It might surprise you to learn that some of the most cutting edge graphics, sound and programming created on computers doesnt appear in off-the-shelf videogames, but rather in the form of computer demos non-interactive programs coded by gifted artists, who do so for no other reason than to show the world what they (and the machines they love) are capable of.
Computer demos actually got their start in the form of cracking/intro loader screens. In the early days of computing, when programs were cracked (had their copy protection removed), crackers would often add an intro (a multimedia page of credits) that displayed each time the program was run. Many early intros were simply comprised of plain text and no graphics; later, intros became more technically advanced, adding graphical logos, music, and scrolling text in which cracking groups boasted about their skills and greeted (and/or taunted) their friends and fellow groups.
Over time these multimedia loaders began to grow in complexity and size, and eventually groups began releasing their works as stand alone demos. While demos have been created for virtually every platform you can imagine, from the vintage Atari 2600 to the computers and consoles of today, the two largest demo scenes belong to the IBM PC and Commodore Amiga platforms. Not coincidently, these are the two platforms covered in Fusecons Mindcandy DVD series.
Mindcandy Volume 1: PC Demos (2003)
The first Mindcandy volume contains 42 demos written for and presented on the IBM PC. The DVD is two-sided, with old school demos on one side of the disc and more recent demos on the other. The division between the two eras is a logical one. Earlier demos are triumphs in programming prowess. Each one shows a new technique, or improves upon an old one. In general, the older demos show coders pushing machines to their limits. As computers evolved over time, so did computer demos. As computers became more powerful, demos became less about feats of coding and more about design, atmosphere, and aesthetics.
Knowing that all the demos presented on this DVD are public domain and free to download and watch on your own computer, the immediate question becomes, why would a person spend fifteen dollars to view them on their television? Here are three compelling reasons that came to mind the minute I began watching Mindcandy.
From someone who has followed the demo scene for many years, I can assure you that getting many of the older demos included on this DVD to run on your computer is not as simple as you might think. Most DOS-based demos used very specific hardware and software tricks, many of which simply do not work correctly on computers running Windows. Yes, it is possible to view some of them using DOSBox or other DOS-emulators, but not all of them will run accurately, and youre also talking about some serious technical tweaking and configuration to get many of them to run properly. The guys at Fusecon have gone to great lengths to ensure that the video and audio presented on the DVD appears accurately on both the old and new demos.
Another advantage to watching them on a DVD is just that; you can watch them in your living room on your large television and surround sound stereo system (the DVD includes 5.1 remixes of the demos as well). You can also pause, rewind, and (God forbid) fast forward as necessary.
Probably the biggest selling point of this DVD is the commentary tracks that accompany each demo. Each commentary track explains why that particular demo was chosen for the video and what makes it unique. Many of the demos contain commentary from the original programmers and groups; where the original creators were unavailable, the Mindcandy staff fills in and does a terrific job. Personally I found all the demos more enjoyable with the commentary tracks. Hearing about some of the hardware limitations that had to be overcome and the tricks used to create some of these effects made the demos even more enjoyable and interesting to watch.
One final feature I feel compelled to mention is the included sixteen-minute featurette Demographics, which explains, in laymans terms, the computer demo scene. I would consider it mandatory viewing for anyone not intimately familiar with computer demos. Even though I have been watching demos for many years, I found the featurette both entertaining and informative.
Mindcandy Volume 2: Amiga Demos (2007)
The second Mindcandy compilation introduces viewers to the world of Amiga demos. The Commodore Amiga, originally released in 1985, was a multimedia powerhouse. Its graphical processing power and four-channel stereo sound chip were years ahead of anything else on the market. Many early 8-bit demo groups upgraded to the Amiga platform when it was first introduced twenty years ago, and new demos are still being produced for the platform today.
Considering the fact that the Amiga hardware platform has not substantially changed in over twenty years, the improvements seen throughout the thirty chronologically-presented videos on Mindcandy: Volume 2 are astounding. Some improvements involve refining a technique; others introduce completely new techniques and ideas. It is interesting to watch as new ideas introduced in demos, and quickly improved upon by others. Even though the majority of the demos use the same general palette of effects (vectors, bitmaps, scrollers, music, raytraced animations, rotating zooms, starfields, layers, and so forth), it is fascinating to see how different groups used those ideas and came up with such wildly different results.
Again, additional commentary tracks (provided by either the demo groups themselves, the Mindcandy staff, or multiple guest commentators) give viewers insight as to why particular demos were chosen for the video, specific techniques and tricks that were used in the creation of the demos, and some behind the scenes information. Occasionally, one of the programmers will explain why the Amiga could not possibly do what you are watching it do on screen, only to then explain to you how they got around a particular hardware limitation. In one commentary track, a coder discusses some of the custom applications that his group wrote in order to assist with the demo-creating process. In another, an artist reveals that the animation presented within a particular demo was drawn by hand at a rate of one frame per hour; at 30 frames per second, you can begin to understand the amount of work that goes into these digital works of art.
Mindcandy: Volume 2 includes a featurette that documents Breakpoint 2003, a demoparty that takes place each year in Germany. While the mini-documentary was interesting to watch, I found the Demographics featurette (from Mindcandy: Volume 1) to be more informative. While the Breakpoint footage was interesting to watch (never having been to a demoparty myself), I cant imagine watching it a second time.
A second featurette (inconspicuously titled Production Notes) gives viewers a look into exactly how the demos were captured and the processes used to get them from an Amiga monitor to your DVD player. No emulators were used throughout the process (the reasoning is explained) , and the results are plain to see. If nowhere else, this featurette truly conveys the amount of care that went into this obvious labor of love.
Both volumes of Mindcandy are incredibly artistic and professional looking packages that include twelve-page color booklets, multiple animated menus and original menu music from the demo scene that is in addition to the featurettes, the commentary tracks, and of course the demos themselves. With a running time of approximately four hours for Volume One and three hours for Volume Two, there is literally no reason why any fan of computer demos, graphics, music, or animation should not literally go to Amazon.com this very second and purchase both volumes of Mindcandy. Mmm, mindcandy. It tastes so good.
Note: Breakpoint, the demoparty featured in Mindcandy: Volume 2, will take place again in Germany the first weekend in April, 2007. Those of you in the US might be more interested in Blockparty, a large demoparty being throw in Cleveland, Ohio the last weekend of April later this year.