Watching Little Demos (Atari ST)

“Robb says wow!” We’re going back to the early releases of Atari ST legends The Exceptions for a quick squint at the two demos which followed on and indeed evolved from Readme.prg – this would all lead to The B.I.G. Demo in early 1988 but that’s probably a post for another time (along with quite a bit of recording since the name isn’t exactly ironic).

The first of these two releases is Little Sound Demo and the large scrolling message with palette rotation in the background returns for another outing, but this time the picture has some raster bars through the TEX logo instead of the background and some decorative palette rotation around the indicator saying which piece of music is currently playing. There are twelve tunes in total which are mostly conversions of Rob Hubbard’s work from the C64 – hence the picture of a Breadbin getting lamped in the back of its “head” by the music emitting from an ST – with a couple of pieces composed by new group member Mad Max who also did the conversions and wrote the music driver.

That handle might not be familiar to those outside the Atari ST scene, but a few folks might recognise his real name Jochen Hippel since he was the musician for several games including Wings Of Death and the ST versions of Turrican and Turrican 2. He also released an album mostly consisting of reworked versions of his game tunes called Give It A Try and I’ve got a copy of that CD knocking around… somewhere?

Little Color Demo continues where its predecessor left off in expanding on what Readme.prg did and wedging more colour and action into the display like the barrel scroller between the two pictures of Rob Hubbard, more palette rotation under the tune list and some serious colour splitting on the lower scroller. One feature that wasn’t carried over from the previous release however is Mad Max’s compositions, there’s only eight tunes in this demo and everything is a Hubbard cover apart from the version of Axel F.

It’s fascinating to see the code mutate and evolve as the coders learnt more about their machine of choice but, whilst the bespoke music driver and converted tunes are a major plus, the hyperbole around them is probably pushing things a little; the tunes are good if sometimes missing elements – or large chunks in the case of Flash Gordon and International Karate – but the sounds being used don’t really hold a candle to their C64 equivalents. Rob himself was already doing Atari ST tunes in 1987 including a reworked version of Human Race tune 4 for Goldrunner, which was coded by the well-known game developer Steve Bak who, by a sad coincidence, passed away a couple of days ago whilst this post was being written.

Looking at these two as a whole, as with Readme.prg they were a little underwhelming to the teenage version of me waiting for the Atari ST to really offer stunning graphics and sound – hearing those covers of older Rob Hubbard tunes was cool but nowhere near enough to entice anyone away from the C64 in that respect – but the early works from Mad Max did offer some promise for the future and both demos are significant milestones in the Atari ST’s scene history.

Watching NWCUG Demos (C64)

As the name might suggest, the North-West Commodore User Group – or NWCUG for short – wasn’t actually a demo or cracking crew in the same way that contemporaries like the Mean Team or Borderzone were, it was instead a user group which covered, perhaps unsurprisingly, the north west of the United Kingdom. They also had a presence on UK-based online service Compunet and a few of their members produced a cluster of demos in the group’s name for release on said service so, as a “bumper” post to get back up to speed after a few weeks off, here’s a look at the three demos bearing the NWCUG brand in their name.

To begin with we’ve got The NWCUG Demo, a two parter which starts with an intro whizzing some square blocks around the screen and running a scrolling message across the bottom; nothing special but it’s fun to watch and has a good, upbeat tune playing as well. The main part has a large scrolling message at the bottom of the screen where each character in the font has been scaled up to eight times its regular size and there’s an area at the top where a series of pictures dissolve in and out. There’s also a NWCUG logo built from expanded sprites which sits in the lower border and a couple of tunes available from the function keys including a solid cover of Dire Straits’ Walk Of Life.

As with the first demo, NWCUG 2 opens with a scroller and sprite sinus, although everything has been overhauled since the previous demo’s intro; the sprites this time are defined as hearts rather than just blocks and their movements are more interesting, with the latter also being true for the excellent multi speed, direction and colour scroller which is, for me at least, only marred by the short length of the text especially since this is probably my favourite piece of music in all three of these demos as well.

Pressing the space bar will start the second part which has some Max Headroom animations originally drawn by Bob Stevenson and reworked via ESCOS to use the upper, lower and side borders whilst dancing to some appropriate David Whittaker music. A tap of the Restore key from there brings up a simulation of the NWCUG page on Compunet, accompanied by some classical music and a scrolling message where the “duck shoot” menu would usually be and, when the music ends on this part it, hands over to a simulated test card entirely built from colour splits.

NWCUG Demo 3‘s first part has some raster bars in the side borders, although sadly they’re not properly timed so there’s some “sparkling” on a C64C or C128. The expanded sprite logo and scaled up scroller from the first NWCUG demo make a return, except with the former cycling through different colour schemes and the latter sporting cool-looking shadow effects. Hitting space gets another ESCOS-style part which this time reproduces the demo Power Windows but in all four borders, allowing the user to move the picture up and down under joystick control.

Finally, slapping Restore pulls up another sprite sinus part to finish the show which this time updates sixteen sprites with eight being displayed on each frame. It might be flickery – I was surprised that the YouTube video comes out as well as it does – but the routine comes with several presets to choose from and the option to play with various settings once they’re in motion. It also features my second favourite tune from all of the NWCUG demos playing behind it, a wonderfully laid back piece that fits the sedate, almost hypnotic movement of those sprites very well.

Almost all of the music in these three demos are original and enjoyable, the graphics are good throughout in part because there’s a couple of “borrowed” Bob Stevenson works in there and the code is for the most part solid. I remember originally watching the second and third NWCUG demos as a teenager after a friend downloaded them – I didn’t see the first until some point in the 1990s if memory serves – and being completely blown away at the time. All three have a unique style throughout despite their being collections of parts and, for me at least, still hold together well now.

Watching Futurevision #1 (C64)

Somewhere in East Germany… a James Bond-alike spy has broken into a presumably sensitive location and found information that must be ferried back to HQ safely, with the first step being a scramble down the side of a four storey building to where his tricked out sports car is waiting, pausing only to blast a couple of alerted guards along the way. After that it’s a manic dash to the coast where the car dives into the water and in classic 007 fashion turns into a submersible, ramming a diver as it escapes.

Developers Future Projects had already released several demos with a similar, animation based style, but Futurevision #1 is by far the most involved; it tries to present itself as in the style of a movie from the moment the screen turns black after a forgotten greeting is issued – going back in to update the list and then crunch the demo for a second time would have taken hours rather than seconds – with the opening text fading in and out. Then there’s the flurry of spy-based action and a “to be continued” message that, sadly, was never followed up upon because, sadly, Futurevision #2 didn’t happen.

This isn’t doing anything radical on the code front and there are a couple of rough edges here and there – when the second picture is swapped in there’s some temporary glarging up of the music for example – but there does appear to be a well written scripting engine under the hood which controls the action, so the data basically tells objects where and when to spawn, change states or move. That’s an assumption on my part of course and it could just be a series of bespoke routines handling each individual state but I can’t help thinking that, whilst that would be okay for the previous, smaller Future Projects animation demos, it’d be fairly bonkers for something on this larger scale.

And I’ve got to say that whilst the graphics are pretty good throughout – the little soldiers have a surprising amount of character despite not having many frames of animation – it’s the music playing behind the action which really steals the show for me; this tune was composed by Ramiro “Extermer” Vaca – he went on to collaborate on the soundtrack for Turrican with Stefan Hartwig and Chris Huelsbeck – and slots together nicely with the on-screen action in the same way that Bond themes composed by pop artists usually tend to work in context. And the music doesn’t stop at the story’s cliffhanger, playing on continuous loop in the background for anybody wanting to read the scrolling message.