• Commodore Amiga Retrospective

    It wasn't always the case that the Japanese had the games market sewn up, you know. With Microsoft's XBox currently fighting a grim war of attrition for second place against Nintendo's Gamecube, younger gamers could be forgiven for thinking that it seems like a suicidal mission - to take on the acknowledged masters of the art of gaming on their own terms. However, the Americans have tried this kind of trick before, and while it didn't amount to the success story that it deserved to be, Commodore's brave attempt to advance the hardware market was admired by many, and was an inspiration to scores of new developers.

    With its roots in 1953 New York, formed by a Polish immigrant and survivor of Auschwitz, Commodore spent its first few decades repairing typewriters, making mechanical adding machines and calculators, and eventually, after the PET computers, anticipated the popularity and moved into the soon-to-be-burgeoning 'Home Computer' market with their VIC-20. A mammoth 4k of RAM, a monster, slab-like creamy keyboard, a couple of fantastic games and the world was happy. In 1982, things got even better - the awe-inspiring Commodore 64 arrived, with its vastly enhanced graphic and sound capabilities and started playing host to ports of popular coin-op machines of the day, outshining Europe's Sinclair and Amstrad offerings by a considerable degree.


    Later that decade, a machine codenamed Lorraine, which had been speculated about since 1983, finally arrived in the form of the 16-bit Amiga. Sporting high-powered custom hardware, and ditching the clunky and unreliable tape-drives of the previous generation of computers, 1985's original 1000 model didn't set the world alight, but the announcement of the low-cost Amiga 500 home model and the business-and-education-oriented Amiga 2000 made people sit up and take note, and by the close of the decade it was clear that the Amiga was the machine of choice for savvy users the world over; altogether cooler than its closest rival, Atari's ST (Amiga vs. ST was the Playstation vs. Saturn of the time), and, at the time, far in advance of what the stalling PC could produce, it was the best of both worlds for productivity and gaming. Available in a variety of flavours to suit the end users' needs, highly upgradeable, hugely versatile and awesomely powerful, it seemed that the Amiga couldn't fail.

    As a games machine, the Amiga was second to none for a long, long while; while it catered for the arcade fans with near-flawless conversions of the likes of R-Type and Wonderboy in Monsterland, and also more advanced fare such as the groundbreaking - for the time - Hard Drivin', its keyboard and choices of peripheral controllers made it possible to play more cerebral games - 'God Games' like Populous, MegaLoMania and Sim City were ten a penny, while more abstract titles like Starglider 2, Midwinter and The Hunter were, conceptually at least, far in advance of anything which was available on the Amiga's console rivals at the time. Flight simulators, strategic war games, and a Public Domain and Demo scene which (given its relative lack of network support) was incredibly far-reaching; the Amiga had it all.

    European developers had a particular talent for making the hardware shine; British developers like Psygnosis dazzled with Shadow of the Beast, Blood Money and Lemmings, while the Europe-wide operation that was Ocean turned out fantastic original games, superb coin-op conversions and endless, endless movie-tie-in platformers (highlights being Batman The Movie and Hudson Hawk). Meanwhile, in Germany, the likes of Rainbow Arts were doing things with the Amiga which occasionally rivalled Japanese game design - games like Turrican, X-Out and Z-Out still stand out today as classics of the era, despite their contrived nature.

    However, regardless of how much the Amiga's devotees might have objected, it was always clear that when it came to the games, their machine was underpowered in comparison to its 16-bit console rivals; while it came close to being able to do what Sega's Genesis could manage (albeit with considerably less panache), Nintendo's Super Famicom in particular left Commodore's baby trailing. With this in mind, it was always dangerous for Commodore to market their machine solely as a titan of the video games world, as although it had its advantages (easy saves, upgradeability of games, better 3D and more control in the 3D titles thanks to the keyboard), it was becoming clear that the games playing world was becoming increasingly infatuated with the exploits of Japan's superstars, Mario and Sonic, and all their lesser platform game friends. For all of the Amiga developers' efforts - and there were a few, the notable standouts being Zool and particularly James Pond 2: Robocod - nothing ever came close to matching the playability and style which Super Mario World and Sonic exuded so effortlessly. Rightly or wrongly, in the post-Sonic world, lightning fast parallax scrolling was the new benchmark to be aspired to, and while the Amiga could manage it, it became sadly obvious that the neat design ideas to back up the technical performance were sorely lacking in comparison to the joyous experimentation with traditional genres which the Japanese were making to look so easy.

    The other immense problem with the Amiga's games was one which continues to ail the games industry even today - piracy. Everybody and their dog had a copy of X-Copy 2; hell, some people even went as far as X-Copy Professional. Disc copying became such a craze that custom utilities like TetraCopy (which allowed you to play Tetris as you stole) became the norm. It wasn't an unusual situation for owners to be in possession of three or four original titles, and hundreds upon hundreds of copies; 3.5" floppies were cheap and readily available, and, although nobody knew where they came from, everybody knew somebody who could get their hands on just about any game you could possibly want. Once it became clear that there was no disc-based technique which could not be circumvented, developers tried ever-more desperate new techniques of protection - code wheels (F/A 18 Interceptor); colour-tinted code sheets (Sim City); reading the word from Page 8, Paragraph 2, Line 3, Word 8 of the manual (hundreds of games) - all to no avail. There wasn't a game available which didn't become accessible with a crack and more often than not a trainer inside a few weeks, if not days, of its release. While it's always difficult to judge whether or not the machine would have been so popular if so much free software hadn't been available, it's undeniable that some of the most nostalgic memories of the Amiga age are those of the Paranomia, Quartex or Fairlight demos and intros that preceded cracked software. The precursor of today's warez and l33t h4xx0r1ng scene, there was something oddly endearing about seeing telephone numbers and "greetz" scrolling across your screen with spinning cubes and starfields in the background... "left button for normal, right button for trainer".


    Despite their problems, Commodore persevered with the gaming angle; seemingly ignoring the fact that their machine had become something of a minor success with the businesses and educational establishments which their original A2000 had been aimed at (largely thanks to the versatility and power of the Workbench GUI), they ploughed ahead with their vision of a gaming machine and committed the cardinal sin of the late 80s and early 90s which sounded the death-knell of more machines than just the Amiga - hardware diversification in the form of the A600 (partly upgraded and partly downgraded from the existing A500), then the A1200 (a massive hardware advance which placed the Amiga much, much closer to dedicated games consoles of the time, but with occasional backwards compatibility issues), and the CD32 (a singularly unsuccessful CD based machine) split the already uncertain market, and with aggressive and effective console marketing and the resurgence of the hoary old PC as both an office tool and a games machine, the Amiga's days were numbered. It staggered on until the mid 90s before being sold off to German PC makers Escom, who dropped it inside a year - and while the technology is still owned and patented, and talk of it being integrated into 'set-top box' technology continues, it's probably right that the Amiga belongs alongside The Stone Roses and big trousers as a reminder of late-80s early-90s life. Despite its sad end and its eventual obliteration by an older technology (something which we've seen since in the gaming world with the PSX vs. Sega's Dreamcast), the Amiga was the last home computer which had what it took to stand up to a console on its own terms and sometimes - just sometimes - come out on top.


    Selected Amiga Classics..

    Starglider 2


    Jez San and Argonaut really came up with the goods with this free-flowing and open-ended action space shooter; playing like Elite on steroids with most of the bells and whistles removed, the feeling of power and control that a player had with this game via the mouse was second to none at the time, and hasn't often been rivalled since. One of the reasons why it was almost essential to have an Amiga as well as the 16-bit consoles, Starglider 2 stands as a classic of the era and, in retrospect, is still a fuller game than those which followed - Nintendo's StarFox being the clearest follow-up.

    Turrican


    The Germans doing what they did best. Lightning fast - for the time - and super smooth running and shooting action which, for many, rivalled Contra as the best example of the genre. Outstanding graphics and animation, and a truly fantastic soundtrack were let down only by the game's relative simplicity. In conjuction with X-Out and Z-Out, Rainbow Arts had the Amiga's shooter genres all but sewn up with this title.

    Rainbow Islands


    Much lauded by the premier periodical that was Amiga Power, and rightly so; an all-but-flawless conversion of an awesome arcade game, which gave Amiga gamers something to get their teeth into. In stark contrast to a lot of other Amiga titles, this was fiendishly difficult to even see the end sequence, never mind collecting all the gems, in the right order - but Amiga uberlord Andy Braybrook's work on the title paid off, and ensured that a generation of computer fans discovered what they were missing in the coin-op and console worlds.

    Xenon 2


    The Bitmap Brothers had a few attempts at Amiga's Finest Moment; Gods, Magic Pockets and The Chaos Engine being three of them. None of them topped this early shooting masterclass, notable for the ability to reverse-thrust through the vertical scrolling stages and the truly obscene number of add-ons which could be bolted onto your ship. A choice of a front and rear weapons, and two options either side, was almost certainly the most impressive firepower available to shooting fans at the time; and although it's since been bettered, Super Nashwan Power will never be forgotten by those who bought it. The fantastic Bomb The Bass soundtrack completed the picture and made this a shooter not to be easily forgotten.

    Leander


    Another Psygnosis classic, this time from the development genius that was Travellers Tales - a console wannabe which played like very few other games on the Amiga. Stylistically incredible, with some of the most console-styled graphics and effective music ever committed to disc, the game played like a more sedate Strider with more emphasis on puzzling than pure hack and slash. Style over substance maybe, but when the style is this stylish, it's almost forgivable.

    Populous 2


    The high water mark of the God genre; this took all that was good about the original Populous and expanded it beyond all measure - and if some of the icons were worse than useless, nobody minded thanks to the truly devastating rains of fire and genuinely effective tidal waves. This allowed you to be a truly vengeful god, and the RPG-styled levelling up kept you playing for weeks and months at a time.

    Flashback


    Given the strength of this, and its immediate predeccesor (the ground-breaking Another World), it's sad that the French are no longer the potent force in game design that they once were. The forefather of modern graphics, the 2D-in-3D style of this game allowed the ultra-smooth animation that was its trademark; and while the flick-screen style was outdated and harked back to previous classics like Prince of Persia, the feeling of power brought on by jumping then rolling into a crouched shooting position and taking out a couple of bad guys wasn't replicated until the advent of the likes of Devil May Cry.

    X-Out


    Another classic early shooter - this time a horizontal scroller, notable for its ability to push the screen up and down, and particularly for its comprehensive powering up screen; the grid system which allowed you to select where to place your power up in relation to your ship never caught on, but was novel and interesting at the time. Not the best graphics the world ever saw, but a solid soundtrack and satisfying shooting action ensured that this was a game not to be taken lightly - the follow-up, Z-Out, was a disappointing R-Type clone and while it still played well, and certainly looked better, horizontal shooters on the Amiga never topped this title.

    Shadow of the Beast


    Perhaps more memorable for its aesthetics than its simplistic and very challenging gameplay, Psygnosis still managed to stun the world with this astonishingly beautiful action platformer; in conjunction, the haunting, pan-pipe based soundtrack ensured that this game would never be forgotten by anyone who played it on its initial release. This was the first time in the history of games that people started talking about how 'it looks real'; in retrospect, it looked anything but - but its silky smooth parallax scroll and highly detailed backgrounds weren't beaten for some time.

    Cannon Fodder


    Mouse-smashingly difficult, but maddeningly compelling at the same time; war had never been so much fun. Sensible Software, with the likes of Wizkid and Sensible Soccer, had perfected the art of the off-beat yet seriously challenging game, but never topped this perfect mix of strategy, irritation and humour. A wonderful little game with a style all of its own, this is how Lemmings would have been if they had replaced the blockers with machine guns.

    Text by Stephen Pringle
    Comments 22 Comments
    1. Fader209's Avatar
      Fader209 -
      I had an A600 and it really was my favourite gaming era even if some of the games were bad ports of the console versions. The music they made for these games were brilliant though and imo better than their console counterparts in most cases.
      All my game boxes are in the loft unfortunately but I did nab this photo last time I had the discs out

    1. charlesr's Avatar
      charlesr -
      !!!!! cool
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