Idiots Guide To Consoles – Amiga CD32

Like the anti-Midas, it seems everything Commodore touched eventually turned to crap. James Matson discovers that hidden behind the business failures of Commodore lies an often forgotten – but ultimately awesome – retro console.

It never stood a chance…

Commodore never had much success in the world of the CD format.  Terms like ‘unmitigated disaster’ and ‘say what now?’ have been bandied about the room on more than one occasion.

‘The CDTV was arguably a platform before its time, introducing a sexy black cased multimedia box at a period when the entire multimedia concept was too immature to be a retail success.  To make matters worse, another Commodore product – the A570 add on CD-ROM drive for the Amiga 500 – was partly responsible for killing the CDTV, providing existing A500 users with the same functionality without having to fork out for an entirely separate machine.

With pedigree like that what hope did Commodores one and only CD format entry into the game console world have?  As though preordained by history the Amiga CD32 was indeed a commercial failure. It sold reasonably well during its short run from 1993 – 94 but was doomed to a pit of ultimate obscurity opened by the impending bankruptcy of Commodore and the lack of strong original titles that weren’t simply re-hashed Amiga releases.  The CD32 ended up broken and destitute, and in later years could be found slumped in the dingy corners of no-name bars sucking on cheap whisky and lamenting for the life it never had.

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Like most retro consoles however, these days the Amiga CD32 seems to hold more attraction than it ever did at release. No longer striving to be cutting edge or competitive at retail, the CD32 can be seen in a new – and pretty awesome – light.  So what exactly is the CD32? At it’s heart, it’s an Amiga 1200 with a CD drive. Yep, that about sums it up. Now to anyone with a bit of knowledge about the Commodore Amiga line of computers will realise that’s a pretty awesome combination. The Amiga 1200 was the ultimate evolution of the budget line of Amiga’s, offering a massive games library on evolved Amiga architecture.  The specifications of the CD32 are as follows (we’ve included the 3DO for comparison as it was released around the same time and would be considered a spiritual competitor….)

Specification: Amiga CD32 Panasonic 3DO
CPU Motorola 68EC020 at 14.32 MHz 32-bit 12.5 MHz RISC CPU (ARM60)
RAM 2 MB Amiga Chip RAM 2 MB of main RAM, 1 MB of VRAM
Display 320×256 to 1280×512i (PAL) 768×576, 384×288 50 Hz for PAL
Colours 24-bit color palette, Up to 256 on-screen colors in indexed mode 16 bit palettized color (from 24 bits) or 24 bit truecolor
Audio 4 × 8-bit PCM channels (2 stereo channels) 16-bit stereo sound, Supports Dolby Surround sound

 

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Happiness is a gun-metal grey console

From the specifications, you can see that the CD32 is pretty much what we told you it was, an A1200 with a CD drive, except for one other notable addition – the Akiko chip. The Akiko was primarily responsible for ‘Chunky to Planar’ conversion for 3D graphics leaving the CPU out of the equation and translating to faster 3D titles.  Stacked up against the 3DO, the CD32 is definitely in the same league, but is hampered by a lack of memory. From an aesthetics point of view the CD32 isn’t a terrible looker either. It sheds the more sedate and businesslike look of its beige Amiga heritage in favor of gun metal grey, a colour that in the world of the early 90s, meant your machine was serious.

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The controller doesn’t look too shabby either, but here the vision is totally deceiving. The stock CD32 controller is as robust as a paper bag soaked in the tears of orphans forced to play Superman on the Nintendo 64. A few good thrashings will result in a range of effects from the D-pad breaking to the whole controller just disintegrating into dust and memory.  Disconcerting if you’re in the middle of a game. Our recommendation if you’re after a CD32 is to grab the original controllers for completeness sake and to quiet your collectors soul, but look to acquire a Competition Pro or other third party CD32 controller for day to day gaming.

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For video, the ’32 has been blessed with composite out which gives you total flexibility to source AV cables from just about anywhere, but also provides flexibility with S-Video and RF as well.   And what gets displayed with these outputs? Pretty much the best graphics you can expect from the Amiga architecture.  The AGA chipset affords you 256+ colours on screen at once, while for the most part animation is smooth and games are littered with the fantastic audio effects and music you’d expect from Amiga games (which we grant you is more to do with the talented game studios of the day than anything particularly amazing about Amiga audio capabilities).

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What to get, once you’ve got the box

So, the most pressing question is – what on earth are you going to play on a CD32? Well, the answer is (for the most part) the same games you know and love from the Amiga computer line. While this limited software range might have part killed the machine back in its heyday, we still reckon the CD32 is one of the most enjoyable and playable retro consoles out there. To cry tears of gaming joy, you’ll want to get your hands on the Lotus Trilogy, Bubba N’ Stix, Zool, Pinball Fantasies, Alien Breed Tower Assault, Microcosm, Simon the Sorcerer and Liberation at the very least. Some games are exclusives, some are original Amiga titles given a beef up via FMV intros or digitised CD audio/samples.

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The real gem though? There are compilations ISOs available online that are filled with Amiga games never released for the CD32 that some clever chap has converted to a format that’s playable on the console. Brill! This now allows you to hit up a vast array of Amiga games on the CD32 as an alternative to the disk based computer line. There are even compilation toolkit programs available on the web that’ll allow you to build your own titles (though we recommend steering clear of any games that require a mouse to play).

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So there it is, a whirlwind tour of the Amiga CD32. A console that never really had a chance then, but these days can delight a new audience of gamers with it’s solid architecture, great range of treasured memory Amiga games and that extra special charm that can only come with being a total commercial failure.