Freax Volume 1 review

By Seven/Fulcrum

Almost a decade ago, Tomcat/Madwizards announced that he was working on a book about the history of the demoscene, and now the first part is finally completed. Freax Volume 1 covers the C-64 and the Amiga, while the future Volume 2 will cover the PC, the Atari and other machines. An artbook focusing on scene graphics is also planned.

The book feels pretty solid, it's a bound hardcover with 220 A4 sized pages. It costs only 25 Euro, which is pretty cheap for a book of this quality. As can be expected from a book about our highly visual art, there is an enormous amount of colorful screenshots illustrating the text. I guess about 1/3th of the book are scenes from famous or remarkable demos, each taking 1/8th of a page, with up to 6 screenshots per page.

The book is in English and it's well-readable, even though you can notice from the grammar that Tomcat isn't a native English speaker. There are also some typos and accented characters that have disappeared in the printing process, but not to the point it hinders understanding. The style is not as distant as in the average reference book, Tomcat occasionally writes in the first person and isn't afraid to include some personal beliefs (the dissing of Bill Gates seems rather childish though.) On many points, the quality is between that of a good diskmag article and that of a normal book.

Volume 1 has three chapters, as will Volume 2 when it's ready. The first chapter is the shortest, at only 15 pages, and explains the basics of the demoscene. There are two historical overviews of computer graphic algorithms and electronic sound generation, dating back from the fifties. It's necessarily very dense, and I'm not sure if an average layman can grasp, say, the description of FM synthesis. But it's full of interesting details, f.e. the earliest drawing program had already sharpening or blurring in 1961!

The 2nd chapter chronicles the Commodore 64 demoscene in 60 pages. First the "real-world" part of the story is told: the founding of the Commodore company, who started in the typewriter and calculator business, but later created the first mass-market computers: the PET, the VIC-20 and finally the C-64 in 1982. The various 8-bit models are discussed, including some peripherals, and there's even an interview with Bil Herd, a C-64 engineer.

Then we descend in the nascent game- and cracker scene, where the first groups have just appeared. Cracks and trainers are explained, but also the surrounding culture of importing, phone phreaking, paper mags etc. The loathed German cracker-hunter von Gravenreuth and his tactics are also mentioned.

Around 1986 standalone demos emerged, but the demoscene stayed firmly intertwined with the cracker scene for 4-5 years. Some venerable old-timers such as Grendel/Byterapers are interviewed about those days, and new trends such as the first democompos at copyparties are discussed. The new Amiga computer leads to intense competition as some groups "defect" to the new platform and others stay faithful to the C-64. Another subject are the BBSes and Compunet, the primitive forerunners of the internet, and how the scene evolved in America.

Through all of this, famous groups and their productions are followed, sometimes country by country. I found this a bit tedious at times, descriptions like "A joined X, released Z, changed his handle to B and joined Y" are boring if you've never heard of A, B, X, Y or Z. But it helps if a screenshot of the demo Z is shown, and as a coder I really enjoyed it when Tomcat explained the technical merits of a new effect.

The 3th and largest chapter is about the respectable Amiga, it's no less than 130 pages but it's structured similarly as the C-64 chapter: first the rise of the Amiga 1000, from prototype to stunning success. The various successors are described in detail, the A1200, A500, A4000, A1200 etc. Various management mistakes led to the liquidation of Commodore in 1994, after which the Amiga brand was only mishandled by the various new owners, who didn't manage to bring new hardware to the market. This part is also ended with an interview with someone who worked on the very CPU: Dave Haynie, the lead engineer.

Then we go back to the start with the first cracktros in 1986, quickly followed by a migration of demogroups from the C-64. The arrogant attitude of elite groups caused fights at parties, as a result a counter movement that promoted friendship developed. The advanced sound architecture of the Amiga was exploited by the first SoundTracker program (which was released by Electronic Arts!). Some of the most famous Amiga diskmags appeared such as Stolen Data and R.A.W., demos changed from a collection of separate routines to trackmos, design slowly became more important than setting new records, and the ASCII scene developed in step with the BBS scene.

Most of the 3rd chapter is structured along yearly overviews, typically focusing on The Party, Assembly, the Gathering and other big parties, mentioning the disasters or innovations that happened, and analyzing the winners in each category. In between new trends are discussed, the changes in music from chiptunes and doskpop to IDM, how coders started using the new AGA chipset, how diskmags evolved, etc etc. Sometimes the scene activity in a specific country is reviewed, with a bias to Poland and Hungary.

Again the constant namedropping can become boring, but slowly I started to recognize present-day names. It's weird to learn that f.e. the now famous Haujobb was rather insignificant for years. Also the PC is mentioned here and there as the new rival, with more power but less soul, stealing talent away from the Amiga scene. There are fewer interviews in this part, which is a pity as the yearly cycle gets repetitive.

The last pages of the book show some advertisements for the Mindcandy DVD, Aural Planet CDs, Breakpoint, Sceen and

All in all I can recommend this book for everyone. It's very throughout, with lots of fascinating details, interesting for newbies and scene veterans alike. It's a great introduction to the oldskool platforms for the PC-scener, and a wonderful trip down memory lane for the C-64 and Amiga sceners. It's a work of love for the scene, and I wish Tomcat the best of luck while he works on the second volume. If you go to the larger parties you can probably buy it there, or else via the website