Under The Hood Of Second Reality, PC Demoscene Landmark

In 1993, IBM PCs & clones were a significant but not dominant fraction of the home computer market. They were saddled with the stigma of boring business machines. Lacking Apple Macintosh’s polish, unable to match Apple II’s software library, and missing Commodore’s audio/visual capabilities. The Amiga was the default platform of choice for impressive demos, but some demoscene hackers saw the PC’s potential to blow some minds. [Future Crew] was such a team, and their Second Reality accomplished exactly that. People who remember and interested in a trip back in time should take [Fabien Sanglard]’s tour of Second Reality source code.

We recently covered another impressive PC demo executed in just 256 bytes, for which several commenters were thankful the author shared how it was done. Source for demos aren’t necessarily released: the primary objective being to put on a show, and some authors want to keep a few tricks secret. [Future Crew] didn’t release source for Second Reality until 20th anniversary of its premiere, by which time it was difficult to run on a modern PC. Technically it is supported by DOSBox but rife with glitches, as Second Reality uses so many nonstandard tricks. The easiest way to revisit nostalgia is via video captures posted to YouTube (one embedded below the break.)

A PC from 1993 is primitive by modern standards. It was well before the age of GPUs. In fact before any floating point hardware was commonplace: Intel’s 80387 math co-processor was a separate add-on to the 80386 CPU. With the kind of hardware at our disposal today it can be hard to understand what a technical achievement Second Reality was. But PC users of the time understood, sharing it and dropping jaws well beyond the demoscene community. Its spread was as close to “going viral” as possible when “high speed data” was anything faster than 2400 baud.

Many members of [Future Crew] went on to make impact elsewhere in the industry, and their influence spread far and wide. But PC graphics wasn’t done blowing minds in 1993 just yet… December 10th of that year would see the public shareware release of a little thing called Doom.

30 thoughts on “Under The Hood Of Second Reality, PC Demoscene Landmark

  1. I can hear the occasional dolby surround effect on my headphones, i really have to rig up my quadraphonic set up some day again and try running this one again!

  2. “In 1993, IBM PCs & clones were a significant but not dominant fraction of the home computer market.” Really? This seems to be very much contrary to my recollection of the time. I’d be interested in seeing something to back this up.

    According to https://arstechnica.com/features/2005/12/total-share/7/ PC marketshare overall was over 90% by 1994. In the embedded graph at that link the only other system that can be distinguished is Macintosh. This could perhaps be my North American bias, but there were very few people I recall in 1993 who had non-PC computers at their homes compared to those that had PCs. I remember a number of Commodore 64s and the occasional other non-PC computer system in friends’ homes around this time, but it seems like most of those by 1993 had been bought in the previous decade and by that time had been for most part in disuse.

    1993 was the years of Doom, and Wolfenstein 3D was released the year before. I mention those because they seemed like games that everyone who had a computer had and played, and it helps me to put a time reference of when this was with respect to my memory of general home computer ownership.

    I’d be interested in hearing others’ comments regarding this.

    1. The market penetration wasn’t there, but I think here in the UK, PC’s had completed their invasion. Certainly, I recall buying a PC as a 33rd year student in 1992 as it was obviously the way forward. As a gaming platform, it was at least as popular as the Amiga too.

    2. The demoscene was very European centric, with the scene being dominated by the Amiga and Atari ST in the late 80s and early 90s. There were very few demo crews on PC at the time Second Reality was launched. I (from the UK) remember going to a demoparty in Sweden in 91 or 92. Future Crew were the only PC crew there. The American market was a very different place.

    3. In ’93 the Amiga was still at the top of the list when buying a homecomputer, at least here in Sweden. PC:s cost a lot more and did not really have a lot more to offer.
      A year or two later that changed. PC:s were still too expensive, but it was clear the tides had turned. Games no longer being ported from Amiga to PC, but only developed for the PC.

  3. I remember the day well – we were on the ibm.pc.demos newsgroup waiting anxiously for the annoucement and the download link at Uni …. and then it took, like, ten minutes to download the 2.5 meg of it. Yes, Second Reality is 2.5 meg in size.

    1. Only ten minutes? That’s quite impressive for 1993! I was using a 2400 baud modem at that time, and I figured on about an hour of time per megabyte when downloading, if the call didn’t get dropped (thank goodness for the ZModem protocol!). I don’t miss those days!

    1. Someone with such a grasp of history must wonder why Lindbergh bothered flying the Atlantic in a single engine plane, when he could have taken Concorde.

  4. No floating point? 1993 PCs were typically 80486s, which had floating point onboard (in fact were in essence an 80386, 80387 and 82385 cache controller on the same die). The Pentium was released the same year. 386s weren’t exactly top of the heap when Second Reality was released.

    1. True, but back in the days there were a lot of 486SX/25s still roaming around. Nevertheless, the sentiment of the article doesn’t seem to be time-correct, more like as if SR was released in 1990…

    2. UK tended to lag a year or two, because firstly, the US market demand was satisfied first for new stuff, and secondly, what exchange rate? Most stuff was 20% higher than it’s dollar price in pounds, which made it twice the price in real terms. So it took Pentiums for instance until early 96 to come down from YGBFKM prices to the kind of money people would actually spend. A few high end users paid the 7000 quid a box for the space heater 5 Volt Pentiums 60s and 66s and got laughed at for fools when the FDIV bug reared it’s head. Those types were actually on to the P-Pro by the time home and office users were getting Pentiums.

      1. Many countries aside from the USA had some stupid high import taxes on electronics, up to 100% in some places. Until 1992 Brazil had a complete ban on imports of complete computers. Of course there was smuggling going on, especially of Macintosh and Amiga. The apple ][ and PC buyers in Brazil were fed by a legion of homegrown clone makers.

    3. A 486 was prohibitively expensive, most people still used a 286 or even a 386 if they had an IBM-Compatible at all.
      My very own first PC was a 386-DX40 and i got that still high end machine around 1992. All games and applications ran fine, couldn’t complain one bit back then.

      1. Yeah, the kind of people who look at CPU release dates and say that’s what everyone had, are gonna look back from 2050 and tell us that everyone was browsing facebook on core i9s during covid, because it was released 3 years before so everyone and their grandma had one by then. Also if you’ve got your head in some enthusiast headspace, like gaming or video processing, you’ll see the 20 people who can afford top of the line hanging out there to boast and get the kudos, and because they’re noisy, assume “everyone” but poor old you has the best toys, real world, the bulk of everyone is making do with middling i5s, ryzen 3s etc, and the people who don’t have high performance demands, think the atom based walmart laptop is fine.

        IMO it was the release of Win 3.1 and the couple of years before Win 95 was released that made consumers want more than something that ran Wordperfect 5x, which was any 286 with a megabyte or two upwards. (Think it still ran on a lowly dual floppy XT with 640k, but it wasn’t pleasant) Then multimedia stuff was coming out for 3.1 and combined with games like doom 25Mhz of CPU and 4MB was the minimal you wanted. About that time, the middling good machine would have gone to 486dx2 66 and 8MB… but 2 years earlier, any 386 was still regarded as pretty sweet.

        Having personally compared them side by side on the applications and games of the day, I can say a 40Mhz 386 did slightly better than a 25mhz 486 and not quite but almost as good as a 33Mhz 486. Though I only compared a 386SX, the DX with a full 32bit bus and more cache may have levelled with it or drawn slightly ahead. Optimised code always lagged a year or two behind. Anything that made a 486 massively faster than a 386 didn’t arrive until mid 486 adoption or later. Same with pentium code, same with Ryzen optimised code. Quake for example famous for being one of the first pentium optimised major titles, dropped in summer 96, 3 years after initial pentium release.

        Also clouding performance recollections is that people did not or even today don’t, have their systems configured right. Some “common knowledge”/”folk wisdom” banging round in the 90s was that the turbo button overclocked your computer and would blow it up. No, no, no. Turbo on ran it at design speed, turbo off crippled it to a 6Mhz or 4.77Mhz bus speed to allow backwards compatibility with badly programmed timing sensitive programs for the original PC, XT, or AT. It may also have turned cache off. Disk swappers may have picked up early viruses like “stoned”. People may have been cheated on configuration, 386DX or 486 with no cache on the board, VGA card that was super slow, 100ns SIMMs (Cheaper than standard 70ns) with all the wait states turned on. Just examples, there’s dozens more ways than this. There was so much urban legend in popular computer knowledge back then too, people repeat complete crap still because that’s what they thought was true back then, when internet started to “happen” I had to force so many people to read the comp sys ibm-pc hardware FAQ, not that that was perfect either, a few quibble points in there.

  5. The first computer I could truly call my own, was given to me (secondhand) by my mother… AM386SX-25, no coproc, 4mb RAM, and Windows 3.1… but it did have a graphics card.

    I still have that box, with its original graphics card… I’ve never looked it up or tried to trace it, it’s just a fairly boring VGA card, as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s time to investigate, though… /shrug

  6. Second’s reality source code and some videos of future crew’s members have been floating for some years. I’m still amazed by what they achieved in those times. A homage to second reality has been final reality, but I do not remember who did that, I saw it in 98. There are versions for the C64, also quite impressive and a quite funny stop-motion version !
    Another impressive demo of the era is of course crystal dreams II by Triton, it would also be a treat to get a peek at the code.

  7. The family friend who started teaching me programming and got me into computers and electronics, inrtroduced me to demos with 2 classic demos, Heaven7 and Stash by The Black Lotus (both of which I still have somewhere on my external hard drive)

    There was also a tiny FPS that came out of the demoscene – kkrieger – Still amazed they managed to cram basic models, maps, sound and the engine into a file size of 95kb.

  8. I am sort of surprised to see coverage about this as for me the demo scene was something only happening on Finland but apparently there was a wider audience to it.

    1. Demo scene was deffo rife in Australia in 1993. And apparently throughout the US as well. Renaiance (SP?) released Amnesia in 1991 from memory; it was pretty awesome at the time.

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