For a lot of kids in the 1980s, graduating from the Commodore 64 to the Amiga was a logical step. The Commodore 64 was known for having some of the best graphics and sound of any 8-bit computer, and the Amiga was doing the same for 16-bit machines.
Unfortunately, I never made that transition. While I was playing games in my bedroom on the Commodore 64, my dad had moved on to the IBM PC, which quickly became our “family” computer. For several years, my C64 was far superior to the PC when it came to playing games. The C64 could play digitized sound samples as sprites danced, while our family’s PC simply bleeped and blooped while displaying pictures using garish four-color palettes. Our PC was great for word processing and managing spreadsheets, but when it came to playing games like Defender of the Crown, Impossible Mission, or Ghostbusters, the Commodore 64 reigned supreme.
But the PC was hiding a secret; it was upgradable. My Commodore 64 was essentially born with all the processing power and multimedia capabilities it would ever have. My dad’s PC, however, was slowly improving. While I squirreled away in my room playing games, my dad swapped out his computer’s motherboard and upgraded the processor to a 286. He added RAM, and a bigger hard drive. He also upgraded the video card from CGA to VGA, and eventually added a Soundblaster sound card. Before I knew it, he had a PC capable of playing games that looked and sounded better than the ones on my C64. Because the PC was the only other modern computer I had hands-on experience with, when it was eventually time for me to upgrade from the Commodore 64, going PC was the most logical choice.
Some of my friends remained loyal to Commodore, and graduated from the 64 to the Amiga. My friend Arcane was one of those people. I met Arcane after calling his BBS in the mid ‘80s when we were barely teens, and the two of us became friends both online and in real life. We spent most of our middle and high school years swapping computer games and stories. In the early 90s, around the time both of us graduated high school, Arcane shut down his BBS, sold his Commodore 64, and purchased an Amiga.
I will never forget the first time I saw Arcane’s Amiga in person. Unlike the Commodore 64 (which always looked a bit like a toy), the Amiga looked like a serious machine. One of the first features he demonstrated to me was the computer’s Hold And Modify (HAM) mode, which gave the Amiga the ability to display 4,096 colors on a single screen. This was at a time when Commodore 64 owners (such as myself) bragged about being able to display sixteen colors! Arcane had downloaded several floppy disks worth of high resolution pictures, and I sat in awe in front of that monitor as he cycled through them one at a time, demonstrating the computer’s graphical superiority. Never before had I seen pictures so lifelike on a computer monitor! Look, it’s a banana split! It’s a race car! It’s King Tut!
After wowing me for several minutes with gorgeous pictures, we moved on to the games. The first one he showed me was Dragon’s Lair. For years, it was generally accepted that no gaming system or computer would be able to recreate Dragon’s Lair at home in all its animated glory. Many had previously tried — Electronic Arts restructured the game to play on 8-bit systems, followed later by the completely reimagined version for the NES, but it was inconceivable to me that a home computer would be able to recreate the Dragon’s Lair arcade experience until I saw it with my own eyes that day. The animation may not have been as smooth as the arcade version, and there may have been a few pauses in the game due to disk swapping, but right before my very eyes was Dragon’s Lair, playing on an Amiga. It was a jaw-dropping moment, one that instantly showed me what Commodore’s 16-bit computer was capable of.
The next game we played was Walker, by Psygnosis. I was unfamiliar with “Mechs” at that time, and looking back at the game’s artwork the Walker somewhat resembles ED-209 from RoboCop, but when the game launched I was convinced that Walker was in reality an AT-ST walker from The Empire Strikes Back. Walker’s control scheme, which combines keyboard keys (to move) with the mouse (for aiming and firing) seemed complicated and awkward at the time; little did I know this same concept would soon be adopted by first-person shooters and become the norm for decades to come. Walker combined pre-rendered graphics with detailed pixel backgrounds, stereo sound, digital samples, and more explosions than an 80s action film. It was, at the time, the most incredible computer game I had ever played.
The last game we played that day, which led to a memory I will never forget, was PInball Dreams, the first in a series of pinball games released by 21st Century and Digital Illusions. Arcane and I had always been competitive when it came to video games and high scores, and the two of us spent more than an hour playing Pinball Dreams, taking turns and attempting to best each other’s scores.
After an hour of playing we had all but maxed out our scores. I don’t remember the exact number, but I think our highest score was around a hundred-million points, a score neither of us seemed able to beat. I decided to give the game one last try, and was somewhere around the fifty-million mark when the pinball table went bonkers. I must have hit a bonus or started a mini-game, because my score started increasing by the millions. I saw my score zoom past sixty-million, seventy-million, and then eighty-millions. Bumpers flashed, alarms rang, and my score went through the roof. I sailed past one-hundred million, and then two-hundred million. The game was going crazy, racking up points on its own!
The whole thing was hilarious, and the more points I scored the harder I laughed. When my score hit three-hundred million, I was laughing so hard that I could barely catch my breath. When it reached four-hundred million, I began to experience tunnel vision. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been laughing so hard that I was about to pass out.
As my body began to slump down in my chair, Arcane reached out toward me. In the confusion of the moment, I thought he was trying to sabotage my game, and began fighting him off! Fortunately he was able to pause the game before I had completely slid off the chair down into the floor. I don’t faint at the sight of blood, and not even the goriest horror movies make me woozy, but I can proudly (?) say that I almost passed out from laughing while playing Pinball Dreams on the Amiga.
Playing games on Arcane’s computer rekindled my love for the Amiga and desperately made me want to buy one of my own. Unfortunately at that time I was not in a financial position to buy a computer, or much of anything else. In 1993 I was delivering pizza, living in an apartment, and paying my way through community college. I was struggling each month to make my car and insurance payments, and living off of Ramen noodles and leftover pizza from work. Buying a new computer at that point, no matter how badly I wanted one, was simply out of the question.
A year later in 1994 I landed a job at Best Buy, which allowed me to eventually recover from the debt I had amassed. By the time I had saved up enough money to buy an Amiga, they were gone. The software aisles at my Best Buy reflected the new trend in home computers: we had ten aisles of software for PCs, one aisle for Macintosh programs, and not much else. Commodore was out, and PCs were in. I used the money I had been saving for an Amiga to purchase my first PC, a screaming 386 DX/40.
The PC may have won the market, but it never won my heart the way the Amiga did.