Sometimes, not often but sometimes a piece of technology will emerge that is just fantastic in every possible way, gives people what they want and what they are used too and sets the bar higher for others to follow. Sometimes, not often but sometimes it does this by tweaking what’s already there as an evolution rather than an evolution building upon a previous success and failure to get an entire project or in this case company back on track.
Then reality comes along to crush everything.
Introducing the story of a console that ticked every single box that mattered and added a few new ones beaten not by a superior competitor or rival with larger pockets, not by a press hate campaign or the turning of noses by the public but beaten simply by an invisible enemy that eventually takes us all….Time
Take your seats and listen to the tale of the little box that could, that did and more importantly that should have continued to do so. If ever there was a games console so unfairly robbed of a place in the history of videogames it is this one, a console I know very well, one that I proudly defend, the often forgotten never appreciated gem that was/is/always will be…..The Amiga CD32.
The late 1980’s had been very kind to the Amiga brand, the very popular 8-bit home computer the Commodore 64/128 had sold millions making it the number 1 worldwide seller of it’s class. The poor old Amstrad and supremely popular Spectrum range although popular in the UK had little presence elsewhere so when the big brother was released it had big shoes to fill. The history of the Amiga range of home computers is covered elsewhere on RGG however suffice it to say it dominated the home computer scene and it did it easily, Amstrad with the spectrum brand in tow never got back in the game and Atari with their very popular ST gave a very solid fight but could not stand against something so utterly ahead of it’s time it was to all extents and purposes 2 generations clear of any of it’s then rivals.
The 1990’s however would end up being a completely different story in that the quality would remain high, the product would be immense but this time the sales would not come, not because it was too expensive, not liked or anything retail related. Nothing as straight forward as these things would have anything to do with what occurred here.
I’m getting ahead of myself here though so let’s get back on point shall we. The start of the 1990’s heralded one of if not the fastest moving moment in the history of the games industry, not only were 8-Bit computers phased out entirely in favour of 16-Bit successors but now this console mania that had griped Japan and North America was finally reaching Europe. Instant loading games with full colour sharper images had almost overnight changed the landscape of the scene and gamers were flocking to them in their hundreds of thousands, the end of the dominance of the home computer had begun. On top of the computer V console war the computer scene itself was in turmoil with the rise of the CD-ROM media which several attempts at integration into a console style had failed, Commodore and Sega as well as Philips had all dropped the ball with systems below what consumer expectation had built up and with PC’s so expensive this promised new dawn all the games magazines were pushing simply wasn’t there.
With Nintendo and Sony both working on longer term projects set for 1995 the entire 1992 onwards time was the era for add-ons to existing tech, redesigns and companies no longer at the top of the food chain attempting to claw some form of market dominance away from consoles like the Megadrive. After a series of disastrous hardware launches including the CD-TV and Amiga 500+ / Amiga 600 it seemed that Commodore were once again working their magic as the newly released mass market version of the Amiga 4000 designated Amiga 1200 had really re-captured the spirit of the brand in general, Mainland Europe, Germany especially, were in complete love with this new 16-Bit home computer and it’s AGA graphics chipset.
Behind the scenes and mostly unknown to the masses at the time the Commodore international parent company were struggling financially, the massive almost overnight shift from total market leadership to playing catch-up to Sega and Co had taken it’s toll along with costly hardware launches that had utterly failed to sell on any real level, money was leaking from everywhere. What was needed was a cheaper alternative to the newly released Amiga 1200 using the same graphics chipset and specs that could deliver all the top class gameplay this home computer was churning out but with faster loading and simplified interactivity….. The CD-32 was born.
Unveiled at the national science museum on 16th July 1993 this scaled down console version of the Amiga 1200 would tick every single box that both consumers wanted and more importantly that Commodore needed. Ultra fast loading of fantastic looking fast moving games that could be produced in either traditional 2D as well as 3D and utilise new and still relevant technology such as FMV in high quality with state of the art CD stereo sound. The old ways of keyboard and joystick inputs for control were gone and in their place a brand new standard controller with multiple face buttons would match and indeed surpass other offerings allowing ports to occur whilst allowing skilled developers to use the extra power to push boundaries further.
In one fell swoop Commodore had evolved the home computer into that which it’s rivals were using to club it to death. The main obstacles had been hurdled easily and now the ball was back in their court because even though they were no longer market leader it was easier, faster and cheaper to produce games on CD than cartridge, the format of choice for both Sega and Nintendo at this time (Mega-CD aside) On top of this developers in the UK and Europe who were still at this time massive in the industry were still brand loyal to the Amiga line and completely experienced in programming for them, not to mention that making games for the CD-32 was in real terms as simple as porting the Amiga 1200 version with very minor adjustments.
Companies such as Ocean, Core design, Codemasters, Gremlin Graphics all jumped on board because it made complete and total financial sense to do so meaning that software support for this new console would be taken care of easily. The Amiga 500 Plus and 600 had been a total disaster with compatibility problems and consumer confusion at retail but as stated previously the Amiga 1200 had restored so much faith in such a short space of time that everything seemed back on track, and it was….. On face value.
In September of 1993 this new console launched in Europe for just under £300.00 and came complete with a pack in bundle of two games, Oscar and Diggers as well as a CD that showed some interesting tech demos to prove the power inside. At the time the media were very favourable towards it regarding it’s looks it’s power and it’s perceived future based on factors such as software support price and marketing campaign which was very Sega-esque in that it went for shows of power mixed with styling’s of cool. The only slight drawback was the look of the controller itself which looked like a boomerang however was actually very nice to hold and the buttons were super responsive.
Famous celebrities such as the then insanely popular Chris Evans all endorsed it and the UK branch of Commodore really went to town on aggressive competitor slagging matches, the most famous of course being when Commodore rented the massive advertising board outside Sega’s UK headquarters and put up the poster that read…. “To be this good will take Sega….Ages” a truly wonderful moment in what would turn out to be the best period of company squabbling ever in this industries history and another reason the golden era really was just that. Golden.
The games press were mostly either favourable or very positive about this new kid on the block, “Commodore’s console slayer” and my personal favourite “the empire strikes back” were quotes spoken by magazine journo’s who really were on a roll in those days. National newspapers and even the national news covered the launch this was a very big deal.
7 months later the CD-32 was dead. Let that sink in…..
Right now I can pretty much bet that some of you are thinking WTF? How is this possible? You must be in error Mr Megatron! To these questions my answers are… I know right?, Money and trust me I’m not in error, in fact in all truth I wish I was. Earlier I spoke about how the parent company were in serious financial dire straits and at the time this was information not widely known about outside the inner circle, most developers with fantastic relationships with Commodore had no idea that everything around the CD-32 was a house of cards. In order for the company to get back into the black this new bit of kit needed to sell and it needed to sell well. In the UK and Europe this was the case, massively so in fact that retail reported shortages almost immediately after launch that lasted right through the busy Christmas period.
Gamers and game shops were demanding this hot new console but there was simply no stock, the more the news spread the more people wanted one and the more developers rushed games to market to fill the emerging scene which looked like it was going to be massive. So where was all the stock? The issue for the European and especially the UK market was that Commodore were experiencing serious component supply problems preventing them from manufacturing more units to meet this demand, a demand that the supply problems were only making increase. Welcome to a vicious circle, caused by a lack of capital flow that utterly crippled them in this territory during a period with very little opposition in their field and a busy Christmas sales period.
Things were bad for us over here in blighty for sure however in North America it was far worse with the planned launch of the console ruined entirely by a similar problem with the units stockpiled for that region being blocked from even leaving the distribution centre in the Philippines. A federal judge ruling based on unpaid debts from Commodore International of the sum of 10 Million US Dollars to CAD TRACK for the usage of XOR patent meant that Commodore couldn’t sell anything to help get the cash to pay the royalty payment, again another catch 22 vicious cycle. In the end the American launch was scrapped with Canadian retailers shipping across the boarder to consumers willing to pay a premium and software stock being taken care of by retailers here in the UK, a complete and total mess.
The combination of making a really great console that people actually wanted from a company who simply didn’t have the money to see the project through is what led to this lightning fall from grace and eventually to the death itself of Commodore after several attempts at management buyouts and corporate re-structuring. Had Commodore not made the financial mistake of the CD-TV and Amiga 600 line maybe the cash would have been there to see them all the way through the fist 12 months launch . Maybe had they been able to release the units meant for America and not had the component supply problem for Europe the huge debt could have been paid off over time.
For whatever series of events and the reasons behind them all anyone knows for sure is this…. The CD-32 was great. It worked, the idea, concept and final product was every single bit the real return to form for the Amiga brand and had consumers been able to do the simple task of purchasing one from a shop this writer promises you the entire period of 1993 - 1995 would have not gone the way it did. For the older folks reading this the post golden era slump was a killer for retail in the UK, by the end of 1993 the mega drive was looking old, it’s add-ons were a commercial failure and Nintendo simply had no real market presence here. The Philips CD-I and Atari jaguar were huge disasters and the 3DO was yet to be released. In fact software aside 1994 is rightly seen as one of the lowest points in videogames history, almost as if everyone was frozen in headlights not knowing what to do. So many consoles had failed and this new CD technology was still not proving itself at all, only the 1995 release of the Sony Playstation would change things.
Back on topic though and let’s talk why the CD-32 is a console you should all go out and pick up and play now shall we? Put simply this is some of the best Amiga play experience you will ever get, the software catalogue is indeed a mixed bag for sure but overall the library has more than enough moments of real joy to make an evening of retro play memorable.
A lot of people will argue that all this console consists of are Amiga 1200 ports and in many ways they are right, a lot of the games were ports because it made commercial and financial sense to do this for developers launching games on a new format however a great comparison here would be to compare Spiderman V The Kingpin on Sega Megadrive to the Spiderman release on the Mega-CD, trust me it’s the same game improved in all the best ways. A lot of the CD-32 ports had extra levels thanks to the increase in storage of CD over Floppy Discs and fantastic CD quality soundtracks thanks to the disc media the console used. To top it all off the AGA enhanced graphics and format media combined to produce so many incredible FMV or cartoon intros with full speech . Simon the sorcerer on floppy V CD-32 version is like playing a different game entirely.
So let’s get into this shall we, for platform fans how’s about some time spent with the following…. Alfred Chicken, Bubba ‘n’ Stix, Chuck Rock 2, Dizzy: Prince of the Yolk Folk, James Pond 2 & 3, Bubble & Squeak, Zool 1&2 and of course the mighty Superfrog. What about adventure games you ask? Well the CD-32 had you covered with stellar ports of games such as Simon the Sorcerer, Heimdall 2, Beneath a Steel Sky, Heroquest 2 and of course the never beaten Elite 2.
If you wanted to drive around then whack in Super Skidmarks, Lotus 2, Top Gear 2 and Street Racer and several other fantastic games to satisfy that need for speed. Fighting game lovers were also treated to Ultimate Body Blows, Battletoads, Brutal Paws Of fury and Shadow Fighter. Shooting fanatics were truly blessed with stunning ports of Super Stardust, Guardian Alien Breed 1,2 and 3D, Banshee and Chaos Engine 1&2, Jungle Strike and Gloom. For almost every genre the CD-32 had at least 2 if not 3 fantastic titles to meet the needs of the consumer, sure a lot of them were ports however almost all of them were vastly improved in both look and size and now all that pesky loading had been virtually eliminated. For existing Amiga fans the launch was more of the same only better and for new people it was a whole slice of new franchises and experiences.
So when you look at all of these points you will see how truly heartbreaking the failure of the CD-32 really was. The tech was spot on, the price was very fair and the launch window of games were of a reasonable standard with several real examples of must have’s. The standout game in this writer’s humble opinion would be Liberation which was a massive action adventure RPG set in the future and offered hundreds of hours of gameplay.
To really hit home on how close they were to getting this right and getting back on top (or at least back in the game) in the 7 months the CD-32 was on sale in Europe it sold an estimated 100,000 units, this may not seem like a massive number to you but this was in 1993 when the market was a fraction of it’s size now and during a time when everyone else was struggling to sell anything hardware wise that was using CD-ROM technology. In fact over the Christmas period of 1993 the CD-32 accounted for nearly 40% of all games sales on this format for a console people couldn’t even seem to find in stores due to stock shortages.
So take all this in once again and see a new tech release that sold in a then smaller territory this well under shortages situations, whack in the number and quality of releases then on top of all this ask yourself what could have been here. Had the component supply problem and the US release been different then Commodore would have had from September 1993 until September 1995 to really build a serious momentum and installed user base before Sony rocked up. I’m not for one moment saying it would have compared against the Jap giants world beater however in Europe Commodore would still have done well to maybe go on with the concept, we were robbed of the opportunity to find out because of one Federal douche bag judge and some poor management decisions prior to the actual CD-32 launch itself. I have to be honest everything about this consoles history makes me angry.
The silver lining here though is that it’s not too late to see the wonders of this 32-Bit CD-ROM powerhouse because consoles are still around on eBay even though prices are on the rise, the same for the software, especially the bigger name games. The world of retro means that in essence everything that is old is always new because there will always be something fresh to experience for the first time and in the case of the Amiga CD-32 there’s a whole world of exciting new times to delve into. Other ways to experience the delights of a console never given the chance to shine are of course through emulation and if you’re an Amiga 1200 owner a separate bit of kit exists to allow you to connect a CDROM drive to it so you can also join in the fun.
Quotes such as ‘Only Amiga makes it possible’ and ’So many colours’ ring in my ears as I finish this little history article as things to drop in to cleverly finish it all off but this time I won’t do that, this time I’m going to do something I almost never do and plead with everyone reading this to jump into the commodore back catalogue, some of the best known industry names and companies around today achieved success during these times. Some game makers did their finest work on the Amiga 500/1200/CD-32 and as the mainstream world of retro rushes to always talk about Sega or Nintendo it’s criminal that Commodore are not recognised for being the only ones at the time to make tech shifts work, they did it with tape to Floppy Disc and in another time and space they would have done it with CD-ROM.
Bottom line...7 months, 100,000 units sold and a catalogue of well over 100 games with a huge amount of outstanding titles and immense prospects that never got it's true shot at the crown...... Heart breaker!
Long live the Amiga! Long live Commodore! As always I remain your humble servant.