Watching Readme.prg (Atari ST)

I’ve previously mentioned The Exceptions’ early Atari ST demos in passing when talking about Demons Are Forever on the Amiga and was… well, a little less than charitable about them. The first one was Readme.prg – it may have had other names but that seems to be the consensus now – which came out in March of 1987 and was essentially a “bog standard” picture, scroller and music demo of the variety that C64 owners had been seeing since the previous year.

Visually, there’s a very nicely drawn and very colourful picture with the focal point being a dragon clutching the TEX logo and torching a boing ball with its breath, a not-so-subtle dig at the Amiga and there’s another in the parallax scrolling message. Sound was pulled from the Holger Gehrmann game Extensor – there’s a couple of pieces in there and one is very noticeably his style, but I found that changing tunes would sometimes break things so only did so sparingly whilst recording – which are nice but, to my mind at least, don’t really fit with the graphics.

In 1987 we were all waiting on truly staggering things from these incoming 16-bit systems which at least some of the game developers were struggling to deliver on, so a scrolling message with a picture didn’t really sit well next to those expectations; yes the graphics were of a better quality than we were used to from the 8-bits but that’s what the next generation of hardware is supposed to bring to the table and, whilst the music is reasonable, it didn’t really scream “bleeding edge sound” either, being more reminiscent of the Amstrad CPC or AY-equipped Spectrum than anything else.

I’m aware that sounds rather harsh because it probably is all things considered, but these write ups aren’t reviews so tend to be coloured by my personal preferences and indeed emotions; putting on my rather fetching objective hat for a moment, I know that Readme.prg represents a hugely important scene milestone as one of the very first demos released on the Atari ST – possibly even the first scene-produced production in fact – so should be lauded for that and it’s a reasonably solid production for what it is, especially if you leave it running with tune 1 playing as I’ve done whilst writing.

5 thoughts on “Watching Readme.prg (Atari ST)

  1. Although part of the ‘Commodore Crowd’, I had access to other machines/games by visiting the houses of friends. However, I didn’t encounter the ST until quite later on (no one I knew had one). I was shocked. It seemed very basic to me, with poor scrolling and sound no better than my Spectrum 128/+2 owning friends (same-ish chip obviously). Games that were so colourful on my Amiga seemed like badly dithered copies on the ST, which of course they were.

    The demo you have highlighted in your blog post kind of emphasises my thoughts from all those years ago.

    HOWEVER! I have watched ST demos ( and I mean plain vanilla 512 STFM) on YouTube over the last few years and have admired how far coders progressed in the late eighties and early nineties, to say nothing about even newer demos form the last decade or so. *Very* impressive stuff, considering the restrictions by which I mainly mean horizontal scrolling and sound playback.

    Comparing ‘Readme.prg’ and something like ‘Thunderdome’ from 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_73zAvvrlY), both running on vanilla ST’s is a perfect example of how progress in code/techniques can continue to improve even decades after a machines original release!

    Apologies for the long ramble. Your blog post got me thinking, that’s all. I may have to get myself an ST one day, to see how the other people lived. Not interested in ST games, just demo stuff.

  2. I personally agree with Jason’s thoughts on the first demo, its functional and its important as he says because its where its pretty much where it started on the ST so deserves its place in ST demo history. I personally was never an ST person, totally disliked them from the start and got an Amiga which I still think was the better choice BUT the ST crowd have made a brilliant effort on the machine and things like that demo from Checkpoint show its overcoming of the lacking features hardware wise. Its a top drawer demo but its fair to say there an homage to Spaceballs and to Mad Elks mixed up in there but its a solid demo that is a joy to look at and that’s all you can ask of a demo.

    Like Jason its a personal POV, one mans butter is another man margarine..

  3. Well yeah, if you compare the early demos on a platform to recent ones there’ll always be a stark difference. =-) I wasn’t ragging on the ST as a whole and have seen some fantastic demos over the years; as Paul will probably recall, Rob at Computerworld in Canterbury was almost religious about the machine and he’d leave the cream of the crop running on the display machine as I did with the C64.

    But I still feel a little twinge of the disappointment I felt on seeing Readme.prg all those years ago after all of the 16-bit hype; the ST scene “borrowed” people like the 1001 Crew from the C64 so should have hit the ground at least jogging, but the first thing we see is a picture, scroller and music…? That probably tainted my opinion of the ST for a while and seeing Demons Are Forever as a first exposure to the Amiga won’t have helped either!

    There’s a 520STFM in “storage” here – in quotes because I’m not pretending that it’s anywhere near that organised – which was bodged a little to install a DS/DD drive and 1Mb of RAM pretty much just to run Ooh Crikey Wot A Scorcher, but it’s poorly at the moment and needs a little attention.

  4. “But I still feel a little twinge of the disappointment I felt on seeing Readme.prg all those years ago after all of the 16-bit hype”

    Jason: Your statement above states my feelings exactly. I was SO underwhelmed when I finally saw the ST in action (probably around 1988?), particularly the sound. Then when 1989 came round and I could compare Amiga and ST games (I’m thinking things like Shadow of the Beast) I dismissed the ST completely.

    My bad, because like I posted originally, things seemed to be moving at quite a pace in the demo scene with very talented people (as they always do) making the machine do wondrous things and I missed out. Maybe I expected too much too soon?

    Would like to do something on ST one day, maybe some music or something. I’ll have to investigate…

  5. I think Sack did some ST code a while back, if memory serves borrowing the DFLI Cosine logo from Radiant on the Plus/4!

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