I first heard about the demoscene group known as Hornet not by their demos, their music, or their graphics – I heard about them because of their incredible archiving ability. In the early 1990s, when disk space was not cheap at all and yet many people were creating demos and music of great quality, it was hornet that swung together the Hornet Archive. The Hornet archive was the go-to place for all manner of scene-related materials, especially music, which they not only slavishly collated and allowed additions to via an easy-to-use interface, but who also would take the time to rate and quality the music whenever possible. Five stars from the Hornet Archive and you felt like you were two steps away from a limo and penthouse hotel rooms.
Affiliated with cdrom.com (the Walnut Creek CD-ROM company), the Hornet Archive was hosted on a fantastically fat pipe and was eventually turned into an actual product, a collection of music and MODs with great art and content called Hornet Mods 1. And when I mean great, I mean fantastically great, the kind of attention to detail and quality that meant that everything on that Disc was being given the right treatment deserving of the man-years of work behind them all. Trust me when I say that I browsed this thing after buying my copy and I thought “Wow, this is how things should be presented”. Later, a sequel disc (Hornet Mods 2) was equally top-notch, with even more of that great music I’d fallen in love with, and even made a little of myself.
I bumped into the Hornet guys at an event called NAID in 1996, where they had copies for sale that I bought. I didn’t get much time with them, but there’s actually pictures of me with some of them (while wearing a cow suit) and I’ve become good friends with some of the members over the years.
Naturally, when I found out that they had created an actual DVD of demos, called Mindcandy Volume 1: PC Demos, I was right there in line to get my copies. (I bought a couple.) I hadn’t heard much from Hornet since the 1990s and here it was 2003, years having passed. But I suspected they’d put as much effort into making a DVD as they had doing the CD-ROMs before, and was I not surprised when they’d done it. The thing absolutely ruled. With an amazing attention to detail, history and completeness, they’d assembled in DVD form pretty much all the biggest influences in PC demos from the previous years, going back over a decade in some places. The colors were clean, the menus cool, the bonus features and commentary tracks impeccable. As I had hoped, they’d outdone themselves.
Four years have passed since the release of Mindcandy, and while many people who had bought the first DVD knew a sequel was coming, things started to look a little bleak after a couple of years. And then, out of the blue, the Hornet guys have released Mindcandy 2: Amiga Demos.
If by some weird trick of nature you’ve gotten this far into this review without knowing what exactly I mean by “demos”, then I will reward your perseverance. The short-form story is this: way back in the 1980s, pirate groups would “crack” software so that you didn’t have to duplicate the whole disk to transfer programs across modems. In doing this work, which often involved meticulous work inside machine language, they would reward themselves not with money, but by adding a “crack screen” before the program started. The program would start, say “This game cracked by the Eye of Argon”, and then when you hit a key, it would start the “actual” program, that is, the cracked program that used to take a disk.
Over time, these “crack screens” became more and more elaborate, involving not only music and graphics, but harder and harder trickery to impress the viewer before handing off control to the program. After a while, in fact, pirate groups had to have people whose only job within the pirate group was to make these crack screens. Somewhere towards the latter half of the 1980s, these programmers of effects and music for crack screens started making standalone versions of their programs, to demonstrate their skills – “demos”. And from there it just took off. Demos come out by the droves even in the modern day; a website called scene.org keeps track of them. And yes, the parties where these come out are called “Demo Parties”, and I’m hosting one myself.
Here’s the thing, however: as time has gone on, the ability to play the demos as they were intended is rapidly disappearing. “But what of emulators”, you cry, unaware that emulators are not always great at capturing the exotic aspects of the hardware and software. In the case of demos, the problem is especially an issue because these programs would use every secret trick culled out of the hardware to achieve their looks. In this world where we install a separate card to do the heavy lifting of graphics and 3D processing, demos of 10 and 15 years ago had to rely 100% on software-based rendering. While that might automatically make people think the demos were slow and broken, in fact they were as fast as lightning and truly amazing – on the original hardware. That hardware is nearly gone.
So the importance of something like the Mindcandy series is that they work so hard to make sure that these now-historical programs are captured as perfectly as possible. Frame rates, color hacks, video signal noise… the Hornet guys concern themselves with issues that you as the Person Who Wants To See These Things should never have to deal with. That was reflected in Mindcandy 1, and it’s even more the case in Mindcandy 2.
The menu system of Mindcandy 2 immediately tells you you’re in for a quality ride.
The menus are clean, slick, and peppered with quality animations shifting between them. Normally I hate that stuff, but that’s for static films containing nothing worth the sound and fury of background music in menus. In this case, it works great because it gets you in the mood; thumping bass and classic sound.
As mentioned above, the first volume was for demos that appeared on IBM Compatibles/PCs, but this volume focuses on the Commodore Amiga, which was a powerhouse graphics and sound machine that came out in 1986. Very quickly, people started creating crack screens and demos that put anything else out there to shame. The 4-channel sound, the high-res graphics and pallette of colors, really blew folks away; I remember arguing with someone I played some tape-recorded amiga music to. “That’s not from a computer, that’s some album.” So, as you can imagine, the demos that starting coming out for the Amiga were unstoppable, and only got better.
On the DVD are many of the “canonical” demos of the past 15 years, demos that won competitions, wowed kids who downloaded them from BBSes, and which pushed the limits of what the machines could do year after year. They’re methodically captured from the original hardware, using techniques covered in detail in production notes. You know when people are capturing uncompressed video from hacked converters, you’re getting the best quality you can achieve.
All of the soundtracks to these demos are recorded in both “original” mode and, in a nice fit of hubris, Dolby 5:1 Surround. The audio tracks have another quality bonus – commentary tracks from either the original coders of the demos, or experts doing their best to describe the context and techniques involved. It’s one thing to hear the soundtrack in 5:1, but a whole other to hear how little time the coders gave themsleves to do some effects, or what part alcohol played in the proceedings.
The demos themselves, of course, are just great to look at. Here’s some screenshots I took of some of them:
On the Mindcandy 2 DVD is also what I consider the crown jewel: a documentary about the 2005 Breakpoint Demo Party, Shot over the weekend of Breakpoint from the point of view of an attendee. Impeccably edited, beautiful, and full of the energy of how these parties go, it captures a lot of the feeling of the parties that have given birth to demos. It’s even got its own commentary track from the director/editor. I see techniques in there I intend to steal shamelessly for years to come.
What I’m saying here, if it’s not clear, is that if you have even the slightest interest in demos, in old computers, in graphics as an art form, this DVD is for you. I’m proud to have it on my shelf, and my only regret is that there aren’t more of them in the series. Two is not enough; I hope they keep doing these forever.
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