From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years Review

The 1980s saw the coming and going of a staggering number of home computer platforms, many now long since forgotten. I should know, we owned a fair few of them. But if you ask a European of around my age what their favourite system from this era was, chances are they’ll say it was the Amiga. It’s a machine that still enjoys a cult status and thriving community to this day, and is the subject of the second documentary from Anthony and Nicola Caulfield (aka Gracious Films), From Bedroom to Billions: The Amiga Years.

You may wonder what all the fuss is about. Simply put, the Amiga was revolutionary. It was the first true multimedia machine and arguably the first modern computer. It had a proper OS with a colour GUI, multitasking and a two-button mouse. Non-experts could draw and animate on it, create amazing music, and even edit video, while the availability of high-level languages like C and Pascal lowered the threshold for programming. Oh, and you could even do your homework on it.

And of course it was a phenomenal games machine that blew the socks off the competition in terms of sound and graphics capabilities. But perhaps mostly importantly, the Amiga facilitated a period of creativity and experimentation like nothing before it or rarely seen since, making entirely new types of game possible. The likes of Defender of the Crown, Populous, Another World, Cannon Fodder and Lemmings. Games became far more cinematic, immersive, engaging and emotional experiences. They had more substance and depth, setting the template for modern games; inspiring and training a entire generation of developers.

This is what The Amiga Years years sets out to document and celebrate. Loosely coinciding with the Amiga’s 30th anniversary (23 July 2015), it’s a stand-alone sequel to the Caulfields’ first outing, the excellent From Bedroom to Billions, which told the story of the birth and evolution of the UK games industry.

This time around the focus is on the origins of the Commodore Amiga and the impact it had upon release. The story begins with Jay Miner’s work at Atari and how he left in 1982 to pursue his vision of creating a powerful but low-cost machine to target the home computer/games and low-end business markets. It explores the design philosophy behind the Amiga and how financial difficulties meant that Miner’s Amiga Corporation became in embroiled in an ownership battle between fierce rivals Atari and Commodore.

After covering the launch of both the Amiga and it’s main competitor the Atari ST, the documentary moves on to examining the Amiga’s slow start, thanks to Commodore’s poor marketing, and the subsequent creation of the Amiga 500 – the machine that most will be familiar with. While the latter part of the film is dedicated to the effect it had on game and music development, the emergence of the demo scene, and what the Amiga meant to the people who created it, worked with it and grew up with it.

Like the first film, it takes the ensemble approach. There is no voice over, with the loosely chronological narrative constructed by the skilful arrangement of a large number of personal recollections. It comprises a whole set of new interviews with many of the era’s pioneers and key figures – artists, musicians, developers, publishers, journalists and, excitingly, many of the original design team behind the first Amiga. Indeed, the list of contributors reads like an Amiga enthusiast’s wet dream.

It does trade heavily on nostalgia, but The Amiga Years is well made, illuminating, and above all entertaining. It’s a gripping tale of an daring, visionary and close-knit team living on the very edge to produce a ground-breaking computer that went on to redefine both the games and hardware industry. Something that came so close to collapse before they’d even produced their first machine.

The speakers themselves are articulate, passionate and informative and do a pretty decent job in explaining technical stuff in relatively lay terms. No doubt this is partly down to some excellent editing and direction. But the show is stolen by the lively and highly-animated RJ Mical (Amiga GUI) and the proud and heartfelt Dave Needle (Agnus chip and system boards), who has sadly since passed away. And there’s some brilliant anecdotes to be had along the way.

Visually, it’s kept fresh with a wide variety of rare and previously unseen archive footage and photos, original design documents, artwork, etc., and a tonne of gameplay and demo captures. Not to mention the odd musical montage, featuring some rather splendid compositions created by the Caulfields in collaboration with C64 audio legend Rob Hubbard, as well as contributions from indie band The British IBM.

Weighing in at two-and-half hours, I was little worried that I might get bored, but its well paced and the time just flew by. I certainly learnt lot from watching it and even the missus enjoyed it. I also appreciated the 30 minutes of bonus footage, which includes additional interview excerpts with people like Ron Gilbert talking about The Secret of Monkey Island’s lukewarm reception from critics, Mike Dailly and Dave Jones on how Lemmings evolved from messing around with tiny sprites in Deluxe Paint, and Chris Huelsback on writing the now legendary Turrican II theme tune.

However, I did have a few minor qualms about the main feature. I felt the narrative got a little messy in the last 30 mins, suddenly shifting from people’s thoughts on what the Amiga meant to them, to a discussion on Video Toaster followed by the IBM PC and then back again.

Also there was no comment on the eventual demise of Commodore and only the briefest mention of the fact the people are still making games and software for the Amiga as well as producing new hardware. Though to be fair, there probably simply wasn’t room to fit it in. And I also would have liked to have seen captions for all the games and demos featured, instead of a having to read a list at the end of the credits sequence. But like I said, these are only slight niggles.

Developer: Gracious Films
Publisher: Gracious Films
Platform: Vimeo on Demand
Release date: 19 May 2016