Technology that changed gaming #2: The Commodore Amiga

The Commodore Amiga is one of the gaming’s most iconic and affectionately remembered systems, and was a landmark computer in every respect. When it arrived in 1985 it was so far ahead of the competition that it appeared to be from five years in the future. Although Commodore was best known for home computers like the hugely popular C64, the Amiga was so powerful that it made business machines like the PC and Mac of the day look hopelessly dated – at the same time as being a superb gaming platform.

Hardware

The Amiga’s spectacular capabilities came from a groundbreaking design based around the popular Motorola 68000 processor, augmented by a suite of custom chips with well-defined responsibilities. At the time, many computers were assembled from off-the-shelf components and relied on the central CPU for almost everything. The Amiga’s nearest competitor – the Atari ST – used the same basic three-channel sound chip as many previous generation 8 bit systems, while the Amiga’s unique sound chip delivered four-channel digital stereo sound.

Amiga graphics capabilities were far in advance of any other competing system of the era, incorporating a blitter for copying or moving large chunks of graphic around the screen – an operation that had to be performed by the CPU in other designs. Modern-day GPU chips from nVidia and ATI are direct descendants of blitter chips, performing similar but massively more advanced graphical operations.

The graphics subsystem also contained the Copper co-processor that could produce very pretty scanline effects such as gradients. It could also perform the mind-bending trick of displaying two applications running at different screen resolutions on screen at the same time. This wasn’t an upscaling trick – the graphics chip could change resolutions partway through drawing a frame. The Workbench environment made use of this unique ability when the user dragged a full screen application downwards to reveal another one behind it.

The entire Amiga chipset was synchronised precisely to the video output, allowing outrageously smooth full screen scrolling and making the system a brilliant tool for multimedia use. By adding a Genlock device, the Amiga could create professional graphical effects and titles for home video material. It was so capable that a number of TV networks used the machine for graphics including Channel 4 in the UK (The Chart Show), as well as special effects work in Babylon 5 and Seaquest DSV.

The Amiga 500

Despite the original Amiga 1000 model offering an excellent price/performance ratio compared to the PC and Mac, it was still an expensive machine for home use. It was the arrival of the all-in-one A500 with TV modulator that really made an impact – especially in Europe. The A500 was just as capable as the A1000 but was sold nearly £1000 cheaper at £599 in the UK. When the A500 dropped in price to £499 and then £399, sales rocketed and one took up residence in my bedroom, replacing my C64 and 1541 disk drive.

Games

Defender of the Crown (Cinemaware)

The first titles to generate substantial interest in the Amiga as a gaming platform where Marble Madness and Defender of the Crown – both released in 1986. The former was an almost-perfect conversion by Electronic Arts of the Atari System 1 arcade game. It was their first ever arcade game license, driven by the popularity of the arcade machine game with EA staff.

Defender of the Crown was an arcade/strategy game with ground-breaking graphics and sound. It was a leap above anything we had seen before on home computers (or the arcades for that matter) thanks to amazing artwork and atmospheric music. Anyone who saw the game running back in the early days of the Amiga probably remembers the experience to this day – I was one of a huge crowd of people stood around the only Amiga at our local computer club in 1987.

In the following years we were treated to other superb titles such as Super Hang-On, Lemmings, Sensible Soccer, IK+, Worms, Shadow of the Beast, Speedball II, Xenon II: Megablast and FA/18 Interceptor.

Unfortunately, not every Amiga game delivered the experience the machine was capable. The Atari ST had similar but less sophisticated hardware, and it was much easier to write a game for the ST and port it across to the Amiga than it was to do the opposite. For every full-screen over-scanned Amiga game that used hardware scrolling and sprite and blitter support, there were two or three Atari ST ports that used none of these features. Fortunately, the Amiga sound chip was very different to the ST equivalent so even with direct ports, the music and sound effects usually got a substantial upgrade.

Eventually the Amiga came to dominate the 16-bit home computer market and the issue of Atari ST ports became less of an issue. Amiga-specific games (or heavily enhanced games) such as Pacmania, Shadow of the Beast, Project X, Alien Breed and Gods made proper use of the hardware and delivered a gaming experience that couldn’t be bettered anywhere outside of the arcades.

Legacy

The revolutionary aspect of the Amiga was the balanced system architecture. While some previous-generation 8-bit computers had hardware support for scrolling and sprite handling, the Amiga took things much further with an interconnected set of chips tailored to specific tasks, relieving the CPU of jobs it wasn’t optimised for.

It took a very long time for the PC to catch up on the concept of dedicated hardware. Sound cards came first, with AdLib and Soundblaster products finally delivering decent audio performance instead of awful beeps from the inbuilt speaker. Despite some basic support in VGA cards there was never a widely-used standard for 2D accelerated graphics on the PC. Hardware assisted graphics only really took off for games with the advent of 3D gaming and cards like the 3Dfx.

Sadly, Commodore remained with the original Amiga hardware specification for too long and allowed the PC to overtake it. Although the PC was never really competitive with the Amiga for 2D games, as the industry transitioned towards 3D the Amiga architecture became less relevant. Commodore also had the problem of the Motorola 68000 series of processors failing to remain competitive with the Intel x86 family despite an early lead and cleaner architecture. By the time Commodore released upgraded Amigas with the AGA chipset it wasn’t enough to remain competitive. The 68020 processor running at 14MHz was outclassed by the 386 and 486 PC’s of the era, and AGA didn’t deliver enough of an improvement in graphics and audio performance. Commodore belatedly recognised the increased importance of 3D graphics for games and adapted the hardware slightly but this didn’t happen until the CD32 system shipped – just before the company went bankrupt in 1994.

The Amiga community continued to flourish after the demise of Commodore, remaining well supported by magazines and user groups. Commercial games were still released by a number of companies many years after Amiga production ceased.

Today, the Amiga still has a uniquely loyal following with lively online communities including Amiga.org, EAB and Amibay. Certain sought-after hardware fetches very good money, with processor upgrades in particular selling for hundreds of pounds. Amazingly, there are also a number of hardware projects on the go – the semi-official Amiga X1000, the Natami modern-day rethinking of the Amiga hardware, and FPGA systems such as the MiniMig and FPGA Arcade.

If Commodore had fully understood the potential of the Amiga hardware and possessed the initiative, resources and cash to market and develop the platform properly the sky would have been the limit. The launch of the Amiga reportedly had even Apple worried – the Mac was a far inferior machine selling for a lot more money.

With more timely and substantial hardware upgrades to stay ahead of the competition – and better marketing – it may well have been the case that you would now be reading this page on an Amiga, and I would have written it on one.

The Amiga's superb version of Marble Madness

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