Amiga Memories, Part III

Amiga Memories

By the time I purchased my first PC in 1994, the Amiga market was fading fast. Software was still being released, and those who owned them were still using then, but the mainstream market had moved on. The most amazing computer I had ever seen seemed to vanish from store shelves. And in the 1990s, hardware was advancing at such a rapid rate that nobody had time to stop and mourn the demise of Commodore. Within a year I had upgraded my 386 to an entry level 486. As fast as I could afford to, I was upgrading motherboards and processors. My 486/33 quickly became a 486 DX2/66 before I upgraded it to a DX4/100. That same year, we stopped describing hard drives in megabytes. and started talking about them in gigabytes. Keeping up with the latest hardware was both expensive and exhausting. My computer room started to look like a junk dealer’s shop, full of old computers, new computers, and a few dead computers.

And it wasn’t just computers. The processing power of home video game consoles was rocketing through the roof as well. In 1994, I used my employee discount at Best Buy to purchase an already deeply-discounted Super Nintendo. The following year, I got a PlayStation. I grew up playing a clunky version of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600; all of a sudden, the graphics on home gaming systems were competing with (and in some cases outperforming) arcade games.

Even with all the advances in computers and gaming consoles, I never lost my infatuation with old systems. While my friends were blowing their paychecks on PlayStation games, I was buying Atari 2600 and Nintendo cartridges at garage sales for pennies. In the mid-to-late 90s, people were literally giving away old video games and computers to anyone who would take them. Most of them weren’t even looking for money; they were just glad to see them go to a good home.

In the early 2000s my wife and I bought a house with an upstairs bonus room that we agreed would make an ideal man cave. The room, 600 square feet in size, had ample space for my growing collection of computers and consoles. I lined the walls with shelves to display all my vintage game cartridges, and daisy chained so many power strips and video switch boxes together it’s a wonder I didn’t burn the house down. But most importantly, I used some of that space to establish a retro computing area. I placed a table along one wall and set up a Commodore 64 and an Apple //c. Then I set out to track down the object of my childhood dreams: an Amiga computer.

According to my records, I bought my first Amiga (an Amiga 1200) in October of 2005. I found the seller through an online gaming forum, and paid $20 for the machine (plus shipping). I didn’t have any prior hands-on experience with the 1200, but from what I had read, that was the system to own. I added the machine to my retro computing table, and my collection of retro computers was complete… or so I thought.

While I enjoyed the Amiga 1200, I had no nostalgic connection with it. I only owned a few games on floppy for it, and for some reason they did not evoke the great feelings I had experienced more than a decade earlier playing on my friend’s Amiga 500. I began to think that purchasing the same model he had owned would somehow make things better.

A few years later in 2008, another forum member announced he was selling his Amiga 500 system for $50 and I immediately jumped at the offer. The two of us agreed to meet in a local parking lot, and when he arrived he informed me that not only would I be getting his Amiga 500, but also all his peripherals like joysticks and mice, more than a thousand floppy disks full of software, and a second spare Amiga 500. It was one of the few times where I demanded to pay someone more than their original asking price.

Back home I removed the Amiga 1200 from my desk and replaced it with the 500, but quickly became frustrated. It seemed like I was constantly struggling to figure out how things worked. I found myself frequently swapping joysticks around, and even worse, I only knew how to load disks that automatically booted when you inserted them into the drive. Double-clicking on game icons sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Some of the disks were compressed with tools I didn’t own. The whole thing was a disaster. Instead of having the time of my life, I was more frustrated than ever.

That experience made me think that it might be impossible to go back. Yes, the Amiga had blown my mind back in the mid-80s, but what had I been comparing it to? Displaying 4,096 colors all at once seemed like a miracle back then. By the time I owned an Amiga, every PC could display 16.7 million. There was a time when the Amiga Juggler was the most advanced animation I had ever seen displayed on a personal computer screen. By 2008, I could watch real videos of people juggling on my computer thanks to YouTube. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe, I feared, the Amiga wasn’t as awesome as I had remembered it.

I became even more despondent when I ran across an article claiming the Sega Genesis contained “essentially” the same hardware as an Amiga, and went on to boast that when comparing the two side by side, the Genesis outperformed it. For me, this statement was unfathomable. Impossible. Heresy! How could a video game console that I saw selling in thrift stores for $10 possibly harness the same magical powers as the computer of my childhood dreams?! I read through all the statistics in the article and compared the numbers, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the concept. I don’t know why I felt so heartbroken after reading that article, but I did. The Amiga in my memory was the greatest system of all time. Suggesting that some last-gen gaming console could outperform it was insulting.

Sadly, my Amigas began collecting dust. I quit picking up new games for the system, and quit playing the ones I already owned. If the Amiga was no better than a Sega Genesis, why not just collect Genesis games? They sure were a heck of a lot simpler to get working than many of the Amiga games I had tried.

It took me many years to find what I was looking for, even though at that time I didn’t even know what I was looking for. It wasn’t one particular game, or piece of hardware, or even a specific model of Amiga that I had been in search of all along.

It was a community.

At first through forums, and ultimately through the Amigos Podcast, I discovered others who loved and appreciated the Amiga. Call it corny, but what had been missing for me was other people who were interested in the same machine. People who appreciated the machine, people who could teach me about the machine, and perhaps most of all, people who had similar memories of the machine.

When I moved into my last home, I redid my retro computing table. I replaced the C64c with the original Commodore 64 from my youth, and the Apple //c with the version I was more familiar with, the Apple //e. Finally, I pulled my Amiga 1200 back out of storage and put it in its proper place.

Over the past few years, I’ve continued to explore the Amiga’s library, both through physical machines and emulation. I have dabbled in running Amiga emulators on my Raspberry Pi, and pretty much leave my MiST FPGA permanently configured as an Amiga. How ironic that the most advanced computer of its time can be emulated today by a piece of hardware that will fit in my back pocket and costs less than a couple of pizzas. The thought of a Raspberry Pi emulating an Amiga seems like magic to me. Then again, the Amiga always seemed like magic to me.

At the end of the day I’m still not convinced you can go back, but I do believe you can go forward. The Commodore 64 will always be my first true love, but the more I dig around through the Amiga’s library, the more enamored I become with the machine. Things like the Amiga Juggler, Boing, and old MODs will always stir up a sense of nostalgia for me, but it’s the thrill of discovering new games that excites me even more.

Those are all of my old Amiga memories. Now it’s time to make some new ones.

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