10 of the coolest demoscene creations
12th Sep 2010 | 11:00
When coding, art, music and magic collide in 4kB of memory
10 of the coolest demoscene creations
The Italian musician Fabio Barzagli was effusive: "Friendships, joining, travelling around different countries, discovering new samples, effects, styles, having that magic art-trip while watching the big screen with a thousand other people. That's the demoscene!"
Demos are short samplers of creativity put together by teams of programmers, artists, musicians and designers, but with a twist: they're executables.
Everything you see (and sometimes everything you hear) is generated in real-time. Demos began as add-ons to cracked games, designed to show off the prowess of the person who removed the title's copy protection. In the 30 years since the first examples appeared, the 'demoscene' has become established in its own right.
There are now international demo conferences (called 'parties') that attract thousands, and many host hotly contested competitions.
For the sake of the competitions, demos are split into categories. Short demos are called intros. Some categories have incredibly tight memory restrictions: in an age when Windows itself now needs 2GB of RAM, some of the most restrictive competitions limit the executable to just 4kB. The larger 64kB demo class really begins to exploit the power of a modern PC, and the mega demo class (any demo over 1MB, or a floppy disk of code) might also include large graphics and sound libraries.
Older computers continue to be popular with demo makers keen to squeeze the last clock cycle from their CPUs. 'Sceners', sometimes working with original kit, still write for the Commodore 64, Atari ST and even the Sinclair Spectrum.
As the demoscene has evolved, so the categories used to judge them have also developed. Today's competitions are as likely to include genre-blurring categories such as Most Original Concept and Best Technical Achievement as they are Best Commodore Amiga Demo.
It's not necessary to have access to old-school hardware to view any of the demos in this feature. Where necessary, videos of each can be viewed at www.demoscene.tv.
So why do static, non-interactive demos matter, at a time when PCs can generate detailed, interactive worlds for us to play in? Read on to find out, and for a look at some of the coolest and most influential demos out there. It's time to enter the demoscene and get a flavour of its variety and ingenuity.
Exploring the demoscene
Though it was created for fun over a couple of days, with over a million particles in motion at any one time, Blunderbuss is anything but a blunt weapon.
The demo features what looks like a burning match head, with wisps of smoke curling away from it under the influence of a slight breeze. An acoustic guitar and vocal plays in the background. As the demo unfolds, the smoke sometimes moves as if responding to a gust of wind, and takes on the shape of a word from the song.
Blunderbuss is a very impressive piece of work, and it took second place at the MAiN 2009 demo competition in France last year.
TBC and Rgba
Show people Elevated and most will be mildly impressed. Show them the size of the executable, however, and they'll immediately want to see it again.
Elevated is just 4kB long and yet contains a near photo-realistic fly-through of a mountainous landscape. It's all generated entirely in real-time – including camera motion blur. The trick to packing so much into so little space is a powerful graphics card.
Much of the processing, including calculating the path along which the camera can fly, is done by the powerful GPU required to run the demo. It's still a very impressive piece of work, however.
Craft is a demo that runs on the absolute minimum of hardware. It took first place in the Wild Demo category at the Breakpoint 2008 competition in Germany, and runs on an Atmel TAMega88 microcontroller chip containing 8kB of flash RAM to hold the program and a further 1kB of volatile RAM for variables.
The chip itself generates multichannel sound and VGA video. The demo video begins with a sequence explaining the hardware, which can be constructed for under £10. Despite its low cost, the demo itself is certainly as good as some of the classic demos written for the Commodore 64.
4. The Cube
No roundup of the current demoscene is complete without the innovative Farbrausch group. Weighing in at 809kB for the main executable (and 5MB for its packed data file), The Cube is a fine example of making the simplest techniques produce the most complex graphical output.
The shapes that form the initial geometric shapes gradually evolve, warp and convolute, and take on forms that can only be described as organic.
Despite its simplicity, the demo requires a fast graphics card. As Farbrausch say in the notes accompanying the demo: "This is real-time, not amateur hour."
Sult's release ZIP file contains just the demo's executables, and they're all just 4kB long. It has been tested on the GeForce 8600 and Radeon 4850 graphics cards, and only uses the libraries freely shipped with Windows.
The music is generated programmatically, and it can take up to a minute for this process to complete, so if you're waiting around don't think that the program has crashed.
The result is mostly a display of fast-moving scenes featuring rings linked together to form meshes of chain mail over an underlying landscape, but there's also what seems to be a tongue exploring the inside of an octopus' tentacle.
5 more cool demoscene creations
The developers say that it took them three days with virtually no sleep (complete with "six pizzas, 150 cans of lager and a broken festival chair") to complete the Ephemera intro in time for the Sundown 2009 party.
The intro contains a number of steampunk inspired sequences backed by cool ambient beats. Opening in an observatory, it features rooms filled with scientific ephemera.
The executable is just 62kB and ships without any extra libraries or media files. All the developers' hard work must have paid off because Ephemera took the combined 4kB/64kB PC intro category at Sundown 2009.
Andromeda Software Development
For those without the necessary hardware to run this demo in all its glory, the link above will show why Rupture won the Public Choice award at the 8th Annual Scene.org Awards in April.
It begins in a city with a neon Tron-like feel to it. A motorbike suddenly appears and literally burns up the road as it passes through the city, tearing through buildings and lorries. The action then follows a juggernaut as it too races through the city.
The demo continues with various modes of transport, including a speedboat. Buildings shatter into fragments and everything is lovingly rendered in seriously smooth 3D.
8. Mescaline Synesthesia
Mescaline Synesthesia shows that you don't need the latest PC and graphics card at your disposal to create compelling demos. Written for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum models 128 and Plus2, the ZIP file includes a some handy emulators to run the demo.
The demo has a decidedly old-school rave feel about it, as does the music. It takes the viewer through the effects of mescaline at a rate that would leave '80s computing enthusiasts gasping at the power of their machine.
This is a clever demo written on hardware most people wrote off years ago.
9. Atari ST B.I.G. Demo
For some people, the B.I.G demo – created by German demo group The Exceptions (often abbreviated to 'TEX') – still represents a breakthrough in demo design. TEX is regarded as the group that really kick-started the demo scene for the Atari ST.
The demo B.I.G. (short for Best in Galaxy) was released in January 1988. B.I.G. is freely available as a disk image file for downloading from Atari Mania (see link above). It runs with most emulators including Steem, which is free.
Follow the beginner's instructions on the Steem site to add the ST's original boot ROMs and put the demo's image file into Steem's virtual disk space.
So, what exactly is B.I.G.? Running it in 2010 is like stepping into a primitive past where the only waveform available for music making is a fluty square wave and the colours are bright and acidic. It combines the themes of music and scrolling from TEX's previous work and creates a jukebox of over 100 tunes to scroll through, all originally written by Robb Hubbard for Commodore 64 games and ported to the Atari ST by German computer musician and TEX member Jochen Hippel.
The demo opens with a grey screen featuring several scrolling sections, including the ubiquitous text and rainbow colours. Pressing keys ,  or  puts the demo into one of three 'Psych-o-screen' modes. These feature several demonstrations of graphical effects that were very impressive back in the day.
It's still unusual for a demo to be interactive. A major theme running through all the effects is that of text scrolling behind other objects. This soon became a standard show of programming prowess.
Other groups, such as The Carebears (TCB), also began making Atari demos in 1988, and it's arguable that their action-packed, games-oriented style eventually eclipsed B.I.G.
On running B.I.G today, the first surprise is its apparent primitiveness, but that's really just a culture shock. The second surprise is the realisation of how difficult it must have been to code anything. There were no integrated programming environments back in 1988, and most home computers had a single floppy disk drive. Programming anything meant pretty serious dedication to the machine's manual, and speed of execution meant resorting to assembly language.
10. State of the Art
It was perhaps the Amiga more than any other platform that led some demo makers away from trying to impress their peers and towards slicker, design-led demos. Reliving their heyday can be difficult: Commodore still owns the copyright to AmigaDOS, and so unlicensed copies are illegal.
However, Fraser King maintains a small archive of videos, and of course YouTube has plenty more.
Among the first and most popular of 1992's Amiga demos was State of the Art by Spaceballs. This demo sparked controversy because of the way it was made. The Spaceballs team realised that 2D images could be captured from video as vector graphics, which could then be played back and manipulated by a computer.
They recorded a woman dancing, took coordinates from the video and created an animated silhouette of her. That, in essence, is State of the Art, plus a few trippy visuals and some suitably loved-up beats. The response from sceners was nothing short of outrage.
"He should get himself a video camera and make music videos. Nothing is real-time in this prod… If you like it, watch MTV, you will get something better," wrote one in the fanzine RAW. Even so, in 1992 State of the Art won a prize at a major Swedish demo party.
Team member Lone Star said at the time: "I wanted to make a totally different demo, which I knew was possible when using my new [software]. This demo had a new different style, and it was a demo that all kinds of Amiga-owners would enjoy, not only the coders."
At the time, Amiga sceners were used to the scrolling, rainbow-hued technical wizardry of the Enigma demo by Swedish sceners Phenomena.
By contrast, State of the Art seemed to be nothing more than a database of pre-computed coordinates and dumb code that took the next frame's coordinates, drew the outline of the captured image from them, filled it in and occasionally morphed one set of coordinates into another. If the people who objected did so fearing that the demo style they loved was under threat, they needn't have worried.
The subsequent proliferation of demo parties and continued existence of technical competition categories shows that there's room for both design-led demos as well as overt programming wizardry. The most popular are those that do what Lone Star set out to achieve: mix technical skill with design flair.
First published in PC Format Issue 243
Liked this? Then check out Past, present and future of the demoscene
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