|wickensonline.co.uk Retrochallenge 2010 Winter Warmup Entry Amiga|
The Amiga - a machine before its time. In the early days of competition between
Intel and Motorola, when there were many processors vying for the desktop
market, many architectures came and went. Two which stayed the course were the
Intel 8086 and the Motorola 68000. The 68000 was a 32-bit processor developed
from the earlier 6800. The architecture was clean, the machine language for the
most part orthogonal, and the instruction set designed to natively support high
level languages to speed compiler time to market. Of the many machines that were
driven by the 68000 two were to dominate the home computer market for a number
of years: the Amiga and the Atari.
I was in sixth form when the Amiga was launched. It was a generation away from
Commodores last offering in my grasp, the venerable Commodore 64. RAM size had
jumped from 64K to 512K, removable storage from the 1541 360K 5.25" floppy to a
3.5" double density 880K drive. My model ended up sporting twin floppy drives,
but I couldn't afford a hard drive.
I used the Amiga as my main machine fo several years, including University until
my final year. I then made the step into the PC world, which some would consider
a backward step. MS-DOS was the defacto standard, I remember Windows 3 coming
out right at the end. The benefits of the Amiga were lost on me for a while, I
guess, although I was probably already sensing that having PC knowledge would be
a crucial skill in the job market. As a gaming machine of course it was
difficult to surpass. It was effectively a 'console' in the sense that for a
number of years the hardware was standard. You need that kind of stability to
get the very best out of programmers over a number of game iterations. That's
why people like the Bitmap Brothers produced such exellent work towards the end
of their support for the platform.
I used several programming languages on the Amiga during my University course -
a little Pascal, BASIC, some 68000 assembler, Prolog, some C and a lot of
Modula-2. I used the Benchmark Modula-2 package which came with an integrated
development environment compatible with Emacs. It was written by a single guy,
Leon Frenkel. I've not been able to locate a copy so far, since my Amiga disks
rotted in the basement, but I'd love to give it another go. There is a good deal
of nostalgia for some of the better retro IDEs for good reason - the relative
compactness of both the languages and environments meant that high levels of
integration were possible. Modern IDEs and languages are like a swiss army knife
compared to the vegetable knife of retro IDEs - if all you want to do is peel
some fruit they are confusing and unwieldy. Well, maybe a crap analogy, but you
get the idea.
One thing that let down consumer Amigas towards the end of their hay-day was
their lack of support for standard VGA monitors. Had their been better support I
think there would have been more people stick with the platform for longer.
The other thing that let it down was the lack of a memory management unit in the
basic 68000 processor. This meant that there was no protection between programs
running in a multi-tasking environment. The typical result of a rogue process
was a GURU meditation, with a reboot required. Although later models included
processors supporting both native floating point and memory management units the
competition with Intel was already turning the battle, with PCs being sold in
much higher numbers and as a consequence the scale of numbers landing in Intels
favour. From an applications level point of view the 386 was an awesome
processor, and with very little people interested in the complexities inherent
in the machine language it was a powerful package at a good price.
I installed the Universal Amiga Emulator under linux from a cover disk. I've
included some screenshots of the games I decided to have a play with.
A typical workbench screen
Atoms - a game provided with UAE
Mindwalker (not sure why I tried this)
Space Harrier (not what I was expecting, popular though apparently!)
Elite. The World of Warcraft of the 90s (time sink)
Thargoids - the most feared race in the Elite galaxy
Ah, Flight Simulator. The other eternal time waster...
Marble Madness - a very early Amiga game.
Still looking good after all these years!