually, HAM modes could only display 32 distinct colors per scanline, but that I call a raster trick effect. Every computer can do color raster effects. It's just that the Amiga had a graphics chip capable of performing palette changes per raster line by using a lookup table that they called a display list. The display list technology was invented in the old Atari days when those same Amiga technicians invented the first Atari 8-bit console; the Atari VCS (Video Console System). But, on the Amiga, users and programmers had the chance of using a higher memory bandwidth with more circuitry which in essence enabled those cool graphics mode. Otherwise, the Amiga had very standard graphics resolutions like 320 by 200 and 640 by 400.
The other nice thing graphically that I found on the Amiga where the old (and newer) Atari was missing out was the overscan capabilities. With the Amiga, it was possible to overscan the whole cathodic screen image, and not just with the sprites but also with the whole desktop image. The new generation Atari machines had no HAM tweaked modes, no extended graphics capabilities like sprites, hardware scrolling or overscan features. It also didn't have sample playback capabilities! That my friends is the cost of making a new machine inexpensively and fast.
What happened to the scene in those days. Well, me being French speaking, I was well suited with several magazines to start with. Directly from France, I had access to "ST Magazine", "ST News" and the likes in the 1987-90 period, which is when I actually owned an ST computer. In English, I found "Atari Explorer", that ended up being a disk magazine after several years of bad revenues. Other Atari ST featured magazines were the French "4ième Génération" and "Micro News" which featured mostly Atari ST games at the beginning of their existences. The Amiga just didn't have that userbase at that crucial time, still pointing out at the high price of the machine and the lack of programmer support from it's start.
I remember 1987 being the tip of the iceberg for the Amiga and its fans. The prods blew me away and made me looking at my ST as being a like the Volkswagen Golf with Diesel engine, and the Amiga being the tuned up Corrado of computers. The graphics and the possibility of playing 4 sound samples at the same time in stereo WITHOUT bothering the main CPU just made it happen for this machine. The multitasking environment is so great too. There wasn't a computer on the planet that could multi-task like the Amiga did. I think Windows today is becoming close in terms of multi-tasking to what the Amiga really was in those flourishing days. I say "was" with a pinch on my heart. It would be doubtful to wish for a comeback of the Amiga platform.
Anyway, demos started to appear on both Atari ST and Amiga machines abundantly around 1987-88. It was a time where both of these machines were dwelling the fruit of our imagination with 68K assembler programming and the acknowledgment of the C language as a good base for next generation programming. On the Atari ST, it was stuck at the stages of tweaking the graphics chip with raster effects, sample playback using the cheap Yamaha sound chip and scrolling using the VBL (Vertical Blank Interrupt).
For the ATARI ST, check out LSD (Little Sound Demo) and LCD (Little Color Demo) and also The Big Demo. All 3 demos are from the same team called TeX. MadMax being a TeX member and at the time big fan of Rob Hubbard (SID musician in that same 85-87 era). Try them out if you haven't yet, and discover a different world. I specially wish to encourage every scene member (active or inactive) to look back at what was there several years ago. If necessary, get an emulator running on your machine. For the Atari ST machine, I would suggest grabbing the emulator SainT or maybe STonx. Then, go ahead and download old demos! You'll see that it's a real fun ride! Be sure to check the links just ahead.
I wish to place a final note of nostalgia to the Atari ST era. It happened, last summer. I was walking out of my GF's apartment, heading towards the parking lot when suddenly, I came face to face with a suspicious white and gray box. I looked closer, and YES! It's a an Atari 1040STE! I grabbed it and took it out of the box. It was in perfect condition, with the plastic shield on the nameplate and all. The only missing part was the mouse and power supply, but the rest was like new. To myself, I said; "forget it... You'll never use it anyway. Maybe for Midi recording, but then my PC can do this too, and with better software". That really shows where we stand right now I guess! But anyway, hope you have learned something new in this article.
The High Voltage Sid Collection
ST sound pleasuredome
The SainT homebase emulator page
Computer demo historia
Atari Historical Society
Amiga: The computer that wouldn't die