In 1985 my family made a terrible mistake – a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences; a mistake that would blight my life for several painful years.
I still look back at it with a sense of sadness and, yes, if I’m honest, fury. What happened was this – and if you’re a gamer of a certain age, you may want to sit down: my family bought an Atari ST instead of a Commodore Amiga.
With its powerful 16bit processor and vast 256k of memory (expandable to 512k and beyond), the original Amiga 1000 was the epoch-shattering home computer that effectively invented the concept of the all-round multimedia machine. The Atari ST, meanwhile, was pretty good for midi music.
Today, the Amiga is 30 years old and the internet is full of veteran computer users nostalgically wallowing in its seminal importance. In fact, many of those people probably experienced the internet for the first time on an Amiga, via its original 1680 Modem (it had a 1200 baud rate, speed fans).
But at the time, I didn’t care about its serious computing prowess or the fact that its multitasking operating system was incredibly advanced. I cared about games. And the Amiga was amazing for games – especially for British developers.
Sure, the early Commodore 64 and Spectrum 48k had seen the rise of the bedroom coder in the UK, with famous names like Matthew Smith, Jeff Minter and the Darling brothers, creating idiosyncratic hits like Manic Miner and Attack of the Mutant Camels. But the leap in power that the Amiga represented truly freed the industry’s brightest creative minds.
It was on the Amiga that burgeoning Dundee studio DMA released Lemmings, its ridiculously compelling platform puzzler that introduced inspired sandbox game mechanics to the ancient genre. DMA would, of course, go on to make Grand Theft Auto, which is a reasonably popular PC game that ended up on the consoles, or whatever.
Later, the Wakefield-based studio Team 17 would similarly combine cute critters with open gameplay with its Worms series of turn-based war games, which has now been ported to just about every platform in existence and will no doubt outlive humanity. Worms began on the Amiga, as did that company’s other great series, the top-down shooter Alien Breed.
Interestingly, Team17 grew out of the demoscene, an international group of hackers, crackers and coders that specialised in creating and distributing audio visual computer programs, either via the internet or at massive parties. The Amiga 500 would become an absolutely key computer in the scene thanks to its comparative affordability and its multimedia prowess. Major studios like Guerrilla (Killzone), Remedy (Max Payne) and Lionhead (Fable) would all eventually be formed by key demoscene group members.
“The Amiga was the first home computer that had some serious graphical and audio power, and the tools to access all that power were readily available,” recalls veteran programmer and demoscene enthusiast Byron Atkinson-Jones, who is working on first-person adventure game Caretaker. “Having the assembler K-SEKA was a bit like having Unity3D today in that it opened up a whole new world of possibilities and gave access to the co-processors inside the Amiga.
“You could do stuff on the hardware that just wasn’t available anywhere else – and that led to some amazing graphical tricks. It was nowhere near as powerful as shaders are today, but there was a satisfying feeling to mastering the hardware and making it do what you wanted. And it never seemed to end – we were always finding better and faster way to do things.”
The Amiga era was Britsoft’s rock ‘n’ roll moment. We had the coolest, most edgy developers in the world. Founded in Wapping in 1987, the Bitmap Brothers made stylish, super difficult shooters like Xenon and Chaos Engine, but it also utterly changed the sports sim dynamic with its sci-fi football game Speedball - a compelling mix of fast-paced action and bloody violence.
Alongside it rose another sporting innovator, Sensible Software, whose top-down-viewed Sensible Soccer series is still considered by some as the greatest approximation of the beautiful game in digital form.
The threads of today’s industry can be traced back to the studios that flourished in the Amiga era. Liverpool-based publisher Psygnosis hired some of the most talented computer artists of the day, such as Garvan Corbett and Jim Ray Bowers, to produce its lavish Amiga hits Baal, Obliterator and Shadow of the Beast.
These beautiful games rivalled arcade titles of the time in terms of visuals and sound – attracting the attention of Sony, which (lacking its own major internal studio) bought Psygnosis in 1993 and put it to work on seminal PlayStation titles such as Wipeout and G-Police.
Several hundred miles away in Guildford, Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux set up Bullfrog Productions in 1987, and two years later brought Populous to the Amiga (and later just about everything else) – more or less inventing the god game genre.
The likes of Syndicate and Theme Park would follow before the studio was bought by Electronic Arts and began its tragic decline. However, evacuating staff would later follow Molyenux to Lionhead, creator of the Fable series, or set up on their own: current Guildford studios such as Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet) and Hello Games (No Man’s Sky) can be traced back to that company.
The Amiga era was a period of exciting transition, from the formative days of the 8bit computers with their cute, blocky games made by cute blocky bedroom coders, to the serious business of the 32bit consoles, with their big development teams and million-dollar budgets.
In the UK, it took a while for consoles like the NES and Master System to take hold, so creative development was dictated by the freer home computer scene, allowing idiosyncratic talents like the Bitmap Brothers and Sensible Software to flourish.
But around the world, developers were using the power and accessibility of the Amiga to challenge old game design conventions and create new ones. In the US, LucasArts and Sierra were setting the whole point-and-click adventure scene in motion with Secret of Monkey Island and Kings Quest, while Westwood Studios kickstarted the real-time strategy craze with Dune II. And in France, there was Delphine Software bringing incredibly lifelike human animation to its standard-bearing modern platformers Flashback and Another World.
This was truly an age of ideas and burgeoning connections, an era in which the industry grew in confidence and cultural significance. I had to watch from the sidelines, or tour the houses of fortunate friends who made the right decision. I experienced the machine almost vicariously, through the brilliant magazines of the era, most importantly the anarchic Amiga Power, where irreverent writers like Stuart Campbell and Jonathan Davies helped create a new kind of games journalism.
The Amiga 1000 was the theory, but the later Amiga 500 (more streamlined and cheaper) was the practice. It was a thrilling time of discovery and uncertainty, unharnessed and unsullied by the coming mega-publishers. The tendrils of the Amiga generation stretch out and unfurl across the rest of games history, they reach toward us, through the people who started making games in that era and still make them now, and through the resurgent indie scene, which owes many of its ideas to that golden era.
Meanwhile, the Atari ST was good for midi music.
At least in the next-generation my dad bought a Sega Mega Drive.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd July 2015 15.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010