Year Released: 1993
Original Price: £250
Buy It Now For: £30+
Associated magazines: Amiga Power, Amiga Format, CU Amiga, CD32 Gamer, Amiga CD32 Magazine
Why The Amiga CD32 Was Great: Almost all of the Amiga’s best games were available on the CD32, but without the hassle of disk-swapping, compatibility issues or decade-old joysticks. The CD32 was the Xbox of its day, bringing all the era’s best computer games to your TV without all the nonsense that computer owners had to put up with. Better still, many of the games were significantly better than the original Amiga versions. It may have been the black sheep of the Amiga family but it was a sheep worth having. Erm…
Although it launched in 1993, the story of the Amiga CD32 really begins in the late Eighties. Commodore dominated the home computer hardware market, with both the Commodore 64 and the Amiga 500, but were well aware that it had only cornered one half of the industry. Its computers were primarily business machines, albeit with massive gaming potential, with high prices that only the wealthiest families could afford.
Consequently console manufacturers had taken the opposite approach by pricing hardware as low as possible and making profit on the games themselves. The space beneath the family TV set was increasingly taken up by a dedicated games console and Commodore knew that it had to come up with something similar in order to compete. Furthermore, the respective storage mediums of cassette tape and floppy disk did nothing to facilitate profit for Commodore themselves; the standard storage devices were easy to come by, so Commodore could not enforce licensing fees and, worse still, piracy of such software was incredibly easy, even for the home user.
Two attempts to break into the console market soon followed, with the Amiga CDTV, an Amiga 500 powered set top box, and the cartridge-based Commodore 64GS, but neither had the desired impact. The C64GS quickly died out due to its underpowered hardware and lack of games, whilst the CDTV passed by unnoticed thanks to its £699 price tag and the fact that nobody really knew how to best make use of the fledgling CD-ROM format. Still, Commodore soldiered on with the console idea, eventually settling on the CD32, a piece of hardware that, at the very least, had the potential to get Commodore into that coveted spot underneath the TV once again.
Having learnt from its past mistakes with the CDTV and C64GS, the CD32 got a number of things right straight away. The chipset inside the box was based on the Amiga 1200, which had been released in the previous year, meaning that software would look bang up to date, while the machine itself also benefited from improved aesthetics. Jettisoning the confusing “set top box” look of the CDTV, Commodore designed the CD32 to look a lot more like a traditional games console so that consumers knew that the machine was a pure gaming device before they’d switched it on.
Close comparison, in fact, reveals several visual similarities to Sega’s Mega Drive – almost certainly a deliberate move to proudly show off the fact that the CD32 had twice as many “bits” as Sega’s hardware. The console look was topped off with a custom control pad, made specifically for the CD32. In retrospect, the controller is one of the worst ever designed as its D-pad was easily broken after extended play; however, at the time, good controllers were judged by how many buttons they had and with six action buttons to its name, the CD32 pad did not disappoint. Finally, the CD-ROM medium had now been around for a few more years, giving consumers, developers and publishers the opportunity to get to grips with the format’s strengths and weaknesses whilst, fortunately for Commodore, the technology had not reached the point where software could easily be pirated.
As for the internal architecture itself, the CD32 was almost exactly the same as an Amiga 1200 except with the keyboard removed and the floppy drive replaced with a CD-ROM drive. A less obvious addition, however, was the addition of the Akiko chip to the 1200’s custom chipset. To this day, the full capabilities of Akiko remain a mystery to all but the most tech-savvy, but we do know that its main purpose was to perform “Chunky to Planar” conversions on the hardware rather than waste valuable processor time. In plain English this means that 3D games would run much quicker on the CD32 than they would on an unexpanded A1200 and with several Doom clones just around the corner this would prove to be a usefully pre-emptive addition.
The CD-ROM drive itself, was designed to transfer data from disc at 300k per second, an abysmally slow speed by today’s standards, but twice as fast as earlier CD-based hardware like the Fujitsu FM Towns and Commodore’s own CDTV. More importantly, of course, the medium was much faster than floppy disks and would eliminate the pesky problem of disk-swapping that plagued fans of adventure games, which often took up more than ten floppies. The loss of a writeable format was countered with the inclusion of internal flash memory, which could be used to save game data, much as Sega’s Saturn would the following year.
Externally the CD32 seemed like any other simple games console, but there were hidden depths. As well as the usual ports and sockets associated with such hardware, the CD32 featured an S-Video socket for improved picture quality that far exceeded the standard RF output of both the SNES and Mega Drive, whilst the two nine-pin joypad ports allowed any Amiga compatible controller to be plugged into the machine, meaning that mouse-driven games like Cannon Fodder and Sim City could be played just as they were meant to.
Best of all, however, the back of the console featured a full expansion bay, which allowed for the attachment of an FMV module to play Video CDs (and even some of the Phillips CDi’s videos) and, much more excitingly, the bay could be used in conjunction with a planned expansion card that would turn the CD32 into a fully functioning A1200, complete with disk drive ports, printer ports, extra RAM, faster processors and even a hard drive. An auxiliary port, on the left of the machine, allowed for an Amiga 4000 keyboard to be plugged in, thus completing the CD32’s potential to function as an Amiga computer.
In September 1993, the CD32 launched. As had become tradition with Amiga hardware, the console had limited appeal in its home country of America, but received a much warmer reception in Europe, most notably in Germany and the UK, where Commodore UK supported the console with a fierce marketing campaign. In the time-honoured Commodore tradition, a celebrity was roped in to endorse the console with “popular” TV presenter Chris Evans lending his visage to CD32 promos, just as William Shatner had endorsed the Vic 20 over a decade earlier.
More aggressively, however, Commodore UK went straight for the throat of the Japanese console giants. A huge billboard advertisement was erected just outside Sega’s UK headquarters and read “To be this good would take Sega ages”, whilst Commodore UK’s boss, David Pleasance, took every opportunity to remind consumers that to buy into the CD32’s nearest rival, the Mega CD, required them to buy a Mega Drive for it to work and would therefore cost far in excess of the CD32’s price tag. Commodore’s aggressive marketing strategy worked, but not for long…
Four Great Amiga CD32 Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 33, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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