Reminiscing about the Amiga

February 03, 2019

The author at his computer sometime in the 90s. (I think I'm already in my PC days here, but note that the I ♥ My Amiga sticker persists.

My first real computer was an Amiga 500, purchased in 1991 from a Babbage’s (or maybe it was still a Software Etc.) when I was 9 years old. Even though it was never a particularly popular platform in North America, I don’t recall really being aware of it at the time. Sure, there was way more space dedicated to PC/DOS (“IBM compatible”) software, but the Amiga steadfastly held onto a dimly lit shelf at the back of the store. Besides, the computer and the software were CHEAP! Cheap enough that an upper-lower-middle-class kid from the ‘burbs could afford them. (Memories are hazy, but I think it was mostly financed from birthday cash. I might have had a little extra parental help because a computer was educational.) Regardless, the Amiga brand was definitely on life support in North America by the early 90s. Most sources on the Amiga state that the 500 was discontinued by 1991; I probably got a good deal because it was on clearance.

A computer opened a lot of creative opportunities that were previously closed off to me, such as programming, graphics editing, and music creation. But as with everything in my pre-pubescent life, my primary motivation was games. Given the Amiga’s very limited marketing presence in America, I’m pretty sure my main vector of exposure was VideoGames & Computer Entertainment (VG&CE), the early gaming magazine headed up by the esteemed Andy Eddy and featuring the writing of the late, great Bill “The Game Doctor” Kunkel. Alongside Nintendo Power and EGM, VG&CE was one of the earliest post-crash gaming magazines to gain any real traction. VG&CE distinguished itself from the competition with a (relatively speaking) serious tone and coverage of virtually every even remotely relevant computer and console platform. In practice, an early issue of VG&CE usually featured a lot of NES coverage, some token Master System review or strategy guide, and a bunch of multi-platform computer games. What caught my young eye was that the Amiga version was frequently showcased in screenshots of computer games, and it usually looked better than the PC or Atari ST screenshots. One particular example etched into my mind is a Bad Dudes ad with screenshots of Bad Dudes (and Double Dragon) for a number of platforms. The Amiga version looks vastly superior to all but the Atari ST port and is spitting distance from arcade perfect.

Bad Dudes ad. Source: extralives.wordpress.com

Amiga History 101

(Note: This is a very condensed history of the Amiga as it pertains to my personal experiences. For a much more detailed version, check out Jeremy Reimer’s excellent History of the Amiga series over at Ars Technica.)

When I got my Amiga 500 in 1991, it felt like the future had arrived. Little did I know that the Amiga platform was already close to six years old at the time. The first Amiga model, the Amiga 1000, was released in 1985, although manufacturing issues ensured it was available in limited quantities until 1986. The Amiga was primarily the brainchild of Jay Miner, an engineer who had previously designed the Atari 2600’s TIA (the display and sound hardware) and expanded upon it for the Atari 5200 and Atari’s 8-bit computer line (400/800/XL/XE). Miner left Atari to work on the Amiga largely out of a desire to create a computer based around the 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU. (The 2600, 5200, and Atari 8-bit computers used the MOS 6502 CPU, the same CPU that powered the Apple II, Commodore 64, and NES.) The Amiga’s original development followed a circuitous path, with Miner’s original vision for a computer turning into a gaming console, then coming back around to being a full computer after the 1983 game crash. Along the way, a number of talented hardware and software engineers joined the Amiga project, including RJ Mical and Dave Needle, the team that would later go on to design the Atari Lynx and 3DO Interactive Multiplayer.

The Amiga 500 in all its glory! Source: oldcomputers.net

By 1985, the Amiga Corporation had been purchased by Commodore, which was in desperate need of a new computer platform and technical staff after Jack Tramiel left to run Atari Corp. and took a significant chunk of Commodore staff with him. In retrospect, the post-Tramiel Commodore purchasing Amiga was a classic case of a clueless corporate entity not knowing what to do with a forward-thinking product. Despite being competitively priced and arguably superior to the competition, the Amiga 1000 launch was a nigh-on disaster, hampered by poor marketing, Commodore’s managerial incompetence, and technical issues with manufacturing and system stability. While the release of the Amiga 500 and 2000 models in 1987 led to a marginal turnaround in America and larger success in a few other markets (primarily the UK and Germany), it was all in vain, as cheaper, improved Macs and especially PCs took over the market, effectively squashing all other competing platforms.

Flash forward to my 9-year-old self in 1991 with his new Amiga 500. Even though it was a relatively basic computer and a dying platform, for me, it was totally the coolest shit ever. It could play games that were far more advanced than any gaming console and gave me my first real taste of programming. It had graphics editing and music tracker software that was way ahead of anything else I had ever seen. I had dreamed of having a computer from a young age, and it was everything I imagined it to be and more. A few years later, I was able to upgrade to an Amiga 1200 with an amazing 2MB of RAM and a 40MB HDD. I loved it. I could install Workbench and multi-disk games like Civilization, bypassing the constant drudgery of floppy-swapping that was common with Amiga games. Once Commodore folded in 1994, though, the Amiga was effectively a dead platform. Eventually, my family got a 486 running DOS and Windows 3.1, which was in some ways a step back from the Amiga. (I certainly never had to resolve IRQ conflicts on my Amiga.) I would continue exploring and learning more about computers with PCs, but my fond memories of the Amiga continue with me to this day.

AmigaOS

Amiga Workbench 1.0, slightly earlier than the version that shipped with my Amiga 500, but very similar. Source: GUIdebook

A computer is nothing without a good operating system. When AmigaOS shipped with the Amiga 1000 in 1985, it had two distinguishing features: a full WIMP GUI, and a pre-emptive multitasking kernel. The former is not particularly that remarkable. GUI-based operating systems were clearly the future for desktop computing in 1985: The original Macintosh launched the previous year with a GUI-based OS; GEM (Graphical Environment Manager), which would eventually form the basis of the Atari ST’s TOS, was first released in 1985; and even the very first version of Windows limped its way out by the end of 1985. Relative to the best of these early GUI OSes, “classic” Mac OS, AmigaOS holds its own. It’s a bit clunkier and uglier than the Mac OS GUI, but it was highly customizable and provided some deeper functions that the Mac OS lacked, like a CLI (AmigaShell). While it was not a trailblazer, AmigaOS provided one of the best GUI experiences that could be had in mid-80s computing.

A solid GUI alone may not have significantly distinguished AmigaOS from its competitors, but its pre-emptive multitasking kernel, Exec, was truly revolutionary. Designed and implemented by one engineer, Carl Sassenrath, Exec is an engineering marvel. The short explanation of Exec’s pre-emptive multitasking is that it could manage multiple running processes through a scheduler that divvied up processor cycles among the running processes. It managed to do this on the Amiga 1000, a computer that shipped with 256KB of RAM. Exec had to cut some corners to do this. The lack of memory protection in particular could cause system instability, especially in early versions of AmigaOS. A rogue process (either malicious or just plain buggy) could easily write to some part of RAM that it shouldn’t, crashing the whole system. Multitasking could also essentially by disabled indefinitely by a process with a simple call to Exec.

Despite its flaws, Exec’s pre-emptive multitasking was a big part of what made AmigaOS feel so special. We take multitasking for granted today: At any given moment, I could have a dozen or more browser tabs, Spotify, Visual Studio Code, Skype, and more running on my computer. I know that Spotify will keep playing music while I’m typing this post or writing some code in VSC. In 1985, this would not be possible on almost any computer available for sale to consumers. During my research, I only came across one other OS with pre-emptive multitasking available for a consumer computer that preceded AmigaOS: Sinclair QDOS for the obscure Sinclair QL. (QDOS is probably best known for being one of Linus Torvalds’s early inspirations for Linux.) Mac OS could for the most part only run one application at a time until 1987, when System 5 introduced cooperative multitasking, which allows processes to yield control to other processes (but not for a scheduler to manage the allocation of cycles to those processes). Other early consumer-focused GUI OSes mostly provided cooperative multitasking, usually with at least some limitations or caveats. Pre-emptive multitasking in the 80s was largely relegated to the realm of expensive UNIX workstations and UNIX-like OSes aimed at programming hobbyists and students such as MINIX.

Exec, Intuition (AmigaOS’s windowing system/GUI), and some other core OS functions were combined into the Kickstart firmware. Kickstart was usually stored on a ROM chip and not upgradable unless you were handy with a soldering iron. The file manager, Workbench, came on disk. For most of the Amiga’s life (until 1994), Workbench was the official Commodore name of AmigaOS, despite it being only a small part of the overall OS. In practice, many programs (especially games) completely bypassed Workbench and booted directly from Kickstart. When I got my Amiga 1200 with a hard drive, I was able to install Workbench and some other programs to the hard drive, but even then many games still had to be booted from floppy.

The infamous, dreaded Guru Meditation. Source: ArtLung

AmigaOS wasn’t always stable (I saw my share of “Guru Meditation” errors, the Amiga equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), and sometimes it would grind interminably on some particularly difficult task. But it was generally an extremely well-designed and solid OS that was years ahead of its time. I had a bit of exposure to Macs around the same time I had my Amiga, and Mac OS was comparable, making up for its lack of pre-emptive multitasking by being a bit more streamlined and user-friendly. PCs running DOS or early versions of Windows generally lagged behind. I had the misfortune of switching to a PC a little bit before Windows 95 came out, and I was on Windows 3.1 until Windows 98. Windows 3.1 was a massive disappointment compared to AmigaOS. With Windows 9X, Microsoft would finally make a GUI-based, pre-emptive multitasking OS that more or less worked. They were only around a decade late to the party that AmigaOS started.

Software

Magazine Coverdisks

A typical issue of Amiga Format, looking like something out of a Jesus Jones music video. Source: Amiga Magazine Rack

Back in the early 90s, the Internet was still primarily the realm of academics and government institutions. The World Wide Web was limited to a handful of web servers hosting basic, text-based pages. There were BBSes, but modems were slow and expensive. Long distance calling charges were still a thing. I was an Amiga island, cut off from the few places where it thrived, like the UK and Germany. But there was one lifeline: Amiga-centric magazines from the UK, which would show up fairly regularly in bigger bookstores. These magazines usually came with a disk attached to the cover (sometimes two) filled with demos, utilities, and public domain software. There were many magazines covering the Amiga in the UK, but only two ever made it to my local magazine racks with any regularity: Amiga Format and its games-focused little sister Amiga Power.

I really can’t overestimate the importance of these magazines and their coverdisks in helping me learn about the Amiga. The magazines were full of news, technical guides, game reviews, and ads for mail order retailers. The coverdisks introduced me to AMOS, music trackers, the demo scene, and more. Amiga floppy disks were 880KB, a vanishingly small amount of space even then, but these Amiga magazine coverdisks really managed to pack a lot into an amount of space smaller than the size of an average web page today.

AMOS

I was interested in programming before I even got my Amiga. I had found a book on programming games in my school library, and I had seen some type-in BASIC programs elsewhere. With AMOS, I finally got my first chance to write some code. AMOS was a procedural BASIC variant for the Amiga. It was mainly oriented towards making games, and it had a bunch of built-in tools and functions for using the Amiga’s graphics and sound capabilities. It also made it pretty easy to use the joystick and mouse, so it was not particularly difficult to put a sprite up on the screen and have it moved by the joystick. I had a slightly simplified variation of AMOS called Easy AMOS, which came with a wonderful book that assumed zero previous programming knowledge. Truth be told, I was a little bit too young and inexperienced to grasp the more complicated aspects of programming at the time, but working with AMOS was my introduction to variables, arrays, conditionals, loops, functions, and even a bit of rudimentary debugging. I would put this knowledge to good use a few years down the line when I started writing more advanced programs in QBasic.

Babby's first programming language: Easy AMOS! Source: The Personal Computer Museum

Deluxe Paint

Deluxe Paint (or DPaint, as it was often called) was my first experience with graphics editing software. I got the AGA version as a pack-in with my Amiga 1200. Originally developed by Electronic Arts (yes, THAT Electronic Arts) as an in-house tool, Deluxe Paint debuted in 1985 nearly simultaneously with the Amiga 1000. Not only was it one of the first pieces of software for the Amiga, it was one of the first graphics editors for any platform. Deluxe Paint eventually became the go-to program in the 80s and early 90s for videogame pixel art. My artistic skill is next to nil, so I never got very far with Deluxe Paint. But it was staggeringly well-designed and feature-rich for such pioneering software. It still looks like a modern piece of software today.

Games

The popular Amiga 500 Batman Pack, with three games and Deluxe Paint II. Source: Ad astra

Although it did far more than just games, the Amiga had its biggest commercial success as a gaming platform. Even for me in America, where the Amiga was a niche platform for most of its life, there was a wide selection of games available. My local software store had a respectable amount of space devoted to Amiga games, although it was mostly older games by the time I got my Amiga 500. This was actually a very good thing for me: The games were usually heavily discounted (almost always $10 and under), and many of them were classics that I otherwise could not have played. I was able to amass a collection of most of the Sierra On-Line adventure games along with many other great (and not-so-great) games on the cheap. Of course, a lot of Amiga users built even bigger collections through piracy, but I wasn’t aware of that world until much later, since I didn’t have a modem and didn’t know anyone else who had an Amiga. In retrospect, I’m happier to have had the experience of getting big box games, with thick manuals and other “feelies”. There was something special about the era when a game like Ultima VI came with a cloth map.

Most Amiga games were not exclusive to the Amiga. This was the age of many competing computer platforms, so it was expected that a game could end up on some combination of the Amiga, IBM PC, Atari ST, Macintosh, Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800/XL/XE, and maybe even a console or two. That’s not even getting into the other computer platforms that were popular in Europe and Japan. But the Amiga was well-positioned to get good versions of the lion’s share of computer games during this time period. Major American publishers put out Amiga versions of their games up until around 1992. The Amiga was usually not the lead platform for American games, but the eventual Amiga port was almost always excellent. There was also no shortage of console and arcade ports to the Amiga, although they were often terrible (with a few notable exceptions).

The UK was the Amiga’s stronghold, where the Amiga 500 became something like a successor to the Commodore 64: An affordable computer that doubled as a far superior gaming machine than consoles. The Amiga’s UK presence was boosted by effective marketing and aggressively priced bundles with multiple games and other popular software like Deluxe Paint. For many top-tier UK developers, like Psygnosis, Team17, and DMA Design (better known these days as Rockstar North), the Amiga was the premier platform of the late 80s and early 90s. Games like Lemmings, Shadow of the Beast, and Cannon Fodder all debuted on the Amiga before getting ported to every other platform known to mankind. Many of the most popular European games on the Commodore 64 and other 8-bit computers were also ported to the Amiga. In quite a few of these cases, such as the Turrican games, the Amiga version was considered definitive.

I'll play this game some day... DMA Design's Hired Guns. Source: Lemon Amiga

Unfortunately for me, many of the UK games were out of reach. Most of them were not published in America, and importing was very expensive. I was able to use mail order services on a handful of occasions, but these were rare events. Worst of all, I occasionally ran into issues with running European software that was optimized for PAL on my NTSC hardware. The only other way I was able to experience the Amiga’s UK gaming scene was through the Amiga magazines and their demo disks, which only offered the barest taste. I salivated over amazing-looking games like Hired Guns, DMA Design’s first-person cyberpunk RPG, and Frontier: Elite II, David Braben’s open-world space sim.

I couldn’t come close to covering all the great games I discovered on the Amiga in this one post, never mind all the ones I never had the chance to play. These are just a handful of my most cherished games from the era. I have a long list of other games that I would like to write about in the future, some of which are obscure Amiga exclusives that deserve a more thorough review. In the meantime, all of these games are must-plays for anyone with the slightest interest in late 80s and early 90s computer games.

Civilization

Sid Meier's Civilization: A game that stands the test of time. Source: Moby Games

My most-played Amiga game by far was Sid Meier’s Civilization, which was my introduction to the world of 4x strategy games. Up until then, the closest I had come to a strategy game was probably renting Romance of the Three Kingdoms or some other similarly convoluted NES game. Civilization was complex, for sure, but it started off simply to draw you in. You begin with a single Settler unit, which can’t really do much except found a city. Then you start building other units and enhancements to your city, learning new technologies, expanding out with new cities, meeting other civilizations… and six hours later, you’re locked in war with the Mongols, desperately trying to learn Advanced Flight so you can build some Bomber units, and wrestling with whether or not you need to increase the tax rate. Every game was different, and the possibilities were endless.

I started playing Civilization on my Amiga 500, which had no hard drive. Since Civilization had four disks, this made for a lot of disk swapping. Just getting past the introduction to start a new game was usually at least an hour-long chore. Even after the game proper started, the game would halt and grind on disk loading with practically every move. Yet I played the damn game nearly every day after school for at least a year. Such was my obsession with Civilization. Whether I was building a spaceship, taking over the world, or just trying to deal with a warmongering Gandhi, I was thoroughly consumed by this game. Once I got my Amiga 1200 with its 40MB hard drive, Civilization was immediately installed. Later on during my PC days, I got Civilization II, and the obsession began all over again.

Graphic Adventures

My other favorites were mainly the graphic adventures of LucasArts and Sierra On-Line. I had a ton of Sierra On-Line games: most of the King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series and a few other oddities like Gold Rush! and Castle of Dr. Brain. Sierra On-Line games have a reputation today for being borderline sadistic, with frequent deaths and convoluted puzzles. I can confirm that this reputation is deserved, especially their earlier AGI games with text-based prompt interfaces. It wasn’t just needing to know the right words to type, although I clearly remember being confused as hell by the “brooch” item in King’s Quest II, because what 9 year old boy knows what a brooch is? No, the things that really made these games hellishly difficult were the constant, almost comically frequent deaths and the ease with which it was possible to put the game into an unwinnable state. Unless you had a hint book, the only way to beat these games was through a liberal use of save scumming and a lot of trial and error. The later SCI Sierra On-Line games were a lot friendlier to the player. Not only did they have point-and-click interfaces, they generally had slightly less frequent deaths and fewer chances to get into an unwinnable state. Even though I was way too young to understand a lot of its jokes, I loved Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work, one of the few Sierra games from this era that had no deaths or unwinnable states.

While Sierra On-Line provided me with an introduction to adventure games, the LucasArts SCUMM games took the genre to the next level. My first LucasArts adventure, Loom, was a beautiful, whimsical, and atmospheric fantasy. In a sharp break from Sierra On-Line’s design philosophy, it completely dispensed with the notion of deaths or unwinnable states, freeing the player to focus on the story, dialogue, and artwork. Even better was Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (which I played before the original). I believe I ended up importing Monkey Island 2 from the UK, since it was impossible to find in America. This caused some PAL/NTSC issues, namely the top of the screen getting cut off, which meant there were quite a few times when I couldn’t even read the full text of a conversation. It still captivated me to no end. It’s full of indelible characters, hilarious dialogue, and devilishly clever, but mostly logical puzzles. The Amiga version has slightly worse graphics than the IBM PC VGA version, but it holds its own remarkably well. It’s not just one of my fondest Amiga gaming memories, but one of my favorite adventure games.

King's Quest II: My very painful introduction to adventure games. Source: Moby Games

The Fool’s Errand

The Fool's Errand: A true cult classic. Source: The Fool's Errand et al.

Cliff Johnson’s The Fool’s Errand is one of the rare games to begin its life on the Macintosh before jumping to other platforms. While it has an ardent cult following to this day, it was obscure enough pre-Internet that I assumed I was one of very few that appreciated its sublimely infuriating puzzles. Originally released as a black and white Macintosh game, then ported to Amiga, IBM PC, and Atari ST with color added, The Fool’s Errand is unlike any other game you’ll ever play, except perhaps Cliff Johnson’s other works. It’s a collection of puzzles, a giant meta-puzzle, a non-linear narrative, and one of the most visually distinct games of the late 80s.

The Fool’s Errand works like this: The Fool is on a quest to gather the world’s fourteen treasures. He meets the Sun, who provides him with a map to the treasures, but the map is incomplete and jumbled. The game is presented via a series of written vignettes about the Fool’s journey to fix the map and obtain the treasures. Each vignette (80 in all) has a puzzle. Solving the puzzle opens up more vignettes and adds another piece to the map. Some of the puzzles are fairly basic, like word searches and mazes, but many are fiendishly tricky and require careful reading of the vignettes for clues. Even if you manage to finish these puzzles, solving the overarching meta-puzzle of the map and treasures requires a rare degree of dedication and skill. The puzzles are accompanied by carefully composed still images with silhouette characters, inspired by the classic animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and the writing is infused with dark, surreal humor. The Fool’s Errand stands as a relatively unappreciated classic, one that will appeal to anyone looking for a game that’s a little stranger and more cerebral.

The puzzles and art of The Fool's Errand. Source: Lemon Amiga

Links

  • Lemon Amiga: If you’re looking for information, reviews, and screenshots of Amiga games, this is the place to start.
  • Amiga Lore: You can find a plethora of Amiga information at this site, which encompasses several sub-sites, including a games database (Hall of Light) and an extensive collection of magazine scans (Amiga Magazine Rack). Between this and Lemon Amiga, virtually everything you need to know about the Amiga is at your fingertips.
  • The Fool’s Errand et al.: The original Macintosh version of The Fool’s Errand can be had for free at Cliff Johnson’s official site. No Amiga version, unfortunately, but you can also snag two of his other games for free (3 In Three, At the Carnival) and learn about The Fool’s Errand’s long-delayed sequel, The Fool and His Money.
  • Hardcore Gaming 101, Introduction to the Demoscene: The demoscene isn’t specific to the Amiga, but the Amiga was (and still is) an integral part of the scene.
  • The Gadget We Miss: The Video Toaster:  NewTek’s Video Toaster was an Amiga hardware expansion and software suite that could turn the Amiga into a broadcast-quality video production workstation. The Toaster was (relatively) affordable compared to the typical professional video production system: several thousand dollars versus several hundred thousand. I remember Video Toaster ads and articles all over Amiga magazines back in the day. It was a huge point of pride for Amiga owners, even if most of us couldn’t dream of affording it. It was widely used in the 1990s for video production on everything from local television news to seaQuest DSV.
  • How the Commodore Amiga Powered Your Cable System in the ’90s: In the 90s, the Prevue Guide Channel was what you watched when you were trying to figure out what’s on TV. Today, it’s appreciated for its vaporwave a e s t h e t i c. In its heyday, the Prevue Guide Channel was run on Amigas. Occasionally, you could even see a Guru Meditation pop up!