The cart that never was

With the promise of console loading times for games, superior audio & visual capabilities and the ultimate anti-piracy mechanism of its time, cartridge based games sounded like the herald of a new age of gaming on the Commodore Amiga. So, what happened? James Matson gets his sleuth on about the format that almost came to be…

McDonalds has the golden arches, Firefox has the fiery fox and retro gaming has the cartridge.

Synonymous with gaming of old – gaming before we moved onto the CD/DVD/BluRay/Cloud format – the cartridge represents everything that was great about the golden age of gaming. Whether you’re blowing out a NES cart to get the sucker to work or simply sitting in the middle of your lounge-room holding a Neo Geo AES cartridge and marveling at how fat and grunty it looks (don’t lie, you do it too) cartridges were the plucky little plastic soldiers of days gone past.

there-were-stacks-and-stacks-of-old-game-cartridges-for-the-nes

Would it surprise you to learn that the might Commodore Amiga – which for most of its life was a 3.5″ disk based platform with CD media creeping in towards the end of its life – was once abuzz with talk of getting cartridge games?

Your teeth were just blown right out of your skull, weren’t they?  Well, pick them up and come back to the screen. We’ll wait.

It’s true though, for a period of time somewhere in the early nineties gaming media and developers alike were generating quite a bit of noise about the concept of moving to cartridge based format for future games. It seems a strange concept considering Commodore gave the cart format a fair crack on the Commodore 64 with arguably mixed results, but there was method in the idea. Firstly, it was thought that a cartridge could free up most of the Amiga’s memory – normally used to store code that needs to be executed – so it could instead be stuffed with better graphic and sound data.

Easy-Flash-Built

Instantaneous loading – the true realm of the console – would be known to Amiga fans the world over, while the almost platform crippling piracy that surrounded Commodore’s flagship computer would be made all the more difficult through the use of cartridges.  The famous ‘Wing Commander’ game was touted to be the first title for the Amiga that might undergo delivery in cart format. “We’re looking at cartridges” confirmed Mindscape’s Geoff Heath in a comment to CU Amiga magazine back in 1991. “The technology works well on paper, so why not investigate the options?”

Geoff wasn’t the only one who was thinking along these lines. Peter Molyneux (then boss of Bullfrog games) has plenty of positive things to say about the idea.

“I hate disks” he remarked, “a cartridge version of Populous could have ten worlds instead of four. We’ve got to produce special, different games. We should release carts now before we’re all swamped by Nintendo”.

Sorry Pete, looks like it happened anyway.

Of course not everyone was so upbeat about Amiga cartridges. Simon Jeffrey from Electronic Arts thought firmly that the Amiga should remain a disk based machine, with cartridge games reserved for consoles. Peter Billotta of Mirrorsoft expressed concerns about the high investment and low margins of the format.

Here at Retro Domination, we’re always armed with the silver bullet of hindsight, and we’re inclined to agree with those naysayers from the 90s who backed away from the concept of carts on the Amiga.  Cartridges cost a lot more than disks to produce, and the wonderful support the Amiga thrived on from so many developers and publishers might have all but dried up as smaller software houses were forced off the machine due to the high production cost of silicon versus floppy disk.  The move to cartridges could have driven the bulk of computer games development to rival platforms like the Atari ST and put the nail in the Amiga coffin a lot earlier than Commodores own ineptitude finally did.

commodore_64_cartridge

But still, it’s interesting to think about, now that it’s safe to do so knowing the Amiga is just a memory in all but the most ardent retro gamers minds. What would Amiga cartridge games have looked like? Sounded like? Played like? What kind of incredible depth would we have seen given the powerful storage abilities of cartridges complimenting the Amigas already powerful custom chipset?

Now, we’ll never know.