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Remembering the Amiga's glory days


When Zool ruled and keyboards were whole computers
— 12:17 AM on September 8, 2000

Eight years ago, PC's were boring beige business boxes, and many computing enthusiasts got their kicks out of funny little "home computers", generally one-piece systems hooked up to televisions or cheap monitors, from companies like Atari and Acorn. The king of 'em all was a colorful little computer from Commodore called the Amiga. With a custom chipset at its core and a Unix-like multitasking OS, the Amiga delivered stereo sound, smooth animation, and high-color displays.

It was, we Amiga faithful were convinced, poised to take over the world.

In the fall of 1992, I was studying abroad in Oxford, England, and I had the chance to attend London's big Amiga trade show. Commodore was finally set to unveil the first major revision to the Amiga's custom chips. By then, Macs and PCs were catching up to the Amiga's graphics, and game consoles threatened to eat away at sales. Nevertheless, enthusiasm was high...

The A1200

WELL, IT'S TUESDAY EVENING, November 10th, and I finally found time to sit down and write a bit about the Future Entertainment Show that I attended in London last Friday. I rode the 9:15 train from Oxford to London, then travelled in the London underground to the show. This meant getting up before noon, which was a real bummer. However, I was able to rest some on the train into London, and once I hit the show floor I was able to keep going most of the day on pure adrenaline, supplemented periodically by shots of caffeine. No problem.

Since Future Publishing has recently branched out into making some successful console-oriented games magazines, last year's World of Commodore-Amiga/London became this year's Future Entertainment Show.

The show was held at Earl's Court, a giant expo center kinda thing that makes my hometown Kansas City's Bartle Hall look like, well, Bartle Hall—pathetic. Upon arriving I quickly figured out the scam. The "Future" Entertainment Show is sponsored, organized, and run by Future Publishing, Inc., the guys who produce the killer Brit magazines like Amiga Format, ST Format, Amiga Power, Amiga Shopper, and some other, PC and console-oriented drivel. Since Future Publishing has recently branched out into making some successful console-oriented games magazines, last year's World of Commodore-Amiga/London became this year's Future Entertainment Show.

Which basically meant that this became a chance for Commodore to display just how incredibly huge they are over here compared to little names like Sega and Nintendo, and to demonstrate just how much vision and excitement the Amiga community contains.

As I first walked into the show, I had only one goal in mind: I would see an Amiga 4000 and a 262,144-color animation. Soon. Making my way past the swarm of 6-year-olds at the Sega and Nintendo booths, I noticed a giant, yellow structure stretched across the back of the hall, with big banners all around the top trim: "Commodore Amiga 600", "Commodore Amiga CDTV", and my favorite: "Commodore Amiga 1200."

The AA chipset debuts
Desperate to get my first glance at an AA chipset-based Amiga, I stepped up to one of the 20 or so A1200 kiosks. Most all of them were playing one or other of the latest games around, complete with a Bart Simpson joystick or somesuch, and looking for all the world like nothing special, or at least like an A600, if you still think that's special. "Well, at least it's compatible" was about all I could manage to think. The A1200 I had occupied was running Zool, which didn't bother me too much since I hadn't played it for a while, and any game that got consistent 97%-ratings in the magazines here can't be all bad, right?

I started off on level one, and played one of the fastest, smoothest, and most exhilirating rounds of Zool I'd ever played. Not bad, I thought, for not having played for a month. By the time I got done I found myself thinking three things: 1) Geez, I think Sonic had better run and hide, he's about to get his spiky little blue rear kicked, 2) Boy, there sure is a lot of sweat on my hands. Pretty darn intense. And, 3) Now wait a minute here, that's one heck of a lot better than I remember my copy of Zool. Did I get gyped?

The scrolling was ultra-smooth, fast, and effortless. The sprite animations, especially the frame rates when things blew apart, were smoother than any Amiga game I'd ever seen. No question, this was the mythical version of Zool that had been especially developed for the AA chipset.

Taking a second look, I noticed a few other things.. There were multiple playfields onscreen, with a LOT of colors. The copper-switched gradient fills in the background sure had a lot of shades of blue. The scrolling was ultra-smooth, fast, and effortless. The sprite animations, especially the frame rates when things blew apart, were smoother than any Amiga game I'd ever seen. No question, this was the mythical version of Zool that had been especially developed for the AA chipset. A first, and I got to be one of the first people ever to play it and know what it was. Later I checked with a Commodore rep and he confirmed my suspicions, and told me that the game had only been completed a few days before the show. Total coup.

Moving along, there were more A1200s, these running the Workbench or DPaint IV-AGA ("Paint and Animation in 262,000 colours," the flyer read). I waited my turn and got a hold of one of the A1200s running Workbench 3.0. As I called up the screen mode prefs, I noticed that this A1200, like all of them, was connected to a 1084 monitor. Too bad. I couldn't call up "Double NTSC" or anything fun like that. Happily, I was able to put it into "NTSC hi-res-interlace" in 256 colors. Once it popped into the right screenmode, I opened some windows and moved some icons around. Then I had to double-check. Was I sure this was running in 8-bitplanes? It was. And it was as fast as my A3000/16Mhz in 8-color hi-res-interlace. No joke.

Maybe the "4x bandwidth" modes, like 256-color DblNTSC are different, but the modes I was able to test were lightning-fast. Part of this comes from the fact, I've read, that the blitter is actually faster in the AA chips, even though it hasn't been changed much from the ECS. (It's still only 16-bits wide.) Because of all the extra bandwidth in the AA chips, the blitter gets to do its thing three times as often as it did in the ECS. Not bad.

By this time I was kind of dazed by my first glances at the new machine, so I stepped back and looked around. There were probably 30 or 40 A600s and A600HDs running the latest games, and looking really sharp--all mobbed by 8 to 28-year-olds. Quite a contrast from the yard-ape-infested console display areas. There were also quite a few "Amiga CDTVs," as the marketing people are smart enough to call 'em over here, running the latest titles. The most popular one was the Psygnosis demo disk, which spooled minute after minute of full-screen animation off CD, including the now-famous NewMissile and Bipper anims in full.