Magazine Review – Retro Gamer: The Amiga Book

 

Factfile
Published By: Imagine
Expect To Pay: £9.99

 

What Is It?

A retrospective look at the greatest home computer of all time, the incomparable Amiga 500.

Pooling articles from the Retro Gamer archives, together with some new articles commissioned for this collection, the ‘bookazine’ aims to provide an overview of the long history of Commodore’s flagship machine with a look at some of the games, developers, publishers and industry figures that made the humble Amiga the gaming choice of a generation.

Content and Style

With such a long and storied history (the Amiga hitting the shops in 1987 and continuing as a viable gaming platform until as late as 1996), it is an onerous task to narrow down the brightest and best of the machine’s life, someone’s favourite inevitably overlooked or under represented.

The magazine starts with a multi-page feature on the history of the Amiga, an insightful piece that walks through the early development phases with quotes from the key players. It is a fascinating glimpse into the construction of a games machine, the early prototypes, chances almost lost and the evolution of what would end up becoming one of the most successful home computers of all time.

But what most of us have really picked up the book for are the games. They list their Top 10, which serves to underline the flexibility of the machine. The Amiga had no particular specialism, catering for arcade enthusiasts, strategy gamers, petrol heads and everything in between. The Top 10 reflects this, eschewing any attempt at a list of ‘best’ games, an exercise in subjective futility if ever there was one, instead attempting to list ten games that each represent one of the best examples of a particular genre to have graced the Amiga. Whilst the list differs considerably from my own Top 10, it is a sensible choice, providing a broad overview of the depth of the Amiga’s games roster but inevitably meaning that certain games that would otherwise walk into a personal top 10 are necessarily excluded.

The bulk of the magazine is a combination of game features, developer look backs and articles exploring specific facets of the machine and its user scene. One can take issue with the games featured (and I will) but each has its own merits. In depth looks at the likes of The Chaos Engine, Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder in particular resonated with me whilst features on the likes of Another World and Lemmings may have left me cold but the impact and durability of these games cannot be denied. Similarly a retrospective on Worms is more than warranted, given the enduring appeal of the franchise, although one can’t escape the sense that sales do not always act as a marker of quality, the original Worms offering a fun but limited experience.

Elsewhere, we dive into a number of developer interviews, fleshing out some of the characters behind the legendary games and offering previously untold stories. Features on the Bitmap Brothers, Sensible Software and Psygnosis take us behind the scenes of each software house, Sensible’s story in particular shining a spotlight on a sadly lost world of entrepreneurial, bedroom coders. Other features include a look at the Amiga’s arty side and demo scene, as well as a collector’s guide.

On the whole, it is a well balanced piece however there is room for critique. Notwithstanding the inherent subjectivity of gaming, some of the choices for features are questionable. Shadow of the Beast was an important game as an early graphical show piece for what the Amiga could do but I don’t think many gamers look back fondly on the series as a playing experience and its impact feels somewhat overstated. Similarly a multi-page feature on Cinemaware feels wasteful, a number of the games undoubtedly successful (It Came From the Desert, Wings for instance) but unlikely to feature on many top 10 lists.

Team 17 are an interesting subject for an in depth piece. Without doubt they were a prolific developer on the system but their impact here feels over stated. Alien Breed (in its 1992 Special Edition at least) was a top quality Gauntlet-clone; Project X a useful if frustrating blaster; Assassin a well programmed but uninspiring action romp; and Superfrog, subject of an individual feature, a pleasant but fairly limited platformer. Most Team 17 games could boast excellent graphics and sound but the experiences themselves were often derivative of other, established franchises, the Body Blows series very much a case in point. To read about them here, you would be forgiven for thinking they were an Amiga powerhouse when in truth they were home to a number of capable, decent games.

A feature on Monkey Island is welcome but a further piece on the evolution of the SCUMM engine feels crowbarred in, most of the piece focused on post-Amiga games. Given that a whole feature is dedicated to the very average Simon The Sorcerer, space could surely have been reserved for a more detailed look at Amiga specific entries in the (once) very popular point-and-click genre. The likes of Beneath a Steel Sky, Lure of the Temptress, Curse of Enchancia and others merit barely a mention.

Similarly their is no representation for football management games, an enduringly popular genre. And whilst a feature on the demo scene is welcome, there is little mention of the Public Domain scene, a thriving community of home brew developers who cut their teeth on the Amiga. It is also a shame that no space was devoted to the magazines that sprung up around the Amiga. There is passing reference to them here and there but a feature exploring the likes of Ace, The One, Amiga Format and my personal favourite, Amiga Power, would have been most welcome. For many of us, these magazines helped to shape our experience and they are conspicuous by their absence.

At an editorial level, Retro Gamer has a well established style and with most of the content of the book being pulled from existing issues, there are no surprises. The collector’s guide section was somewhat lost on me, emulation removing the need to physically own the media for many gamers, but for the hardcore reader-base this is aimed at, it is an understandable indulgence. A reader’s top 25 is a sensible inclusion to offer some insight into the true gamer’s interest. The approach is flawed though, featuring as it does multiple entries from single series so that, for instance, both Sensible Soccer and Monkey Island feature twice when each could have been wrapped up into a single entry. And how you can devote more words (and page space) to a game ranked 20th than to a game ranked, say, 9th is beyond me.

Finally it is worth noting what is not included. This collection is focused squarely on the Amiga 500 which means there is no more than a passing reference to the Amiga 1200 and CD32. Both machines can arguably be considered footnotes in the Amiga’s history yet each was important in its own way and it is a shame that they were not featured here.

Worth Buying?

Absolutely.

As a devoted Amiga owner, I have a very firm idea of what I consider to be the best of the system which makes the job of a magazine like this all the harder, trying as it is to serve multiple, demanding masters.

There are editorial decisions that I disagree with but largely they boil down to subjectivity. For those new to the machine looking to understand more, this is an excellent introduction whilst for those seasoned Amiga veterans, this represents a delightful trip down memory lane.

A highly recommended read.

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