There I was, lazily flicking through the latest releases on the App Store, looking for things I really don't need or want, just in case there's something incredible buried under all the camera filters and calculators and clunky weather apps. I was about to give up too, when I saw something glistening in the most obvious of places. Right there on the main “featured" page. XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Wait. As in, the XCOM: Enemy Unknown that I spent a Summer attempting to master on my Amiga 1200? That XCOM: Enemy Unkown? Surely not? Really? And that was it, that's all it took for me to tumble into nostalgia.
Ah, the Amiga. Commodore's flagship brand may have found itself a little bit buried by history, but if you are/were of a certain age, you'll remember it with a warm, cushiony fondness. For a period from the mid-80s to mid-90s, it quietly redefined what a computer should be, and found its way into living rooms and bedrooms and studios and people's hearts. Sound familiar?
In so many ways, the Amiga was Apple's spiritual cousin and forebear (can you be both, or is that considered spiritual in-breeding?). It laid a path down which Apple would find itself wandering a decade later. It wasn't trying to be an insipid business machine or a cheap arcade; it was trying to have a go at being everything, and mostly excelling. The graphics and sound capabilities were like nothing seen before – it was a giant leap in terms of home computing. No more screechily-loading audio cassettes here, thank you very much.
You get the feeling that the people behind it weren't entirely sure what they'd created, like it was a beautiful monster that had escaped the lab. It was (of course) left to the users to tame it and identify its strengths. Art, video, music – it was a multimedia platform, even if nobody could quite agree precisely what that fresh buzzword meant. With the right boffins at the controls, it could do incredible, unexpected things.
Babylon Five made spaceships with it; Andy Warhol painted Debbie Harry with it (“The thing I like most about doing this kind of work on the Amiga is that it looks like my work in other media.”); NASA kept track of their satellites with it; I … well, I strategically neutralised unknown alien threats with it in a traditional turn-based fashion. As you do.
Because on top of everything else, it was a great games machine. Whilst the other kids were squabbling over the whole Megadrive versus SNES nonsense, I was having a whale of a time. XCOM was just one of many games that sapped my hours as a teenager. Looking back now, all misty-eyed, the best of them have one thing in common: they'd all be quite at home on the App Store.
Games like Lemmings and Worms were the Angry Birds of the day – casual side-on puzzlers with fantastic character design. The plethora of tower defence games that we see today can be traced back to pre-Command & Conquer resource-strategisers like Dune II. And there was Zool ("the ninja of the nth dimension!"), notable for the amount of shameless in-game advertising (the nth dimension was made up entirely of Chupa Chups apparently) that we wouldn't bat an eyelid at these days.
Not only are there similarities between then and now – the App Store is littered with actual Amiga titles once thought lost to boot fairs and attics. Time is unforgiving to games. Films and music live on, easily hopping from one format to another, but games are usually shackled to their native hardware. Fortunately, the App Store has offered a second lease of life to the likes of XCOM, Speedball, Syndicate, The Chaos Engine, Alien Breed. Classics, every last one.
Many of these have benefited from modern interfaces. Pointing and clicking (or “clointing” as nobody ever called it) in particular has benefited from the move to touchscreens. More than just trips down memory lane, games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Beneath a Steel Sky are still great, they've just been waiting for technology to come back around to their way of thinking (but without all of that interminable INSERT DISC 14 floppy-swapping nonsense).
Playtime aside, the Amiga also made work fun. I tested its limits by relying on it for every school assignment, no matter the subject. Wordsworth is still a far superior word processor to the text-riot that is Microsoft Word, and I have the essays to prove it. Deluxe Paint – which I'm fairly sure was made entirely of magic – was Photoshop before Photoshop and got me to where I am today. My entire further education, saved onto 3.5" floppy discs.
Just like Apple, Commodore made the possibilities of computers enjoyable and inspiring. There were others. Acorn and Atari had similar machines on the market at the time, and each had its strengths. But the five-letter A-word that most informed today's five-letter A-word? It has to be the Amiga. The thing is – and this is how it earns a rightful place in my nostalgius cortex – it promised the future.
They just got there a bit too early. Equal parts baffled and inspired by their creation, Commodore pushed the Amiga brand to what would one day become cutting edge. The CDTV, launched in 1991, embodied the multimedia ideal of art, entertainment and education in one machine. The idea was amazing. The idea failed. The Amiga got ahead of itself: it wanted to give you the web before the web existed; to deliver media that the humble CD-ROM just wasn't cut out to deliver. Basically, it dreamt of being an iPad.
But now here we are. One click and a thumb-twiddle and I'm playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown again as if no time has passed at all. Time to shoot me some good old fashioned aliens. Thank you Amiga, old girl.
Written for MacUser