Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Samba de Amiga! (part 1)

The holy grail for teenage nerds in the 1980s.
(image from Pinterest)
The Amiga was one of those systems I desperately wanted but which always seemed just out of reach. Originally designed in 1983 as a cutting-edge game machine, the Amiga hardware was purchased by Commodore two years later and repurposed as a home computer, competing with other 16-bit powerhouses like the Atari ST and Apple's Macintosh.

Yet despite the keyboard and floppy drive, the Amiga could never escape its true purpose. There was a lot you could do with the computer, from composing music to producing home videos, but Amiga owners always found themselves returning to its vast library of video games. Amiga games were typically designed in the United Kingdom, where the computer was most popular, and the European influence could plainly be seen in their lavish backgrounds and a quirky sense of humor.

I've got one of these now! Geez,
it took long enough...
(image from Amazon)
Recognizing the Amiga's strengths and the increasing popularity of the video game market, Commodore tried turning the machine back into a game console with the CD32 in 1993. Sadly, the company had been wrung dry of cash by that point and could no longer give its machine the support it needed to flourish. When Commodore went bankrupt a year later, it was game over for the CD32 and the rest of the Amiga line.

Yet even in death, the Amiga remained fascinating to me. I've spent hours playing its games in the WinUAE emulator, discovering everything I missed in the 1980s... as well as a fair share of titles I would have been better off leaving in the past. Even the lousy games have been an education, and here's what I've learned so far about the Amiga experience:

 The Amiga was, in its original design, limited to just 32 colors. The more clever developers could squeeze a lot more out of the hardware with a special technique called Hold and Modify, but this was better suited to static images, not animation (and by extension, games). The color palette would get a big boost years later with AGA, a technology which allowed later Amiga systems to display 256 colors out of a selection of... sixteen million? Yeah, I think I could work with that!

Left: Amiga (32 colors)
Right: TurboGrafx-16 (256 colors)
  You'd be amazed at what can be done with just 32 colors, though. Games like Parasol Stars and Snow Bros. match up fairly well with their console counterparts despite the Amiga's color deficit, and other titles like Super Methane Bros. and Zool are blindingly bright. However, the absence of color is deeply felt in more realistic games, like the ports of Mortal Kombat and Super Street Fighter II. If you thought the latter game suffered on the Genesis, you ain't seen nothin' yet...

 The Amiga is capable of producing crisp digitized speech and other sound samples... and boy did developers take advantage of it! Sometimes this resulted in powerful soundtracks like the one in Agony, but sometimes you'll wish the designers had shown a little restraint, like when every item you collect in Super Methane Bros. comes with its own wacky noise. There are a lot of items in that game, by the way. I hope you brought just as much patience for stupid sound effects.

Nope, you're done. Go home.
 The British seem to have a serious allergy to continues. Some Amiga games limit you to a couple, while others give you none at all. It's no wonder that when these games were pirated, they included "trainers" which gave players infinite lives or health. Infinite health might be just enough to finish a ball-buster like Shadow of the Beast...

 Some Amiga games give you music or sound effects, but not both at once. Sometimes you're allowed to choose between the two, but occasionally that choice will be forced on you. Platformers like Oscar and Zool have no background music and feel naggingly incomplete without it. And kind of creepy too, now that I think about it.

 The motif for the lion's share of Amiga games (especially Psygnosis games) is "progressive rock album cover come to life."  Be prepared to see a lot of surreal landscapes littered with aliens, dragons, and combinations of the two. (Admittedly, there are worse things than having your video game look like a Roger Dean poster.)

No controller standard
means you get to spend
some quality time with
your old friend, hand-
cramping 2600 joystick!
 The Amiga was designed with two DB-9 joystick connectors... the same kind you'd see on the Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis. There'd be nothing wrong with that, except there was never a standard controller for Amiga computers, forcing users to plug in their single button joysticks from the Atari era. This problem wasn't addressed until the CD32 was launched in 1993, and by then, dozens of games that had no business being played with one button were already available for the Amiga. Whoops...

 Originally, Amiga games had to be loaded from a floppy disc. If you have the option- and you almost certainly do if you're playing these games on an emulator- I would suggest using a virtual hard drive instead. You can set one up by using these instructions provided by GBATemp member Dansmell. When you're finished, you can quickly and painlessly access your games from Workbench, a user interface that's the rough Amiga equivalent of Windows. You can even use the hard drive file you made in the recently released UAE4All for the Playstation Vita, making it even more handy.

Oh, I'm not done yet! I'll be reviewing a handful of Amiga games in the second part of this feature, so stay tuned!

(Special thanks to Wikipedia, Old Computers, and Lemon Amiga for providing valuable information for this article.)

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