The Commodore Amiga is one of the gaming’s most iconic and affectionately remembered systems, and was a landmark computer in every respect. When it arrived in 1985 it was so far ahead of the competition that it appeared to be from five years in the future. The Amiga was so powerful that it made business machines like the PC and Mac of the day look hopelessly dated and at the same time as being a superb gaming platform. The Amiga’s spectacular capabilities came from a groundbreaking design based around the popular Motorola 68000 processor, augmented by a suite of custom chips with well-defined responsibilities. At the time, many computers were assembled from off-the-shelf components and relied on the central CPU for almost everything. Amiga graphics capabilities were far in advance of any other competing system of the era, incorporating a blitter for copying or moving large chunks of graphic around the screen – an operation that had to be performed by the CPU in other designs. Modern-day GPU chips from nVidia and ATI are direct descendants of blitter chips, performing similar but massively more advanced graphical operations. The graphics subsystem also contained the Copper co-processor that could produce very pretty scanline effects such as gradients. It could also perform the mind-bending trick of displaying two applications running at different screen resolutions on screen at the same time.
This wasn’t an upscaling trick – the graphics chip could change resolutions partway through drawing a frame. The first titles to generate substantial interest in the Amiga as a gaming platform where Marble Madness and Defender of the Crown. In the following years we were treated to other superb titles such as Super Hang-On, Lemmings, Sensible Soccer, IK+, Worms, Shadow of the Beast, Speedball II, Xenon II: Megablast and FA/18 Interceptor. Unfortunately, not every Amiga game delivered the experience the machine was capable. Eventually the Amiga came to dominate the 16-bit home computer market and the issue of Atari ST ports became less of an issue. Amiga-specific games (or heavily enhanced games) such as Pacmania, Shadow of the Beast, Project X, Alien Breed and Gods made proper use of the hardware and delivered a gaming experience that couldn’t be bettered anywhere outside of the arcades. The entire Amiga chipset was synchronised precisely to the video output, allowing outrageously smooth full screen scrolling and making the system a brilliant tool for multimedia use.
The revolutionary aspect of the Amiga was the balanced system architecture. While some previous-generation 8-bit computers had hardware support for scrolling and sprite handling, the Amiga took things much further with an interconnected set of chips tailored to specific tasks, relieving the CPU of jobs it wasn’t optimised for. It took a very long time for the PC to catch up on the concept of dedicated hardware. Sound cards came first, with AdLib and Soundblaster products finally delivering decent audio performance instead of awful beeps from the inbuilt speaker. Sadly, Commodore remained with the original Amiga hardware specification for too long and allowed the PC to overtake it. Although the PC was never really competitive with the Amiga for 2D games, as the industry transitioned towards 3D the Amiga architecture became less relevant. Commodore also had the problem of the Motorola 68000 series of processors failing to remain competitive with the Intel x86 family despite an early lead and cleaner architecture. By the time Commodore released upgraded Amigas with the AGA chipset it wasn’t enough to remain competitive. The 68020 processor running at 14MHz was outclassed by the 386 and 486 PC’s of the era, and AGA didn’t deliver enough of an improvement in graphics and audio performance. If Commodore had fully understood the potential of the Amiga hardware and possessed the initiative, resources and cash to market and develop the platform properly the sky would have been the limit. The launch of the Amiga reportedly had even Apple worried – the Mac was a far inferior machine selling for a lot more money.