Quiet please – gurus meditating

Much like Bedrooms to Billions take 1, The Amiga Years is a tale without a teller. Anthony and Nicola Caulfield are again at the helm shaping the narrative, though you won’t see or hear them in the documentary. Humbly in awe of the participating luminaries, they’re content to take a back seat and let them embrace the limelight they truly deserve.

I’m not entirely convinced this has to be an all or nothing approach, and personally feel a well structured voice-over from an impassioned guide can really bring to life, and add personality and flavour to a presentation. It bonds the connection between the audience and subject in a way that listening to one side of a phone call never could. It’s why for me the tech insider interviews by Dan Wood and Ravi Abbott, and Kim Justice’s piece on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Commodore Amiga’ have the edge over The Amiga Years.

In an age when nerds like me watch more media on YouTube than via TV or at the popcorn palace, the dichotomy this highlighted made me wonder, are our minds now more attuned to off-the-cuff online presentations produced at home by independent individuals?

Tell someone you’re attempting to chart the meteoric rise of the visionary home micro that flipped the world upside down, point a production quality video camera in their direction, and ask them to reflect on it, and you’ll get a certain type of response. There’s a fair chance it will be politically correct, guarded and professional.

A solid yardstick for any Commodore or Atari focused documentary is its handling of Jack Tramiel’s influence. If it’s polite and respectful the chances are we’ve lost a swathe of footage to the cutting room floor. I wouldn’t imagine the merciless rottweiler would have died surrounded by too many close friends in 2012.

The casual hobbyist approach draws out an entirely disparate response from interviewees. There are no run-time restrictions and the vibe is more immediate. Often with minimal editing in evidence, the information gleaned is raw, more enlightening and heartfelt. In the absence of carefully placed way-points you’re left to weave together your own narrative, draw your own conclusions.

You could argue that this primitive, though undiluted modus operandi is more appropriately tailored towards documenting a story emanating from the modest foundations of schoolboy’s bedrooms.

Nonetheless, what the producers have accomplished by stitching together this million and one piece jigsaw into a coherent memoir to the Amiga’s epic legacy is nothing short of breathtaking. The pre-whittled sum of footage shot to bring us to this juncture will be known. Perhaps the exact figure in hours, minutes and seconds is mentioned on the project’s Kickstarter page. What I do know is it will be a number of dizzying proportions. One that mere mortals would gawp at in horror and whimper, “where the hell do I begin?”

The curtain raises on a seminal scene set way back in the annals of computer gaming history; the story of Ralph Baer’s Pong, and how it came to be. For the next 20 minutes we’re taken on a fairly arid, plodding journey across the precarious stepping stones leading up to the main event.

At this stage they nearly lost me; it wasn’t what I bought my ticket stub to see. I was already familiar with the grainy archival footage and elucidation of its significance, and was expecting to waste no time in plunging head first into the promised – and long-teased – juicy Amiga meat. After all, didn’t we lay the groundwork in the first Bedrooms to Billions film?

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Once the documentary hit its stride I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The Caulfields – probably by way of a Jedi mind trick – have managed to rope in nearly all the key figures from the Amiga hall of fame, and to their credit, they’re not shy in taking us behind the magic curtain.

RJ Mical’s energised, animated anecdotes alone are worth the price of admission! He must have told the Andy ‘doolally’ Warhol Amiga 1000 launch story hundreds of times over the years, yet recounting it again here he’s bursting with zeal and child-like elation as though it happened yesterday.

Fighting back the urge to lift this gesticulation completely out of context for the sake of wringing out a cheap gag is almost impossible… must resist the temptation… be strong… you can do it…

Along with pioneering software architect and engineer, Dale ‘trouble-maker’ Luck, RJ goes on to relay his CES launch event memories, the frenetic race to finish the exalted Boing Ball demo animation, dozing off in the booth through sheer exhaustion, and their colleagues’ reaction on discovering the sleeping beauties the following morning.

The passion he exudes is infectious; soon I was cracking up along with the GUI maestro, matching his insanity laugh for laugh. If you’re Robert’s friend, partner or child you should consider yourself very lucky. He’s one of a kind.

The one and only drawback of having RJ appear in a production of any kind is that he makes almost everyone else look like they’ve just been told they have five minutes left to live. Sometimes it’s as though we’re cutting back and forth between a funeral and a Mardi Gras!

Engineering virtuoso, Dave Needle, was an incy wincy bit more subdued, though no less ecstatic to be representing the quantum leap in computing he played such a substantial part in realising.

His eyes beam with tender reflection as he reminisces over the deliciously satisfying tale concerning the submission of fake schematics of the three custom chips to their unwelcome investor, Atari, to ensure Jack Tramiel couldn’t ransack the Amiga technology, kicking the heroes responsible for its existence to the kerb. It was an inspired ruse, and a gem of a story told with delightfully mischievous glee.

A rare, bitter-sweet insight made all the more poignant in the knowledge that this would turn out to be the last interview the man who started his Commodore career working as a janitor would give before passing away in February this year. The film is quite rightly dedicated in loving memory to the legend who united us all.

The Amiga Years covers the formation of the dream team who gifted the world the first Amiga and its subsequent models. It studies the turbulent financial difficulties, hatching a deal with the devil to stay afloat, Mitchy; Jay Miner’s beloved cockapoo, the sublime games of course, the demo scene that pushed the hardware to the brink of believability, copy parties, piracy and what the machines meant to the graphicians, musicians, coders and gamers whose lives they touched. Plus a fair bit of playground ST-bashing, naturally.

Despite stopping short of mourning the untimely demise of Commodore, the hefty two and a half hour running time embodies a world wind tour de force of the Amiga’s initial impact and the indelible silicon footprint it left in the sands of time.

“I look back on my contribution to the Amiga and in several ways the graphics, the bouncing ball, the multitasking, layer library, but also to a certain degree trying to instil in other developers and other users the magic that could be done if you’re on a mission from God with the right family.” My love of the Amiga is bordering on unhealthy, but even I would draw the line a fair bit before Dale. Worms and cans spring to mind, can’t imagine why.

The first mention of the model that held pride of place in the bedrooms of the average schoolboy gamer, the A500, is made an hour and twenty minutes into the film. That’s not a sleight at the Caulfields in any way, it’s an acknowledgement that the Amiga offered so much to so many, stubbornly refusing to be boxed off by any single label.

Nevertheless, it’s the “computers for the masses, not the classes” idiomatic badge that resonated most potently with me, then and now. In the concluding phase of the piece, iconic figures from all nooks of the games industry name-drop classic game titles and wax lyrical on their momentous gravity, mashing my nostalgia buttons like Muhammad Ali going to work on a defenceless, exhausted speedbag.

The sum of The Amiga Years’ multifarious puzzle pieces equate to a thought-provoking, beautifully crafted and doting homage to the spirit of the computer, that thirty years on from its game-changing inception, a legion of ardent fans still hold aloft with dewy-eyed reverence.

“Only Amiga makes it possible”.

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