30 years of the Amiga

30 years ago, a computer company called Commodore launched the first model in a new range of Personal Computers: the Amiga 1000.

Back in the 1980s, there was still wide competition over the very hardware that people used for computing. Rather than just Intel-based “PCs” vs Intel-based Apple hardware, companies like Commodore, Amstrad, Atari, Sinclair, Acorn etc all had their own designs for personal computing technology.

Commodore had released personal computers previously (most notably the VIC-20 and Commodore 64), but the Amiga was their first foray into the new and more powerful realm of “16-bit” processors. Ironically, it could have been Atari’s product instead, but a complex series of resignations and buyouts led to Commodore acquiring the pivotal technology and launching the Amiga line.

My own first computer was a Commodore 128 (the beefed-up, less successful successor to the C64, which came with business software as well as games), but my memories are almost entirely of the Amiga computers I owned, starting with an Amiga 500 in 1990.

The most successful Amiga computer in history, the Amiga 500 was a more affordable, and more advanced, successor to the A1000, but shared the features and feel that made the Amiga line so attractive to us. Unlike IBM’s business-oriented PCs of the time, Amiga computers coupled the main CPU with a trio of specialised chips designed to handle the intensive processes of memory management, audio processing and graphics. Showing the flair of the designers, these all had names: Angus, Paula and Denise in the original set, through to Alice, Paula and Lisa in the most advanced release.

This additional power, long before graphics cards became a thing for PCs, meant that the Amiga was especially good with high quality sound and video compared to its competitors. Whilst this meant that it was attractive to professionals in those fields (Amigas were used for a lot of the video effects in TV of the late 80s, early 90s), it also meant it was particularly suited to another task: playing computer games.

I particularly remember feeling superior to those poor IBM PC owners in the respect of music. Many Amiga games were scored using a kind of music file called a “tracker module” – a collection of “tracks”, notes to be played in sequence, with samples of the sounds to be played embedded in the file itself. The embedded samples meant that any sound at all, from a piano to a piece of speech, or a crack of thunder, could be included in a composition. Meanwhile, held back by their lack of specialised hardware, PC owners often had to put up with mere MIDI files – essentially just the score of a piece of music, relying on the built in samples in the computer to provide the sounds. (Even id Software’s Doom failed to innovate in this regard – all of its music is stored as MIDI files, which often sound quite different if played on different MIDI players, due to the reliance on the samples provided by the player.)

The musical excellence made possible by the use of tracker modules gave us Amiga owners the joy of, for example, Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder, with an intro song sung by the company’s boss, the short version of early 90s pop star Betty Boo’s Doin’ The Doo at the start of Magic Pockets, or the rock-esque music from Zool.

Speaking of Zool, another curious thing that happened to games during the Amiga period was the rise of weirdly obvious product placement. Zool, a platforming “ninja from the nth dimension” would fight enemies in levels festooned by giant Chupachups sweets. Cool Spot, another platforming hero, was explicitly shown to be the red spot from the branding then used by 7-Up. Quavers, a British snackfood, sponsored a puzzle game called Pushover, where the only real involvement was the existence of individual quavers snacks as the end goal of the dominos-style challenges. There were even two games sponsored by Silly Putty… It was a very strange time in video games.

But it was also an excellently creative one. Some of the most loved of the intellectual property that has been relaunched in recent years – XCOM, Syndicate, Elite, Bard’s Tale – date from the days of the Amiga. But there were more experimental games around. Famed coder Jeff Minter produced psychedelic ungulate themed games for the Amiga, before moving on to the Atari Jaguar and latterly Xbox Live Arcade and Mobile. Lost Vikings did the “three heroes, each with a special power that needs to be used to progress” thing long before Trine did. Beneath a Steel Sky gave us a detailed and cynical post-cyberpunk dystopia in an adventure game long before the modern trend. Damocles gave you an open world to save from an incoming disaster – but also allowed you the freedom to fail, or even to not care (surviving the disaster, you could even continue to play, although there was obviously a limit to what you could do in the aftermath).

The Amiga also gave us the start of some of the greatest trends in videogames journalism. Particularly, the famously passionate Amiga Power, whose editorial policy to always rate games fairly but firmly (and to use the whole percentage scale – a terrible game might well get 10% or less); but also wasn’t afraid to experiment with conceptual reviews (in the style of a court case, for example, or an episode of a popular television program), statements on issues that the industry had, and campaign on other issues. Alumni of Amiga Power went on to do bigger things – running one of the loudest independent voices for Scottish Independence in one case; co-founding current PC games site Rock Paper Shotgun (before going off to write comics for Marvel) in another; and co-writing excellent radio plays in a third. Even if just for Amiga Power, the Commodore Amiga deserves praise and recognition.

Sadly, after mismanagement by a new executive team, Commodore failed to survive past the mid 1990s, declaring bankruptcy in 1994. The Amiga limped on for a little while longer (some Amiga magazines kept publishing for almost a decade after), but by 1996 all but the hardest core had admitted defeat and moved on to other platforms. It was a sad end for a mighty and innovative platform with true soul (and the name of a B-52s track on every motherboard), and one it did not deserve.

The least we can do is remember it today.

[The best way to experience old Amiga stuff nowadays is probably via an Amiga emulator. The firmware is not made free by the current owners of the Amiga IP, so the legal way to obtain a functional version is to buy from them: http://www.amigaforever.com/
If you don’t want to buy the Firmware from them, you can try a modern fan reimplementation, downloadable here: http://www.natami-news.de/html/about.html with any Amiga emulator (like fs-UAE).
There are also some awesome recreations of the Amiga in modern hardware, documented in Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimig ]

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About aoanla

Aoanla is a physicist/systems support guy for the UK bit of the LHC experiment at CERN in real life, and therefore already had some experience in looking at high-speed collisions before getting into roller derby. He writes bout reports for the bouts he turns up to on his own blog, but is now planning on writing articles and bugging people for interviews here, too.
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One Response to 30 years of the Amiga

  1. Pingback: Saudade and Video Games: Part 1 | Ante Ortus A Lumen Ars

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