Blast from the past
Handle: Death Demon
Group: FBR & NEC (sort of)
My introduction to the Commodore 64 happened Christmas day, 1983. My dad bought me a Commodore 64 keyboard, but at the time it was fairly expensive. As a result, I did not get any cartridge games or peripherals to go with it. My mum did me the favor of buying a book that had BASIC source code for several games in it. The idea behind the book is that you could type your games in, save them, and then play them. Unfortunately, without a drive of any type, I would have to type in the game I wanted to play everytime I turned the computer on. As a result, I learned how to type really fast, a skill that has served me well throughout my career.
After a month or so of typing games in, I started to understand a little bit about what I was typing in. This first resulted in my making trainers for the games so that I would not lose lives if I died, or I would turn off sprite collisions, or I would add points every time I hit fire. Simple things like that. Eventually, my knowledge of the programs became much more advanced and I could type the programs in by memory without the use of the book. I could also start adding features, and eventually wrote my own games. Some of the programs had machine code portions written by using data tables and pokes. Curious to find out what these parts of the code were, I got the Advanced Programmer's Guide from Commodore. That was when everything changed for me.
For my 13th birthday (1984), I got my first 1541 disk drive. This allowed me to save my programs and really start experimenting. I had started doing my first simple interrupt routines shortly after. They were very basic. Mainly just doing things like keystroke catching, or goofy things like changing the background colors if you hit certain characters. Really just playing around to see what everything did. But the addition of a disk drive opened my eyes to the piracy scene which was starting up in the United States . There were local computer user's groups where people would get together and make copies of games for each other. I built up a decent collection doing this which led me to more programming as I would then start looking through the code for those games to see how they worked. At that point in time, it was very rare to see a copy protected videogame, but they did exist.
I took a brief venture into cracking in the later months of 1983. It started by trying to figure out why one of the games wouldn't copy. I don't remember which game, or the specific nature of the copy protection. I think it was just a simple bad sector check at the end of the disk. In any event, I got the game to play by finding the code that was stopping it and modifying that code. It was a really simple crack, but one that got me a little fame among those computer group people. About this same point in time, the Westridge 300 Baud modem became available in my area and was really the first cheap modem for the masses. Most of the people in the local area got them and one person who was running a CNET BBS bought me one so I could be involved in his BBS. I did random BBS work for him for awhile customizing the CNET software. As many will remember, it was BASIC with a machine code core. Many of the local boards would modify the BASIC portions, but nobody knew how to code assembly, so they couldn't touch the main routines. I had disassembled it and made source code out of it, so I was able to make pretty fancy modifications. But I quickly grew bored of this.
Sometime around the end of 1985, I began to try out phone numbers that were on some of the game intros that I got. Being a lamer at the time, it was difficult to get access to any of these websites. I think the first website I gained access to was the USI headquarters. At the time, USI consisted of Dimitri, Riff Raff (Mike), and Father Time (Darryl). Dimitri didn't have the website running when I called in, but he had some chat software up and talked to me a bit. I told him who I was, that I could program, that I didn't really have any warez to speak of, but was trying to get into the better BBS's in the country. He asked me to write a USI intro screen and upload it to him and if I could do that, he would give me access to his site, and get me access to several others. I went ahead and wrote a very basic intro for him. This would be considered my first ever intro. It consisted of an animated background that was just a bunch of vertical lines and horizontal lines scrolling diagonally from bottom right to top left and very large USI sprites rotating. I couldn't get the full height I wanted to with the max number of sprites that the 64 allowed, so I used a raster interrupt to change the location and swap the sprites. Can't remember how many total sprites I had on the screen, but it wasn't much. At the bottom of the screen was a scroll. It was a character set based scroll, though, as I didn't know about $d016 yet. Everything I had been doing before were just simple ROL/ROR scrolls through the character set.
Dimitri was impressed and gave me access. He introduced me to the rest of the group and I became fast friends with Riff Raff. Father Time was actually quitting the C64 scene, so we talked a little, but then he left. He did ask me a few questions about my intro, though. One of them was why I decided to do character set scrolling at the bottom instead of an actual scroll since it was obvious I knew raster interrupts. I said I didn't know that there was another way and he told me about $d016 scrolling. During my short stint in USI (a few weeks), I also got to know various members and/or got access to boards from EagleSoft, NEPA, Player=1=, and Billy The Kid. Player=1='s BBS was in California and seemed to get way more releases than the other boards, though, so I mainly hung out there.
Riff Raff and I were both sort of wanting to do something else since USI wasn't really doing anything. I had thought I was going to crack some games for USI and release intros on them. Unfortunately, USI never actually got any originals to crack, so I did nothing. I didn't like being inactive, and neither did Riff Raff, so we quit. About a day after I quit, I got a phone call from a kid named Kevin who went by the handle Ninja. I had released some of my intro work I was doing while in USI just to get it out there, and he had seen it. He said he was starting up a group with his friends Invincible Importer and Infernal. They actually had the group together already and were looking for another programmer. At the time, the group had Invincible Importer, Infernal, Ninja, Changeling, and MicroMan. I said I would go ahead and join up.
In the beginning we were getting software from overseas via mail and they were putting intros on the games. Nothing really needed NTSC fixing or anything, but we would put intro screens on them saying that we imported them. I was happy because there were finally games with my intro screens getting out there. Eventually, Punisher and Ninja perfected modem transfers with Europe and we became the first group to transfer over the phone. This turned out to be an enormous advantage as nobody else knew how to do it. We soon gained exclusive trades with a number of the major release groups in Europe . FBR quickly became the premiere import group in the United States . Changeling and I had also started a sort of friendly rivalry through our programming. The U.S. scene was a little behind the European one in terms of programming as not many people were all that interested. Changeling and I changed that. We started cranking out intros and demos trying to compete with one another to be the best programmer in the U.S. , or at least have the coolest intros/demos. Eventually, FBR became known as not only the best importing group, but the best programming one as well. Other importing groups started to try to mimic FBR by making sure that they had a programmer to do intros as well. Pretty soon, it wasn't enough to be a release group, you had to have cool intros also. We wanted to try cracking games as I had some experience and Changeling would have been able to do it without too much sweat either, but we had no way to get originals. We were all kids and thus broke, plus, none of us lived in areas where 0-day releases happened. ESI seemed to have such a good lock on getting sources that we just kept to what we did best.
Sometime after FBR formed, Riff Raff got together with other scene friends and Untouchable Cracking Force was formed. I was still friends with Riff Raff, and I knew Player=1=, so I was naturally friendly with them. ESI was never all that friendly outside of their core group of long time friends, so when the whole UCF vs. ESI war popped up, I was on the UCF side of things. I produced a couple of anti-ESI games that were released anonymously as we didn't want to involve FBR in any of it. This war was really interesting as it went on the entirety of UCF's involvement in the scene. ESI basically never wanted competition and UCF provided plenty. Phantom Shark had money (well, from the eyes of a 15 year old he did) and could get originals just as fast as ESI. JJ The Breaker was a good programmer and could crack games just as easily. So for the first time in a long time, there were two equally talented groups with access to originals to rival one another. There were a whole lot of releases happening which kept groups like FBR in service. It also opened the doors for other importing groups to pop up. Boba Fette and The Survivors, along with The Shark and INC were two of the other tops. Things became a bit more difficult for FBR to get all the top releases we were accustomed to, but we were still flying high. Eventually, Changeling quit to form his own group, The Abyss. His goal was to form a demo group and focus purely on programming. They did do some importing as well, later on.
Around late 1986/early 1987, I think it was, imports from Europe started becoming more complex. Some of the games simply wouldn't work on our machines. In the early days, I would fix this by looking for $d012/$d011 accumulator stores and modify them so that they were valid for NTSC systems. We never really thought to take credit for anything like this, so there was never an “NTSC Fixed” logo through on our intros. The games got even more complex from there and started requiring even more difficult fixing. This is where people like Stormbringer, who was in INC, really shined. On the FBR side of things, Microman really started doing the majority of NTSC fixing. It started to get a lot more difficult and people started taking credit, so you would sometimes see multiple releases for a game which previously was a huge no-no. But it was accepted now because one group might do an NTSC fix, while another would do a better NTSC fix, whereas some other group may release with no fix. When a group released with no fix, it was allowable for another group to re-release with the fix and get credit for it. Trainers started to become a cool little add-on as well.
Just prior to INC seeing its rise, FBR took a severe hit. Someone had turned us in to the authorities and the feds were monitoring our lines. Ninja and Infernal were our main importers and really got busted hard. They had to give up their equipment and go on probation. In retrospect, I don't think they got busted that bad compared to what they would get today. When this happened, we handed the group over to Oahawhool (Joe) to run. I got caught too, although much less severe. I had already started backing out of the scene a bit and as a result rarely called out. I wound up getting a bill for $1300 and nothing more came of it. I also had gotten my first girlfriend around that time, so I really just stopped calling anybody. I would still get calls from time to time and every once in awhile I would write a new intro for FBR just for fun.
Around 1989, a guy who I knew from years back in the local trading scene had made it into the elite scene. He was Grim Reaper from NEC. Apparently they were in some disagreement with FBR over some releases or something. I never really got the whole story. In any event, Grim Reaper and Archmage (another local) talked me into making an intro for NEC as they thought it would be cool/retro. So I went ahead and did this. I originally signed the intro Death Demon/FBR. Apparently Horizon didn't like that and took the FBR off the title page. Oahawhool REALLY didn't like it and called me up yelling at me. I hadn't talked to him in a long time, so I was surprised. That's when I learned about the whole war. It didn't really interest me and I explained that I was just doing a local friend a favor. Eventually things smoothed over, but it did remind me that I didn't really miss the scene.
Also, during this time of weaning myself from the Commodore scene, my programming was starting to move in a direction that I didn't really care to pursue in the scene. I had started experimenting with more advanced graphics, building 3D objects and scene rendering. The C64 didn't really have enough power for this, but I was still able to learn a lot anyway. Eventually, I went to college and became a hardware engineer. I made my way to Silicon Graphics and worked there for awhile, then 3DFX, and now Nvidia. I have actually met a couple of other people in the graphics field who were once Commodore geeks. One of them has even heard of the Death Demon!
The one thing that I think will stick with me forever, though, was the community that existed during that time. I don't think many outside of it will ever understand, and I don't think anything like it will ever exist again. We were mostly all kids, immature, and growing up. We were exposed to people all over the world as a result of our activities and got to experience the way kids think, joke, and talk everywhere as a result. How many other kids could say that they woke up everyday with a call from a guy in Australia (Crocodile Chris) who made it his duty to give you wake up calls? And I'll always remember sitting on conference calls with people like Bod/TALENT, or Strider/FLT. There was a dude from Ikari that used to crack me up too. I even learned how to fake accents from England , Belgium , Germany , and Australia because of the scene. Can't prank call someone in England with an American accent, it just doesn't work.