Tech Demos, From Past To Present

by Jeff Cork on Jun 15, 2012 at 11:08 AM

With every hardware generation, console manufacturers and game developers try their hardest to wow gamers with demos designed to show off raw potential (and why people should crack open their wallets). It's not exactly news that games look better than they ever have before, either, particularly now that we're on the cusp of a new hardware generation. You can expect to see even more glimpses of the future over the next year or so, in a similar vein to what Epic Games and Square Enix have recently unveiled. We've compiled some of our favorite demos from the past few years; think of these as both reminders of how much visual progress the industry has made, and also a way to put current graphical advances in perspective.

Mario 128
Before the GameCube hit shelves, Nintendo built anticipation by showing off a series of demos at its 2000 Space World event. In a particularly memorable moment, something called Mario 128 was demonstrated on stage. Like many of the videos in this feature, it was designed to be more of a hardware showcase than a prototype of a game in progress. In the demo, (at the 39-second mark) 128 Marios run around on a platform, interacting with one another as a variety of graphical filters are applied. Keep an eye on that green meter at the bottom; it supposedly shows the computational load that the GameCube's is under. As a bonus, skip back a bit in the video to see a quick look at a more realistic Legend of Zelda game. Is it any wonder that Wind Waker was such a surprise?


Rubber Duckies
Sony teased its upcoming PlayStation 3 at E3 2005 by making a literal splash. Phil Harrison introduced  the upcoming hardware in a demo that showed off impressive water effects, tiny pirate ships, and a bounty of rubber duckies. A while after the console was released, players could download something that looked a lot like the demo. Super Rub-a-Dub may not have been the most exciting game on the PS3, but it retained some of the demo’s charm while also showing off Sixaxis controls. Check it out at 51 minutes and 48 seconds in.


Final Fantasy VII
Sony wasn’t alone in its enthusiasm for the PS3 at E3 2005. Square Enix showed off an interpretation of what Final Fantasy VII might look like if it were developed with the new console in mind. For fans of the classic PSOne game hoping for a remake, this remains the closet thing out there. As with a lot of demos on the list, it’s eye-opening to see the gap between what was promised years ago and how developers have surpassed expectations on nearly every level. That doesn’t help reduce the sting if you’re a Final Fantasy VII fan, however.


Madden 2006
After Madden 2006 came out, EA got called out for using screens of the game that were perhaps a little optimistic. OK, they were doctored about as much as your typical fashion-magazine cover. Take a look at this demo reel from the game to see what we now know are target renderings (skip 57 seconds in). The video also shows off an early look at Gears of War, including a familiar face who simultaneously doesn’t look all that familiar.


Killzone 2
Sony took its share of flak with the Killzone 2 demo. Rubber duckies in a bathtub were one thing, but were the visuals featured in this futuristic shooter within the PS3’s reach? Sony and Guerilla Games spent the years up until the game’s 2009 release deflecting criticism over what was later revealed to be prerendered footage. Once again, it’s interesting to think about how much controversy surrounded visuals that PlayStation 3 hardware has now surpassed.


Heavy Rain: The Casting
Quantic Dreams’ early look at Heavy Rain, called the Casting, showed an actress auditioning for a role. The video was impressive stuff back in 2006, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. If you’re looking for a prime example of the uncanny valley, look no further.


Milo & Kate
Before it was known as Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-sensing peripheral was mysteriously demoed as Project Natal. Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux was among the first to publicly present a glimpse of what the device was capable of. Milo & Kate purportedly let players interact with a young boy, who could recognize not only individual players, but their emotions. Unlike other videos in this feature, the demo didn’t focus so much on improved visuals as it did gameplay potential. People who saw the demo at E3 2009 were skeptical about whether there was behind-the-scenes trickery, and players never got a chance to see for themselves.


The Samaritan
Until now, we’ve been focusing on the console side of things. That doesn’t mean that PC gamers haven’t been tantalized by demos throughout the years. One of the more recent examples is this look at Epic’s real-time demo, The Samaritan, which shows what DirectX 11 and NVIDIA APEX physics could pull off with Unreal Engine 3. 


Hummingbird Video
This footage of a hummingbird was among the videos that Nintendo showed when they publicly debuted the Wii U last E3. It’s not likely that you’ll see a game based on the concept, but it’s a great demonstration of how much more horsepower the upcoming console has over its predecessor.


Quantic Dreams has a thing for narrative-base demos with, as in its latest video tech video, Kara, shows. It highlights the studio’s latest engine, which has already a year old when the video was released. Since then, Quantic Dreams’ David Cage says it’s been improved by 50 percent. The company’s latest game, Beyond: Two Souls was, debuted at E3 a few weeks ago. As impressive as it looked then, its visuals will almost certainly be improved upon in a few short years. That seems pretty incredible, but you’ve seen how games have advanced over the years. Don’t expect that pattern to change anytime soon.