ASCII by Jason Scott

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Demoscene Week: Going in Style —

In yesterday’s entry, I gave some background information on the genesis of Demo Parties (sometimes called just Demoparties or Parties), where you had a history of software pirates outdoing each other in introductory screens before pirated software, and these “intros” were then spun off on their own right, becoming sole productions that were then judged and given prizes at parties. These parties, once called “copy parties” became renamed to “demo parties”, and that’s how things started to aim at the present day, where these parties cull amazing talent and skill into productions designed only to amaze and flabbergast.

I also mentioned the intense connection to Commodore 64s that many early pre-scene folks had, due to their ubiquity, availability and ease of learning. This is critical, because at the time, amazing intro/crack screens required knowledge of assembly to do top-flight things, and in doing so, they encouraged a generation of hackers to get inside the guts of the Commodore 64 to pull out every last cycle.

However, this narrative, while true, is also missing an entire component that is vital to understanding the progression of the demoparty. That component is the Commodore Amiga.

As time goes on, and the world becomes more and more a case of “Wintel/WinAMD vs. Apple”, I fear that many people will forget the Commodore Amiga (as well as many other brands now gone). What separated the Amiga from the raft of mid-1980 home computers was how its features and demonstrations were on the level of disbelief. If you’d grown used to the idea that your home computer was going to forever be a one-note sound generator, imagine hearing of a machine that could do four crystal-clear channels of sound. In 1987, IBM computers could boast of a VGA display that ran at 640×480 resolution and provided 16 colors. The Macintosh II, in 1987, gave you better resolution and 256 colors, but cost nearly $4,000 to be properly outfitted. The Amiga, however, could produce modes of 4,096 colors, interlaced video, and all while playing that wonderful music.

The Amiga was an art machine with a powerhouse behind it, and the holding pen of the Commodore 64, combined with brand loyalty, meant this generation of top-notch programmers were loosed onto what must have felt like a limitless playing field.

Intros and demos, previously of a certain size and approach, could expand out into cinematic proportions. When tricks came out, like forcing the Amiga into video modes never intended or taking advantage of the chipset to put more items on screen than ever before, those tricks got attention. In fact, this is where my own story starts, because I first heard of demos when I was in high school. A friend of mine, Andy Rubin, lent me an Amiga 500 his company had used for some video production and which they’d stored away, unused. I was all over that machine, getting my hands on programs from bulletin boards, downloading songs to play, and playing any games or pirated software I could find. And whereas with my IBM, I’d more often than not be greeted with a text screen and some 2-bit music, with the Amiga the right command would explode the screen into a pyrotechnic adventure. Other machines had art of their own, of course; both in programming skill and in writing; but the Amiga had the kind of art you could show a non-computing family member after pulling them into the living room and have them go “Wow”. This was a powerful thing.

And like I said, the growing demo groups exploited this new machine to its fullest. So much so, in fact, that style started to enter into things like never before. It wasn’t enough to put up music; now you had to have the best-sounding 4-channel music your dedicated group musician could write. You couldn’t be happy that you made stuff float around the screen; now it had to float around the screen on a background of beautifully drawn mountains or alien tropical forests.

This is a critical change; it meant that pure programming might not get accolade for a demo; in fact, a demo that was not as well programmed but which had more flashy graphics and sound along the lines of a cartoon or music video might win over a demo that showed a never-before-seen video mode. It was a heated debate as to which was “better”, a debate that rages in the modern era, although for entirely different reasons.

On my borrowed amiga, I started seeing these demos, these songs I’d never heard the likes of, these graphics I’d never envisioned, and all of it with the extra realization that the computer was doing this all right in front of me, in real time.

Through this new wave, there started to be little conventions, in the sense of traditions and references that went from demo to demo. Jokes at others’ expense. Claims of being the best. Nicknames and terms for programming concepts. A style of a different nature was arriving; to this day, you can hear certain types of songs done from that era and kind of “know” it’s from that era. The artists inspired each other, created schools of thought, boundaries of what was acceptable or expected, some of which were smashed to bits or improved greatly. The idea of there being a “scene”, with “scenesters” within it, and the “scene” was an ongoing entity that needed both protection and promotion, starts to really take hold.

I could list them all, all the little nuances I’ve noticed, but they would be my list, the parts of it that I feel, and it’s a unique list for anyone. When you start to download and play these demos, you might find yourself in a special mode of thinking, that “demoscene” approach. It’s magical, for some of us. It’s why I went to the few of these demoparties that happened in North America (NAID, Pilgrimage) and why I’ve always wanted to travel to Europe to go to the still-thriving ones out in the world. Which is why, ultimately, I was watching a currently popular demoparty, Breakpoint, on, a site that streams video and audio from various demoscene events. And that’s how I learned about Debris, the winning demo at Breakpoint; many miles away and many hours of time difference.

If you start watching demos for any amount of time, downloading them and running them on your machine, you’ll start to build up expectations, ideas of what should be where, what works and what doesn’t. You start to learn the names and styles of the active groups. You see groups retire out, or new ones make a big splash. And if you spend enough time over the years, you yourself probably start to feel a bit like you’re a part of the scene, even as an observer. Like me.

Next: The Drama.

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  1. fuzz says:

    I still remember the first time I saw a computer running fullscreen video, it was the demo 9 Fingers by Spaceballs. Before that, the only video you saw was on tv (or cinema or whatever), and computer graphics looked like, well, computer graphics.
    Then one day I get hold of this disk (I still don’t know where from), pop it into my A500 (7MHz of powah!) and I can see these people dancing on screen, in pretty good quality, and I’m looking at the computer wondering if maybe it’s all just a big cheat? Maybe it’s picking up a TV signal somehow?

    For me that was one of those big moments in my computing life, like seeing descent for the first time (omg! 3D!), or running winamp for the first time.

    I don’t think, I’ll ever forget the feeling of suddenly realising that this little box of electronics, that could already do so much was capable of so much more (and was probably going to change the world in the process, but that’s a different rant)

  2. jeff says:

    Good times.

    During Amiga’s heyday, I would come across a demo from time to time, scratch my noggin, and move on. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate it, but as a C programmer working on BBS software, it violated every rule of programming conduct I had been taught by my Amiga programming gurus. And on the BBS itself, I had precious little room for files that I considered to be “important” without “littering” it with silly things like that.

    It never even *occurred* to me that there was something bigger going on. That these guys were doing the same thing I was, but on an alien playing field. I’m really appreciating the retroactive perspective on the whole thing.

    By the way, we always kept at least one disk of demos around the repair shop; if an Amiga would run one of the things, it pretty much passed a smoke test. They tended to hit every register, every address line, and every custom chip (including many declared off limits) in getting the things to do thier thang.