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Amiga 500

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Year released: 1987
Original price: £599
Buy it now for: £20
Associated magazines: Amiga World, Amiga Format, CU Amiga, Amiga Power, Amiga Action, Amiga Computing, Amiga Force, Amiga Mania, The One
Why the Amiga 500 was great… Why wasn’t the Amiga great? During its early years, the A500 was the most desirable games machine on the planet thanks to several games that just wouldn’t have been possible anywhere other than the arcades. As the years passed, its graphics became less relevant but the ease of development meant that there were hundreds of programmers pumping out classic after classic on a seemingly weekly basis.

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For a home computer that’s so inextricably associated with the history and fate of Commodore, it’s perhaps a little surprising that the Amiga’s genesis can be tracked all the way back to Commodore’s biggest rival: Atari. Jay Miner, a talented designer of integrated circuits had joined Atari during the boom period of the late Seventies and was responsible for designing the display hardware in the Atari 2600. With this achievement alone, Miner’s place in the videogame history books would be assured, but it was what he planned to create next that would really elevate him into the halls of fame. While at Atari, Miner had envisioned a new type of games machine that would make use of Motorola’s powerful 68000 processor. Atari, which was then under the control of Warner Communications, had little interest in the 68000, however, and was much more interested in continuing to exploit the cheaper 6502 processors found in its 8-bit machines.

Amiga 500

Disenchanted with the way Atari had been handled in the post-Bushnell organisation, Miner left the company in 1980 and, for a short time, he worked in the medical industry designing pacemakers. Two years later, however, Miner received a phone call that would rocket him back into the computer industry and change the history of gaming forever. On the end of the line was Larry Kaplan, another ex-Atari employee who had left to found Activision. Kaplan was keen to start a new videogame company and was looking for funding. Miner suggested a handful of dentist friends who were happy to invest in new projects and, before he knew it, he found himself working at a new company called Hi-Toro with Kaplan and a group of highly talented ex-Atari engineers.

In order to keep money rolling in, Hi-Toro was split into two divisions. The first would work on peripherals for games consoles like the 2600 and Colecovision whilst a second much more secretive division would experiment with the 68000 processor to create a killer 16-bit games machine. The computer was codenamed Lorraine (after the wife of Hi-Toro’s chief executive) and was designed to be as open a development system as possible so that anyone could make a game if they wanted to: the strategy had worked wonders for the hugely successful C64 so it made sense for Hi-Toro to follow suit. It was also decided that, to take strain from the processor and ensure arcade-quality graphics, Lorraine would use custom-designed chips rather than off-the-shelf components. This meant that the computer would be more expensive to produce than its nearest rivals but the end results would be far better.

1983 was something of a turning point for Hi-Toro and Lorraine. While the rest of the Western videogaming world recoiled in horror from the disastrous videogames crash, Hi-Toro cunningly rethought its organisation in order to survive the harsh consumer climate. The peripherals division, now made redundant by the failure of the console market, was abolished whilst Lorraine was redesigned to be as much a computer as it was a games machine. A keyboard, mouse and expansion options were fitted as standard whilst new staff were hired to work on a fully fledged operating system called Intuition. It is also around this time that Hi-Toro was renamed as Amiga. The Toro name had already been in use by a Japanese gardening technologies firm so it was thought that a new name was needed to avoid confusion. Amiga, a Spanish word meaning ‘female friend’, was picked for its non-threatening nature. Finally, in September 1983, Lorraine’s three main custom chips (later known as Agnus, Denise and Paula) were completed but were far too big to be used inside a working home computer – each was the size of a large circuit board.

Amiga 500By 1984, Amiga was ready to show off its top secret project and, on 4 January, Lorraine was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. The machine itself didn’t look that impressive – as it was still in the prototype stage and was made up of several circuit ‘breadboards’ joined together – but it was how the computer looked on-screen that really wowed the CES attendees. RJ Mical, one of the coders behind Intuition, had programmed the now legendary ‘Boing Ball’ demo. Boing Ball was demonstrated at the CES in an attempt to showcase Lorraine’s graphical capabilities and did not disappoint. The red and white chequered ball, now an official logo for the Amiga, would bounce around the screen and alternate the direction of its rotations, all while an Intuition window functioned at 100% speed in the background.

The amazing graphical demo was enough to convince one company that Lorraine was worth investing in and, ironically enough, that company was Jay Miner’s old employer, Atari. Interested in the custom chips, rather than the computer itself, Atari offered to buy one million shares in Amiga for $3 each and even loaned the firm $500,000 to keep it afloat while the paperwork was finalised. The deal soon began to turn sour, however. Atari knew that Amiga could not afford to pay off its $500,000 loan and so delayed paperwork on the buyout and, in the meantime, reduced its offer to 98 cents per share. Things were looking grim for Amiga. Atari was gearing up to buy the company at a bargain price and didn’t even plan to finish the computer that Miner had dreamed of for the past four years. Just before the Atari deal could be finalised, however, Amiga managed to find another enterprising computer company which was both willing to pay a fair price for Lorraine and help develop it into the machine that Miner and company had intended. That company was, of course, Commodore, which swooped in at the last minute to buy Amiga for $4.24 per share and even gave them $1 million to pay off their debt to Atari.



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Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 39, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop

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