The opposite of Idiot Programming. Your disk space, processor speed, and RAM are scarcely limiting factors to somebody who knows what they're doing. You'll find smart developers can take your hardware way Up to Eleven to give it capabilities not seen in typical software on more powerful machines for 5 or 10 years.
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.kkrieger by Farbrausch is a game with Doom 3-tier graphics… that could fit on a standard floppy disk fourteen times. By the same crew, fr-08: .the .product, a demo with impressive graphics (for the time) in sixty-four kilobytes. These guys have a lot more stuff, available here.
Due to their experience with procedural generation, many demoscene programmers were hired to work on Spore.
SHRDLU is an AI/text parser written by Terry Winograd (MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) from 1960-1971 that can manipulate blocks and pyramids according to commands entered by the user, and also answer questions about them. In plain English. note If you're a computer science student, Winograd's paper on the topic is a fascinating read. This is an excerpt from the demo:
Person: FIND A BLOCK WHICH IS TALLER THAN THE ONE YOU ARE HOLDING AND PUT IT INTO THE BOX.
Computer: BY "IT", I ASSUME YOU MEAN THE BLOCK WHICH IS TALLER THAN THE ONE I AM HOLDING.
Computer: OK. (does it)
Person: WHAT DOES THE BOX CONTAIN?
Computer: THE BLUE PYRAMID AND THE BLUE BLOCK.
Person: WHAT IS THE PYRAMID SUPPORTED BY?
Computer: THE BOX.
Person: HOW MANY BLOCKS ARE NOT IN THE BOX?
Computer: FOUR OF THEM.
Person: IS AT LEAST ONE OF THEM NARROWER THAN THE ONE WHICH I TOLD YOU TO PICK UP?
Computer: YES, THE RED CUBE.
Person: IS IT SUPPORTED?
Computer: YES, BY THE TABLE.
State Of The Art by Spaceballs. The YouTube video really doesn't do justice to how impressive it is to watch this thing running on a 16 bit machine with 1 megabyte of RAM, a 7 MHz processor and an 880K floppy drive for storage. The fluidity is all the more impressive when you remember that the demo is constantly loading new data in from the floppy drive while displaying all that animation.
Tint (possibly NSFW due to a second or two of boobies) by The Black Lotus. Needs rather meatier hardware to run than the aforementioned State Of The Art, but the real-time lensing and fluid effects near the end will blow your mind. Also, Crowning Music of Awesome helps a lot.
The 8088 Corruption, a demo that runs "video" at 60 frames per second and impressive digital audio, on an old IBM PC, using the Intel 8088 flavor of processor. For those that don't know their computer history, the 8088 is a 16-bit processor, but it's crippled to an 8-bit data bus.
Chaos Theory, by Conspiracy. Its graphics are about on par with modern games, yet it takes up 64k. Sixty four kilobytes. Think about that for a second. It's equal to about 3.5 seconds of MP3-encoded music.
Recca is a fast-paced Bullet Hell shooter with awesome graphics, creative bosses, homing weapons and techno music. Even with more than 20+ enemies and bullets on the screen, there is usually little to no slowdown. One must wonder how KiD managed to code something like this for the NES.
Dwarf Fortress uses a complex algorithm to generate a realistic world every time (complete with a detailed history of every person and place that ever existed there), keeps track of injuries to specific body parts down to individual fingers and toes and even further down to tissue layers, provides an extremely detailed fortress simulator, and even has a script which simulates hydrostatic water pressure… Yet the whole thing is about five megabytes. On top of that, all the programming is done by one guy. Who describes himself as "not very good with computers". Holy crap.
The game features a Wide Open Sandbox of eight galaxies of 256 stars each, each one with its own unique description and characteristics as well as numerous ship designs. It's the game which launched the entire genre of Space Trading Sims. It was quite literally years ahead of its time. And the whole thing fits on ~20 kilobytes of disk space.
That's because all content (planet names, their coordinates, commodity prices, etc) in the game was procedurally generated and, basically, boils down to the single 8-bit seed number and a couple of rules checking that you won't get planets named “Fuck” or “Arse.”
The game's NES port is no less impressive. It features 3D vector graphics on an 8-bit system, long before the Super FX and other console 3D accelerators. The unreleased Game Boy version is just as impressive.
The sequel, Frontier, isn't too shabby either. The PC version has over 20 textured 3D models and enough star systems to fill the entire Milky Way, yet fits on a single 1.44MB floppy.
Bonus points for being one of the first commercially released truly 3D games.
RollerCoaster Tycoon kept stats on every visitor, in addition to controlling all their AIs simultaneously, all while animating all of it and allowing the user to interact with it. And all this could run on a PC made in the early '90s, without lag. The secret is that the system was programmed in raw Assembler, only relying on more high level code for graphical stuff.
The same secret allowed ZSNES to run games at full speed well before its competition, but it's showing its age now as one of the few actively maintained programs that can't be compiled as 64-bit, due to the incompatibility of 32-bit and 64-bit assembler and the changed calling conventions for C code (64-bit mode added extra registers, which made it possible to use some to pass arguments). The devs currently have no plans to address this.
The performance of RCT 1 & 2 is even more impressive compared to the third iteration, which had widespread graphics card compatibility problems and brought many contemporaneous systems to their knees. Hell, many 2009 PCs struggle when everything is maxed.
You think that's impressive? How about Box 2 D-like physics... on the NES? Mr. Gimmick, by Sunsoft made it on hardware from 1983!
Irisu Syndrome. In at least one of the endings, despite the fact that the game runs in a window, Irisu comes in from the side of the screen itself, then into the game window to murder one of the other characters. It's creepy, like the rest of the game, but it's a very cool effect that I've never seen anywhere else. It's nothing miraculous, but it's a pretty cool Interface Screw by PC game standards, especially for a freeware indie game. The game also puts text files into the game folder as you play the game, either of character profiles or accounts of what are likely backstory events, and swaps out a picture in the game folder with other versions of it as you go along. Too bad there isn't a Fan Translation available. And now that there's a Fan Translation available, you get to read them for important backstory.
Below The Root for the Commodore 64 was one of the earliest games where you could pick the gender, race, and age of your avatar - with stats altered accordingly, and with hidden stats that fit the race in question. Erdlings got knocked for a loop by Wissenberries, wheras Kindar had a tolerance, Kindar took a hit to their spirit stats by eating meat. It also had NPC characters respond differently based on which avatar you chose. It was also, very possibly, the first game to be considered an authorized, canonical sequel to material written for another medium. Yes, the distant ancestor of The Force Unleashed is a 1984 side-scroller where killing anyone makes the game Unwinnable.
Shantae managed to squeeze a lot of stuff onto a tiny GBC cartridge. It's very difficult to emulate at full speed, although it can be done.
Minecraft is a bit like Dwarf Fortress with a first-person viewpoint minus all the complexity. Most impressively, it can support randomly-generated worlds eight times the surface of the planet Earth in size. A "full sized" world would be 4.7 quadrillion square kilometers and contain 1.2 septillion blocks (bedrock to sky).
The programming team behind Spyro: Year of the Dragon had a unique insight into preventing piracy: You can't. However, it doesn't matter, because 30-50% of the sales of a game are made in the first two months. So, with the goal of slowing down pirates as much as possible, the developers started by designing "crack protection," distinct from the normal copy protection (which detects whether the game is run on a CD-R). The crack protection they came up with relies on a checksumming system that's ingenious and more than slightly twisted; by interleaving, overlapping, and combining multiple checksums over a block of data, it's virtually impossible to make them all add up if even one bit is changed, but because not every checksum goes over all of the data (and because CRC has a few exploitable weaknesses), the checksums being compared to can be a part of the data being checksummed. This, combined with tons of other traps designed to make life hell for pirates, meant that it took over two months for a working crack to finally be released (at a time when "Wow, that hasn't been cracked yet?" meant something like four days), and only then because the developers held back to avoid Loads and Loads of Loading. note More specifically: The copy protection takes 10 seconds of uninterrupted access to the disc drive, so it's only done on startup (the wait time is disguised by the studio logos being shown). The final crack worked by hacking the game's boot executable to bypass the copy protection, then reloading the correct binary file, which makes the crack protection happy. If the copy protection had been run during every load time, this method wouldn't have worked, as the copy protection would have been triggered at that point. However, the developers wisely decided that adding 10 seconds to every load time would have made the game unplayable regardless of whether it was a crack or a legal copy.
Also by Insomniac, Resistance 2 allowed 60 people online in one game with no frame rate issues. 60!
Also by the same company- the whole renderer in the Spyro games. It managed to do things on the Playstation that should have been literally impossible, including implementing an entire LOD system on the CPU and having it run in real time.
Fast inverse square root, also known as InvSqrt(), 0x5f3759df, and "What the fuck?" after its implementation in the Quake III: Arena source code (and infamous comment). The algorithm, which uses a novel first approximation of Newton's Method to get an almost perfect second approximation, runs roughly four times faster than traditional implementations, and still faster than other "optimized" algorithms of the time.
You would be surprised to realize that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is actually 32 MB and uses MIDI sound files. It's also one of the first few Zelda games to include voice. The only game that could top this is The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which does everything and analyzes the locations of every character at every point in the game. On that note about size, Super Mario 64 is only 8MB. Yes, all those worlds and things to do fit on a size smaller than two average MP3s.
Take a look at this◊ image. It is a still frame from a cutscene in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, gloriously rendered in HD with the Dolphin Emulator. What's special about this image is that The Wind Waker is predominantly cel-shaded. However, the tower in the image is realistically shaded. See the red dot near the bottom of the image? That's a cel-shaded object. The game is running two lighting systems at the same time. And this is in a system, which does not have programmable shaders! This even occurs in regular gameplay; large landforms like the tower are realistically shaded to simulate the highly-detailed background of top-notch animated films.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl also runs cel-shading and realistic shading at the same time. All the trophies related to The Wind Waker, with the exception of the Toon Link trophy (which is technically part of Brawl. not The Wind Waker), are cel-shaded in the same style as in The Wind Waker. However, the trophy bases are realistically shaded. Like the GameCube, the Wii does not have programmable shaders (because it is based on the GameCube hardware).
Before Star Control there was Starflight and its sequel, Starflight II. Hundreds of planets, all unique, dozens of alien races, an epic backstory, and a quest to Save The Galaxy. And it all fit on a single 720K floppy disk, or two 360K floppies.
You think that's cool? Try the Sega Genesis version of Toy Story (in itself a pretty good game), which manages to program MOD format music onto the Genesis sound chip! To clarify, the Yamaha YM2612 can only play two sound samples at a time, but MOD format music is composedentirely of sound samples! How Traveler's Tales managed to do that was impressive.
ROM Hacks in general, especially when they go beyond what you'd think the game engine or even the system was capable of, for example:
Brutal Mario/Super Kitiku World and its massive use custom assembly to do things Mario World wouldn't do otherwise.
Rockman 4 Minus Infinity has done some rather crazy things, which includes not only a lot of weapon changes, but a few on screen effects that are on par, if not better than the effects in Battle Toads.
Give or take, any of the really well done Mega Man 2 hacks.
Super Mario Oddysey and other Mario hacks using the MSU 1 patch. Why is this? Because with a custom patch, they've managed to get MP3 quality music working on the SNES, as heard/seen here
From the dawn of computing, the legendary Mel Kaye's Blackjack program for Royal McBee LGP-30 and RPC-4000 machines. Not only was he able to squeeze the whole program into just the 4096 words of drum memory, but he was one of the first Real Programmers who basically pioneered most of the Heavy Wizardrynote The programmers' jargon for a trick so deeply tied to a fine side of machine's function that it's totally non-intuitive and seems just a magic for the non-knowledgeable techniques discussed above, including using code as constants, optimizing the code by hand to eliminate even smallest wait states and delay loops, and using self-modifying code to do so. Ed Nather, the author of the story above, when asked to rewrite it spent a whole month just trying to understand Mel's code, and upon finding an endless cycle without a check, which just happened to use an overflow error to modify the last command of it into a different jump and exit the loop, he gave up out of respect.
When Al Lowe made Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, he found a way to eliminate the loading time between room changes (which must have been pretty long on machines of the time) in the bamboo maze. He did this by using the same background for every room of the maze. The background had exits in every possible direction. The exits that weren’t supposed to be open in a particular room were covered up with overlays. To hide the fact that it was always the same background, he mirrored it, along with the overlays, every time you left the room. This also saved a lot of memory and disk space.
Scribblenauts: game that boasts a dictionary of few dozens of thousands words, with each word having its own graphical representation, animations and interaction patterns (like elephants being afraid of mice and so on) was crammed into a 32 megabyteNintendo DS cartridge. Even more impressive in Super Scribblenauts with added adjectives (everything still fits into a 32 MB ROM chip).
... personally compressed Pokémon Gold and Silver, which filled the cartridge despite still being half-finished. That's the reason the setting for Pokémon Red and Blue was included (with only two locations removed) in the games—there was that much space left after he was done.
Naughty Dog loves to show off their technical prowess. The Playstation 3 is almost infamous for requiring data installs, as searching for and loading information off a high-capacity Blu-Ray disc would result in extremely long load times... or so people thought. Uncharted 2 required absolutely no installation, and the only loading time you would see is when the game starts up (about 10 seconds), and when you start or continue a game (again, about 10 seconds). The rest of the game loads seamlessly, not stopping for anything, including area transitions, from start to finish.
The iconic scene in the same game, the train sequence, is also a marvel of technical engineering. In addition to adjusting the physics to account for the fact that Drake's on a train, the entire sequence, from the start in the jungles to the end in the snowy mountains, has no repeated environments. Every single view and vista is unique, and waiting long enough for, say, the point where it's curving around a lake or mountain, will eventually give you alternate views of the location as your position shifts. And to top it all off, you can see the train curving ahead of you in the distance: you can reach all of those cars, and eventually will.
Mickey Mania pulled off some impressive perspective tricks in a number of its levels, with stages such as a Nebulus-style rotating tower and a head-on moose chase. Not so much of a big deal on the SNES, with its GPU support for background perspective in Mode 7. It is, however, a big deal on the Sega Genesis, where all of these effects had to be emulated in software...
Jett Rocket set the standard for what could be done with the WiiWare's 44 megabyte limit. To most developers, this is a cripplingly small amount, and they deem it unreasonable and unworkable. Shin'en Multimedia created a full-length 3-D platformer on it that looks and plays like a retail game.
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw created the side-scrolling action/stealth platform games 1213 and The Art of Theft using Adventure Game Studio, a game engine designed for point-and-click adventure games and nothing else.
Cannon Fodder on the Game Boy Color seems like just another GBC title, until the intro sequence explodes into a full-color pre-rendered FMV. Adding to that, all music, voice clips, and sound effects are fully recorded, with not a single 8-bit bleep in the game. The method used to display full-color video on the Game Boy Color is quite ingenious. Because it can only display a few colors at a time, each frame of video alternates between different color palettes. The frames alternate faster than the human eye can pick up, creating the illusion of a much larger set of colors.
The unusual arcade game Pu Li Ru La is very colorful and packs in a lot of detail in both sprites and backgrounds. Animations are very fluid, and the game even includes some voice clips. And it runs on hardware weaker than that of the SNES! The level of animation and detail is more akin to a modern Flash game than an arcade game from 1990.
Black & White had the Creature AI that could make your "pet" learn new skills and develop its own preferences. Famously, Peter Molyneux was demonstrating the game to potential buyers when the Creature did something like throwing a rock over its shoulder. Molyneux was surprised - he never programmed that subroutine in the game.
A (sadly discontinued) NPC mod for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion included a character called Nessa who could manage her own equipment, actively avoid hitting or being hit by the player during combat (a common complaint among other NPC companions), and had a complex AI script that determined whether or not she would comply with the player's orders (the highlight of the mod was that she wouldn't always do so for various non-random reasons). You could, for instance, tell her to "rest" outside an Oblivion gate, only for her to get worried about you and follow you inside. Who would have thought that an NPC could actually worry about the player and then act on that impulse?
One of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II's claims to fame is its use of the GameCube's TEV (Texture EnVironment) pipeline to create the shader used for spacecraft targeting computers. The only catch (as mentioned with Wind Waker above) is that the GameCube does not have programmable shaders! Programming a shader in hardware that does not support programmable shaders is quite impressive. The game was also developed in little over a year in order to be released as a GameCube launch title. Despite the lack of development time, the quality of the finished game was still incredible, and to this day it is widely considered the best of the series.
Most of the side-scroller Sonic the Hedgehog games could qualify for this. Not only did the Genesis/Mega Drive not support transparent textures (It was given the illusion of transparent textures by rapidly alternating between one frame of one sprite and another frame of another sprite *note the first fight againts Dr. Robotnik and his checker-board wrecking ball. Perfect example*), it also didn't support sprite rotations (remember the special stages in *particularly* Sonic 1 and Sonic 2? The animators had to rotate those sprites BY HAND for each angle that the player "rotated" the camera at.) It also didn't have any Mode7-esque effects to speak of. In order to create panning backgrounds that moved at different speeds (to give the illusion of depth), the devs layered textures on top of each other and had then move at different speeds and directions. This is to be expected from the expert programmerYuji Naka. This is the man who created a NES emulator for the Genesis... in his spare time, for fun.
Rescue on Fractalus!: So, you want to make a 3D space sim-style game, with mountainous terrain... in 1984. On Apple I Is and other computers of that era. And yes, it works, and at a reasonable framerate.
Meet Nano Assault Neo. It's a Wii U eShop launch title, has graphics and sound that rivals a lot of big budget games, runs at 60FPS, and is only 60 MB!! As it was developed by Shin'en, the same developer as Jett Rocket, it's to be expected.
According to the developer, Mike Z, Skullgirls managing to have six characters in a match is absolutely insane. As .PNG's, the animation frames for all six characters adds up to around 10.5 GB. With the compression tech made by Mike (based on a paper made by Farbrausch), the characters only take up around 900 MB, with 491 MB of that being used in any given match, which has to fit into the 130 MB of RAM left over for the characters. The only problem is when the art doesn't load fast enough after switching characters, resulting in them being pixellated.
ReactOS: the project aims to create an open-source Windows-compatible operating system from scratch. After 12 years of development, it has some basic compatibility with Windows. You may not be able to run the latest games on it, but you can check your email and browse TV Tropes.
On that note, Wine. It's a project that attempts to recreate the full Windows API on Unix-based systems. It's not an emulator, either (it's actually part of the recursive acronym, Wine Is Not an Emulator), but is actually a piecemeal reverse-engineering of Windows one library at a time, which makes Windows-only applications run just fine on Unix and other OSs. This includes very modern games like Team Fortress 2, which are fully playable this way.
Wine and ReactOS are a sister projects and have a shared codebase. Or, more correctly, Wine is a Windows-compatible userland to run application software atop compatible kernels, while ReactOS developers concentrate on a Windows-compatible backend side, that is, kernel and driver support.
Pretty-much any Emulator qualifies. Especially ones which emulate hardware for which there is little or no official information available, requiring the use of reverse engineering.
SNES Advance and Snezziboy are particularly impressive - fully playable SNES emulators squeezed into a Game Boy Advance.
Similarly, the various [console] Sound Formats, such as the Playstation Sound Format. They emulate the original sound hardware/software, so you can listen to how the track originally sounded. As an added bonus, these files are often a fraction of the size of a normal line-out rip without any significant loss of quality.
Higan may be relatively slow, but its SNES core (originally its own emulator, called BSNES) is notable for being 100% accurate to the original machine, with no game-specific hacks.
A lot of programs in an esoteric language count, just because of how weird the languages are. Take, for example, this.
Microsoft Excel. While mostly known for being a boring spreadsheet program, it is actually very versatile. If you know what you're doing you can turn it into a rendering program or even a game engine with no real modification of the software.
The CGI in TRON. Procedural texturing was invented for this movie. Even the one-off supercomputer used at the time didn't have enough memory to be able to use raster textures, so the only way to get any detail was by evaluating functions on a per-pixel basis.
Here's an interview with pinball programmer Dwight Sullivan, in which he describes how small the pinball software was at the time. Notable programmer Larry DeMar (the co-creator of Defender and Robotron 2084) invented automatic replay adjustment (with Steve Ritchie; which automatically adjusts the replay score based on the players' performances on location) and software compensation for broken playfield switches/features, both of which were introduced in 1986's High Speed.
Noteworthy mention goes to 1992's The Addams Family, which had an auto-flipper (called "Thing Flips") that actually did hit the Swamp scoop target, most of the time. When it doesn't hit the Swamp scoop, then the software auto-calibrates the flipper until it hits the Swamp. This also happens if the pinball machine is moved to another location. Not surprisingly, Larry DeMar was the co-programmer for The Addams Family.
DeMar also did the programming for 1990's Fun House, which featured "Pin-Mation", in which Rudy's (the talking doll head) eyes and mouth move in real-time, depending on where the ball hits the target.
TicketMaster managed to conquer their market by using such tightly written code it could run on 1/10th the space of its original competitors and still process the same amount of requests at the same speed.
Apollo Guidance Computer software implemented a (cooperative) multitasking operating system plus all the software to run on it in 36,864 16 bit words of ROM and 2048 16 bit words of RAM (or in modern units, 73,728 bytes and 4096 bytes, respectively). And this was software that had to be extremely reliable and fault-tolerant because human lives depended on it. Apollo 11 demonstrated the benefits of the fault tolerant design when the guidance computer was given slightly more work than it was capable of coping with during the landing. Instead of curling up and dying, it issued an alarm, discarded jobs that were considered low priority and continued running the high priority tasks. This bit of design saved the mission. When you consider that a lunar landing abort would have been the most complicated manuver ever attempted by NASA (possibly to current day) this feature likely saved lives.
Linksys's WRT54G (and its spiritual successor, the WRT54GLnote The "L" presumably stands for Linux, Addtional note which was released after Version 5 and later releases of the WRT54G switched to the VxWorks OS and reduced the RAM and flash RAM by half) wireless router is one of the most hackable routers, because its firmware was based on Linux. After Linksys released the firmware source code under the GPL, software developers began developing customized versions of the WRT54G firmware, the most well-known being DD-WRT and Tomato. Not only are they considered to be more reliable and better performing than Linksys's stock firmware, they would add advanced features that are only available in commercial-grade routers.
While he was a professor at MIT, Dr. Edward Thorp (better known as the man who invented counting cards at blackjack) once made a tiny wearable computer which he programmed to secretly calculate where the ball would stop on a roulette wheel, allowing a player to bet on that number and win big. And this was in 1961 - before there were any laws against it, because evidently nobody else had imagined such a thing would even be possible.
Steve Wozniak made it so that a 3 1/2" floppy disk that would be 720 kB on other systems to have 800 kB on both Apple IIs and Apple Macintoshes. Unfortunately, this ended up causing compatibility issues with most other systems, so Apple went with the 1.44 MB used for the rest of the industry.