The Amiga was a massive part of my teenage life. In the early 90s we had a Sega Mega Drive, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and an Amstrad CPC, but I was always far more interested in my mate’s Amiga 500 – the graphics and sound were gorgeous, the games intoxicating and he seemed to have hundreds and hundreds of them. Needless-to-say, I was extremely envious and constantly finding reasons to go round there and play games like Super Cars II, Moonstone, Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’Fun and Battle Chess. I think I must have really tested his patience as a friend because all I ever wanted to do was stay indoors and play on his computer!
Then Christmas 1992 came along and years of begging my parents had finally paid off – they bought us an Amiga 1200, the next generation Amiga in all its 32-bit/AGA glory. It became a huge part of my life and I managed to amass probably the best part of a thousand games – mostly through disk swapping at school (naughty!). I hogged the thing so bloody much that my parents ended up buying a second A1200 so that the rest of the family could get a go. I upgraded it with a CD-ROM drive, a 200MB hard drive, 32MB of memory and a 68030 CPU expansion board. I was such an Amiga diehard that I didn’t get into PC gaming until 1998 when I needed to buy a laptop for university – I finally had to concede that the Amiga was dead. It was a sad moment in my life.
Commodore Amiga: a visual Commpendium
Naturally, Commodore Amiga: a visual Commpendium (I presume the misspelling of compendium is deliberate play on “Commodore”), is a book aimed at people like me. Comprising 424 pages (measuring 230x170mm) and published back in May to coincide with the 30th Anniversary of the Amiga, CA:AVC is a nostalgic love letter to the Amiga gaming scene and the 16-bit pixel art of the era.
Like its highly-successful predecessor, Commodore 64: a visual Commpedium, CA:AVC began life as a Kickstarter campaign. Impressively, it hit its target of £25,000 on the first day, eventually meeting all stretch goals and raising a total £129,866 from 3078 backers. Truly testament to the enduring love for the Amiga. The book is available to buy in three versions. The regular edition (£29.99) comprises a softback edition of the book, whereas the collector’s edition (£49.99) features a hardback version of the book and includes a bookmark, four fridge magnets, two stickers, five postcards and a mouse mat. A PDF version is also available directly from Bitmap Books for £10.
What’s in it?
CA:AVC opens with a lively forward by Stoo Cambridge (formerly of Sensible Software) and then briskly covers, through the words of many of those involved, the formation of Amiga Corporation and the birth of the Amiga 1000 in 1985, as well as the story behind the iconic Booing Ball and Juggler demos that came to be synonymous with the Amiga and the infamous “Guru Meditation” crash screen. The book then goes on to visually showcase classic Amiga games (charted in chronological order), each presented as a full-colour screenshot laid-out across two pages and overlaid with one or two short commentaries or anecdotes from key contributors and their peers. Covering 147 titles, this forms the major part of CA:AVC.
Providing variety, these spreads are interspersed with stylish photography of Amiga hardware, interviews, profiles of game studios and a centre-section featuring box art. The interviews feature key games artists of the era, discussing their careers, work processes, inspirations, achievements, and what they loved about the Amiga, and include the like of Jim Sachs (Defender of the Crown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Tobias Richter (Alien Breed and Star Trek: The Game) and Dan Malone (The Chaos Engine and Speedball 2).
Whereas the company profiles outline the history and output of seminal studios of the period, including Cinemaware (Defender of the Crown, It Came from the Desert, Wings), DMA design (Lemmings franchise, Blood Money, Walker), Sensible (Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder, Mega lo Mania), and Team 17 (Alien Breed games, Worms franchise, Project X).
CA:AVC also includes spotlights on the demo scene, a sort of computer-based music-video subculture that grew out of the cracking (piracy) scene of the late 1980s; Deluxe Paint, the Photoshop of its day and the must have app for artists and game designers of the period; X-Copy, the infamous and controversial disk-copying utility that facilitated piracy and no doubt contributed to the demise of the Amiga; and unreleased Amiga games including Putty Squad, which was finally published for free in 2013 nearly 20 years after being shelved in 1994. Lastly, a nice little touch is the reproduction on the inside of the dust jacket of all the signatures embossed onto the underside of the lid on the Amiga 1000.
Did I like it?
CA:AVC is a beautifully-presented and quality product; it feels solid and well made and is a pleasure to flick through. Sam Dyer has done a brilliant job in organising, compiling and researching this book. The screenshots are well chosen and reproduced, and the lithographic printing really brings the colours to life. The snippet quotations included on each game spread provide brief yet fascinating glimpses into their creation, though don’t expect them to tell you what the games were about or made them special – I guess it’s assumed that you will be already be familiar with the majority of these titles. And yes, I was pleased to see that most of my favourites made the cut. Even now, I still feel awed and captivated by some of the imagery on display here. And thanks to CA:AVC I have rediscovered some long-forgotten gems, whilst being inspired to play games that for some reason I never got round to playing or knew little about.
The features are entertaining and informative, and though hardly in-depth, the interviews and company profiles are engaging enough and provide insight into the design and inspiration behind some of the best-loved Amiga titles. A recurring theme in these features is the excitement of taking the leap from 8- to 16-bit, the creativity it unleashed and how the Amiga opened up a new world of possibility. And the artists/designers reflect fondly on a time of largely unrestricted artistic freedom and experimentation (due to the generally small and independent nature of game studios in those days) rarely experienced again in their careers. Personally, I would have loved to have seen a few more interviews and company profiles, but I realise that there may not have been the space or time for this.
My only real complaint would be that at times CA:AVC does feel a little superlative laden and rose tinted; the selected commentaries often glossing over the obvious deficiencies of a number of games that were apparent even back in the day (such as the highly derivative nature of some of the scrolling shooters and platformers featured). But I suppose this all adds to the cosy feeling of heart-warming nostalgia that the book exudes and perhaps such criticism would be out of place here.
If you’re looking for an in-depth history on the Commodore Amiga or its gaming scene, then you’ve got the wrong book. But this is not what CA:AVC sets out do. The clue is in the name; Commodore Amiga: a visual Commpendium is a visual celebration of Amiga games and their lovingly-crafted 16-bit pixel art. It’s all about the pictures and this is where it really shines – a lot of love has gone into selecting these images. It’s a coffee-table book for idly flicking through on a lazy Sunday afternoon or getting out to impress your nerdy mates. If you have fond memories of playing on an Amiga, then this is a must buy.