Demoscene Gems

For decades, talented programmers have participated in something called the "demoscene", a community of students, hackers, software pirates, and basically anyone who had a wealth of programming talent and no outlet to get paid for it. What did they make? Something called Demos - a weird name considering that in the computing world, a "demo" also meant a demonstration version of software, usually game, with a hugely cut-down set of content or functionality meant to entice you to buy it.

These demos were vastly different - they were rarely interactive and usually pushed whatever hardware they were running on to its limits, showing computational, graphical, or audio accomplishments that seemed either impossible to run on that hardware, or at the least very difficult to run smoothly. These started back in the microcomputer days of the 1980s, largely with the software piracy scene, and the most common place to find them was in introductions (also known as "cracktros") that were inserted before a pirated game would start.  

Now, this post is not intended to be a full history of the demoscene, and it couldn't ever serve as one that did it any justice.  What I really want to do here is just showcase a few of the demos over time that surprised me the most.  

Note that some of these demos were released years, if not decades, after the heyday of the machines they were written for. Considering though that the communities that make these demos hold a key requirement that that they must be able to run without issues on original hardware, I still count them as being applicable to that earlier era - with simply the years of experience going into some of the amazing results on old hardware.

Microcomputer and early console days:

In these days, just extracting whatever they could out of the machine was a win.  Many demoscene creators were doing things that even the best games seemed incapable of, and with what was usually fixed specs for any given computer, even today these can be impressive to watch once you know just how little processing power some of these machines had.

Wonderland XIII by Censor Design (2016) - The first 3/4 of this demo is pretty great, but what really sets this one over the edge is its final sequence, a playback of The Prodigy's 1997 song "Smack My Bitch Up" complete with dance animations. Did you ever expect to hear a bass drop on a C64? Well, here's one - and yes, this rendition is well beyond accurate enough to trigger YouTube's content ID. While playing a song doesn't seem like much of a feat for a demo, consider that none of the microcomputers in this era were doing this originally. Nor was the C64 - its SID chip for audio was not programmable in this way, and was not designed to be capable of just playing back digital samples at all.  Also, one side of a disk on a C64 holds a grand total of 170kb, and the sound quality coming from this vastly exceeds what you could normally fit into the size, even at low bitrates, even when cutting the song into tiny chunks.  Obviously some looping and intelligent bits of compression are used here, but frankly, it seems like magic.

Comaland by Censor Design (2014) - While Wonderland (above) focused largely on sound, this demo centered around graphical techniques that were not available on consumer hardware at the C64's release. Smooth 3D objects and environments, ray tracing, and texture mapping are all featured here, along with the expected fantastic art and music - and even some voice samples to boot!

8088MPH by Hornet (2015) - The IBM 8088 with its CGA graphics and 1-channel PC speaker sound came out years after the Commodore 64, but it was largely a business machine, with usually a very ugly 4-color palette of white, black, magenta, and cyan (or an alternate "warm colors" palette) for visuals. Hornet was able to unlock modes with over 1000 colors, and created music that sounds like it's a multi-channel affair despite still running on original hardware. This is less about the CPU power itself - the 8088 was faster than anything inside, say, a Commodore 64 - and more about squeezing solid sound and graphics into this machine with had little in the way of dedicated hardware for those applications.

Bad Apple 64 by algorithm (2014) - The original Bad Apple video (possibly here) wound up becoming a labor of love for many coders, who took the original video data and reworked it to fit the data onto a bunch of systems (NES, Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega Master System, ZX Spectrum, and more) over the years. For me, the C64 edition seems the most impressive, especially considering it fit on the 170kb of a single-side of a floppy disk.

Second Reality 64 by Smash Designs (1997) - Later we'll see the original Second Reality, a demo that lives on in legend. This demake/port of the demo back to the C64 is fantastic in its own right, with still very impressive cut-down versions of the effects and music shown in the original. Just as it's great seeing powerhouse games squeezed into less-capable gaming hardware, seeing the very best demos retro-ized can be just as fun as the originals.

The 90s:

This era continued to be mostly about pushing computation, graphics, and sound to its limits.  Filesize was vastly less of a concern here, so the challenge largely laid in delivering full digital sound and art in the best possible quality.

Starstruck by The Black Lotus (2006) - This demo for the Amiga (with Advanced Graphics Adapter or AGA) assaults you with some very impressive music and visuals. 3D models dance and crawl while a cool looping, scaling animated background tricks you into believing the entire thing is rendered in 3D. Then the real 3D environments kick in. Sure, the Amiga with AGA was a powerhouse for its time visually, but no one was putting visuals like this on the AGA when it was released in 1992.

Panic & Second Reality by Future Crew (1992, 1993) - Most of the demos that I've listed until this point came out well after the heyday of their respective hardware, but with these and relatively few other demos, they were released to push envelope of what computer graphics and sound were capable of right then - not just "for its time" or "for that little computer from the 80s" - I'm talking about realtime graphics and sound not doing this on any consumer hardware that had been released yet.  And right at the top of the heap of the demos that inspired a generation of demoscene enthusiasts is this pair of grand slams from Future Crew.  Playable on 386 and 486 PCs in DOS with VGA graphics and Sound Blaster hardware, this blew the minds of basically everyone that saw this, with its music like no one had ever heard coming out of their PC and special effects most games weren't getting anywhere NEAR close to, with very few exceptions (id Software, I'm looking at you).

Later PC Demos:

Once fancy graphics became prevalent with PCs getting dedicated GPU hardware and large game developers started to push towards greater and greater realism, demo developers shifted to something different: fitting more inside less.  As games ballooned past 1GB in filesize, demoscene creators started on a new form of minimalism: not with rudimentary or retro graphics, but instead by squeezing still very-impressive visuals and audio into procedurally-generated algorithms that took very little disk space.

.kkreiger by .theprodukkt (2004) - this first person shooter fit into a  minuscule 96kb in size.  Sure, many demos were smaller, but they weren't actual games you could play.  While .kkrieger would not go onto win any gameplay awards, simply fitting FPS gameplay, multiple weapons and powerups, several enemies, quite detailed graphics (for their time) and sound all into a file smaller than many Office documents or .jpg images.

fr-08: .the product by Farbrausch (2000) - there are smaller demos (in filesize) than the 64kb this one takes up, but the complex music and many effects showcase a talent in Farbrausch that few could match. This is one of those demos that compromises some visual fidelity to make 64kb, but it doesn't cut down running time or number of effects and scenes, and that's what earns it its rightful place on this list.

fermi paradox by Mercury (2016) - Here's another demo with an amazingly small 64kb filesize, but this one focuses on smooth and fantastic visuals, excellent special effects (check out that water! those storms on Jupiter!), and a moody ambient soundtrack that makes for something a little less nerdy and more arthouse than we expect out of the demoscene. 

elevated by Rgba & TBC (2009) - this demo fits inside of 4KB. Four kilobytes. I've written stupid Facebook politics posts that take up more space than this. The terrain generation alone was a revolution at the time for the filesize, much less the lighting, music, and other atmospheric effects that the creators of this demo also squeezed in.

Untraceable by TBC (2009) - what, was 4KB not impressive enough for you?  TBC delivers again with Untraceable, a demo inside of 1KB. Shopping lists are regularly larger than this in sheer amount of data. This demo mostly relies on a couple of small effects using cubes and warping that, when twisted together, make for a mesmerizing effect, and the minimalist/ambient soundtrack works very well.

fr-041: debris by Farbrausch (2007) - We're ballooning up to a massive 177kb in size for fr-041 by Farbrausch, but I think you'll find this demo hugely impressive due to the level of detail and fidelity generated in the city with its high texture quality and fancy lighting/shadow effects. And as the city twists in on itself and deconstructs, the audio distorts - it's a look and sound you don't see much in the demoscene.

the timeless by Mercury (2014) - What this 64kb demo may lack in cohesiveness, it makes up for in sheer brilliance, especially in the visual effects department. Spread over wonderful ocean, underwater, city, and other scenes, this demo showcases water effects that many games released today haven't matched along with shadow, reflections, and volumetric-looking light that really make the city and church scenes glow.

And here we are at the end. There are thousands of demos available at to explore, if you're interested. What I find curious is that up until the late 1990s when PC graphics took off with dedicated GPU hardware, we saw meteoric rises in graphical quality and intricate music, with filesize simply not a concern. Then afterwards, we saw the most effort going into demos that trickled that back down, making for high-quality graphics and sound with the most efficient algorithms possible. No longer was pushing the graphical envelope, which is mostly what games do now, the focus - instead it was fitting everything into the tiniest space possible.



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