Hall of Fame: Amiga 500, the computer that showed consoles how it's done

Back to the Future

In 1982, three Florida dentists had US$7 million to invest. Video games were scorching hot at the time; the future of entertainment. 

They would provide the seed capital for David Morse, a former Marketing VP from Tonka Toys, and Atari alumni Jay Miner to start a new company to build a killer games console. It was a radical idea, but Miner’s ambitions went above and beyond.

“I had wanted for years to build a super personal computer based around the Motorola 68000,” Miner told Amiga User International in 1988. “Atari had turned me down and here was my big chance.”

Conveniently, Miner’s team neglected to tell their investors about this part of the plan.

Two years later, with the $7 million spent and debts mounting, Amiga had a prototype codenamed “Lorraine” to show off at CES. Typical of engineering lead design, the Amiga architecture was all there, but the machine didn’t yet have a case. It was still a bunch a components laid out on plugboards.

But it worked. Miner’s team wrote a multi-tasking demo at the show, dubbed “Boing”. It displayed a 3D ball with real-time physics, bouncing on a grid. In 1984, it was the most advanced demonstration of graphics and processing capability on a system of its size. The show’s collective gobs were smacked.

The buzz created by “Boing” was too late for the dentists, though. In an extraction as brutal as any wisdom tooth removal, they pulled their funding. 

It was the best thing that could have happened for the Amiga 500. 

Commodore sails to the Rescue

“Commodore came along and bought Amiga and saved us,” Jay Miner told Amiga User International in 1988. “Commodore was very good in the beginning.”

Canadian company Commodore had a strong track record in home computing. According to RJ Mical, a lead software engineer at Amiga, the new owners invested $27 million into R&D. Feeling flush, the team’s first step was to quickly polish up the Lorraine prototype, put it in a box and bring it to market as the Amiga 1000. That was done and dusted within 12 months.

The second step was to strip back and optimise the Amiga 1000, creating the compact home computer system Jay Miner had envisaged right from the beginning. Five years in the making, the first Amiga 500 shipped in 1987.

The Amiga 500 boasted a wedge-shaped design with an integrated keyboard. It was a popular form factor at the time, shared with contemporaries the Acorn Archimedes and the Atari ST. 

With an RF adaptor that enabled you to plug the machine into any telly, joystick ports at the back and an integrated floppy disk drive, the Amiga 500 was compact and lightweight enough to chuck in your school bag. Armed with a stack of contraband disks, cracked by pirate crews like RZR or Paradox, it was all you needed for a Saturday afternoon of black market gaming round your mate’s crib (actually, his bedroom). 

More after the break...

Blistering Blitter

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.

Sensible Software

Though the Amiga 500 was aimed at the home market, some serious apps trickled down from the Amiga 1000 to its diminutive cousin.

Cannon Fodder

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 Legacy

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.

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