July marked the 30th anniversary of the Commodore Amiga, a machine which defined an early but influential period of gaming history for myself and many others. Yet if you grew up outside European territories, or you started gaming a little later in life, you might be wondering what an Amiga is. Even NEC’s PC Engine (which you might know from its ill-fated Western variation, the TurboGraphx-16) has seem something of a resurgence of popularity in recent years, yet I never feel like the Amiga gets the respect it deserves.
If you played a console game in the early ’90s that had even a flavour of PC gaming to it, it’s likely you were playing what was a port of an Amiga game (or, at the very least, a conversion from the Atari ST, its spirited rival). From Lemmings to Cannon Fodder, it pioneered games which used keyboard and mouse control, yet also featured an abundance of arcade-like, one-button controller games.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s discuss the history of the Amiga platform, its unique software and finally, how to set up your own Amiga at home.
PART 1: The Rise and Fall of Commodore
How do you follow on from the Commodore 64, Jack Tramiel’s “Machine for the masses”, and the most popular computer model of all time? Ironically, the answer was to come from an engineer that once created its rivals.
After designing the legendary Atari 2600 and most of the rest of the Atari 8-bit family, integrated circuit guru Jay Miner had left the company to form his own firm, Hi-Toro. Atari were interested in the firm’s peripherals (such as the gyroscopic JoyBoard) and custom chip designs, and lent Hi-Toro – who had renamed themselves Amiga Corporation – $500,000 to guarantee first use of their new ‘super computer console’, code-named Lorraine.
Unfortunately, shrinking the chip designs for Lorraine turned out to be more costly than expected. With the engineers risking financial ruin by taking out second mortgages just to fund development costs, the future of the project looked grim. But at the last moment, Commodore declared interest in buying the company outright, effectively cancelling previous contracts with Atari and the debt owed. Commodore had saved the Amiga. With sufficient cash-flow to finish the Lorraine project, a legend was born.
After a spectacular media showing on the 23rd of July 1985, the Commodore Amiga officially launched in September that same year. Despite the Amiga 1000 – as it would be later designated – being well ahead of its direct competitors technologically, it wasn’t an immediate hit. Its launch price of £1,500 probably had something to do with that, as the Atari ST could be had for less than half that price.
The Amiga 500 was a revolution; it offered a truly multi-tasking, GUI-based operating system in its Workbench software, but it also doubled as gaming machine with enviable graphics and sound.
But there were early successes. The Amiga’s amazing multimedia capabilities attracted creatives in the television industry, and EA were so impressed with the machine that they abandoned their IBM PC-based ‘Prism’ paint software to create the seminal sprite package, Deluxe Paint, an industry standard well in the ’90s.
The Amiga didn’t truly take off until 1987, when Commodore introduced the high-end Amiga 2000 and (much more importantly) the low-end Amiga 500. Essentially an Amiga 1000 with boosted RAM at a consumer-friendly price (£499), the 500 was a revolution; it offered a truly multi-tasking, GUI-based operating system in its Workbench software, but it also doubled as gaming machine with enviable graphics and sound. Booming sales from 1988 through 1990 attracted developers from all around the world (but especially Europe), and created a cult-like community, bolstered by the launch of regional magazines like Amiga Format and the ground-breaking Amiga Power.
However, the start of a new decade signaled difficulties ahead, as SEGA’s Mega Drive and Nintendo’s SNES were on the way. To combat this, Commodore began development of a new chip-set, the AGA (Advanced Graphics Architecture), and in 1992, it made its debut inside the top-end Amiga 4000 and the budget Amiga 1200. In a stroke of genius, the Amiga 1200 was – some minor Kickstart ROM bugs aside – fully compatible with Amiga 500 software and games, and at £399, became the natural successor to the popular 500.
But the Amiga 1200 was to be Commodore’s last hurrah. As a result of some amazingly poor marketing decisions, and facing stiff competition from Nintendo and SEGA in the games market and Microsoft and Apple in the home computer and business sectors, the company recorded record losses and warned of a dwindling supply of Amiga machines. The high-rate of piracy was probably another key factor in the platform’s downfall, at least as far as third-party developers were concerned. Commodore officially declared bankruptcy in 1994.
In the end, none of these failings matter. What will endure about the Amiga is the genius of its hardware and software design
With the passing of Jay “Father of the Amiga” Miner that same year, the Amiga’s fate was all-but-sealed. In the years following, the machine bounced between a number of licence holders (including Escom and Gateway), but none understood the magic that created the platform in the first place.
In the end, none of these failings matter. What will endure about the Amiga is the genius of its hardware and software design, which brought an affordable, multi-tasking machine to the home consumer; the passion of its user-base, which remains loyal to this day; and the imagination of its games, which inspired a generation of gamers and developers, including Rockstar North, DICE, PlayStation Liverpool and countless others.
As the mantra goes: Amiga Forever!
PART 2: The Games
- Turrican 1 & 2
Combining gameplay tropes of Metroid (non-linear exploration; massive levels; a morph ball attack) and Contra (side-scrolling, shoot ’em up action; a high difficulty curve), Turrican became an instant, early Amiga classic when it was released in 1990.
Originally developed by Rainbow Arts for the Commodore 64, Turrican arrived on the Amiga courtesy of Factor 5, a new software house made up of former Rainbow Arts employees. With more powerful hardware to exploit and source code they were already familiar with, Factor 5 took this opportunity to enhance the original release with higher-resolution, surreal graphics and new gameplay systems. A now-legendary soundtrack by Chris Huelsbeck sealed the deal, and the 16-bit version of Turrican was a smash-hit.
As far as I’m concerned, Turrican 2: The Final Fight remains Factor 5’s crowning achievement.
A sequel was to follow one year later, Turrican II: The Final Fight, which managed to improve on its predecessor with different power-ups, more diverse level designs (including a shoot ’em up sequence) and another soundtrack by Mr Huelsbeck, one which is often regarded as the highlight of his entire career. Unfortunately, the trilogy ended on a bit of a whimper; by the time Turrican 3 was released, Factor 5 had largely moved onto console game development, and so the third entry in the series was actually a scaled-back port of the more-linear and generic Mega Turrican on the Mega Drive.
Sadly, many younger gamers only now remember Factor 5 for Lair, their poorly-received PlayStation 3 title which ultimately sunk the company. While I grew up with Star Wars and have a soft spot for their Rogue Squadron games, as far as I’m concerned, Turrican 2: The Final Fight remains Factor 5’s crowning achievement.
Before they were wowing the entire gaming industry with their multi-million-dollar crime sagas and cultural satires, Rockstar North existed as a small developer known as DMA Design. Following a string of successful shoot ’em ups created by David Jones and published by Psygnosis, DMA Design hit it big with Lemmings, their infamous puzzle game starring the humanoid suicidal rodents.
Eventually selling 15 million copies and ported to every platform under the sun, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’ve played a version of Lemmings somewhere. If not, though, the game’s premise is simple and accessible: using your mouse and a limited number of commands, it’s up to you to guide the titular critters through dozens of levels of dangerous drops and tricky traps on their way to safety.
A near-perfect blend of the puzzle and strategy genres, it’s not hard to understand the game’s appeal. Even in failure, there’s a certain sort of catharsis to seeing the little blue-and-green sprites melt, be squashed or explode. With numerous excellent compositions of public domain tunes and exclusive levels based on other Psygnosis properties (such as Shadow of the Beast) the Amiga version is arguably the definitive version of this classic.
“Oi, nutter!” and “Stupid!” These high-pitched voice-samples will forever be ingrained in my mind following the Christmas holidays of 1995, where I gathered with my cousins and engaged in match after ludicrous match of Worms on my Amiga 1200.
In the two decades since (yes, I feel old), Worms has been ported to more platforms than possibly even Lemmings, along the way receiving sequels, remakes, and even inspiring pinball and golf spin-offs. But it all started here, on the machine from Commodore, then in its twilight years.
The truth is, Team17 basically got it right the first time around.
Effectively an evolved form of the Apple II strategy game Artillery, Worms takes the concept further by making its units mobile and equipping them with a selection of comical weaponry, all of which have disastrous effects on the level environment. Its masterstroke – tying player names to the worms, imbuing a personal connection to the light-hearted competition – remains a core part of the franchise; later entries would allow dedicated players to design full levels and even weapons to battle with.
If you somehow haven’t played Worms elsewhere, I’d say that Worms Armageddon or Worms 2 on the PC might be better introductions to the series, but there’s a simplicity to the weapon set and level generation here that is admirable – the truth is, Team17 basically got it right the first time around.
- Pinball Series (Dreams, Fantasies, Illusions and Slam Tilt)
Demo groups (not to mention cracker teams) have long been a part of the heart and soul of the Commodore community. Communicating across early bulletin board systems (BBS), these gifted programmers aimed to push the C64 and Amiga hardware to their natural limits, provide free public domain games, and defeat copy protection.
One such group, The Silents, got together in 1992 and decided to go into legitimate game development with a series of pinball games for the Amiga, published by 21st Century Entertainment. They later became Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment, more commonly known today as EA’s world-famous DICE studio.
With excellent ball physics, creative table layouts, colourful sprite work and catchy tunes, Pinball Dreams was a superb debut from the new developers, and its sequels, Pinball Fantasies and the AGA-exclusive Pinball Illusions, live up to this pedigree. For my money, they remain the best digital pinball games out there. And though it wasn’t developed by DICE, a spiritual successor named SlamTilt also made it to the Amiga in 1996, if that’s not enough pinball for you.
The subject of DICE’s best game actually came up during a meet with fellow Ready Up members some years back. While some argued for various Battlefield entries, and others passionately spoke of Mirror’s Edge, I jokingly insisted that both factions were wrong: Pinball Fantasies had them all beat. But maybe I was on the right track!
- Another World (AKA Out of this World)
Considered by many to be a masterpiece of visual storytelling, Éric Chahi’s Another World is a platformer with elements of action, puzzle-solving and, crucially, bags of atmosphere.
What follows is a short story of survival, necessary alliances and potential sacrifice. Incredibly, it pulls this off with barely a line of dialogue.
Following one of the most technically impressive intro sequences of the 8 and 16-bit generations, the player avatar is teleported to an unknown alien world, and the action begins immediately. What follows is a short story of survival, necessary alliances and potential sacrifice. Incredibly, it pulls this off with barely a line of dialogue. Another World’s influence is still felt across the industry, with elements of its design seen in everything from Flashback, to Metal Gear Solid (Hideo Kojima has cited it as a personal influence), to Limbo.
Although it was stuck in development hell for nearly six years, Another World’s concepts and ideas lived on in Éric Chahi’s later title, Heart of Darkness, a solid (and surprisingly dark) adventure of a kid travelling into the unknown to rescue his dog from the forces of darkness.
- Sensible Soccer Series
I think there’s something to be said for a sports game that can attract almost anyone. Rocket League has managed it in recent months by melding the madness of rocket-propelled RC-cars with the basics of football. Sensible Soccer, released in 1992 by Sensible Software, managed it by just being damn fun.
Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. I think Sensible Soccer’s true secret is that, despite it being a one-button football game, there’s a hidden depth to pulling off successful passes and shots that kept the hardcore fans coming back. The ability to save match highlights and create entirely custom teams (right down to player names) probably helped greatly.
Featuring updated teams, adjusted pitch and player options, along with enhanced graphics and stadium effects, the later Sensible World of Soccer (affectionately referred to online as ‘SWOS’) is your best bet if you want to return this seminal football series. Plus, it also features “Goal-Scoring Superstar Hero” during its introduction, possibly the most ‘British ’90s’ song ever written.
- The Settlers
Influenced: Anno; Stonehearth; Banished
With more of a focus on the life of your citizens than greater conflicts and conquest, The Settlers practically defined a new sub-category of the city-builder/4X genres. Its 13-minute BGM loop is still fantastic background working music.
- Cannon Fodder
Influenced: Commandos; Syndicate; Fallout Tactics; the whole real-time-tactics genre
Sensible Software’s satirical take on real-time combat was lauded for its new approach to strategy, and remembered for its challenging (but satisfying) difficulty curve and anti-war message. “War Has Never Been So Much Fun” is one of the all-time great lyrical songs in games, right up there with Dare to Dream and Still Alive.
Influenced: Grand Theft Auto; Far Cry; Just Cause; every open-world game
Hunt down assassins, buy guns and upgrades from nearby stores, and traverse a large, fully-3D environment either by foot or in a multitude of unique vehicles… sure, Hunter barely manages to run at 10FPS, but its ambition and influence are simply mind-blowing.
Other titles of note:
- Alien Breed – Team17’s fusion of Gauntlet and survival horror, which later inspired a PC/PS3 remake
- Alien Breed 3D – An atmospheric, technically impressive DOOM clone
- Apidya – An Amiga exclusive, this supremely-Japanese shoot ’em up stars a wasp as its protagonist!
- Black Cyrpt – An early Dungeon Master-like dungeon crawler, it was Raven Software’s first game!
- Chaos Engine – A top-down, arcade shooter with multiple character classes and co-op play
- Frontier: Elite 2 – David Braben’s sequel to the infamous Elite, this follow-up allows pilots to seamlessly land on planets from space, a la No Man’s Sky
- It Came from the Desert – A survival horror, point ‘n’ click adventure game, notable for its eerie mood building
- Moonstone – A unique single and multiplayer competitive brawler, with light RPG elements and buckets of gore
- Mr. Nutz: Hoppin’ Mad – A beefed-up semi-sequel to the Mega Drive original
- Shadow of the Beast series – Platformer-brawlers fondly remembered for their surreal world-building, bizarre puzzles and early technical feats
- Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe – A worthy alternative to SWOS for gamers who don’t normally play sports games
- Too many colourful platformers to note – Superfrog, Fire and Ice, James Pond 2, Traps and Treasures, Marvin’s Marvellous Adventure, Zool, etc.
- Dozens of popular ports from other platforms – Prince of Persia, Rainbow Islands, The Secret of Monkey Island, Syndicate, etc.
Despite its American origins, the Amiga was immensely popular with coders in Europe and small development houses, many of whom had migrated from the Commodore 64 and the Atari ST line of computers. As such, all of the games I’ve discussed here are but a fraction of the software available for the machine; explore the library for yourself and you might find your own hidden gems!
PART 3: Your Own Amiga
If I’ve convinced you to give Commodore’s revolutionary machine another go, then you may be wondering what the easiest way to do that is in our age of Windows, Macs, smart-phones and tablets. Below, I’ve outlined two possible solutions, based on how much time and effort you’d like to spend on the setup.
Flexibility and Ease of Use: The Software Solution
Enthusiasts are likely familiar with UAE, the long-in-development Amiga emulator, but it can be a pain to get going. Not to worry! The appropriately-titled Amiga Forever is a fantastic emulation package that has pre-configured Amiga 500 and Amiga 1200 (AGA) setups, along with a number of different Workbench environments, making it ideal for those who just want to wind down with a game of Sensible World of Soccer, as well as people looking to tinker with the intricacies of the Workbench OS.
Not only that, but Amiga Forever is supplied with 100% legal Kickstart ROM files, so all you need to do is add .ADF files to its simple launcher, configure any controllers/mice, and you’re good to go. If you’re looking for a casual way to relive some Commodore memories, or a Windows-friendly means of playing Amiga games for some retro streaming fun, this is probably your best bet. WinUAE compatibility with most software is pretty stellar at this point (at least compared to the old days), so you can expect it to handle the majority of commercial titles available for the system (of which there are literally thousands), along with most of the Amiga’s massive homebrew library.
Prices ranges from €10 to €30 for the digital versions, depending on whether you need later Kickstart ROM files. If you really want to go all out, there’s even a Premium Edition, containing additional DVDs full of rare archival video footage covering the history of the Amiga.
Down the Rabbit Hole: The Hardware Route
Let’s get technical. If you want a more legitimate Amiga hardware experience – one which allows you to use real hardware and peripherals, but takes advantage of some of the short-cuts that modern technologies allow – your best bet is a full ‘WHDLoad’ setup.
To start with, you’ll need find a real Amiga (preferably an A1200 for AGA-exclusive games, but a 500/600 will still do), add an accelerator/RAM expansion card to its mainboard (4MB of fastmem or higher will suffice for 90% of games, and can be had on Amibay for a decent price), and finally fit the system with a Compact Flash card formatted with the WHDLoad files. Thanks to its passionate fan-base, with a quick Google around, you should be able to find a merchant in your region who will provide you with a IDE-to-CF adapter and a 2GB or larger Compact Flash card, pre-formatted with most of the files you need.
So what does this investment get you? You’ll have a put together a real Amiga which boots straight into the Workbench OS, allowing you to browse and load games almost instantly without disc changes (as games are loaded into that RAM expansion card we fitted), but also responds as a real Amiga otherwise would. Something of the experience is debatably lost in not having to swap floppies every five minutes for certain games, true, but it’s kind of the best of both worlds otherwise.
Of course, even if you build that ideal Amiga setup, you’ll still need to plug it into a display. The PAL Amiga outputs RGB through the familiar EURO-SCART connector on most models (usually at 50 or 60Hz, depending on the game), and this should absolutely be the output you use if you’re living in a PAL region and intend to game on a TV; however, if push comes to shove, there’s also a composite (yellow RCA) output and the RF modulator for significantly degraded results. RGB SCART cables usually run around £10.
Plugging an Amiga directly into a RGB-compatible SCART socket should be enough for most users to call it a day, but if you’re truly serious about retro gaming, you may want to invest in something like an XRGB-mini Framemeister, a professional upscaler better suited to handling 240p signals than any normal HDTV will be.
Finally, you’ll need to sort out your hardware peripherals. A standard serial-port mouse is essential for navigating Workbench (not to mention games like Worms and Cannon Fodder), and it may not be a terrible idea to invest in an Amiga-compatible serial-to-USB adapter so that you can use newer optical mice, too. Otherwise, you’ll want to have one or more serial-based controllers, and the good news is that an Amiga will easily take a Mega Drive/Genesis pad with no issue.