Do we even have NSF56k warnings anymore?
Anyways, I've spent about a year now exploring the Amiga Format and I've had a blast. Today, getting into Amiga gaming is easier than it's ever been, and I'm of the opinion that it's a style of retro gaming that is worth looking into. It's no secret on this site that I adore retro gaming - I wouldn't hesistate to call the 16-bit generation my favorite in all of gaming. The conventions, styles, and general methods of gameplay from that period of time remain fun to me to this very day. That isn't to say I reject modern gaming, but rather, if I have the choice, I will go back to that period 9 times out of 10. As someone who grew up with the Sega Genesis and SNES, I've found that there are entire catalogs of games of similar style and complexity out there for the other, more obscure formats. This is basically the sister thread to my What's a Turbo Grafx 16
thread, intended as a primer to getting into Amiga gaming and fleshing out the mystique surrounding it.
What is Amiga?
The history of Amiga is long, complex, and fascinating
but, being that this is a primer thread, I'll skip to the heart of the discussion. Amiga is a series of computers brought out by Commodore in 1985 (the same year the NES was released in North America). This description, however, sort of sells the format (the correct term when describing the Amiga as a whole, instead of "console") short. When people say computer, most people will think of something akin to DOS or Windows, but Amiga isn't really like that. It's more like a video game console than anything else, which goes back to its conceptual roots, where it was originally envisioned as a video game console that could be expanded into a personal computer. As such, it shares more features in common with console gaming than most other computers. In parts of the world, namely the UK and eastern Europe, Amiga was the most popular and primary gaming format by a wide margin from about 1986 until around 1993, completely dominating the NES, SMS, Genesis, and SNES.
Global Popularity (or lack there-of)
That last line might have caught you off guard. Amiga bigger than the NES, Genesis, and SNES? If that's the case, why is it virtually unheard of in the US and Japan? Well, for a multitude of reasons, the Amiga simply did not catch on in those regions (at least, not to the extent it caught on in Europe). The circumstances surrounding this are explained in detail in that Amiga History link I posted above, but the long short of it goes all the way back to the Video game Crash of 1983.
While it's mostly assumed that the crash was global (and to an extent it was) the reaction to said crash were not universal. Where as, in the US, we pretty much abandoned gaming until the industry was revived in 1985 by Nintendo, in Europe, the crash signified a switch from dedicated gaming consoles towards gaming computers. Rather than buying machines completely dedicated to gaming, from the early 80's until the mid 90's, Europeans bought into machines which looked like a computer, but behaved like a game console. It's during this period that the greatest European gaming computers took over the market, from the ZX Spectrum 48k, to the Atari ST (Atari remained a huge gaming force in Europe well into the 90's, unlike the US). The best, and most supported of these gaming machines was undoubtedly the Amiga, which was low cost compared to the IBM PC or Macintosh, but boasted graphics and sound on par with a Sega Genesis.
Features of the Amiga Format
The Amiga format is defined by two characteristics - its CPU and its GPU. At the heart of the Amiga format the motorola m68k processor, a 16-bit (and later, 32-bit) CPU operating at roughtly 24 mhz (usually). Those with an eye for retro-gaming will likely know this processor as the same processor that powered the Sega Genesis, Neo Geo AES and MVS, and numerous other game machines (like the Sharp x68k, Capcom CPS2, Tandy FM Towns, etc). The M68k inside the amiga is much faster than those typically found in consoles, however (the Genesis, for example, operates at 7 mhz, while the Sega CD's m68k operates at 14 mhz). The most defining component of the Amiga, however, is it's GPU. Upon release, the Amiga was undoubtedly the most advanced home electronics equipment ever released, and it remained that way until about 1990 (when the SNES was released). It's imperative that one remembers the time frame when the Amiga was released. In 1985, computer gaming largely was black and white. Console gaming still looked more like the Commodore 64 than anything else. Comparable computers offered CGA (read, 4 colors - cyan, magenta, yellow, green, and white (and black)) colors. The average computer looked like this:
The average console game looked like this:
The amiga, by contrast, looked like THIS:
This image of King Tut is one of the most enduring images of the Amiga. It was very widely shown off as a display of the graphical capabilities of the Amiga at the time, and this, along with a strong endorsement by Andy Warhol, established the Amiga as the first multimedia computer. Before apple became associated with video editing and photoshop, Amiga was there doing the exact same thing with it's incredible video toaster hardware and Deluxe Paint (probably EA's greatest piece of software ever). If you were in television or film, you used an Amiga at the time to do video editing. If you worked in print, you used an Amiga with deluxe paint to do your work. If you made games, for the NES, SMS, Sega Genesis, SNES, etc - you used an Amiga with deluxe paint to create your sprites and backgrounds. In short, the Amiga was the format of choice when it came to anything video or audio.
Speaking of that audio component, the Amiga boasted the most impressive audio hardware hardware of any machine for quite a while. It was only when the Sound blaster 32 eventually released that it found an equal. Amiga games use a format called .mod, short for modulation, which provided a number of channels to play music created using samples. It's perhaps most comparable to midi, although it has certain restrictions which gave it its own unique flavor. Like just about every great gaming machine, the music for the Amiga has a very unique sound which is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the hardware. The best way to demonstrate the awesome capabilities of the Amiga is to compare music written for the Amiga to its contemporaries:
This is stage 1-1 (wilderness) from Golden Axe on the System 16 arcade board:
This is the Sega Genesis version:
And this is the Amiga version:
This is the Rave music from Cool spot on the Sega Genesis:
This is the SNES version:
And this is the same song from Cool Spot on the Amiga:
Whether you prefer the Amiga version or not is up to you (I personally much prefer the Amiga versions of both songs above) but what is undeniable is that there is a certain sound inherent to the Amiga versions. Again, keeping a reference to the time this hardware was released will give you a much better appreciation for the sort of power it had.
Games on the Amiga were distributed in two formats - 3.5" Floppy disk:
And 650 mb CD-Rom. Disc art for these CDs range from console-quality, like this chuck rock 2 label:
Link'd for huge
to well-below shareware and freeware quality labels, like this Guardian label:
Link'd for huge
Games for the Amiga don't need to be installed, in fact most cannot be installed. Nor do they have to be manually launched from the OS (called workbench on the Amiga). To boot a game, you simply pop the disk into the Amiga and turn it on. The machine will then boot into the game. Turning the Amiga on without a game inserted will result in a purple screen prompting a game to be inserted, as most Amigas didn't support a hard drive (and thus, workbench itself was distributed on floppys which were booted into just like a game):
Additionally, unlike the IBM PC or Macintosh, or virtually any modern PC, the Amiga didn't need a specialized computer monitor. Although most amigas were shipped with a standardized (and incredible) 1080S monitor from commodore, the machines were intended to be used with a standard TV, and most software was written with a normal TV in mind. Almost all Amigas feature a standard RF-out port, or an A/V port. In fact, finding an amiga with a VGA-out port is actually pretty hard to do, as, on most models of Amiga, VGA-out was sold as a separate add-on. Today, this is the ideal Amiga setup:
Like most European gaming computers, the Amiga used a standard Atari 9-pin controller port. This is both a blessing and a curse. For the vast majority of the Amiga's life, but any sega or atari controller works with it. As such, most games use only 1 button and up to jump, but you can modify an SMS or Genesis controller to map up to a second button easily. A few games use button 2 on sega controllers, but due to the way the A button is read on a genesis controller (it shares the pin with the B button and is toggled via a high-pin switch), 3 button gaming isn't feasible on an Amiga.
With the introduction of the CD32, however, the Amiga did get a standardized 6-button controller which works with many late-amiga games, and is only compatible with the Amiga (i.e. you can't use it on a genesis). Unfortunately, it's pretty much trash:
There exists only 1 third party CD32 controller, but luckily it's goddamn awesome. It goes by two names, either the "honey bee controller" or the "competition pro CD32" (not to be confused with the competition Pro, which was an extremely popular 2-button joystick for the amiga). It is essentially a mashup of all the 16-bit controllers - shape and D pad of the genesis, button layout of the SNES, and turbo switches of the Turbo Grafx 16. I have two of them, and it's probably my favorite controller from that era:
Additionally, every Amiga supports a 2-button mouse (usually plugged in to controller port 1) and, obviously, a keyboard.
Models of Amiga
When I got into the Amiga, I was at first completely overwhelmed by the number of models and configurations of Amigas that existed. Amiga 500, Amiga 600, Amiga 1000, Amiga 2000, Amiga 1200, Amiga 3000, Amiga CDTV, Amiga CD32, Amiga 4000, OCS, ECS, AGA, and so forth. To add to the confusion, the Amiga models aren't sequential, and thus it's not enough to simply choose a large number and expect a great Amiga. The Amiga 2000, for example, is in some ways inferior to the Amiga 600, and was released earlier. Some versions might lack a specific port or interface, some have less ram, some have more, some are compatible with a hard drive, some are not, etc.
In reality, there are only 2 models of Amiga you need to worry about - the Amiga 500 and the Amiga 1200, and each of these comes in two main flavors (computer or console). Though it's all, at the heart, essentially the same hardware with minor tweaks and upgrades, pretty much all Amiga gaming can be broken down into these two types.
For the sake of simplicity, I'll say that the Amiga 500 is comparable to a stock sega genesis in that the vast majority of games released for the format are Amiga 500 games. The Amiga 1200 can be compared to the 32X, in that it saw a speed increase in the CPU, and the graphics chip (called AGA) was improved (although not as drastically as compared to the Genesis->32X transition). More importantly, the Amiga 1200 is mostly backwards compatable with the Amiga 500 library, outside of a handful of games.
The Amiga 500
The Amiga 1200
Now as I mentioned, these two models themselves can largely be bought in 2 different configurations - one shaped like a computer, and one shaped like a console. The Amiga 500 and 1200 refers to the computer shaped models, while their consolized counterparts are the CDTV and CD32 respectively. The CDTV is an Amiga 500, sans floppy drive, that is massive and shaped like an old-school VCR. The CD32 is an Amiga 1200 that is tiny, looks like a Sega Genesis, and also lacks a floppy drive.
Now your first inclination might be to assume the consolized versions are superior. In a lot of ways, they're easier to get into - they're familiar, easy to set up, and aesthetically pleasing. However the lack of a floppy drive really hurts - the vast majority of Amiga games are floppy only. And while you can add a floppy drive to both, doing so is expensive - more so than picking up an additional Amiga 1200 or Amiga 500 to go along with your CDTV or CD32 would be.
As I mentioned, the Amiga 1200 can play most Amiga 500 games (the number of games which cannot be played on an Amiga 1200 today is insignificantly tiny) making it overall the best selection if you're getting into Amiga. The Amiga 1200 was faster (featuring an 68030 32-bit CPU over a stock 68000 16-bit CPU), more ram standard (2 mb over the 512kb in the 500), and had an improved GPU (which allowed for AGA (advanced graphics accelerator) games instead of the standard OCS (original chip set) graphics of the Amiga 500 or the ECS (Enhanced Chip Set) of the Amiga 600). There do exist a tiny number of CD32 exclusive games (as in, games only released on Amiga in the CD32 format), most noticeably Flink (which also saw a Sega CD port).
Disadvantages of Amiga gaming
While, over all, I enjoy the experience the Amiga gives me, I cannot simply ignore some big downfalls associated with Amiga gaming. While, overall, I'd compare the experience of playing an Amiga to that of playing a Super NES or Sega Genesis, in many ways it is noticeably inferior.
Getting into Amiga gaming involves getting around a lot of barriers. I dont think most are willing to do the research or put in the money needed to make playing on an actual Amiga worthwhile. you really do need the competion pro controllers, and the good games go for anywhere between $40-$70 after shipping from the UK. When you do wind up with a sweet, full setup, its actually a decent console-like experience. but I suspect many people who impulse buy will be turned off by the prices involved. cheap games tend to be shitty games, like oscar or dangerous streets.
And thats not even getting into specific quirks about amiga gaming in general. Suffice to say you need to temper your expectations. If you go in expecting, for example, full screen gaming, you're going to be disappointed. the vast majority of games run in small windows that are maybe 70% of the total screen, normally in the upper right corner of the screen.
A screenshot of Shinobi that shows off the black boarder surrounding the screen. And dont expect to use every button on that gamepad - you'll be lucky to get 2 buttons at the most. And this leads me to the concept of up for jumping. See, most Amiga games used only 1 button (since most simply used Atari 2600 or similar joysticks) so that button was used for firing most often. In truth, most game from that era didn't need more than 2 buttons, especially platformers which mapped jump to a button. Thus, to get around this limitation, most developers would map the up direction on the joystick to jump. In Great Giana sister, for example, jump jumps while the button is used to throw fireballs. For this reason, it is very wise to track down an Amiga Gravis gamepad, which has up mapped to a button, especially if you've cut your teeth on mainstream consoles. The good games on the cd32 that weren't quick and dirty ports will normally run closer to full screen, and will spare you the "joy" of pressing up to jump, but those sorts of games are rarer.
I hope you dont demand music in every game. or sound effects. or both. some games will give you the choice of one or the other, but not many will let you have both.
If you go in with an open mind and can get passed these flaws, Amiga gaming isn't terrible. But dont let that 32-bit claim fool you, you're getting something much closer to the sega genesis than a sega saturn (and in 9 out of 10 cases, if a game is released on both the genesis and Amiga, the genesis version is better). that said, the few games which are really worth playing exhibit none of these flaws, but as I noted, you will have to pay a bit for those games.
The biggest flaw, however, revolves around actually obtaining and using the hardware.
Importing an Amiga
As I mentioned earlier, the Amiga was a massive hit in Europe, but it didn't make a huge splash in the US or japan. In fact, the CD32 was never even officially released in the US, seeing only an extremely limited release in japan (as in, less than 100 units). Because it's a much more European-centric format, the overwhelming majority of its software is written for the PAL standard, not NTSC. For this reason alone, getting an NTSC Amiga is not recommended, as in most cases you're going to be missing out on 90% of the format's best titles. But, as anyone who has ever looked into the subject is well aware, getting something meant for PAL to display correctly on an NTSC screen is an extreme exercise in frustration.
Luckily for you, the reader of this thread, I spent over half a grand trying out various hardware solutions so that you don't have to. If you do chose to import hardware, don't skimp on the video converter - cheap solutions simply won't work. I first tried a cheap Pal->NTSC converter and it never powered on. I tried other video converters of varying quality, and most got hung up around the need for a non-interlaced signal. After trying almost a dozen converters, I found one that works perfectly with both the Amiga 500, and Amiga 1200 (along with the Amiga CD32):
The Atlona CDM-660 typically goes for about $150 online, although you can find it for cheaper if you really look around. It'll convert both an S-video and composite video signal both ways (either PAL->NTSC, or NTSC->PAL). In truth, this is an awesome piece of hardware that, if you're really
into retro gaming, has uses beyond just the Amiga. The only major downside is that it doesn't support RF-input, requiring an RF->Composite converter if you're looking to get into, say, Amstrad CPC gaming. But for it's cost, it's very useful. Compared to other converters, the video quality is excellent, without a hint of ghosting or blur that typifies these sort of converters (in fact, when outputting through S-video, the picture quality is almost too crisp).
This isn't all you're going to need, however. European outlets output at 220v, while our American outlets output at 110v. You're going to need a power inverter to get this machine turned on. Unfortunately, places like fry's tend to only stock plug converters, which simply change the size and shape of the plug. Do NOT use these - they're cheap and will MELT within hours. They're extremely dangerous and you're better off just lighting your $20 on fire, as its safer. I use this instead:
These are a bit pricey - I paid $60 for mine (well,$120 actually, since I have two) but they're high quality and most importantly they are SAFE. You can safely keep this baby plugged in 24/7 without worry. Make sure you get something rated for at least 300 w - I went with 500 w actually just to be certain.
With both that video converter and the power inverter, you can safely connect your European Amiga to an American TV and outlet and enjoy the full range of what the Amiga offers. Best of all you can connect two Amigas to that video converter at the same time - my CD32 connects via S-video and my Amiga 1200 connects via composite, with a switch on the back to change video. I daisy chain the inverters and thus my entire setup looks like this:
Games can be easily imported via Ebay, although you can expect to pay between $40 to $70 for complete games (box, manual, disks) after shipping. Some games will require the manual as a form of copy protection, although there exists projects online to provide digital copies of Amiga manuals for the purpose of defeating this copy protection (thus enabling second-hand sales).
I realize however that this is way, way more than I could ever hope most people would go through to experience Amiga gaming, which leads me to the subject of emulation.
Emulation - Legal, modern day Amiga experience
For me, there is nothing better than experiencing the real deal on real hardware. For most, however, the best option is to play Amiga on their modern PC. Unlike grey-area emulation of console games, Amiga emulation is 100% legal, and is, for most, the preferred way to experience the Amiga today. Following Commodore's closing, ownership of "Amiga" changed hands many times until, today, it resides with the people who put out Amiga Forever
. Amiga Forever is an incredible package - $30 gets you legal copies of every Amiga kickstart rom, along with a legal copy of Amiga Workbench 3.1, and a registered copy of Win-UAE, the actual emulator. This is everything you will need to run Amiga games (and programs) on a modern PC. With this setup, you can either A) Run real Amiga CD32/CDTV games on your PC via your CD-Rom drive, or
Play freeware/public domain games. Tons of developers have released their entire amiga libraries online for free, including Delphie software (Another World, Flashback) and Team-17 (Super Stardust, numerous others).
I have a decent Amiga library today - 53 games across both CD and Floppy. Which leads me to the meat of this topic (and likely why people are still reading this):