Out of the box, the Amiga’s greatest strength was in graphics. Workbench was one of a cluster of windowed user interfaces to debut in the mid-'80s, but the Amiga’s 3D and colour handling were unprecedented.
A media chipset with three dedicated processors worked all the magic. Dubbed Agnus and Denise respectively, the memory controller and video chips enabled the Amiga to process true 3D and render screens in up to 32 colours in game.
Developers were able to push that restriction further. Core Design’s 1994 title Universe, for example, hacked the Amiga’s colour addressing capability to display 256 colours on screen. The Amiga’s famed Hold and Modify (HAM) mode to chuck up to 4096 colours on screen - but only with static imagery.
It would have seemed ludicrous to have all that high end hardware at home just to play games. Especially when the Amiga 500, debuting at around $1000, had a price point to match its specifications. Allowing for inflation, that’s equivalent to $2380; about the price of a high-end PC now.
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Though the Amiga 500 was aimed at the home market, some serious apps trickled down from the Amiga 1000 to its diminutive cousin.
Early desktop publisher PageStream and leading office application Wordperfect were among those tools - but the program that made the Amiga 500 sing was Deluxe Paint. Taking full advantage of the computer’s famed HAM mode, it was the first, functional colour image processing tool for personal computers, years before Photoshop.
Despite the cost of the box and Jay Miner’s ambition, the majority of Amiga 500 owners were still gamers. The proof is in the number of titles released on the Amiga first during that period. Games that invented the mechanics of modern video gaming.
The definitive version of The Secret of Monkey Island was the Amiga’s; a title that continues to influence point and click adventuring to this day. Another World sequel Flashback and the largely forgotten 3D explorer Corporation boasted many elements later found in first person shooters, a long time before Wolfenstein.
Then there was Cannon Fodder, a military strategy game that highlighted the pointlessness of war with snarky, dark humour - long before Portal or GTA dared to take gameplay to that level of sophistication. And Lemmings, the Angry Birds of the early '90s.
We can’t talk about Amiga gaming without mentioning Sensible Soccer. Or Syndicate. Or Speedball 2 or Defender of the Crown or Zool. All pushed the envelope until it was a flat piece of paper.
The Amiga 500’s hardware expansion capabilities gave it a longevity that modern devices couldn’t touch. Though it was officially discontinued in 1991, mainstream developers continued to ship software that ran on the Amiga 500 well into the '90s.
Commodore upgraded the basic template with the short-lived 500+ in 1991. But the final model based on the 68000 CPU, the Amiga 600 was widely considered a screw-up. Initially designed as a budget version of the 500+, it shipped in 1992 as its replacement. Enthusiasts stuck with the 500 and 500+.
The Amiga was the last – and, for many, the best – of the home computers. A machine designed for playing games that was powerful enough to do serious graphics work. An all-in-one computer that encouraged users to explore and expand their knowledge; that invited hardware hackers and demo programmers to prove its worth.
It was the last time a mainstream computer would be as good as its community of users pushed it to be.