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 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.