I’ve woken up this morning having flashbacks. I pretty much started my career in games journalism working on Commodore Amiga and Atari ST magazines, so this morning I feel suitably old.
The 16-bit generation-defining Amiga is about to hit the shelves on Friday like it is the late 1980s once more. As a kid, we had an ST first in our house. It was a great machine but I kept seeing computer magazines of the time running Amiga reviews and the games just looked so much better. I think it was a Star Trek game that finally made my brother and me sit down and save for an Amiga in earnest. Then a couple of years later I was working in the industry and getting free Amigas and software thrown at me by over-eager developers and software houses as the computer industry entered a transformational, if slightly adolescent, phase.
History lesson over and here we are, firmly into April 2022. Over the past few years, many of us who still obsess over retro gaming have become nascently aware of a company flying the flag for old hardware that we once loved called Retro Games Limited. First, excitement rose with the C64 Mini – the first actual homage to the computer that made computing cool.
Jumping on the coat-tails of the burgeoning mini console revival – we had already got a teensy version of the Super Nintendo, the Genesis / Mega Drive, and a less than impressive, initially, Playstation – the C64 Mini was the first real crack at an actual computer, except it wasn’t really, coming in more like a C64 emulator, albeit a good one, in a small C64 shaped case. Demand was huge and success pushed RGL into creating the C64 Maxi, a full-size C64 with a working keyboard that, while still effectively housing an emulator, was the closest you could get without owning a real C64, and with none of the headaches of getting it to display on a modern screen thanks to a handy HDMI output.
With another roaring success, it seemed inevitable that Commodore’s next machine, the beloved Amiga would be next in line for the treatment, and that brings us to today – the week of the launch of the A500 Mini. Review models have already landed with enough retro YouTubers to know already that this is going to be snapped up and enjoyed by many. That feeling of walking into a shop and picking up a big box computer and taking it home and opening it is about to be felt once more by a lot of people – many of whom will have fond memories of the very same machine from decades ago.
It seemed only right then to sit down with the guys behind the project, Chris Smith and Darren Melbourne, to talk about the pitfalls of the business they are in, and what their future plans are. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my first Amiga interview since the early 90s! I never thought I would write those words.
Amiga 500 Mini – why now?
To start with I asked Darren whether they had always had the A500 Mini in mind even as far back as the early plans for the Commodore C64, or was it always dependent on how those earlier models performed?
“Yes, the Amiga was always on the table”, Darren said, “It was just a question of when to do it. The licensing around the fractured Amiga IP assets was a complicated affair, at least up until recently.”
Ah, the much-discussed Amiga IP issues. If you are not in Amiga circles you would not be aware of the legal rumblings that carry on to this day over who owns which chunks of the Amiga OS. Rival companies who still keep the original hardware alive with updates are in constant court battles with each other. The Amiga arena is not an area to step into lightly.
With that in mind, I was keen to find out how much planning the guys had had to do to get the A500 Mini over the line and onto the shelves this week. Chris Smith picked up the conch for this one: “The founders of Retro Games Ltd met in the retro scene, and we’re still actively involved. So we have a certain amount of experience and knowledge, which helps a great deal. However, there is quite an involved process to go through before we even get started on a new project, with a lot of research and investigation. A big part of this is determining the availability of software and the licenses around that – if the licenses are not available, then that’s a problem.”
Of course, not just hardware needs licensing. The Amiga 500 mini comes with 25 games pre-installed and the end-user has the option to add their own (legally-owned) games through the well-established WHDLoad system that has been powering Amiga gaming for years. These games all feature their own issues though, with some featuring licenses from back in the day that might simply be impossible to obtain anymore.
The Amiga era was the era where games publishers started exploring including advertising for products for the first time – anybody who played Zool on the Amiga will doubtless remember the extensive advertising for Chupa Chups sweets plastered throughout the levels. I wondered if there were any games they wanted to make the cut that they just couldn’t get over the line?
“We’re exceptionally happy with the catalogue of titles that we were able to secure for the A500 Mini,” said Darren. “We’ve secured a range of exceptional games covering multiple genres, enough to keep even the most ardent gamer happy. Of course, if we were able to overcome the myriad of licenses and parties involved and had more time, Dune 2 was an absolute firm favourite of mine.”
He continues, “The more titles that you have the more problematic and time-consuming the licensing of the titles becomes. However, for us, we felt that the 25 titles we chose represented a great breadth of both quality and variety and therefore we weren’t concerned about the volume of titles. Retro Games takes great pride in ensuring that all of the games ingested onto our hardware operate absolutely flawlessly. Bearing in mind that we are working with titles that are over thirty years old and without original source code or the original teams on hand, we have to ensure they work with our control systems, game save states, etc and this is no small task.”
It is these kinds of potential headaches gamers won’t even think about when looking at the system and seeing “just” 25 included games. Darren certainly doesn’t feel this is a drawback telling us, “THEA500 Mini already has the capabilities and features of later Amiga models. You can load off USB stick the games that you already legally own so that significantly increases the breadth of software that is available.”
Of course, the thing that separates the A500 Mini from just running any old emulator on any old system is the peripherals that are also included. You don’t just get the amazingly detailed mini replica of the A500 itself but faithful replicas of the much-derided, but equally hugely iconic and in demand to this day Amiga ‘tank’ mouse, and a gamepad designed around the gamepad that came with Commodore’s consolised attempt at the Amiga CD32. Now there is no getting away from the fact that this was not a good gamepad at the time time, so I was interested to hear from the guys as to why they had included a version of this rather than a more traditional joystick that the original Amiga owners would be more familiar with.
Chris Smith took up the challenge of that potentially sticky question: “Until the CD32 arrived, the Amiga didn’t have an official joystick, so people used a range of third-party joysticks. Our research found that those questioned would suggest that whatever they used back in the day should be shipped with THEA500 Mini. It was almost impossible to find a single joystick that a majority of people associate with the Amiga. We were also mindful of the younger audience we have attracted to our products, who are more comfortable with modern game controllers than joysticks.
“The CD32 pad was the only official controller for the Amiga, and even though it was not very well received (due mainly to ergonomic factors) recreating the CD32 pad felt the most authentic thing to do and would be familiar to all users today. We, therefore, reimagined the CD32 pad to address the issues that plagued the original but kept its distinct styling. Anyone can pick up THEGAMEPAD and get playing with THEA500 Mini without a second thought!”
Once again, when put like that it all makes sense. It’s clear the A500 Mini is a really well thought out product and certainly not just there to cash in on any perceived increase in interest in the retro scene.
Obviously, even with the mouse and gamepad, the A500 Mini does not feature a working keyboard, but rather an intricately molded version of the original, just as the C64 Mini did. Following that path then, might we see an Amiga A500 maxi down the line with the full working keyboard?
“We would like to look at a full-size model if there is a sufficient market and we can make it financially viable. The task of creating a custom keyboard is vastly more complicated than a Mini console and requires bespoke manufacturing processes, so it is something that can only be undertaken on a sound commercial basis,” said Darren confirming that at least thoughts have been had about this exciting potential.
“We made a call fairly early on that we would launch with the THEC64 Mini and judge the demand for a full sized C64 as we progressed through the sales cycle”, Darren continued, “For Retro Games as a small development company, our roadmap decisions are based on two factors, passion, and finance.”
“It was always going to be considerably more expensive building a full-sized unit and we needed confidence in the market before we commuted our finite resources to doing so. The same is true of the A500 Mini. We would, of course, love to create a full-size machine in the fullness of time but the costs of doing this are relatively prohibitive if we don’t believe that the market exists. Quite simply, if we achieve our sales targets with the A500 Mini then we will certainly look to produce a full-sized machine with a working keyboard and the appropriate bells and whistles.”
Okay, now I am even more excited. With the built-in games and non-working keyboard though, I was interested in whether Chris thought the A500 Mini was aimed at a slightly different audience than those who will happily crank up a version of WHDLoad in the WinUAE emulator?
“Absolutely”, he enthused, “The Amiga is quite a complicated computer to own and even emulate. It can be quite a struggle to get a TV to work with your real Amiga or to install and set up an emulator on your computer, or even to buy a RaspberryPi, then download emulator software and set that up. It is a lot of work, and without sufficient motivation and energy, a casual user will turn to other things instead. What would fit their needs is a plug-and-play product where all the complications have been removed and it just works with modern devices. Simplicity, elegance, and function.
“By reducing the complexity and hiding it behind a simple user interface (which actually takes a serious amount of development and testing time to get right) we lower the barrier that users face when wanting to play Amiga games. Of course, this means that most of the features you find on a modern emulator are unavailable. But if you need those, then you’re the sort of user that already has an emulator set up and running somewhere. That said, we spend a lot of effort on making our products beautiful with exceptional attention to detail, which seems to make them appealing across the board.”
The Amiga is still a popular machine today on the retro gaming scene and this can be seen by the frankly obscene prices even non-working original hardware can go for on the auction sites. But why do the guys think the Amiga has retained its allure into the 2020s?
Chris tells us: “For a lot of people, the Amiga was the first “arcade quality” home computer and their first 16-bit experience. It was quite a big step up from the 8-bit computers and consoles people were used to. Also, for some people it was their first computer, and what a first computer to own! Those kinds of experiences stay with you, and if you keep your passion for gaming, then undoubtedly the Amiga would continue to hold a special place in your heart.”
So as our time with Retro Games Limited draws to an end, as a collector of old hardware and arcade boards, and somebody who has seen the prices for original gear skyrocket over the last five years, is “retro gaming” a fad? Chris certainly doesn’t think so, “
We don’t think it is a fad. Technology, both electronic and software, has reached a point where the cost of developing and owning dedicated retro “devices”, such as our products, raspberry PI’s, and so on, is reasonable. The barrier to getting involved and playing is lower, and the games are just brilliant. A game in, say, 64K of memory that keeps drawing you back for more speaks to the quality of the game design, since they didn’t have amazing 3D graphics, cut-scenes, and high definition audio. They don’t make them like they used to.”
The A500 Mini is available online and in-store from Friday 8th April 2022.
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