Hugi Magazine 32: Say It With Flowers

hugi 32 header graphic

Only the Lonely? (The story of those computers which have never had a demo made for them, and some possible reasons why...)

When we're in a time when the phrase "Pokemon Mini me beautiful" is spoken with real passion, it seems that just about any computer, at least those ones capable of outputting to a cathode ray tube, should have its own demo scene, or at least one or two landmark productions of that nature.

But I have found out that there is a whole universe of unloved and neglected hardware out there which has never been graced with so much as a wibbly scrolltext, let alone a reworking of the Popular Demo, in 48k.

In this Hugi exclusive, we consider some of these unfortunates more closely, and some of the possible reasons why.

We start with a very oldschool classic, the Sinclair ZX81. You recall that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum is one of the mainstays of the oldschool demo scene. But this not the case for its elder brother. The earlier Sinclair was simply too early for the late-eighties rise of the demoscene. The Commodore 64 was mature hardware by then, and the Amiga, belonging to a newer generation, was the rising star.

In my view, writing a demo for the ZX81 could be a worthwhile challenge, as the Vic 20 only got recognition as a killer demo platform very late in the day. You can compare the Vic 20 main restriction of 3.5k of ram available to the user, otherwise it is quite decently specified for an early 'eighties computer. The ZX81 has memory in bucketloads by comparison, a whole 16k, but not much else. The graphics are monochrome, although user defined characters and some sort of "hi-res"' hack would be possible? A lack of noisemaking seems to be an important preventer for any demo making. I guess a computer has to have at least a Yamaha sound chip, it seems?

I see that pre-1982 computers in general tend to be ruled out. These are mostly too primitive, too obscure, and not built in large enough numbers. Early machines were also aimed at the serious hobbyist user, whose priority was getting anything working at all. It is very doubtful if many of these machines are still working by now? The most successful demo scene machines were consumer hardware with a large enough user base for strange marginal activities like indulging in the demoscene.

We move on a few years, to the first home computer boom. But not all the 8-bits were created equal. There is a host of also-ran equipment. I don't recall seeing many Camputers Lynx or Mattel Aquarius demos. Here again, a lack of numbers may have worked against them. The story for most of these machines was effectively over by the time of the first growth of the demo scene.

Some computers were built for education. In the UK, the classroom choice was the BBC Micro, which in its Model B version was an attractive and well specced machine. Of course, it was expensive and suffered a major image problem as the classroom machine so it would be seen as uncool by the class rebels. I guess that you pencil in your own school computer for whichever part of Europe you come from? School machines tended to have a long life, owing to the stingy dullness of most school IT departments, so they would have still been running in the same timeframe as the emerging 16-bit generation.

The later Acorn Archimedes and Risc PC managed to overcome that school nerdiness barrier to some extent, mainly by having some very interesting hardware, and also benefiting from being firmly in the 16-bit timeframe, where demos were a more established fact of life. If RiscOS machines were more competitively priced from the outset, perhaps there may not have been quite so much of the other 16-bit demoscenes to speak of?

Going back to the 8-bitters, some of the less popular, but not totally obscure hardware was under-appreciated at the time. It only got recognition much later on. I seem to recall the Oric demo scene being created from scratch by one or two dedicated people (Hi Dbug!) taking an interest much later. We also remember Viznut's exploits on the base model Vic 20 with great pleasure, so there is still a chance for the others! There was also Bandwagon doing nice things on the otherwise under-regarded MSX series.

A bit later on, other more powerful computers appeared, but these are still not seen in the 'Prods' listings on

For the early Apple Mac and Lisa, it is fairly obvious why! The Mac has struggled to overcome some long held perception of being a totally non-scene machine, and it is not really a big player even today. The heavily protected nature of the O/S and anti-hacking culture would discourage those people curious in that way.

Early model PCs up to the 386 generation were mostly ignored. They did not become comparable to the 68k 16-bit machines, audio-visually, until the mid-nineties. Amstrad had a go at duplicating the Amiga form factor in a low-end PC in the early 1990s. As disasters go, the PC200 was a perfect clusterfuck, as it only had CGA graphics and limited beeper sound. There were a few very early adopters like Future Crew, but not really many demos for the IBM XT or AT series.

The Sinclair QL, the first mass-market 68k machine at a reasonable price, could have attracted some nice prods, but there were many reasons why it did not. It suffered from early production problems, and was left with a stench of failure hanging over it from this. There was a premature end to production when Amstrad took over Sinclair Research. Also, the QL was aimed at the professional market, and not kids. It was then taken over by older hobbyists once the main company lost interest. The QL is a potentially interesting machine for the demoscene, as it has had many upgrades. It could be quite a tasty system in its most powerful reincarnation sporting a 68060 at 66 MHz, enhanced graphics and sound. The user demographic would count against though, as this is very middle-aged, compared to the average member! Of course, it was overtaken by the Amiga and ST and dropped out of sight of the mainstream.

Another big seller, just prior to the 16-bit era, was the Amstrad PCW series. This machine was way too niche and restricted in some important areas, to ever make it a viable demoscene choice. There was no colour display or meaningful audio, and it was deliberately targetted at non-computer literate people, just wanting a plain and simple word processor.

It may be the case that there are some machines which don't appear to have a demoscene, but just haven't been spotted yet. This is the case with the Enterprise 128. This was a brilliant 8-bit machine, closer to an Amiga than the ZX Spectrum in scope. It was launched too late for the Western market, but the surplus stock sold out in Hungary and did well there. There were even a fair number of oldschool demos, imitating the Amiga prods of the time. This is a perfect example of a hermetically sealed region with its own parallel existence, not known to the rest of us until now.

We also might consider why some hardware has got a demo scene where you think that they ought not to? The Commodore Plus 4 was launched a year or so later than the C64, and was sold parallel to it. The Plus 4 was a replacement for the Vic 20, but not considered a success in the UK. It was not seen on sale for an overlong time. However, it seems to have attracted a decently sized demoscene. Was there a halo effect off the C64's success? Was the C16, in the same form factor, mistaken for the C64 by some people? Maybe more machines were sold than was apparent to me, and people started doing things with them. It breaks the 'attractive hardware rule', in force for Sam Coupe and Enterprise 128, and which we will discuss shortly.

We now turn to some factors which may promote adoption of a plaform by the demoscene. One or more of these have to be in effect for a platform to be of interest.

1. The hardware has to be attractive. The 16-bit machines were initially the place to be, and the better 8-bits. The Commodore 64 qualifies with the SID chip of course. If the hardware is interesting enough, this can even overcome the lack of other favourable factors. See Sam Coupe, Enterprise 128, StrongArm RiscPC etc.

2. A sufficiently large user-base is very helpful. The most established demoscene machines are very popular. Especially Amiga and C64. And coming to the present day, we just can't get away from the PC!

3. Was the timing right, or was it too early to benefit from the demo coders' interest? Was the target machine sold just before or during the 16-bit era? We might also look at the accidental lucky break of communism in giving certain 8-bit computers an extended lease of life in Eastern Europe. I'm thinking of the Atari XL in Poland, C64 elsewhere, Enterprise in Hungary, and ZX Spectrum in Russia.

4. Was it used by kids or adults? If the latter, then it is less likely to have any prior demoscene interest. If you've got a "business computer", even less so. Computers were a lot more closely tied to specific niches back then, and many pre-Wintel platforms would not make it, as they were considered 'uncool' by the 'yoof' at the time. Things like decent graphics and sound were not a priority for 'grown-up' computers back then.

5. Have you got retro-cool in the eyes of coders trying out established routines on limited platforms? The Vic 20, Oric, MSX and others picked up a lot on this factor later. They may have missed out on the original oldschool, but were subsequently favoured for attempting 'impossible' newschool routines on them!

In the final analysis, it could just be down to there being so many different platforms, and no-one has had the time to get around to yours just yet! So be patient!

CiH, for Hugi Mag, Jan '06