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The game demos we remember most fondly of all

Disc dive.

The tail-end of a huge blue whale, as seen from the wreckage of a ship underwater. It's a VR demo.
Image credit: Wevr / TheBlue

Games don't really do demos in the way they used to, do they? I wonder if early access has something to do with it - I suppose it must do. But whatever it is, we miss them, and the barrage of demos released for Steam Next Fest has made us feel all nostalgic for them. Wasn't it funny how for some games, a demo was all you ever needed? Over and over you'd play it, never really wanting anything more.

Which are the demos you remember, though? And which are the memories that come bubbling up when you remember them? Let's take a collective trip down memory lane.

Quake 3 Test

I've only just learned the backstory behind Q3Test. Apparently the internal hardware vendor (IHV) copy of the game leaked in the lead-up to the game's 1999 launch, so id Software decided to make the best of it and release a three-map Q3Test beta for everyone to play a few months before the full game came out. I didn't know that.

I didn't really know much about Quake 3, to be honest, apart from that I loved Quake 2. More specifically, I loved playing multiplayer Quake 2. More specifically still, I loved shooting people with the railgun while playing multiplayer Quake 2. Anything instagib was absolutely my jam.

So for me, the absolute stand-out star of Q3Test was Q3DM17, the map otherwise known as The Longest Yard - the grey and spacey one with all the jump pads, especially that enormous jump to get to the railgun on that faraway platform all on its own. A jump that effectively made you a clay pigeon for everyone else as you attempted it.

Cover image for YouTube videoQ3DM17: "The Longest Yard" in 57.04s (Nightmare! run)
This isn't me but respect! That's some bot battering right there.

If there's another map better suited to the railgun, as people bounced around in your crosshairs, I haven't seen it, and I think that's why I loved it. I loved it so much, in fact, I didn't want to play anything else. So when other people moved to Quake 3 Arena proper, I stayed put. I stayed with my little slice of Quake and began to perfect it.

In time, I memorised every inch of it. I'd play the bots on Nightmare difficulty, which effectively makes them never miss, but I'd win because I knew where they were going to be before they got there, so I'd fire rockets there and wait for them to run into them. And I knew where they were going to respawn so I'd be there with a rocket or a rail when they did.

I memorised all of the power-up timings; I memorised exactly where the jump pads were so I never had to look for them; I memorised all the shortcuts. I knew that map as well as I was ever going to know any Quake map - and I was as good at it as I was ever going to be at Quake 3. And I loved the thrill of being good at it.

I loved winning online games there. I loved hearing all of the "impressives" and "double kill" announcements as I bounced around, annihilating people. We even once played in the office at Eurogamer, and there were a load of former, quite serious Quake players working here then. And I wiped the floor with them - I can't tell you how good it felt. They'd beat me on every other Quake 3 map no contest, but Q3DM17, Q3Test, that was my house.


Demo One

Video games, I'm sure you don't need reminding, can be an expensive pastime, a painful fact that's exacerbated when you're in your teens and your only real income is from a couple of double shifts down at the local kart track every weekend. I was lucky enough, though, to get an original PlayStation on the Christmas it first launched alongside a copy of Ridge Racer, and whenever I grew weary of that game's single track there was the treasure trove of Demo One that was bundled with all consoles.

Cover image for YouTube videoDemo 1 — Sony Playstation Demo Games Disc [1997]
The original PlayStation demo disc.

The technical demos of the Manta Ray and T-Rex have become legendary themselves (and would later re-emerge as part of a cute tribute in the PS5's own bundled-in piece of software, the admirable Astro's Playroom), and they were backed up by an incredible selection of demos. Here were playable slices of WipEout, Destruction Derby, Battle Arena Toshinden, Jumping Flash, Tekken, Loaded and a few more besides - enough, essentially, to keep you going for months.

Indeed, money was so tight back then that I think my original PlayStation was used mainly for playing through demos, whether it was returning to that single level of Jumping Flash that still delights today, or working through whatever was bundled in the disc that would be sellotaped onto the cover of the official magazine (another legendary example was the single-level demo of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater which with its high-score focus was enough to keep me satisfied for months - I never did upgrade to the full thing, and yet that game remains one of my very favourites of the 32-bit era).



Stranglehold's Hong Kong Market is probably the greatest demo of all time and I won't see any other argument. It's the first level of the brilliant Inspector Tequila game, and it gives you all the demo melons and neon lights you could ever hope for. Head in there, smash stuff up, shoot people, shoot lights that then fall on people, dive in slow-mo, roll around on a trolley. It's all here.

Cover image for YouTube videoLet's Play Stranglehold - Late To The Party
Aoife and Ian take a trip back to 2007 and Stranglehold.

It's so good that the rest of the game struggled to live up to it. I love Stranglehold, but the second level in particular is a chore, and I think you could probably make the case that the market is all you really need. I replayed this level so many hundreds of times before the game came out, and while it was nice to run up the spine of a dinosaur in the museum bit, and loft rocket launchers around when cherry blossom was falling, when I think of Stranglehold today I think of that market. Oh yes, and the menus, which were very stylish. And the doves.



Cover image for YouTube video[4K] Crackdown: Xbox One X Back-Compat vs Xbox 360 Graphics Comparison + Frame-Rate Test!
What wonderful fun Crackdown was!

Hear me out: Crackdown itself is a demo. Just one really big demo. It's a demo for how all open-world video games could be made. You spill across the city driven purely by whim and your growing powers. You lock onto enemies in a way that makes sense if you've ever played Zelda, and as you mantle your way up the city's skyscrapers it slowly starts to become clear that you're playing one of the greatest mountaineering games ever devised.

The demo added to the fun, I think, by massively boosting the speed at which you levelled. It's a testament to what a joyful thing Crackdown is that it survived such a generous demo outing. No matter: this demo insured that you didn't have to play the final game to have lovely memories of Crackdown.


The Vive 'Blu' whale encounter

This wasn't my first virtual reality demo, but it's the one I remember most vividly.

It was 2015 and I was at EGX, and HTC Vive had this huge area there. They'd built entire rooms for each of the headsets to be tried in - those kind of perfectly bare front rooms that no one in real-life actually has.

I'd tried VR a few times before that point, even though it wasn't readily available back then. I'd been lucky enough to have an Oculus Rift demo at Gamescom a year before, so I wasn't expecting Vive to show me much I didn't already know. But it did. And it happened almost the moment I put the headset on.

I found myself, suddenly, deep underwater standing on the wreckage of a pirate ship - or something like that. And I distinctly remember my brain telling me this wasn't okay. "You can't breathe underwater," it was saying. So I was feeling a bit uncomfortable but I did my best to overcome it, pushing the feeling down.

Cover image for YouTube videothe Blu: Whale Encounter | 3D 360 VR
Oh my gosh this is it - and in a 360-degree, explorable video! It gives me shivers as it is but imagine being one step closer to it, in VR.

Then, well, I must have looked away or something - maybe I was admiring the deck of the ship? I don't remember. Whatever I was doing, I wasn't looking at what was coming towards me at the same time. So when I eventually looked up, the thing was already there. Right next to me. And it was a whale, a fucking great whale (um they're actually called blue whales, Bertie) the size of a double-decker bus. A whale within touching distance of me.

I tell you what else was within touching distance... Can you imagine how scary it would be to have a whale swim up to you like that in real-life? To have something so colossally massive next to you, making you feel so small and feeble and useless while it does? It felt like that.

I nearly threw that headset off. I remember my hands instinctively going up to get me out of there. And it was the first time any VR demonstration had made me feel like that. But I didn't throw it off. Instead, I froze. I just stood there, not sure what to do, wondering - and I remember thinking this - what damage the whale's tail would do if it hit me while swimming by.

It didn't do any damage, of course, because it wasn't real. But for a brief moment, I was utterly convinced. It was magic.



Psi-Ops is another great demo from the team that would go on to make Stranglehold and, by extension, the Stranglehold Hong Kong Marketplace demo. If memory serves, Stranglehold itself was actually prototyped in the Psi-Ops engine.

Cover image for YouTube videoPsi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy by Kainalo in 30:40- Awesome Games Done Quick 2023
It's Psi-Ops in half an hour. Impressive.

And you can tell. Psi-Ops goes for sci-fi mind skills like setting people on fire and flinging them into walls, but deep down both this and Stranglehold are action games about player expressiveness - they're about having tools that allow you to do cool things, whether that's damaging the environment, moving around it, or inflicting all kinds of physics weirdness on ragdoll enemies - and that foregrounding of expressiveness is probably why they work so beautifully in demos. In demos, a game level becomes an isolated sandbox. What a team. What games. What brilliant, generous demo making.


Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge

Gosh, this was a generous demo. I think I got it on the Official Xbox Magazine demo disc, and it was the opening of the game and then the entire first act. High Road to Revenge was released in that great wave of early open-world games, so you buzzed your tiny plane around a huge diorama landscape finding missions and then zipping off to blast people into oblivion. I remember a train trundling around and gorgeous lighting, and that wonderful sense of sheer expense that you used to get with first-party stuff in the Xbox era.

Cover image for YouTube videoLet's Play Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge - Late to the Party
Ian and Chris Bratt take the High Road to Revenge.

Most of all I was just dazzled by how much there was in this demo. I think I had just finished university so my sleeping patterns were already all over the place, but this was the demo I started playing at 10 and then looked over to realise in horror that it was three in the morning. Lovely game, but in what appears to be a bit of a trend here, the final thing couldn't compete with the demo.