I'm Making Another Thing (25 Years Late)

In the last few years, computing technology has reached a plateau. Processors are now generally “good enough” for most things. Unless you’re doing some serious number-crunching or high-end gaming, most recent machines will do what you want them to. I've had my current laptop, a Macbook Air (which has a middling i5 processor) for a couple of years and it still does pretty much anything I want it to. In recent times, it's not been the processor that's advanced computing, but the improvements in storage that have assisted performance. As prices of solid-state drives have come down, one of the last bottlenecks has been removed - that of loading the operating system.

Of course, it’s not always been like that. Once upon a time, the OS was in ROM. As a teenager, I got an Atari ST which had a virtually immediate startup and a floppy drive to load stuff from. With half a megabyte of RAM and 800K on a disk for storage, the possibilities seemed endless and the machine sold by the bucket-load. Back then, sixteen-bit computing was pretty much a two horse race. The competitor to the Atari ST was the Commodore Amiga and this is probably where the whole fanboy scene originated from. You were either in one camp or the other. Back then, every CPU cycle mattered and programmers would try to do everything they possibly could to wring some spare cycles from the system, to allow them to do more funky stuff.

To demonstrate the amazing power of their machines, programmers formed into “Crews” and started to write demos for their machines in an attempt to woo people into one camp or another. It was a form of digital art. The Demo Scene had a cult following and most demos were an amalgamation of music, eye-straining graphics, top-notch programming, visual effects and mathematics. It goes without saying that I eventually got sucked in and had a go myself.

Coding a demo was no small task and for a good few months of my life in the early 1990's, I threw myself into programming a MegaDemo, namely a bundle of demos all tied together on a single floppy disk. Sadly I never finished it off. I was my own harshest critic and the work stayed on a bundle of floppies in a box….

…until two weeks ago.

Approximately 25 years on, I've decided that the project needs to be completed and much to my surprise there's still a very active Atari scene. Of course, it's different now as many people have switched to emulators instead of the real hardware, but as you'll have seen a while back, mine's been fully patched up and is back in action. So this year I'm going to finish the job off - and as a purist, I shan't be releasing it until it runs on its originally intended hardware, namely my Atari 520 STFM.

Bear in mind that there were no funky graphics cards back then and that the computer had just half a megabyte of memory and an 8MHz 68000 processor. Who said I don't like a challenge?

So, I've set my development environment back up again. I've recovered about 98% of the data I had from my floppy disks and have imported it into an emulated Atari ST on my Mac, courtesy of Hatari. Of course I'm in a far better situation now as there's a multitude of graphics tools that weren't around at the time. Nonetheless, I'm trying to keep as true to the spirit of things as I can - as some of the screenshots shown below will hopefully illustrate:

Remember NeoChrome, anyone?

My first attempts at writing some 3D stuff…

So this is my plan - I want to get this MegaDemo finished and released by the end of the 2016. A year sounds a long time and back in the nineties, I probably could've got it done within about 2 months. Then again, I didn't have things like a full-time job or a wife and children, so I'll be stealing the odd hour here or there until the job is done. What I do have on my side to help though is a wide range of productivity tools that never existed back then, so my job should be made easier. Here's hoping.

Once complete, I will release the disk image of the finished item for the world to download and laugh at. As I said earlier, the final demo will run on a bog-standard Atari 520 STFM. Whilst I know most people have maxxed out their machines to 4MB of RAM, I think half the challenge is getting something running in an original unmodified machine. You can do nearly anything when you've got oodles or RAM - and my making it work on a 520ST, I can be sure it'll run on just about any surviving Atari ST that's still out there.

So if you'll excuse me, I have a date with NeoChrome, STOS, Mad Max and the Ice Packer. I'm actually pleasantly surprised at how much of that old programming knowledge I had is still in my brain after all these years. The Atari ST was definitely a machine for creative people and I'm really enjoying getting back into the swing of making something again. Happy times.

Stay tuned for further updates, as well as the release of the final product.
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