Watching Demo Factory (C64)

Let’s do something a little different and look at one of my own demos, specifically Demo Factory on the C64 from 1987. The original idea came about from a brainstorming session with friends and was intended to be a less than serious response to the plethora of bog standard demos around at the time which usually included a bitmapped picture, some music and a sprite-based ROL scroller in the border. We all found the idea of an automated factory churning these similar-looking demos out on a conveyor belt amusing so I set about programming, pausing only to work things out on paper first – something I haven’t bothered doing since – and to read up on how the hardware sprite priority registers worked from the C64 Programmer’s Reference Guide.

Looking back now the code itself is embarrassingly simple – even more so than I remembered it being in fact – but in my defence I was still learning assembly language and indeed the C64 at the time. The music is Rob Hubbard’s Hunter Patrol theme which arrived as a file he’d uploaded to Compunet that had the music located low in memory and started an IRQ to play it before dropping back to BASIC; my code calls that and executes behind it, using timing loops rather than actually waiting for a rasterline or anything sensible because I didn’t know better. I’m tempted to call this my first “real demo” because, despite there being a few releases prior to it including Past Shock, this was the first time I managed to get action on the screen with someone else’s music playing.

The “logic” was, if I recall correctly after three decades, that a parody didn’t have to be particularly well programmed because shonky code could be passed off as part of the joke; similarly, the lack of a scrolling message was absolutely part of the “protest” against bog standard demos and not in the slightest because I couldn’t get one working or anything like that… honest! There’s also a healthy whiff of irony and very probably hypocrisy about me of all people railing against the bog standard demo as a format since I’m incredibly fond of it as a format, was inspired to start coding demos by releases like Future Shock and have since programmed several releases over the years which stick to that tried and tested formula.

I’ve considered doing a remixed version of Demo Factory on a couple of occasions previously which would be an overhaul of the graphics and actually running from interrupt with all the benefits that would entail; it could perhaps animate all of the elements of the demo making machine that I wasn’t able to handle back in 1987 as well and, just for the sake of irony, would probably include a scrolling message as well…?

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.

Watching A New Dimension (C64)

Triad are one of the longest-serving C64 crews and have some classy demos to their name and the one I’m pontificating about today is from 1987, so over three decades old… and dear Rassilon it makes me feel ancient just writing that! Developed by Cosmo and Skyie, A New Dimension begins with a classic, silent Triad intro which is exited by a quick press of the space bar that sets off the decrunch for three more parts; the first of these is a no-nonsense raster show, filling the standard screen area with colour splits and moving some smaller bars around over the top but behind a logo and the intro text. The music playing at this point is Matt Gray’s fantastic title tune from the Thalamus game Quedex.

The second part has a little more going on and is almost a “bog standard” demo with a good piece of music this time by Demon, a nice bitmapped Triad logo taking up the screen and a fast-moving lower and sideborder scroller with chunky, multicolour characters and raster splits. Some of the letters have colours rolling up them whilst the rest have them moving downwards and, when I was poring over this demo decades ago, it took me a while to realise what was actually happening; the two sprite multicolours are being changed once every second scanline, alternating back and forth with every line so there aren’t any “messy” splits in the middle of the screen.

As a finale there’s a sprite-based Triad logo down the middle of the screen where each letter uses all eight hardware sprites to produce a motion blur-like effect as they swing back and forth, requiring forty sprites in total. This is accompanied by a character-animated triangle of stars, a multicolour character scroller with two of its colours being split and another decent Demon tune – the two pieces of his music used in this demo are known collectively as Hardcastle. There’s one final surprise to round the show off, pressing space here will take the viewer back to the first raster bars and the three parts can loop endlessly.

All three parts are fairly simple in comparison to what would come just a year or two later but they still hold their own pretty well, being solidly coded – there’s very occasional hiccups when the music in the raster part takes up too much time – and sporting well-executed linking; A New Dimension is one of the first demos to “wrap” at the end and that’s not exactly a commonplace design choice thirty plus years later either. I love a good raster part so that’s my favourite of the three, although the third part’s sprite logo is very effective indeed and the demo as a whole is still worth watching once in a while.