FROM BEDROOMS TO BILLIONS: THE AMIGA YEARS.
For many people the 16-bit era conjures fond memories of the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo, which dominated gaming in the early to mid ’90s and not only produced some incredible games but also provided the template for the modern gaming business that we know and (mostly) love today. For a great others however, especially if you happened to live in Europe, the 16-bit revolution didn’t begin in the late ’80s with the launch of the Mega Drive – it began way back in 1985 with a revolutionary home computer called the Commodore Amiga.
THE AMIGA YEARS
Gracious Films began their foray into retro gaming documentaries with 2014’s brilliant ‘From Bedrooms to Billions’, a detailed and loving exploration of the rise of the 8-bit micro. Unlike most other gaming history pieces which tell the story from a US perspective, the film took the unusual step of telling the story from a UK/European viewpoint by interviewing the people who were there on the front lines and essentially went on to found an entire industry. For their follow up film, ‘The Amiga Years’, directors Anthony and Nicola Caulfield have taken a slightly different tack and chosen to instead focus on a single machine, the people who made it possible and the culture that formed around it.
In a similar style to the original film, The Amiga Years tells its story by speaking to the people who were there at the time. The vast majority of the two and half hour running time consists of video interviews with many members of the original Amiga team, with additional takes from some of the most prominent players in the Amiga scene. As in the first From Bedrooms, these interviews are presented chronologically in short bursts and without the viewer hearing the interviewer’s questions; this footage is then intercut and overlaid with vintage photographs, advertisements and news reports of the day. Once again this proves to be an engaging and effective approach to telling a story, with the interviewees themselves basically taking on the responsibility of the narrator and getting the maximum amount of screen-time as a consequence.
BUILDING THE AMIGA
Beginning with a brief run-down of the history of home gaming, the first half of the film concentrates heavily on the story of the Amiga’s development, with an in-depth look at how the Amiga Corporation was formed around the idea to create a computer which would outperform every other machine on the market. Drawing on the experiences of the people who were there, this is a fascinating tale of a group of experts who, disillusioned with the business and management practices of companies like Atari, decided to risk everything and go it alone instead.
Covering everything from the hiring and poaching of staff through the race to get the first prototype ready for CES, the almost-disaster of a company-saving loan from Atari and the eventual sale of the business and technology to Commodore, the documentary recounts this period in great detail. On the more technical side, we hear about the development of the original hardware specifications using nothing more than a simple whiteboard, the creation of the revolutionary custom chipset and multitasking OS, and just how that iconic ‘bouncing ball’ demo came about. While all of this might sound quite dry, the ‘talking head’ format keeps the tone informal and helps to prevent the film becoming bogged down in any single event; the passion and enthusiasm of the interviewees also helps to make this an eminently entertaining history lesson, with plenty of amusing anecdotes to break up the more formal retelling of events.
With the machine finally on the shelves, the film changes direction slightly and focuses more on how the Amiga changed the industry; creators and artists describe how the custom hardware and specialist tools made it so much easier to produce high-quality output, with the machine’s huge leap in graphical and audio capabilities enabling home gaming to not only close the gap on the arcades, but in many cases to surpass it. The documentary also covers how the addition of a mouse and larger amounts of memory enabled studios to experiment with gaming genres which had never been seen before, but also lead to a surge in professional productivity software, making the machine incredibly popular with artists, musicians and video editors.
The Amiga was also very much a favourite among amateur programmers, and the film spends some time explaining how a surge in software piracy had the unintentional side-effect of creating a prolific competitive demo scene, with various groups competing against each other to push the machine to the absolute limits of its capabilities.
Although we are told that Commodore initially struggled to market the Amiga effectively and the machine was never as popular in its native US as it was in Europe, the latter half of the film demonstrates very clearly how the machine continued to push the boundaries, surpassing what even its creators thought was possible.
The Amiga Years sets out to chronicle the history of the Amiga and what made it so different to everything that had come before it, and it achieves those goals magnificently. From beginning to end the production is slick and professional, and the content and editing are tight and well-focussed so as to provide the maximum amount of information without any particular segment outstaying its welcome or repeating itself. The music and vintage footage are both excellent and well chosen, and the inclusion of a large percentage of the original Amiga team has to be particularly commended as a marvellous achievement that really grounds the authenticity of the content.
Perhaps the only real disappointment here is that while Gracious does an excellent job of taking us up to the Amiga’s launch and early days, it doesn’t really go any further; none of the post-A500 models are covered, nor the ill-fated CD32 or the brand’s eventual fall in the mid-90s alongside an imploding Commodore. Similarly there is little discussion of the battle with arch-rival Atari’s competing ST series, nor any mention of the struggle to remain relevant in the face of two hugely popular and expensively-marketed 16-bit consoles. With the film already running at two and a half hours it’s perhaps easy to see why these things were excluded, but I found myself wishing there had been perhaps another half an hour to tackle at least the very end of the dream.
It should also be noted that people who are mainly fans of the Amiga for its entertainment software are likely to leave disappointed – this is very much a celebration of the Amiga itself and not a misty-eyed run-down of its gaming highlights. A small number of games are covered in passing, but if you’re looking for a game-centric piece then this is perhaps not the film for you.
These are, however, minor criticisms for what is genuinely a very generous and impressive product.
Commodore’s business failings may have allowed the PC and Mac to win out in the end, but the Amiga fostered a legion of fans who still remember it with great fondness even today. For the true believer, this is a genuine and detailed exploration of the genesis of the machine they loved, related first-hand by the very people who made it happen. For the retro fan who never owned an Amiga it’s a fascinating insight into perhaps the final home computer that dared to do things differently.
Whichever side of the fence you fall upon, The Amiga Years is a delight to watch and absolutely not to be missed.
From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years is available to buy on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital formats from http://www.frombedroomstobillions.com/amiga.
User Blerk – gamer, retro gamer, coder, writer, ZX Spectrum fanboy, miserable old git. Best before 1990. May contain nuts