Amazing Demos That Push The Limits of Retro Computers

Demos are those short programs (well, they are usually short anyway) that do things the manufacturers of our favourite home computer hardware said weren’t possible. Why do they do these things? Precisely because they are not supposed to be possible. So let’s all gather ’round and marvel at the triumph of ingenuity over naysaying as we take a look at five amazing demos that push the limits of our retro computers!

WeeD (ZX Spectrum)

This ZX Spectrum demo by triebkraft and 4th Dimension pushes the limits of what the 48k Spectrum computer can do and then just keeps pushing. Written in less memory than the average modern email takes up, this 8-bit demo takes us on a psychedelic trip through the baked mind of a drug user; including pseudo-3D rides through colourful tunnels of light.

It’s an impressive feat of coding and although some of the images don’t quite fit together here and there, WeeD remains one of the most impressive ZX Spectrum demos around. It’s a real treat to watch.

Remember: winners don’t use drugs, kids.

By far the most impressive part is the sudden introduction of colour in the third section. This is effective not only because the sudden switch from monochrome to colour works in the narrative of the demo (in a similar way to how colour is introduced in The Wizard of Oz as a narrative device) but also because the notorious colour clash that was so common on the Spectrum is almost entirely eradicated during this demo.

It’s a brilliant feat of coding and at less than five minutes for the whole demo, you really do owe it to yourself to watch this one all the way through.

Don’t Mess With Texas (TI-99/4A)

The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A had a hard life. Being the first 16-bit home computer, it was somewhat hampered by being so early to market; so it never really had a chance to show just what it could do. Could it compete side-by-side with the Amiga? Probably not, if we are all brutally honest, but it could do a hell of a lot more than it ever got the chance to; and that’s probably why all us TI-99 fans still love it so much.

The TI-99/4A was an amazing machine, as this demo shows.

Don’t Mess With Texas is a demonstration of just what the TI-99 and TI-99/4A could do. Featuring a rendition of the famous Amiga bouncing ball; a quick demo of Doom running on the TI-99; and more, this eight minute demo is a great way of showing that the old metal-clad wonder can do more than just play Parsec.

Give it a watch and prepare to be amazed at the power of 16-bit technology from 1981 when it’s put in the hands of a modern coder.

Jesus on E’s (Amiga)

Anyone who had an Amiga and didn’t solely use it for playing games has likely heard of Jesus on E’s; it’s basically the go-to demo for showing what the Amiga can do. Featuring stereo that manages to, kind of, mix the machine’s four sound output channels into something resembling actual stereo sound (the Amiga outputs on either the left or right channel and usually it’s really obvious if you’re listening on a stereo system), plus a badass techno tune, Jesus on E’s is a 30-minute powerhouse of brilliance.

There are three things wrong with the title of this demo…

Visually, it’s not the most amazing of demos ever but it does feature some rather nifty tricks. For one, it regularly splits the video output between several processor-intensive functions. Sometimes it’s a waveform generator that is outputting different waveforms for different sections of the music you’re hearing; while at other times it’s rendering video or displaying freeform-rendered multi-coloured oddness on the screen.

Jesus on E’s features effects and sound that changed how future demos would be made. Once you’ve seen this demo, you can see where the inspiration for a number of features in future demos came from. They were all looking at this one and thinking “okay, how can I do that on my machine?” It set the standard for the next wave.

IO (MSX)

Anyone who’s been around the demo scene for a while will recognise the name Logon System. These French demo makers have been pumping out amazing graphical and sound demonstrations since the 1980s, for a number of systems. With IO, they went to town on the MSX systems and showed the world that they weren’t just the beefed-up ZX Spectrums that European software houses would have had you believe.

IO: Because sometimes it pays to be short but sweet.

The music in this demo is fantastic on its own but what really shocks is the sheer number of colours on display. The MSX is supposed to be able to handle only a handful of colours at any time (as was common with 8-bit machines) but IO here is blasting out hundreds per screen, and playing around with them to make funky patterns as it goes.

When your usual introduction to what the MSX can do was a £1.99 budget computer game you found in the back of a local shop (for me it was ‘Streaker‘, which barely functioned as a Speccy port to be honest), seeing this demo for the first time blew me away. It’s brilliant; and at barely 2 minutes long (Logon don’t overstay their welcome when it comes to demos), you owe it to yourself to watch the whole thing.

Eerie Forest (GX4000/Plus)

The Amstrad GX4000 never stood a chance. Arriving after the Mega Drive had already beaten all comers to be crowned the King of the consoles in the UK, Amstrad’s 8-bit console was met at its own launch announcement with questions of why Lord Sugar’s team were even bothering to bring it to market.

At its core, the GX4000 is an Amstrad CPC from 1984 with a few enhancements (the GX4000 used the same beefed-up graphics and sound chips as the Amstrad Plus range of computers) but even being able to offer 1,024 individual colours to users wasn’t going to get away from the fact that it was still running on an 8-bit CPU and most of its games would be direct ports of games you could buy on a CPC 464 for £1.99. The GX4000 just couldn’t compete with the big boys in the console scene; and it seemed destined to be consigned to history as a footnote.

Then Overflow from Logon System came along and showed us Eerie Forest.

Why couldn’t all GX4000 software be this good? Oh, that’s right: nobody wanted to put in the effort. So sad.

That is Mega Drive quality graphics and SNES quality sound, running on a GX4000. It features multiple levels of parallax scrolling, smooth animation, a kick-ass tune and great use of the GX4000/Plus’ colour palette. It’s everything Amstrad fans could want from their ill-fated machine. How could we not include it in this list?

So there you have it: five amazing demos that show you really can’t write off old technology just because it’s old. It makes you wonder what the world would look like if the tricks used to make these demos had been known about and utilised back when the machines were still the latest in technology, doesn’t it?

You absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks if that old dog is a computer. Now let’s all hug our ageing micros and enjoy some “banging tunez” (I’m told that’s what “the kids” call it these days) while we do it. The old school is here to stay!

Zoe Kirk-Robinson

Writer, artist, vlogger and entrepreneur. Creator of Britain's first web comic.

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