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.

Workprint – September 2018

I spent the previous weekend visiting family dahn sarf and, after a particularly harrowing coach trip home, had to spend a few days “recovering” so this post is a bit later than expected… on the plus side, I picked up a copy of Compute’s First Book Of Atari Graphics from the lovely folks at Level Up in Canterbury…

…which I hope is not too advanced for me! It even came with a hand-written page – poking out of the book in the picture above – of display lists as decimal from a previous owner which seems to have been used as a bookmark since it’s a few pages into the chapter titled Introduction To Player/Missile Graphics, one of the few places where the display list isn’t particularly relevant.

Sorry, drifted off a little there… so I’ve been working on the project I’m still not really talking about, although it’s probably safe to say I’ve been a little lazy recently; the intro is done and there’s two complete parts still waiting to be linked, but I haven’t found the time for a prolonged coding session to get any of that done and it’s one of those jobs I don’t want to stop halfway through for fear of losing my place. I also have a list of potential ideas which is coming along nicely and a couple of existing prototypes which can be improved and re-purposed so stuff is still happening.

I did find a couple of hours to doodle some code whilst away though; an interesting thread at the Plus/4 World forums mentioned using the registers $FF1A and $FF1B to scroll a bitmapped screen around in a form similar to AGSP on the C64 except without the “dead air” at the top of the screen, so I spent some time experimenting to get my head around it. The code I wrote works but this method only affects the bitmap itself so colour data would need to be moved by brute force, a bit of an ask considering the Plus/4 uses 2K for bitmapped graphics regardless of mode. It’s something to experiment with later, although I’m seeing an odd, almost FLI-like glitch in the version I wrote which added splits for a character-based scrolling message and can’t think for the life of me why it’d be there!

Watching That’s The Way It Is (C64)

After last week’s prod at A New Dimension we jump forwards a year to 1988 and the release of Scoop’s That’s The Way It Is on the C64. This is another three-parter – the third is “hidden” and probably went unnoticed by at least some viewers back in the day – this time developed by the artists rapidly becoming known as The Maniacs Of Noise, so it won’t come as much of a surprise that the bespoke soundtrack included is nothing short of excellent. The show starts with an upscroller with large, nicely drawn characters and colour splits at the top and bottom of the screen to make them fade in and out that’s there to dish out the credits and take care of a few hellos.

The main meat of the demo comes next, with a Scoop logo built from sprites which are overlaid onto a scrolling landscape, another large scroll font this time shifting horizontally with an even nicer character set than the one used for the earlier upscroller and a slightly surreal bitmapped picture of a swimsuit-wearing young lady with sunglasses in the foreground who seems remarkably happy and oblivious to essentially being in open space and surrounded by stars and a couple of barren, crater-scarred but brightly coloured planets, one of which appears to have attracted several orbiting moons.

Finally, there’s a small raster bar part hidden away which can be accessed either by resetting the C64 or hitting F1 which is just TMC showing off a little whilst talking about how easy raster and scroll demos are, having spent a chunk of text from the previous scroller berating other developers who were producing similarly “tricky” raster-based demos for their lack of originality. It’s actually a reasonably good example of the genre as well though, with a couple of different colour tables that can be cycled via the space bar and a short but lovely, slow piece of music playing behind it that wouldn’t have been out of place in a game on the highscore table.

Although there are some very nice touches on the code front including that Scoop logo with the mountains passing through it and the hidden raster bars, this was never intended to be a raw technical demo and instead focuses on the design and presentation. In that respect That’s The Way It Is was a trailblazer, setting new standards for sound and graphics whilst influencing many of the demos which would follow in various different, sometimes subtle ways and playing a significant role in kickstarting the trend for design-based demos that has continued to this day.