Vol 7 Issue 3


The history of demo programming on the ST
by Stefan Posthuma (a.k.a. Digital Insanity of The Lost Boys)

It all started in the spring of 1986 when a couple of computer freaks from Germany came together. Erik Simon and Udo Fischer bought an ST and started exploring this hot, new machine. They fooled around a bit using Basic (and noticed how bad "Atari ST Basic" was), but soon ended up with a program called "Seka", coding their first assembly language programs. Soon after the first scrolling message appeared on their screens, they formed a group and called themselves "The Exceptions" or TEX. Erik Simon called himself ES, and dedicated himself to drawing the various graphics needed for their demos. Udo adapted the name -ME-, and three other people joined them: Michael (Daryl), Gunther (6719, after his zip code) and last but not least, Jochen Hippel (Mad Max), a young and very talented music programmer. There was a person named Alyssa associated with TEX for a while but he left after their first demo I believe. In the very beginning, they still did some cracking of games software, adding their demo screens to the loaders of these games. But soon they realized that programming demos only is a lot more fun and a bit less illegal so they stopped cracking and dedicated themselves to demos.

The definitive breakthrough for TEX came with their "Little Colour Demo" in the fall of 1987. This was the first full-fledged demo with rasters, scrolling messages and music. They found out how to use the various timers in the ST to create special colour effects. Also, Mad Max had written a routine that was able to read Rob Hubbard's Commodore 64 sound files and play them on the ST. "LCD" was the first demo with full music, rasters and scrollers. The demo era had begun. After "LCD", Alyssa discovered how to fool the MMU into opening the lower border. TEX used this technique for the first time in their "NeoChrome Picture Slide Show" which had NeoChrome pictures occupying the whole screen, and a scrolling message in the lower border. This amazed quite a few people I can tell you (including myself, I was totally ignorant as to machine code programming on the ST at that time and still fooling around in monochrome with "GfA Basic"). This demo also showed us by the way, that ES was quite a talented graphics man.

Now TEX weren't the only ones at that time. More demo crews were forming, Michael Bittner started the TNT crew, the Delta Force was brought to life and a couple of Swedish enthusiasts became The CareBears. The TNT crew started bringing samples into the demos, the "Lovespy Demo" (September 1987) being an example of this. The ST scene was really shocked by the release of the "B.I.G. Demo" (Best In Galaxy) by TEX in January 1988. It was huge, it was brilliant, it was insane. 113 different pieces of music (never equalled after this), five different screens and the first three-voice digital music ever. It actually had a main menu where you could choose your music or another demo screen, something unheard of before this. The three "Psych-O-Screens" all consisted of clever colour tricks, and the "Big Scroller" really showed what the ST was capable of (at that time of course). This established TEX as the undisputed masters of demo programming on the ST. Also, the massive amount of music and the presence of a "Digital Department" showed that Mad Max had a lot up his sleeve. By the way, around this time the first Bitmap Brothers game ("Xenon") was released by Melbourne House. By that time a disk magazine called "ST NEWS" started becoming more and more popular and the editor/ founder (Richard Karsmakers) of this magazine who wrote the scrolltext for the demo had some good contacts with the people from TEX. This resulted in TEX visiting Holland in March 1988, when they finished the "Amiga Demo". This demo contained some four voice digitized musics ported from the Amiga by Mad Max. It also had an "Overscan Screen" that removed the lower border as well as the right border, something totally new then.

I was there during this visit being a close friend of Richard and it was a very inspiring weekend for sure. It was the first real "computer orgy" I attended. All-night coding, pizza-annihilation and the consumption of insane amounts of Coca-Cola. Loud music on the stereo and the deafening roars of frustrated programmers, pissed off by their STs crashing. It was quite a revelation to someone as innocent as I was at that time. I believe I had to leave early though, I had a girlfriend waiting for me. This also saw the creation of the first "Real Time" article ever for "ST NEWS" - an article in which the people present give random comments on the events, with the exact time of these comments, portraying a life-like and accurate report of what is going on.

The next important demo to be released after the "Amiga Demo" was the "FNIL" (Fantastic New Interactive Largest) demo by the TNT Crew. This featured some great coding, full-screen scrolling, massive amounts of colours and rasters and a whopping seven different demo screens. Also at that time, the first Level 16 demo saw the light of day, Level 16 being two highly talented programmers from Germany, friends of TEX. Things quieted down a little after this. I took over the editorship and programming of the "ST NEWS" disk magazine by the end of 1988, and "ST NEWS" Volume 3 Issue 4 saw the release of my first demo. A one-plane (ROXL) scrolline with rasters and a for- and background. The year 1988 also saw the release of Jeff Minter's "Trip-A-Tron" a truly cosmic experience.

Then, in January 1989, one of the most impressive and amazing demos ever was released. "The Union Demo". The Union was the result of a joining of demo crews. TEX teamed up with the TNT Crew, The CareBears, Level 16, the Replicants (a cracker crew from France, the first French crew to get well-known) and the Delta Force. "The Union Demo" had it all. Superb coding, the first ever no-border demo screen (called fullscreen) by Level 16, solid 3D vectors by the TNT crew, digisounds and megascrollers by The CareBears, an interactive menu (move the man to different doors where the demos can be found), loader screens etc., etc. This was it. Everybody thought this to be the ultimate demo, something never to be equalled. Well, in a sense this is true. "The Union Demo" is a true classic, making a heavy impact on the demo world. "The Union Demo" contained a few screens by The CareBears, including the 3D-sinus-and-a-whollottamore-stuff (or something) scroller which is considered by most people to be the best demo screen ever written. With their screens the CareBears established themselves once and forever and their coder Nic (Niclas Thissel) was to become a living legend afterwards.

In January 1989, the "Swedish New Year Demo" was released too, showing the world that there was more to Sweden than just The CareBears. Crews like Omega and Sync are also forces to be reckoned with. In the beginning of 1989, another demo crew emerged from anonymity. They had produced some digi-demos and a demo called the "Power Demo", but the "DEF" (Definitive) demo was their first big demo. With this remarkable demo, the Lost Boys of London became quite famous. The most impressive thing about the Lost Boys were their ages: Spaz (Dave Moss, graphics man), Sprog (Marc Palmer, coder) and Sammy Joe (Michael Schüssler - he is a German who at the time lived in England, their PR dude) were all 15 when this demo was released. Their main coder called Manikin (Tim Moss, Dave's brother) was 18. The funny thing is that Manikin started coding 68000 on the ST after reading an article in "ST NEWS" about scrolling in machine code that I had written. That summer, Richard and myself travelled through England for three weeks, visiting most of the well-known games programmers and companies, gathering stories and interviews for our "ST NEWS" magazine. During these three weeks, we also visited the Lost Boys and had a most amusing time in London with them. It was there that Tim (Manikin) told me about his plans for their next Mega Demo and asked if I were interested to do some screens for it.

But a lot of things were going on in Germany too, TEX was fed up with doing demos and wanted to program some games. This finally resulted in the founding of Thalion Software, a games company based around all the members of TEX plus their friends (TNT crew, Level 16). Hopes were high, never before had so many gifted programmers and graphics people been in the same company. They produced their first games, but due to marketing and management problems these games never became the success they could have become. But nevertheless, Thalion was a magic thing, every demo programmer dreamed of one day working for them and programming a game for them. Richard and I visited them around the end of the summer and I must say that the atmosphere in that office was indeed magical, and inspiration coursed through my veins as I sat there watching these people work. I even thought about leaving my job and joining them instead. In the end I decided against this, SPC being too interesting (and promising) a company to leave at that time.

Back to The CareBears. They had not been sitting around, but had been programming like maniacs. An Cool, Jas, Nic (all coders) and Tanis (graphics) created the "Whattaheck" demo. This was actually a compilation of Swedish demo screens gathered at a large demo-party in Sweden. One of these screens was very amazing. A no-border screen with full-screen scrolling!! Everybody was quite stupefied until the news came through. Nic had found a way to make the hardware scroll the screen. "Sync Scrolling" they called it. How it worked nobody knew, but it was to create quite a stir... It didn't last long before Thalion released their first game using this technique, "Leavin' Teramis", a vertical scrolling game. Richard quit his biology studies to join Thalion to work as a games-designer/ copywriter/ PR person, and I believe he worked on this one too.

In August of 1989, the first all-dutch demo was released. A group called "Aenigmatica" released their "Genysys" demo (I just mentioned this one to soothe my feelings of Dutch pride and joy...).

The end of 1989 also saw the next "super" demo. This was the first one to be compared to "The Union Demo", a true piece of wonderful programming. It were The CareBears again who did it with their "Cuddly Demos". In this they exploited their "Sync Scrolling" to the max, creating a full and smooth scrolling main menu that managed to baffle quite a few people. It also contained a record amount of demo screens, one more amazing than the other. All this by four people, a true achievement. Their "Spreadpoint" demo (taken from the Amiga though) with the many little scrollines inspired many demos to come, and the main menu of "Cuddly Demos" can be found in many varieties today. Also, the graphics in this one showed that Tanis wasn't without his talents either.

The Swedes did one more thing after this, the "Swedish New Year Demo 1990", and another Dutch crew named Galtan Six released their "Mega Demo". If you boot this one in monochrome, you get a little screen by yours truly (I must have been the only person insane enough to write monochrome stuff. I did it for "ST NEWS", really). Then the attention was shifted to the Lost Boys when they released their "Mind Bomb" demo in April 1990. This was another memorable demo with a sync-scrolling main menu (much like "Cuddly Demos" I have to admit) and quite a few innovative screens. Like the "Red Sector" demo, after the famous 3D vectorballs from the Amiga (There was one demo before this that featured these vectorballs, I can't remember which one though, it was from Sweden). It also featured some screens written by myself, I was quite happy to get them in there. "Mind Bomb" was well-written with lots of great screens. Sprog left the Lost Boys soon after "DEF Demo" so Manikin had to do all the programming on this one. It also featured a screen by the British BBC (Bad Brew Crew). This demo also started a "Bear Bashing" trend, one of the first things you see after booting this demo is a large boxing glove crushing a cute Care Bear. This was a friendly joke though, we have always been good friends with the CareBears.

The summer of 1990 was very intense. Tim and Dave (Manikin and Spaz from the Lost Boys) came over to work for Thalion, programming their first game, designed by Richard, named "A Prehistoric Tale". During this time, Nic from The CareBears was also working there on a game called "Enchanted Land", a full and supersmooth scrolling platform game. Personally, I think this is the most technically complex game on the ST yet. This sync-scrolling brings problems that many people don't think of like not being able to do screen-swapping thus having to work out complex sprite handlers if you want to keep things nice and smooth (The whole game runs in one VBL). "Enchanted Land" (named after a Sodom song, Richard came up with this one) was released just after the summer and "A Prehistoric Tale" was released that Christmas. But Thalion still had (and still has) management problems so both games didn't do very well I am afraid. Thalion became more and more unpopular, resulting in Richard quitting in the beginning of 1991, and one of their top programmers (Marc Rosocha, the one responsible for games like "Last Ninja" and "Wings of Death") left them to form his own company, Eclipse Software Design. One of their graphics people, Thorsten Mutchall, joined The CareBears as GoGo. He is one of the most talented graphics people around these days and he has done graphics for games like "Spherical" and is currently working on Thalion's "Amberstar II", a role-playing adventure game.

At the end of his stay at Thalion, Manikin decided to do a little demo with all the friends he had there. A guy called Oxygene (he was working at Thalion on a version of "Galaga", a project that was never finished, and he had previously done the "ST NEWS" Volume 4 Issue 4 demo under the name In Flagranti) joined The Lost Boys - and so did I. Together with a guy from the Replicants, Daryl from TEX and Blue Devil from the Gigabyte crew (they had been around since the old days) and the new ULM (ULtimate Matricks) from Luxembourg we did "Life's a Bitch". Tim did a very fast (and very cheating) solid 3D screen just to annoy Nic (some talk was going on about the new CareBears demo, it would feature some amazing 3D and some more astonishing stuff) and the others contributed their screens. Mad Max made the now famous "Bittner Mix" and the demo was released at the 1990 Atari Düsseldorf Messe. I remember Tim finishing it right there with a lot of people waiting for their copy. Some people even asked us to sign disks, something we found quite amusing.

During this time we also met The Respectables from Trier, Germany. A swell bunch of people who were to become very good friends of ours. After Nic went home, we had the "Fax Wars" with TCB, sending faxes between Thalion and Sweden, with the most amazing drawings of Mutant CareBears slaughtering Lost Boys and Lost Boys sodomizing CareBears. This would reach its highlight in the last demo by the Lost Boys, "Ooh Crikey Wot a Scorcher". From Sweden came the "Sowatt" demo, another demo made after a large party in Sweden where people contributed their screens. It featured a lot of screens (including some from my good friends in Norway) and possibly the best one was the "Grodan and Kvack Kvack" demo by (who else) Nic from the CareBears. It was a very intense demo with lots of one-plane graphics flying around the place. Again, a conversion from an Amiga demo. This one-plane business resulted in a brief trend, but it quickly stopped for these demos weren't very pretty to look at.

At that time, The Inner Circle from England released their "Decade Demo". Unfortunately, these people had taken up a grudge against the Lost Boys and found it necessary to spill forth lots of accusations and allegations against us. Apparently, we had stolen their source code and used it in our "Mind Bomb" screens. We had no idea and found the whole business a bit strange to say the least. But "Decade Demo" still was quite a good demo with some nice screens.

During the summer of 1990 I got the idea to organize a large demo party in Holland somewhere. Holland is quite central here in Europe so everybody could come. So they did, and in the weekend before christmas the office of SPC (the company I work for) was crammed full of over 120 computer freaks having a great time. Everybody attended (except Inner Circle...), and it was a great success. A massive 45 crates of Coca Cola were consumed and this four-day hacker party was one of the most intense experiences of my life. We made a video out of the whole thing, something I watch with mixed feelings of horror and amusement sometimes. We also did some competitions, a demo competition that was won by The Lost Boys, a graphics competition that was won by GoGo from The CareBears and a 3.5 K "Remember VIC20" demo competition that was won by The Delta Force for their full working two-player version of "Archon". You have to see this to believe it. At this party, Delta Force released their "Syntax Terror" demo, another demo with a lot of screens from different crews. These screens were gathered at the ICC #1 (International Coding Conference #1) held in Stuttgart in the beginning of the summer of 1990. It took them quite a long time to finish it but they are forgiven for it is a good demo (introducing the first "mini-games" to be included in a demo).

ULM also released their brilliant "Dark Side of the Spoon". ULM are well-known for their technical abilities and their fullscreens. Nearly all the screens from this demo are fullscreens and it is very impressive indeed. I can still remember them locking themselves up in a little room somewhere in the office to finish the demo. A month after the convention the ceiling of this room collapsed. Whether or not there is any connection between their intense programming and this is not known... This "Dark Side of the Spoon" demo contained guest screens by The Respectables (their first screen to be published) and The Lost Boys, a screen finished at the convention by Manikin and Oxygene.

The Overlanders from France also released their "European Demos" at the party. A two-disk demo with a massive amount of screens, and a main menu so big you can get lost in it. One of the best screens in this one is the amazing 3D screen by Ziggy Stardust and Mcoder.

At the beginning of 1991, an ex-Aenigmatica member (as a matter of fact Jurie Horneman a.k.a. Relayer of the Quartermass Experiment, I'll have you know) joined Thalion to work on their "Amberstar" project. It also saw the release of the first game by Eclipse Software, "Monster Business", a game programmed by Lost Boys member Oxygene.

The summer of 1991 was very busy once again. My fellow Lost Boys (Tim and Dave) came over once more and we all went to the home of one of the Respectables (Tyrem or Kimmi as we call him, his real name is Stefan Kimmlingen). We intended to do another game and sell it to Eclipse Software but we did another demo instead. "Ooh Crikey Wot a Scorcher" was born and this is the last demo of the Lost Boys. It featured an animation of a Lost Boy sawing a Care Bear in two with a chainsaw (with lots of samples from Bad Taste) which is left unanswered by TCB sofar. I also did a screen together with Oxygene, "Your mind is my Ashtray" with a large rotating scroller made out of rotated squares. This demo also has a quite unique main menu in which you fly through a fractal-landscape and land on various spots to get to the demo screens. "Ooh Crikey" contained one guest screen by The Respectables. This was the last TLB demo however, everybody is too busy doing games or working. Manikin has worked on a game that is loosely based on the main menu of "Ooh Crikey". It even got him to sign contracts with a very interesting software company but eventually the whole thing was put on ice due to recession (and possibly other reasons noone can fathom). He's currently doing a summer of programming for the company where I work. But I'm going too fast here! The summer of 1991 also had the second Delta Force convention, ICC #2. Again everybody attended and we had a great time over in Stuttgart. Another gigantic real time article was written here and published in "ST NEWS". At this convention, ULM and Elektra (a new demo crew from Sweden) joined the Union and they want to make a new Union Demo so I have heard (which has yet to be released). The summer ended with the Atari Düsseldorf Messe (almost a tradition), everybody getting together once more. After this we all went home, tired but very satisfied...

The last big demo I received after this was "Punish Your Machine", another compilation of screens that people brought to the Delta Force ICC #2. It is a large two-disk demo with screens by many demo crews, including the new Elektra, a "plasma" screen by the Overlanders, a screen by TEX (what?) and a lot more. Eclipse released their "Lethal Xcess - Wings of Death II", another high-quality shoot-them-up with "Xenon II" ambitions that Richard was insanely enthusiastic about.

Well, that about covers it. There is more though, what about the new CareBears demo that everybody is waiting for? How about Thalion? Or forthcoming Mega Parties in Europe? And what about this Froggy Demo that should be there soon (or already)? The story may yet gather courage to continue. Wait and see. Watch this space...

This text was published in the Atari ST diskmag "ST News" and is used by kind permission of Richard Karsmakers. Source for this article: http://www.st-news.com