This year marks the 30th birthday of the Commodore Amiga, the revolutionary multi media computer released in july 1985. It was a true generational leap in computing, offering a fast CPU, great graphics and sound and a pre-emptive multitasking operating system. It could do things out of the box that many of its rivals struggled to do even years later.

Time then to celebrate this amazing machine, which amongst much more important achievements, was the machine (in combination with the Commodore 64) that was largely responsible for my choice of career and all round passion for computers. Yes, without the Amiga I'd likely be doing very different things today!

About the Commodore Amiga
  • Amiga 500
  • Amiga 1200
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Above: the Amiga 500 and Amiga 1200, the two best-known models
The Commodore Amiga was highly advanced when it was first released.

It featured high resolution graphics, tons of on screen colours as well as a big colour palette to choose from, great sound capabilities, sprites and further hardware graphics acceleration in the form of the legendary Amiga Blitter and the equally legendary beam-synchronized co-processor - the Amiga Copper. This combination meant the Commodore Amiga was far, far ahead of its rivals both graphically and sonically. Even the recently released Atari ST (itself a quantum leap in graphics over earlier computers) could not come close to the Amiga's graphical capabilities*. There really was no computer quite like the Amiga when it first came out.

This is perhaps best illustrated by showing the technical specifications of the Commodore Amiga 1000 (the very first Amiga made). Remember, in 1985 the average PC didn't include any colour options, nor sound. The previous generation of 8 bit computers and consoles tended to not be able to show more than 16 colours on screen and even this generally had further limits (such as a maximum of 2 or 4 colours per 8x8 block of pixels). The Amiga had none of these limits, any colour was always available all the time.

Technical Specifications for the Commodore Amiga 1000
  • Motorola 68000, running at 7.16MHz (NTSC) / 7.09MHz (PAL)
  • 256KB of RAM + 256KB of 'Write-Once RAM' for Kickstart 1.0. Memory is expandable to 8.5MB + 256KB total.
  • Graphics
    • Colour palette of 4096 colours (4 bits for R, G and B)
    • Resolutions ranging from 320x200 to 640x400 (NTSC) / 320x256 to 640x512 (PAL), in 2-32 colours (320 pixel modes) or 2-16 colours (640 pixel modes). All screen modes are bitmaps, no character/tile modes are available
    • Special modes: HAM (Hold and Modify), showing up to 4096 colours on screen; Dual Playfield, showing two screen layers on top of each other and EHB (Extra-half-brite), showing 64 colours on screen where the top 32 palette entries are half intensity copies of the bottom 32. Apart from Dual Playfield, these special modes where usually only used for still images.
    • Eight hardware sprites, each 16 pixels wide and having any desired height. Sprites had three colours + one transparent. Sprites could be combined, 2 sprites can form one sprite with 15 colours + one transparant instead
    • Hardware graphics acceleration using the Amiga Blitter, which would copy/move/combine graphics memory very rapidly, allowing for big and colourful objects on screen and fluid animation
    • Beam-synchronized effects via the Amiga Copper, which allows the Amiga to change display parameters while the display is being drawn by the monitor. This allows all kinds of effects, including but not limited to: changing palette registers so on screen colours change (the famous 'copper gradients'), distorting the screen, showing two different bitmaps on one screen (used by Amiga OS for it's screen dragging ability)
    • Hardware accelerated full screen scrolling in any direction
  • Sound
    • 4 channel stereo sound (2 channels on the left, 2 channels on the right). Two channels can be combined, in this mode one channel modulates the second
    • 8 bit samples at up to 28KHz (No synthesizer options, all sounds are played as samples)
  • Pre-emptive Multitasking operating system (Amiga OS 1.0) with GUI (Workbench)
  • 3.5 inch Floppy Disk drive, 834KB formatted capacity. Also has connectors for joystick, mouse, standard serial and parallel ports, external disk drive support and composite and RGB monitor support.
So, what do you do with a machine as powerful as that. Well...

Games, games, games!
  • Turrican 2
  • Shadow of the Beast
  • SWIV
  • The Secret of Monkey Island
  • And many more...
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Above: the Amiga was home to many, many games
You play some kick-ass games!

The Amiga's advanced hardware allowed for great visual and audio effects, which meant games on the system could look and sound better than those on other platforms. As such, the Amiga was host to a number of brilliant games during it's run. Because the Amiga has (relatively) large amounts of memory compared to consoles and 8 bit machines and runs a more powerful processor than it's 8 bit competitors, it could both do action games as well as role playing, strategy and graphical adventure games quite well.

Some of the Amiga's more well known action games include: Marble Madness, Shadow of the Beast, Lotus 2, Turrican 1, 2 and 3, Hybris, SWIV, Alien Breed and Superfrog. The Amiga also hosted a large number of non-action games, including: Defender of the Crown, Lemmings, Eye of the Beholder I and II, Dune 2, Civilization, The Secret of Monkey Island and Sim City.

The computer for the creative mind!
  • Deluxe Paint III
  • Protracker 2.3
  • Disney Animation Studio
  • Video Toaster
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Above: the Amiga excelled at creative software and video editing
Naturally, such a powerful machine with multitasking operating system and a mouse driven GUI wasn't just used for games!

There was a ton of productivity software available for the Amiga, ranging from spreadsheets to word processors, DTP packages, etc. That said, the Amiga truly shined when it came to the more artistic and creative forms of software, such as painting/animation programs (Deluxe Paint, IMHO, is one of the best graphics programs ever released), musical software (Protracker was one of the best tracker programs available and music created in it was used in many, many games) and programming languages. These where empowered by the Amiga's advanced hardware, allowing for high quality results.

In later years, 3D ray-tracing software got more and more popular on the Amiga, with packages such as Real 3D, Imagine and Lightwave originating on the Amiga and allowing for ever more advanced modeling and rendering. The Amiga's HAM mode allowed for 'pseudo-true-colour', which ment the output of these programs looked much better than on rivaling systems (until the advent of true-colour modes on PC's and the like years later anyway).

Another area in which the Amiga played a huge role in later years was TV and video. The hardware made mixing the Amiga output and live TV easy, which meant there where plenty of TV studios that used Amiga's for titling or special effects. Perhaps the best known of these was the use of the Amiga in conjunction with the Video Toaster and Lightwave to create the astonishing pilot episode for the series Babylon 5 - all effects and 3D animations in that episode where made using the Amiga**.

Some examples: Deluxe Paint, Aegis Animator, Disney Animation Studio, Imagine, Real 3D, Lightwave, OctaMED, Protracker, Amos, Blitz Basic, Storm C, Scala

The demo scene
  • Boing
  • 9 Fingers
  • Desert Dream
  • Hardwired
  • Starstruck
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Above: there where many great demo's for the Commodore Amiga
Like the Commodore 64 before it, the advanced hardware in the Amiga meant it was a great platform to experiment on and create new special effects. The unique hardware in the Amiga made many interesting effects possible, including many 'cheats' where the computer appeared to do things it really shouldn't be capable of. Nowhere is this more visible than in the still thriving Amiga demo scene, which still regularly releases new demos even today. These range from simple effects to massive storyline based mega demos running for tens of minutes.

Plus, who doesn't know the original Amiga demo: Boing - an example of how powerful the Amiga's multitasking really was, while showing off some (for the time) impressive graphics at the same time***.

Some of my favorite demos include: Boing, Odyssey, 9 Fingers, Starstruck, Desert Dream, Rink a Dink: REDUX and Hardwired

A true classic!
The Amiga is one of the all time great home computers. Today, it still finds use. Both in the form of new hardware running a variant of the Amiga OS and in the form of retro computer enthousiasts playing games, creating demos and making pictures, music modules and more. A great achievement for a machine whose mother company died 21 years ago!

So, happy birthday Amiga - hope you'll last at least another 30 years!

For more information about the Amiga and the above topics, check out the following sites:
  • The Wikipedia page on the Amiga has plenty of information, more information can all be found in other articles on this site
  • If you want to find information about games, check out Lemon Amiga or the Hall of Light, which both have nice databases filled with information about lots of Amiga games
  • If you want to chat about the Amiga, the forums over at Lemon Amiga and English Amiga Board are great.
  • For news about the current Amiga scene you can also check out Amiga.org and Amigaworld.net (both also cater to 'Next-Gen' Amiga related software and machines)
  • For more about the scene, check out the Amiga Demoscene Archive and Pouët.net (the later caters to the demo scene as a whole and as such covers all sorts of computers and not just the Amiga)

To emulate the Amiga, check out:
  • The best Amiga emulator for Windows is WinUAE, which can be found here
  • For other platforms, the best emulator is FS-UAE, which can be found here
  • Both these emulators need a Kickstart ROM file, which is still copyrighted. It can be transferred from an original Amiga if you have one, though if you only have a low-spec Amiga it can be tricky to do.
  • There is also the option of using Amiga Forever, a software package by Cloanto which I can recommend - it has both the WinUAE and FS-UAE emulators included, as well as all the Kickstart ROM's released by Commodore (fully licensed), a number of games and demos, some videos and nice front end.
*) The Atari ST was truly impressive when it came out. It was a great improvement over the 8 bit machines and PC's of the time.

However, the Amiga outdid it in several ways: it had hardware accelerated graphics which meant it could move graphics at least twice as fast, it could show 32 colours on screen (it also had a 4096 and 64 colour mode, both of which tended to be too slow for games), the Atari could only manage 16. It had a colour palette offering 4096 colours, the Atari ST could only show 512 different colours.

It also had a stereo sound chip which could play back high quality samples (for the time), which the Atari also lacked. The Amiga could even display two layers of graphics at the same time, something which the Atari could not do at all (not counting software solutions, as those where really slow compared to the Amiga's hardware option).

Note this is not meant as a jab against the Atari ST, which I've used quite a lot and really rather liked, but rather is meant to show the differences in capabilities.

**) Later episodes of the series kept using the Amiga for the 2D effects and live action effects, but the 3D animations where rendered using faster computers than the A4000 available at that stage.

***) Despite the slowdown when the OS and demo are both requiring resources at the same time, this was a stunning example of multitasking back in the day. No other consumer computer could do anything like it for several years. It took PC's all the way till 1995 to catch up with Amiga OS - which was released in 1985.