SNES Amateur Programs

Demos for Dummies

Although dozens of people have invested countless hours in learning to program the Super Nintendo on an amateur basis, few know about their work and even fewer have seen it, due to the fact that the programs until recently could only be run on SNES backup units. (Backup units are largely frowned upon because they save cartridge games to ordinary disks for later playback and can be used to illegally copy software, although the units themselves are not illegal.)

SNES emulators for the PC are changing this, though. The novelty of playing them directly off of the SNES is lost, of course, as are speed and sound if your PC isn't properly equipped. But the graphics routines on some of these programs are absolutely amazing, and there are even some playable amateur games (of varying quality). Even if you don't own a backup unit I recommend downloading an emulator long enough to check out these programs; the programmers are decidedly interesting people and you can learn a lot about them through their work.
This sequence in a demo by Magical lets you move and rotate a plane, a basic show of Mode 7. A scroller flashes by above.
"Wow, two smiling boxes!" proclaims this demo by Smile! in a typical bit of bragging about a routine.
A common routine called plasma. Taurus did an exceptionally good job in this demo, with fast animation and many colors.

Virtually every demo has one or more "scrollers". These are most simply defined as routines that flash text on the screen, but most scrollers are anything but simple. Text will wave up and down, scale in and out, flip upside down and back, move in circles, enlarge until each letter is a half-screen in size, and more. Needless to say almost every one is totally illegible. Authors use scrollers to get people to call BBSes where the group hangs out, send "greets" (say hello) to other groups or individual friends, or just brag about the complexities of their routines. Although they make interesting reading the first time considerate authors let the viewer press a button to skip past a scroller.
15-Puzzle, a series of slide-puzzles from one of the few Japanese demo authors. Four puzzles using the same program but different graphic data (all of scantily clothed anime chicks) were released. Simple but still amusing.
Probably the most complex and polished amateur game, Anthrox's version of Space War (competitive Asteroids with powerups) supports the multitap for up to four players simultaneously. Chaotic but fun at parties.

Since demo authors are none too concerned about copyright violations, they will often search the ROM images of commercial games (another cool use of backup units) and pull out the data for sound effects, character graphics, and most of all music, then use that data in their own demos. Music has been "ripped" from Super Turrican, Jim Power, Breath of Fire, and James Pond, to name a few, and you may hear the same tune in demos from totally different groups. A few intrepid authors have written their own composition software for the SNES, though, and their tunes are original and cool almost without exception. (The coolest music I have ever heard on the SNES was from a demo called Spikemix.)

When a programmer is able to devote the SNES' full processing power to one effect instead of tracking character sprites, menus, etc., some unbelievable graphic feats are possible. Many demos use most or all of the 256-color palette (there's one that has even more colors just to show it can be done). Mode 7 wasn't even used in many commercial games, but virtually every demo plays with the hardware's scaling abilities. Bizarre effects that wouldn't have any practical application in a game can exclusively be found in demos.

Did I mention the title of that Space War clone? Told ya it was fun at parties...
From the Anthrox Xmas '94 demo - "And now, a few words from our sponsor... Don't forget, always wear a condom! ... But don't be a twat like Mario, wear one on your knob!"

Amateur programmers have even managed to release a few simple games for the SNES (a couple of them better than some commercial efforts). Since they were mainly done just to show that it can be done, the authors don't pay a great deal of attention to gameplay or graphics. Still, they are quite amusing to play, and it's possible to kill quite a few hours with the best of them.

Probably my favorite part about amateur demos is that they aren't constrained by the same family-friendly policies Nintendo forces on their developers. As a result the humor can get a little risque at times. Demo authors on rare occasion swear, somewhat more often make lewd jokes, and constantly glorify the notion of women as sex objects (oh, wait, Nintendo does that too, although they never show chicks bare nekkid).

To try these demos, you'll either need a backup unit, which you might find used on for about $200, or an emulator. You can learn where to find the latest emulators at Emu News Service. Many demos are available for download at Anthrox.

So there you have it - even a family-friendly console like the SNES has a dark side. Unfortunately the hard work of all these programmers has gone largely unnoticed thus far. I encourage you to check these demos out and help to change that.


Copyright © 1997/1998 Jay McGavren. All Rights Reserved.