In April of 1987, Commodore International released the Amiga 500 home computer. A cut price version of their earlier Amiga 1000 model, it was marketed as a computer that everyone could enjoy, rather than as a high-end business machine. This was reflected in the fact that it was sold at mass retail outlets, such as supermarkets or electrical retailers, rather than stand-alone computer stores.
Although Commodore were a Canadian-founded company that eventually became US owned, the computer sold only moderately well in North America. It was, however, fairly successful in Western Europe, with its most successful markets being the United Kingdom and Germany (obviously West Germany only, until 1990).
Although the name “Amiga” applies to a whole range of computers, this breakdown of total sales by region goes some way toward verifying this:
|United Kingdom||1.5 million|
|Rest of Europe||35,000|
|Rest of World||400,000|
The Amiga 500 was my family’s first real “PC”. Though we had owned some home consoles and older home computers, such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the A500 was the first computer we’d had with a mouse, a disc drive and a real graphical file manager.
It was a big deal when we bought it (circa 1989-90, I think) and I have many fond memories of playing video games on it, learning basic programming and even creating my first digital art. Later on in life, I purchased the repackaged A500+, the A600, which was effectively the same computer but with a bit more power inside. For the rest of the article, I am simply going to use the term “Amiga” to represent the A500/A600 family.
“It’s for my homework, mum!”
If I just wanted to talk about the game library for the Amiga, this would quickly become a ten-part article. Though a lot of popular console and arcade games were ported to the system (with differing degrees of quality…), I’m going to try and dwell only on the games that were unique to the system. Of course, fairly often a successful Amiga game would break out and get imported to other systems, which may be where you first heard of them. Good examples of this are the Worms, Lemmings and Syndicate franchises. Yes, you may have played them and loved them on your DOS PC or Super Nintendo, but they were on the Amiga first.
In fact a lot of big names that are still around these days cut their teeth on the platform. One of my favourites were Liverpool-based Psygnosis, which produced such classics as Shadow of the Beast, the aforementioned puzzle game Lemmings and platformer/shooter The Killing Game Show. They later went on to garner wider appeal on the PlayStation 1 with games like Destruction Derby, WipeOut and the Discworld games. They were absorbed into Sony around the year 2000 and they seem to just be treading water these days.
Psygnosis were also well known for their, at the time, very impressive graphics. It’s fair to say that for a brief period in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Amiga could output some good looking games for a (fairly) affordable price tag.
Another big Amiga developer was Bullfrog, founded by the all-too-well-known Peter Molyneux. Some of their Amiga firsts were the god sim Populous, an early attempt at real-time strategy with Powermonger and Syndicate. Later titles would have much wider platform releases as the company grew in stature, such as Theme Park, but the Amiga was still popular enough that they released versions for the system when they could.
“Es ist für meine Hausaufgaben, Mutter!”
I mentioned above that the system was also very popular in Germany and so it would be rude not to discuss a few of their developers as well.
Rainbow Arts were an extremely prolific publisher/developer that pumped out a fair few titles in their time. Some of their biggest hits were the platform/shooter Turrican (which bore more than a passing resemblance to Konami’s Contra series) and Katakis (which bore more than a passing resemblance to Irem’s R-Type). In fact, Katakis was so similar to R-Type that Activision, who held the European distribution rights at the time, told the developer that they would avoid taking them to court if they produced the Amiga port of their title for them. Now that’s a compliment, folks.
This might sound shady, but a lot of Amiga dev’s were very small and they often took inspiration from the big Japanese console and arcade games that were popular at the time, trying to recreate them in a way that could be played at home. Sometimes this was out of fondness for the original or because nobody was interested in making an Amiga port. It doesn’t seem that crazy these days, with many games getting spiritual sequels of now defunct franchises; Mighty No. 9, Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, etc. Of course, the big difference there is that all those games are made by the original directors, but something like Axiom Verge is probably a better example of my point.
“No really, mum. It *is* for my homework!”
But it wasn’t all games. The Amiga had some pretty nifty “serious” software too. One very well known example to any Amiga owner is EA’s (yes, that EA) Deluxe Paint series. Now, Deluxe Paint was definitely available on other systems later on but it appeared on the Amiga first and Deluxe Paint II was more-or-less bundled with every A500 sold in the UK at one point.
This piece of software became a high water mark for pixel art at the time and I remember spending hours on it, just doodling with the various tools and brushes. It was incredibly powerful, with many ways to render shapes and effects, but it was also incredibly easy to learn. It wasn’t uncommon for Amiga magazines at the time to feature fan art submissions and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least few of those creators received job offers off the back of their work.
The late 80’s and 90’s were a fertile time for home-made electronic music too, and there were absolutely *tons* of music software titles available for the system, each with funkier names than the last. Samplitude, TigerCub, Instant Music and the rather excellently labelled Dr. T’s Midi Recording Studio were but a few of the options available. Samples and sequencing were a big part of the Amiga music scene and this was often reflected in some outrageously cool tracks in video games as well.
The GUI OS for Amiga was Workbench, a Windows-esque desktop environment where you could store files, open office programmes or listen to horrendous MIDI files, etc. It was my first introduction to that kind of thing, though I mostly spent my time just turning the mouse pointer into a cute little penguin or something. I remember having word processing and spreadsheet software, though I’m not entirely sure what a nine-year-old boy would need with either of them.
A common system crash for the Amiga was something called “Guru Meditation”, which was some kind of memory issue I believe. Seeing that flashing red error bar was never a good thing.
Viruses were a thing but anti-virus software was not, as far as I can remember, so there was always a sinking feeling in your stomach if you borrowed a dodgy diskette from a friend and your computer went straight into a boot failure. How naive we were…
I also remember loads of magazine cover discs would go on about Mandelbrot fractals as well. I guess the kind of computing power required to generate them before then was something only mainframes or universities had, so you’d often find a Mandelbrot generator bundled along with the first level of the newest action game that month, etc.
At the time, I had no idea what they were (and they were hardly instant) but it was one of those things that I remember looking at and thinking, “Oh this is cool…”
So that’s my little walk down memory lane. Like I said, I could have banged on about the video games all day but there will be plenty of chance for that in the comments below. If there’s enough interest, I might even do a follow-up article for this. As I understand it, the Amiga community still has a small but dedicated following even these days, though they are effectively just modern PC’s with a different operating system on now.
Did you have an Amiga? Perhaps you had a later model or you knew somebody who did? Either way, if you have any thoughts, comments or queries, please free to chime in.
Thanks for reading.