A brief look at hardware from the past – The Commodore Amiga

This ad from Amiga World in 1986 (the system came out the year before in 1985) doesn’t mince a lot of words to sell itself as the one-stop system for anything a user might have in mind. And doing it all in vibrant, state-of-the-art color and sound thanks to cutting edge hardware adding in the kind of pizazz that made an easy target of IBM’s monolithic reputation.

I never had an Amiga growing up, but I had always wondered at what kind of machine could create such incredible graphics. Why couldn’t the Apple II do it? Why did those Cinemaware games look so great on the Amiga?

The Commodore Amiga was a machine that was, in many ways, far ahead of its time. One thing that always stood out for me from many of the ads featuring Amiga entertainment and art-based software were amazingly detailed, eye-opening screenshots. The most iconic one is probably the Tutankhamen mask render on the cover of EA’s Deluxe Paint II. Compared to the puny graphics capabilities of the Apple II at the time or IBM PCs, the Amiga seemed to have landed from the future.

Gareth Knight, who maintains the Amiga History Guide, quotes the “Father of the Amiga”, Jay Miner, as saying that he wanted “…to build a super personal computer based around the Motorola sixty-eight thousand micro processor.” Back in the early 80s, he wanted to take a bite out of the then-highly lucrative market of video gaming with a machine that would dominate the space…much like what Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi had in mind with the Famicom.

The difference, however, was that this would be a machine that could play awesome games and be a part of the office at the same time.

Yamauchi had wanted to, as David Schaef notes in his book, “Game Over”, introduce a “Trojan Horse” into homes with a low-cost box that could be later expanded into PC-like functions. The Amiga was set up to do both at the same time without compromise. It would have been interesting to see what could have happened of the “Father of the Amiga”, Jay Miner, and Hiroashi Yamauchi had met up.

Another ad from Amiga World, this one boasting more of the Amiga’s capabilities with a number of fantastic screens including the very real boast of 4,096 colors onscreen (and not all of it was used for only a spreadsheet). It’s also a safe guess that using a picture of a classroom was a subtle jab at Apple.

A Road Paved with Good Intentions

According to Knight’s research, it all began back in the heady days of 1980. And like everything else, it was an idea that kicked things off.

Nolan Bushnell wasn’t too far off when he looked toward a refresh of the Atari VCS. He might have been a little too early in judging when one was needed before the system really took off, but he also wasn’t the only one thinking on what new hardware Atari could be working on.

Jay Miner, who has been working with the Atari 8-bit architecture in its game console and computers like the 400 and 800, proposes to use the Motorola 68000 chip as the core of a new system. Atari, happy with the way things are, aren’t receptive at adding another computer to their lineup. Also, thanks to a little financial juggling, had also avoided paying out bonuses to Jay, his fellow engineers, and a number of programmers. A number of the devs leave to form Activision as a result of Atari’s ongoing shenanigans. As for Jay, he leaves to work at a company designing specialty chips for pacemakers.

It’s not until 1982, two years later, that Jay gets a call from an old Atari friend, Larry Kaplan, and the two went on to create a company called Hi-Toro. Miner recalls having to juggle the low-cost video game console expectations of the backers versus his own expectations for a computer that could expand itself out into a powerful platform — again, much like what Yamauchi had intended for the Famicom in Japan. It’s interesting to think what could have happened if these two had gotten together.

Kaplan, however, left the company and Jay Miner moves up to fill the now-vacant position of vice president. The young company earned additional dough by designing and making game peripherals for consoles like the Atari 2600 while another internal group focused on designing the hardware under the codename of Lorraine. And last but not least, the company changed its name to something friendly (as well as to give it distance from the Toro lawnmower company), and Amiga Inc. was born.

The next few years after 1982 were rough. A number of individuals took out second mortgages to support the company. The Crash in ’83 had dried up the console market in North America leaving few takers for the peripherals they were making. Amiga started looking for outside funding from companies ranging from Apple to Sony, but none of them were interested. They then struck a deal with Atari for $500k, and then Atari would start changing the terms of the agreement. Amiga started to look for a way to survive and eventually came to Commodore’s doorstep.

Unfortunately for them, Jack Tramiel had left Commodore, an event that rippled through the company. Commodore had decided to sue a number of engineers that were leaving to join Tramiel’s new company which arose from the ashes of Warner Bros. piece of the Atari pie. Discovering the tie between Amiga and Atari, Tramiel decided to wage war in the courts by counter-suing Commodore. Long story short, Commodore bought the Amiga company outright to cancel whatever agreements Amiga had with the “old” Atari. But whatever suits they had leveraged against Tramiel were also dropped.

Lorraine survived to do battle with the Atari ST, the Macintosh, and the IBM PC as the Amiga 1000. The 16-bit market now had a war brewing between some very tough competition.

The Hardware

The Amiga 1000 was high-priced at $1,295 on release for only the system and keyboard. Add a $300 RGB monitor to it, and people were staring at a roughly $1600 system — unless they opted to hook it up to a television instead and could put up with the reduced clarity. Still, it was considerably cheaper than a few of its competitors, such as the 128k Macintosh which had a price tag of around $2500 at the time. The Amiga 1000 was like the Alienware of its time.

Commodore positioned the system as a high-end solution which ultimately didn’t help sales even though it was suitably equipped to handle a variety of tasks including video editing and graphic arts projects. It had expansion slots for daughtercards and was capable of addressing up to 8mb of memory with the right hardware add-ons.

The four-channel audio chip would also become incredibly popular not only with musicians but in the demo scene for its versatility. Each channel could be independently programmed, voices had an 8 to 9 octave range, and a MIDI interface later introduced the ability to attach high-end synthesizers to the system. Gaming would also benefit from the power of the chip, as would those on the Atari ST, with dramatic soundtracks accompanying the action or as part of an intro. This was a far cry from what the Apple II, or a number of other home-based systems, had at the time.

The heart of the system was made up of three custom designed chips — Agnus, Paula, and Denise. Agnus handled the memory gruntwork between the 68000 CPU and the other two chips. Paula was what gave the Amiga its sound along with handling a few I/O chores. And it was Denise that was largely responsible for the video.

What made the Amiga stand out was not only its ability to display 16 on-screen colors in 640x400i (NTSC) resolution, but its ability to display 4,096 colors in 320x200i (NTSC) in what was called HAM or “Hold-And-Modify”. This distinguished the Amiga visually from the competition due to the astounding, photorealistic graphics that HAM could produce as stills, though it wasn’t as viable with advanced animation due to a number of technical shortcomings. Still, with applications such as Deluxe Paint, it would become a powerful tool in the hands of the Amiga’s artists in much the same way that Photoshop or Illustrator would be today.

Driving everything for the user was AmigaOS which came with its own version of a Windows-like GUI system (Intuition) which made use of the included, two-button mouse. However, to try and beat the Atari ST to market (which had come out only a few months before), the OS was released in a somewhat buggy state which didn’t help the Amiga 1000’s reputation. In a day and age when you couldn’t just download a patch off the wire like we can today in minutes, that was something of a big deal.

The Amiga 1000 was left behind sales-wise by the Atari ST because of its relatively lower price and an aggressive marketing campaign by Atari that positioned it as a good compromise from a the more expensive Apple and IBM PCs at the time. It also wasn’t a half-bad piece of hardware which also trounced the monochromatic Macintosh in the visuals department and it wasn’t sold in specialty computer stores as the Amiga 1000 tended to be.

Production delays had also pushed back its release by several months in 1985. According to Jeremy Reimer’s own research on the Amiga’s history on Ars Technica, “A history of the Amiga, part 5: postlaunch blues”, only 50 of the units were actually built by October and these were used to demo what the system could actually do, giving the Atari ST even more breathing room in the retail space. It was only in November that the Amiga 1000 had really arrived in quantity.

At the same time, it still had the support of a growing list of developers and publishers, especially when it came to games. Cinemaware, a software developer whose games boasted movie-like visuals, regularly took advantage of the Amiga’s hardware as the intro to Defender of the Crown demonstrates.

However, the next model, the Amiga 500, would establish the system as the one to beat with its significantly lower price at $699 USD in 1987, roughly two years after the Amiga 1000 had hit shelves. It was the system for everyone else with the “high end” market getting the Amiga 2000. The 500’s core system was largely the same with a few modifications such as having socketed chips — in essence, if you wanted to upgrade the CPU or the other custom chips, it was entirely possible to do so which was a remarkable option to have back in the day.

Because of the low price, and in seeing it as the successor to the amazing Commodore 64, the Amiga 500 became the system that would send ripples through the industry and keep Commodore flush with cash. Commodore had also wisely decided to sell the system through retail channels as opposed to what they had done with the Amiga 1000 which was marketed as a high-end solution to a very niche market. At one point, according toe Reimer’s article above, they had even turned Sears down to sell the system in their massive chain of stores (which the Atari ST didn’t shy away from).

Now with the Amiga 500, it was as if Commodore had finally woken up to how it wanted to market its system. It also had a particularly aggressive marketing campaign in the UK where it established a strong community of supporters and a large number of developers who took advantage of it such as Psygnosis.

Psygnosis, in particular, was renowned for the incredible illustrations of their game packaging but also for the deeply detailed graphics and audio of their games which were almost all exclusively developed with the Amiga in mind during the mid to late 80s. One of the best examples that exemplified what the Amiga — and the team at Psygnosis — were capable of doing was Shadow of the Beast. It featured a number of things that set it above and beyond the typical action game on a computer or a console like the NES with rich graphics, a digital score, and parallax scrolling.

More arcade-like games taking advantage of the advanced Amiga hardware would flood the channel and regularly make the “ported” list for software as developers continued taking advantage of the system’s capabilities. In 1989, a combo “Batman” pack was released in the UK which included the Amiga 500 bundled with game copies of Batman by Ocean, Taito’s New Zealand Story, EA’s Deluxe Paint 2 (the one with the famous King Tut mask on the cover), and Intellisoft’s F/A-18 Interceptor. It was also a big success, swelling the ranks of Amiga faithful, at least over in the UK.

It seemed as if Commodore would finally win the fight in the 16-bit PC space with a computer that met Jay Miner’s original goal of creating a kickass game machine that also doubled as a high-end computer for everything else. It wasn’t hard to see why.

All Good Things…

Though the Amiga 500 was an impressive piece of kit, Commodore’s business strategy management again wasn’t quite as sharp and the competition wasn’t letting up. Much of their profit was being made overseas in markets such as Europe by 1987. In the US, the perception of the Amiga as an expensive console focused on gaming didn’t help it. Nor did it help answer the question that many users were beginning to ask of whether it was IBM PC compatible.

Commodore’s marketing efforts attempted to push the idea of the Amiga 500 as an office system as it fought an uphill battle against the growing torrent of IBM PCs and their clones. This ad comes courtesy of Amiga Computing’s June issue, 1988, featuring price points for a mono or colour system.

In that year, Commodore reduced its US operations down to solely focusing on marketing efforts. It was as if they had given up on the US market where Amiga sales languished in the face of IBM PC clones and decided to focus elsewhere where they were doing better. When they did, their strategy left a lot to be desired.

Numerous missteps would dog Commodore into the 90s as projects jumped all over the place to bring a variety of systems to the market, such as the CDTV, a combo Amiga 500 CD-ROM device that attempted to introduce the masses to multimedia in 1991 along with the Philips CD-i. Amiga users would wonder why they needed to buy that instead of waiting for the actual CD-ROM peripheral for the system they already had. That, and like the CD-i, both misread a market that had little interest in another expensive device with seemingly limited appeal.

Commodore would also go on to introduce two systems in ONE year: the disappointing Amiga 600 in 1992, and then the Amiga 1200 at the end of the same year. As much grief as Sega gets for its own hardware stumbles, Commodore easily one upped them years earlier.

Unfortunately, none of this helped and eventually led Commodore into bankruptcy as its stock tanked. Money troubles cut sales of the Amiga 1200 short and signaled the death knell for Commodore as a company in 1994. Less than 100k of the 1200s were reportedly sold in Germany when the bankruptcy curtain fell.

Though the add-ons collectively made IBM PCs more expensive, the competitive nature of the market gave it a few advantages especially as it moved into VGA (and SVGA) graphics and faster processors such as those notably led by Intel. With numbers, a shared compatibility, and a growing mass of business and entertainment software, IBM PCs commanded a huge market brimming with potential further marginalizing the Amiga and the a number of other peers such as the Macintosh. Having great looking and sounding games was great to have, but having decent looking and sounding games available to an even bigger audience was also a convincing argument that many developers immediately capitalized on.

The end of Commodore didn’t signal the end of the Amiga whose systems still continued to sell despite the company’s troubles, though it would never reclaim the kind of glory it briefly held in the late 80s and early 90s. It still has one of the most die-hard communities behind it regularly contributing stories, tips, and memories at fan sites such as amigaworld.net nearly two decades after Commodore had closed its doors.

The Amiga’s story is also one that other companies had also shared proving that having superior hardware doesn’t always guarantee victory. As another example, Sega’s Master System, arguably the more advanced 8-bit console when compared to the NES, was pushed aside by the third-party muscle and savvy marketing that Nintendo had in spades in Japan and North America. In the Amiga’s case, it was too expensive to be an affordable game console for the masses, business-minded users couldn’t bring their work home to it from the company’s IBM PCs without an add-on (such as the Amiga Sidecar which was essentially an IBM PC XT system making it fairly expensive — and huge), and was burdened by Commodore’s marketing missteps.

Still, the hardware that Commodore bought and brought to the masses was one of the sharpest systems available anywhere at the time when it was unveiled in 1985, a milestone displaying 4,096 colors against a four-channel backdrop of synthesized voices and music. For many of its fans, it simply remains the best system of all time.

3 responses to “A brief look at hardware from the past – The Commodore Amiga

  1. Thank you for the great summary of the Amiga.

    It’s bankrupstcy really was the end of the truly personal comuter.

    • The Amiga had so much going for it, especially with its technology, and it was really surprising to see the mistakes Commodore’s management had made. Part of me wonders how things might have looked today if they had managed to leverage their technology edge into the graphics space Nvidia and ATI grew out from.

  2. Pingback: Happy 30th Birthday – The Commodore Amiga | World 1-1·

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