The Amiga experience

People are under the mistaken impression that I actually know what I’m talking about over here and as such I occasionally get asked to recommend games on various formats, generally influenced by whatever it is I’m ranting about at the time. In this particular instance the lovely Veleskola wanted to know more about the computer I grew up with, the computer that really got me into gaming – the Amiga.

Those of you polite enough to keep clicking on the blog post links I tweet will probably know that I’ve done a few similar things before, but what I really wanted to create this time wasn’t just a list of amazing exclusives, but more a look at the most Amiga games – titles that really capture the flavour of the era and the interests of UK computer gamers at the time. As such the games I mention below aren’t necessarily the very best examples of their genres or even Amiga exclusives but they hopefully come together to create a bit of a window on the highs, lows, and occasional weirdness of European computer gaming in the early nineties.

The “genres” below are pretty loose which is why you’ll see Body Blows and Final Fight discussed in the same segment, for example - it’s really just a chance to have a meander through broadly similar styles that may appeal and/or be of interest.

Jump ‘em ups: There was a time when the platformer was so important to gaming that you simply couldn’t have a format without one – Mario, Sonic, and Bonk were the iconic console mascots while Amiga owners ended up with… Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension. Yay. Zool is basically what happens when you try to copy Sonic without understanding what made Sonic the Hedgehog so good in the first place and then slap a Chupa Chups license on top. It’s not all bad on the platform front though! The Amiga still has the most-arcade-accurate home port of Jaleco’s amazing Rodland (technically trumped by the recent-ish iOS release, but its not the same as a proper home release…), an incredibly cute-but-tough adventure that lets you beat up adorable jellies as a pink-haired fairy girl until they cry. Then there’s Nebulus (known as Castelian on the NES/GB) with its fantastically impressive towers that the entire game literally revolves (sorry) around. Second Samurai is another title worth mentioning, being essentially the same as it’s more popular prequel First Samurai, but much better. The final slot in the section deserves to go to Thalion’s Lionheart, a beautiful but a tad frustrating adventure that was lauded at the time for being just as good but even more beautiful than anything a SNES or Mega Drive could manage.

ZoolRodlandNebulusSecond SamuraiLionheart

Punching-people-in-the-face ‘em ups: There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant’s shaped like four floppy discs of Street Fighter II. It’s not a good port, but bless them for trying to cram the game onto a format where a total 1MB of RAM was considered an upgrade, and a two button joystick was an optional extra. Thankfully Final Fight fared much better than Street Fighter II did and remains a playable game even if the Mega CD port’s far superior. Not that US Gold’s programmers ever really had a fighting chance in any case - back then Capcom sold the license to produce a game, and not any rights to the code itself. So to get the Final Fight sprites looking as good as they did at all the programmer had to extract them from a PCB he’d bought himself. You’d have thought that with Final Fight somehow still managing to end up a decent game would bode well for Amiga-born titles like Sword of Sodan, but even though it’s got sprites a mile high (a massive achievement in 1988) it is in all other respects utter garbage. Amiga developers didn’t stop there though, and had a crack at creating their own home-grown Street Fighter II clones too, like Team 17’s Body Blows (which managed to get two sequels, AGA* enhanced releases, and a CD-32 port on the back of Amiga owners attitude of “We want to play Street Fighter II but are too stubborn to buy a ‘childish’ console”) and N.A.P.S Team’s Shadow Fighter, both of which I’d file under these days as “OK to play for curiosity’s sake”.

*AGA stands for “Advanced Graphics Architecture” – in practical terms it means fancy-pants extra colours in your games, but only for the Amiga 1200.

Street Fighter IIFinal FightSword of SodanBody BlowsShadow Fighter

Shoot ‘em ups: This was before we called them “shmups”, remember! If you’re interested in the genre I highly recommend the Amiga’s Finest Wasp-Based Faux-Japanese Shmup™, Apidya, which I covered pretty recently here. Then there’s Xenon 2, which is somewhat unfairly remembered more for having a Bomb the Bass track as it’s theme music than for being a decent shmup (which it is). Blood Money by DMA Design (yes, that DMA Design) is an interesting planet-hopping romp and one of their earliest games, coming out in 1989. Agony’s both a real looker and an Amiga exclusive, possessing the sort of animation that’s normally reserved for pixel artist tech demos. My special shmupping mention has to go to Battle Squadron; it’s one of the top-tier vertical shmups on the system and has a rather nifty overworld/sub stage design that really should have been ripped off by somebody else by now.

Apidyawinuae 2015-08-25 14-08-06-062Blood MoneyAgonyBattle Squadron

Role playing ‘em ups: The most obvious Amiga choice here is probably Dungeon Master, which is why I’m going to pick it’s sequel, Chaos Strikes Back, instead. It’s essentially more of the same but a lot harder; so much so that you start naked in the dark surrounded by monsters – ace! If you like that sort of thing then you’ll definitely want to check out Black Crypt (criminally Amiga-only) and of course Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder as well. If adventuring through dank dungeons isn’t really your sort of thing then why not swap them for Ambermoon’s err, moons (and it’s impressive mix of overhead world/3D dungeons/turn based battles – only officially in German, mind) or ditch the swords-and sorcery entirely for the sci-fi tactical brilliance that is Shadoworlds?

Chaos Strikes Backwinuae 2015-08-25 15-08-47-382Eye of the BeholderAmbermoonShadoworlds

Think ‘em ups: You really can’t talk about puzzle games without mentioning Lemmings, but while the original’s an inarguable classic I much prefer the sequel Lemmings 2: The Tribes, thanks to the vastly expanded suicide puzzle solving options available. Ishido: Way of the Stones is a great tile-matching game if you fancy something with a more laid-back pace, and Gem’X takes Japanese style arcade puzzle games and brings them to floppy discs. Log!cal takes the standard puzzle game colour-matching concept and makes it massively more complicated, but in a very satisfying way. The objective is to match sets of balls in spinners, a feat made difficult by limited pathways, coloured gates, and a timer that forces you keep going or forfeit the round.

Even better than all that is The Sentinel, a terrifying and unforgettably surreal experience. A first person 3D game, The Sentinel thrusts you into a strange alien landscape where your goal is to escape the harmful glare of the titular adversary (and his lesser sentries on some stages), and work out a way to position yourself higher than that… thing, absorb her life force, then teleport to her platform to complete the stage. You could probably write something clever about becoming the evil you once hid from there, but the most important thing is to try the game out for yourself, because there’s really nothing else like it (other than the PC/PS1 sequel, Sentinel Returns, that is).

winuae 2015-08-25 16-00-15-723IshidoGem'XLog!calThe Sentinel

Amiga ‘em ups*: This “genre” is a hodge-podge of games I could have mentioned earlier but didn’t as well as titles that didn’t fit into any of the categories above. The most Amiga game ever is probably Shadow of the Beast, even though it’s been ported to every popular format known to man (and the Atari Lynx). Technically impressive and visually striking even today, although when you get down to it the game itself is really OK at best. Still, it’s a mesmerising and unusual experience which makes it something of a “must see” on its original format. Back in the nineties everybody wanted Doom on their format, and that included Amiga owners who were starting to realise that they were being left behind by their “dorky” IBM-owning counterparts. Neither Amiga owners nor programmers were quite prepared to leave Commodore’s hardware behind just yet though, and because of this stubbornness the world was graced with Gloom, a game lauded for being really not too bad at ripping off “that other game we don’t have”. Assuming you have the A1200 needed to not run it at a postage stamp sized resolution, Gloom’s a pretty fast and entertaining blast ‘em up, although the level design (and design in general) isn’t a patch on the real thing. Whether you like football or not Sensible Soccer’s always a safe bet, making for a nice arcade-like kickabout either against the CPU or with a soon-to-be-ex-friend. Moonstone’s basically what happens when you make Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom before you really know what a side-scrolling beat ‘em up adventure is supposed to look like, and quite rightly remains a sought-after title all these years later. The final game for this section’s French classic Captain Blood, a truly alien adventure that’s as stylish as it is mysterious.

*Apart from the games that were also on the Atari ST (Atari sucks!)

Shadow of the BeastGloomSensible SoccerMoonstoneCaptain Blood

Obviously I’ve left out lots of great titles there (Superfrog, Frontier: Elite II, Populous, Stunt Car Racer to name just a few) and on a few occasions done something even worse and undersold a pioneering classic but discovering things for yourself is all part of the fun right? That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

At its best the Amiga was diverse, experimental, and the origin of more noteworthy titles than such a relatively niche piece of hardware has any right to be. At its worst… well, it was no worse than any of the other crud that gets released elsewhere. Some Amiga quirks are definitely best left in the past, such as pushing up on the joystick to jump or having to decide between music or sound effects in a lot of games, but when the Amiga’s good it’s great, a reminder of a time when Europe as a collective whole was an independent and creative gaming force in its own right, making European games for European gamers. For better or worse, there’s not really been anything like it since.