GameCentral talks to the co-creator of the new Amiga 500 mini-console, about the return of everything from Andrew Braybrook to GoldenEye 007.
We’ve played and enjoyed a lot of mini-consoles over the last few years but one of our favourites is based on a home computer, not a console. The Amiga 500 was hugely popular in the UK in the late 80s and early 90s – at least as much as the Mega Drive and SNES – but because it was only really successful in Europe its legacy, and all its many exclusive games (including those on rival format, the Atari ST) have been all but forgotten.
Thanks to TheA500 Mini though that is no longer the case and we recently got to talk to co-creator Darren Melbourne about the process of getting the mini-console made and trying to get the licences to include the best games the format has to offer.
We spoke to Melbourne before we received the mini-console, so we hadn’t played it at the time we had this discussion, but you can read our review of the final product here. TheA500 Mini will be released today, April 8, and costs £119.99. But as you’ll see from our interview the games it includes may eventually expand beyond the 25 that already come pre-installed…
GC: So I’m going to guess that you’re not a teenager and that you played these games the first time around too.
DM: Absolutely, absolutely. My path was the ZX81, the Spectrum, C64, and Amiga.
GC: I’ve often said, when this subject comes up, how frustrating it is to have to celebrate other people’s nostalgia. American and Japanese consoles and games get re-released all the time but the Spectrum, C64, and Amiga – which were far more ubiquitous in the UK than the NES or even SNES – are consistently ignored. The only time I can think of them being acknowledged, outside of your mini-consoles, is when C64 games turned up on the Wii Virtual Console.
DM: That was us!
GC: Was it? Well, there you go!
DM: So I think if it’s happened on the C64, since about 2003, we’ve primarily been the ones behind it. That’s our passion for Commodore.
GC: So, what is left of Commodore? Who owns them now?
DM: Right now, I couldn’t honestly tell you. And that’s probably the first time in its history that I’m able to say that. The Commodore brand, as you know, went through the Gateway 2000/Escom mess back in the late nineties and was then rescued by Tulip Computers in Holland. Now, we did our deal with Tulip, back in 2001, to licence Commodore, plus all of its brands, exclusively, ad infinitum. They then completely disrespected our deal and went and sold it onto a company called Yeahronimo Media Ventures, that then became CIC – which was Commodore International, which was funded by one of Holland’s richest men, a guy called Henk Keilman. It then was taken over by a group of people that quite honestly were… quite shady and weren’t above board, I would say. I’m gonna be cautious with this…
GC: Do I sense the words, ‘Russian Mafia’ marching quickly towards his conversation?
DM: Yeah, well… you said that. [laughs] I’ve heard the same thing, that it was funded by… I don’t actually know if they were Russian or if they were Dutch but there was quite a lot of money that came from… somewhere. I literally don’t know where the money came from, but there came a period where the ownership became very hazy and there was a big bun fight between CIC, a company called Asia Rim, and two or three separate individuals, before nobody seemed to know who owned it any longer.
So in the appellate court of appeal a guy called Ben van Wijhe was beaten by Commodore International, but beyond that they all seemed to let all the trademarks and all the patents lapse. So then came along a company called Cloanto in Italy, and Cloanto bought the rights to all the operating systems, and all of the legal bits and gubbins that work inside all Commodore machines, out of bankruptcy.
So that’s who our license agreement is with, in short. The name itself, Commodore, is now owned by, I believe, a robotic Hoover manufacturer; the chicken head logo, three different companies claim exclusive and 100% ownership of it – none of which can provide any form of providence, legally. They’re basically trademark sitters. So, in answer to your question, Commodore itself probably doesn’t have any one home any longer. The interesting bits, the bits that make the Amiga, the Commodore 64, the VIC-20, etcetera, work are 100% percent owned by Cloanto Corporation in Italy.
GC: That was a hell of an answer!
GC: That’s obviously one explanation for why something like this hasn’t happened before. That and the fact that only Europeans are likely to remember the Amiga with any real fondness. How did you get this funded and become convinced you could make your money back?
DM: I think. Well, look, quite honestly, we, took a punt with the C64 and, again, I’ll go back in time when I say this, when we licensed the C64 back in 2001, originally, our idea was we were going to take the C64, put it onto a single chip, and then we were going to, hopefully, get that into mobile phones of the day – which if you remember were black and white and LCD.
And we thought, wouldn’t it be great to put a C64 with a SID chip and its colours into a mobile phone? As it transpired, as happens when you have these wonderful ideas, that wasn’t quite as easy as we perceived it was going to be. But what we did discover is that there was still a huge love for Commodore.
So we created the C64 direct to TV joystick back in 2004, it became the fastest selling toy product in QVC’s history. I think we sold 186,000 units in the first hour of trading, which was phenomenal. But it proved to us that there was still this great love for all things Commodore. So, as you rightly pointed out, the C64 then made the jump onto the Wii, and we were behind that. And again… they weren’t million sellers, but they would sell in decent numbers every month.
We realised that this demand was still there and it hadn’t gone away. And I think when this big bun fight happened over Commodore and everything else, I’d stepped away from it for a few years. I kind of took myself out of it, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience and we removed ourselves from it, and it was when I saw the resurgence of the mini-consoles that I wondered if potentially we could do it again.
The response to TheC64 Mini was overwhelming and I had worked with Koch extensively in my former life, as they were my distribution partner for my Game Boy gaming content in Europe, we’d done great business with them. We had a great relationship with them. So they were the first people I spoke to when I thought about doing a C64. And I’ve gotta say a guy called Stuart Chiplin; Stuart jumped on board straight away, loved the idea, and we pitched it internally. And yeah, it just seemed to go from there.
We started talking to retail and just dipping our toe in the water. And the response was overwhelmingly positive, and as a result of that it emboldened us to spend the money on developing the project. And it was pretty much the same with the Amiga, really. We’d had such a great reception for TheC64. We figured that actually there must be some level of love still there for the Amiga. And luckily for us, so far, that’s proven to be the case. Definitely the reception from everyone that’s seen it, and heard of it, has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
GC: How difficult was this to do on a technical level, because I’m sure I’ve heard that the Amiga is actually quite hard to emulate. Have you got the original chip in there or is this all emulated?
DM: I’ll turn the clock back again to 2004. We managed to rebuild the entire chipset of a C64 on one chip. And when I say we, I mean there’s a genius called Jeri Ellsworth who is a lone woman who lives out in Portland, Oregon who’s an absolute genius. And I spent quite a lot of time with her. We redesigned how we wanted the chip to work, and she got it running on one chip; that is utterly unique for one person to be able to do, the job she did is normally the job of an entire fabrication factory.
We weren’t able to replicate that for the Amiga, Jeri’s off doing other marvellous things in AR and VR. We looked at doing it again but to create a bespoke solution for it would’ve been prohibitively expensive, so it is an emulation.
GC: And how confident are you in the accuracy of that emulation? Because even Nintendo made a mess of that recently, is it going to be 100% authentic or are there known problems?
DM: I’m not gonna use the word 100%, because I don’t think anything’s ever 100%. And if I do, I’m fairly certain that when The 8-bit Guy connects it up to is oscilloscope he’s gonna point out nanoseconds in difference.
DM: I would say it’s as close an emulation as you’re going to get and it will continue to improve, every iteration. With TheC64 I think we’ve updated the firmware five or six times now, and we’ve introduced so many features we didn’t already have. No doubt we will continue to do the same. Once we release these products they’re not fire and forget for us, we’ve got a long-term commitment to updating the firmware and correcting anything that might not be perfect and making it as perfect as we can.
You know, I’d like to think this release version is as perfect as we can make it. And we’ve worked pretty much flat out for two years on the Amiga to make it as perfect as we possibly can.
GC: Are these iterations something that are brough in for specific games or just general upgrades? I remember I bought Awesome by Psygnosis on my Amiga, back in the day, and it never worked, no matter how many replacements I had. I always wondered if that was because it was using some obscure element of the hardware and if I had an earlier model or something – the sort of thing that would require a change to the emulation.
DM: You know what? I think as games have progressed, and I don’t think it’s purely the purview of the earlier titles, but you’ve got some of the recent games that are using coding tricks and parts of the hardware that the original creators of the machine wouldn’t have deemed possible. I mean, you look at the C64, you look back in 1982 when it was released, you certainly wouldn’t have thought you could take all four borders out, have sprites displayed in the borders, have sound playing while games were loading.
And I think game writers and creators have learnt the nuances of the machine that didn’t originally exist. I think that earlier iterations of the Amiga, perhaps, wouldn’t have been able to handle it, because obviously the hardware altered, I think through every iteration of the Amiga the hardware altered; it did on the C64, which is why you have so many different iterations of the SID chip or the VIC chip, for example.
So we are really cautious to make sure that – obviously everything we’ve got pre-installed runs – but we’ve worked really hard to make sure that that software just works on the machine, straight out of the box. If you’ve got access to these games, if you own these games, you can run them. We’ve tried it with hundreds of games and it just works.
GC: I think from the initial announcement the only thing I was really disappointed in was the inclusion of the joypad instead of a joystick, which would’ve seemed more authentic to me.
DM: I think we decided to go for the gamepad… I think 8-bit gamers were very used to joysticks. I think as 16-bit took hold, not so much for the Amiga until the CD32, but the consoles had taken off by that point and people were used to using gamepads and game controllers. So we kind of decided we’d go that route.
GC: Do you have an optional Competition Pro style one, like you did for the C64?
DM: You can use the Competition Pro, you can use the one that came comes with TheC64 Mini or our joysticks will work with it, definitely.
GC: And are those still sold separately?
DM: Yep, you can buy them separately. Yes, absolutely.
GC: Can you program on the mini-console and can you run things like Deluxe Paint? Deluxe Paint is really weird because it wasn’t a game and yet it’s almost as iconic as many of the better known titles. Although I just remembered it was published by EA, which explains things…
DM: Well, whether we’ve tested it or not is slightly different, whether it’s packaged with it or not is completely different. So, absolutely, it runs. Yes, it does. And obviously with a mouse and the ability to save you can have a very similar experience to the one you used to have.
GC: Is this idea of emulation and side-loading not a legally grey area? I know I’ve tried to look into it before and there didn’t seem to be any straight answers.
DM: I think it’s one of these things that, basically we liken what we’ve created to a record player or a CD player. So if you own a record or a CD, it’s really difficult for you to have access to a media that you’ve already paid for. So we see ourselves… we facilitate the fact that if you’ve legally purchased a game previously, you can play it again. At the end of the day, I bought Lemmings, it’s no fault of mine I can no longer play my Amiga version of Lemmings without the original hardware, which is really quite tricky to do.
GC: I’m looking at a list of the pre-installed games here and it really is pretty good: Another World, Stunt Car Racer, Super Cards 2, The Sentinel, Paradroid 90… who did you talk to for Hewson? There was a mobile version of Uridium not too long ago, but I don’t think that was actually Hewson?
DM: Well, Hewson themselves, as a publisher and the back catalogue, have been owned by Rebellion for about the last two decades. Jason and Chris Kingsley bought them out of bankruptcy about 20 years ago.
GC: So did you maybe make a list of the best Amiga games and then god around talking to publishers to see which ones you could get?
DM: Pretty much. Wearing my other hat, I dunno if you’ve come across a platform called Anstream Arcade? But I’m also the licensing director for Antstream Arcade, so I have spent lot of the last 25 years licensing retro content.
GC: Anstream Arcade is very good.
DM: Thank you. I mean, we were quite fortunate. We were able to curate a list that we wanted to have on the machine and pretty much get the list we wanted. And we wanted to represent a variety of genres. We wanted to represent… you know Speedball 2, one of my favourite games of all time. I love that on the Amiga. For my sins, it was my company that converted Speedball 1 onto the C64. So I’m a big Speedball fan.
GC: You go back a while. That’s great.
DM: Well, I go back… I came straight from school, I ditched A-levels and started working with Anil Gupta at Anco back in the early eighties. So we were working, playtesting the original Kick Off when that came about, which is why Kick Off’s on there. Kick Off 2, actually.
GC: I’m trying to remember the guy’s name? The one that made Kick Off? Gino… something? God it’s like Reservoir Dogs now.
DM: [laughs] Dino Dini.
GC: That’s it!
DM: I’ve been in the games industry since 1984, so it’s given me, from a licensing perspective, a fairly unique insight into who owns what.
GC: [looking down list of games] Titus The Fox?! How on earth did you get that? Who owns that now?
DM: Well, that’s still owned by, uh, Titus and…
GC: They can’t still be going, surely?
DM: Well, Hervé Caen now lives in Malibu. I did some work with Hervé back in the late eighties and I still kept in contact with him. So I just picked the phone up.
GC: It’s a shame you couldn’t get The Blues Brothers, but that’s another licence isn’t it?
DM: Well… yes. That would require a secondary license.
GC: Okay. You said that in a very suspicious manner though, does that mean you’re trying to get it anyway?
DM: [laughs] I would love to have The Blues Brothers. I love the original game. It is subject to a secondary license. So that’s… getting licenses from film studios is a different kettle of fish entirely.
GC: So is there a chance that the line-up could be added to officially rather than just relying on people just… using ROMs I guess?
DM: I think if you look at TheC64, what we’ve tried to do is every firmware update we also release a new game or new games along with it. So I think, going forward, there are other games that we’ve licensed as well and other games we would like to licence. And I think if we can, as we go forwards… yeah, absolutely. If we do a firmware update we will inevitably put new games onto the platform as well.
GC: I’m now looking at the top-rated games on Lemon Amiga and, wow, this is a terrible top 100.
DM: I know. Yes, I agree.
GC: Who voted for these?! What’s Ambermoon? Where’s Rainbow Islands?
DM: Well, see, I’m with you on this. I think, apart from Uridium, that is Graftgold’s finest moment. But I think that list is automatically compiled based on review scores.
GC: I’m just thinking back to when I got my Amiga 500 as a kid and it came with Rainbow Islands; the Batman movie game, which unfortunately is a secondary licence again; and a combat flight simulator… it wasn’t this one you have, F-16 Combat Pilot.
DM: Oh, probably F/A-18 Interceptor.
GC: Yes! That was it. I can live without that, but Rainbow Islands is a real shame, especially because the original version is not on the Taito mini-console that I just reviewed. Did you ever have any conversations about that?
DM: So things to bear in mind are… I know Taito pretty well. I’ve done quite a few licensing deals with the guys at Taito. So yeah, we’ve got a good relationship with them. However, who owns the source code to Rainbow Islands now? Well, arguably I think it would be Atari.
GC: For the Amiga version?
DM: Yes, because the copyright to the code would’ve been owned by Firebird and Firebird and Telecomsoft were taken over by MicroProse, who are now owned by Atari. So following that through the code is owned by them; Somewhere Over the Rainbow is owned by Warner Chapel Music.
GC: Yeah, but it wasn’t exactly Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It just sounded a bit like it.
DM: I think the way the courts view it is if I could play that music to a hundred people and a hundred people thought it was Somewhere Over the Rainbow, then it is Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
GC: Put me in the dock, ‘cause I played that game for years and I never recognised it as Somewhere Over the Rainbow until someone mentioned it relatively recently.
DM: [laughs] But that’s why the Taito arcade version is slightly different. I think if you did own the original Amiga one and found a way to get it onto TheA500 it does obviously have the music in there and it is beautiful. It’s one of the games I believe has been tested, and it’s beautiful. I personally haven’t… but I do believe the team have.
GC: Was there anything else you went after that you were disappointed you couldn’t get?
DM: I think, again, anything with secondary licensing is always gonna be problematic. I think we were very fortunate. We made a list of titles. We were able to get 99% of them. And I think again, in time nothing’s impossible. Nothing’s impossible to license, nothing’s impossible to get. So in time I think we could have worked our way through anything at all. So, I won’t say I was disappointed in anything. In fact, if anything, I’m overwhelmingly pleased with what we did manage to license.
GC: It is a good line-up and I don’t want to seem as if I’m disparaging it. But do you have something like a top three you’re after at the moment?
DM: Well, me personally, I’d love Dune 2 because it was one of my favourite games of all time. It’s not a conversation we’ve even had but look at it this way: it’s owned by EA, you’ve obviously got the De Laurentiis organisation that owns part of Dune… so there’d be four or five different licensing conversations to be had.
GC: And I thought GoldenEye was difficult!
DM: Well, do you know what, GoldenEye is only difficult because Eon don’t like the way James Bond is represented now. Back in the early nineties, James Bond was allowed to kill absolutely everybody he encounters, but they don’t believe that’s James Bond any longer. That’s why it’s never been re-released, I believe.
GC: Really? I’ve never heard that one before.
DM: It’s a change in Eon’s perception.
GC: That sounds like the sort of nonsense a company would come up with, even though I’m sure he kills more people in the films now than ever.
DM: Well, I think if you consider the original game of GoldenEye, James Bond literally killed everybody he came across. Whereas in the film he tries not to do that. And in later iterations of James Bond, he doesn’t necessarily kill an entire room of people with a sniper rifle, but in the game you’re encouraged to do that. You know…. the sniper rifle or the golden gun was the most fun thing. So you’re encouraged to do it. And I think perceptions have changed.
I think in the early nineties, when GoldenEye came out and was my single favourite console shooter of all time – I loved that game – I think it’s now a little more frowned upon, I think is the most polite way to put it.
GC: Okay, So after Dune 2 what else would you personally like to see on the Amiga?
DM: I think, obviously, Lemmings was a seminal title, which no self-respecting Amiga owner would turn their back on, and I love Monkey Island.
GC: Did you approach Sony at all, were they helpful?
DM: Sony have always been helpful, in every conversation I’ve ever had with them, but I think it was one of those things that we had to draw a line at a certain point. We could have continued negotiating with people forever and not got a product released. So we formed the list, we managed to get our product locked in and, again, that’s not to say future iterations and future firmware updates won’t potentially see a different software line-up. They may see games added, may see some more recent and contemporary games as well. There’ve been some incredible things written in the last 10 years, for example.
GC: I know that happens on the C64 but I don’t know much about the current Amiga scene. Would you consider putting modern games on there as well, officially?
DM: I think if we have the opportunity… as with the C64, we created TheC64 Mini and before we ventured upon the huge expense of getting the full-size model put together we had to make sure there was a market for it. I think if TheA500 Mini sells to a degree that makes it commercially viable, then we’ll definitely look at doing a full-size model. And if we’ve got that then obviously we’ll look at adding some games to the line-up.
GC: I’m curious to see what they look like because some of the modern C64 games are amazing.
DM: Have you come across a game called, Reshoot R?
GC: I haven’t, no. Let me have a quick look [starts googling]
DM: Take a look, I think it’s spectacular.
GC: Oh yeah, look at that. It’s like Salamander or something. Amazing.
GC: Did you speak to Geoff Crammond for this, you have two of his games?
DM: I did, yes.
GC: I love the Sentinel. The Sentinel was one of my absolute favourites and that is a prime example of a game that absolutely deserves to be more famous than it is, than it was even at the time.
DM: Do you know what? I absolutely agree. One of the conversations I had with Geoff around The Sentinel was precisely that; it was the fact that it was this incredible game for people that knew it, but most people didn’t know it. It’s one of those games that everyone should know and very few people do. And I hope with this we can bring it back to the fore again.
GC: One of the problems is that it worked perfectly with the technology of the time, the gameplay was designed around the constraints of the hardware – which obviously no longer exist. Trying to remake it today, I think it’d be in danger of seeming too abstract, too much of an affectation.
DM: You’re 100% right. I think it was designed with the hardware in mind and as a result of that, it worked perfectly.
GC: So The Sentinel I’m pretty confident is still a great game, but the one that I’m most worried about playing again is Speedball 2, because I loved that as a kid. You must have played it recently; does it still hold up?
DM: I love it. I do. You know what? Honestly, if I’m gonna call out games that I’ve been playing and actually also the kids love… my youngest loves Titus The Fox but they also love Alien Breed. I’d forgotten the atmosphere in Alien Breed. I’d forgotten that the first few rooms are completely empty. And you’ve got that moment where you first see the aliens in Alien Breed. It is truly terrifying. It’s like when you first play Resident Evil and the dog jumps through the window, it literally makes you panic and want to run away.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have one of these hooked up to the TV in the living room at home for a little while now. And yeah, we absolutely love it. The kids love it. And that’s a great sign for me, is the fact that my children love it as well.
GC: So, you must’ve tried Sensible Software as well, what’s the situation with them?
DM: They’re owned by Codemasters.
GC: Oh, of course they are. Sadly, Codemasters have made that fact easy to forget. But I guess that’s the top three now, the best games that aren’t currently on the system: Rainbow Islands, Lemmings, and Cannon Fodder… well, anything from Sensible really. Wizkid is great too.
DM: Do you know what? Again, a game that most people missed, but was absolutely fabulous.
GC: Oh, Wizkid is great, and so British.
DM: I’ve known Jon Hare forever, back in the day we converted versions of Sensible Soccer onto Game Boy and NES for Jon. So that’s, again, a benefit of having been in the industry for 38 years or whatever it is now… embarrassingly. Wizball, actually, on the C64 is still one of my favourite C64 games of all time and then Wizkid on the Amiga, I thought, was superb. Yeah. But you’re right. Very, very British.
GC: So what was the problem there? Was it because Codemasters were being bought by EA?
DM: At the time of me putting the games together with the team Codemasters where in the process of being bought by EA and that’s gonna slow everything down. You’ve only got a certain amount of time to get these things out.
GC: Sure, I understand. Speaking of Geoff Crammond, did you get to meet Andrew Braybrook at all?
DM: No. Not for many, many years. Andrew went off to work in banking and business.
GC: Yeah, it was something incredibly boring. So he’s probably a millionaire somewhere now.
DM: [laughs] Well, do you know what, I’ve heard a rumour, and I don’t remember where from, that just as Rob Hubbard has now returned to the fold on the C64 that potentially he’s [Andrew Braybrook] looking at maybe a return to gaming as well. But that’s unsubstantiated, I dunno if that’s true or false. But I haven’t heard of Andrew for so long now I don’t know.
GC: That would be amazing… We better wrap this up but just one more, what about SWIV?
DM: Well now, I couldn’t possibly comment. I’ve got a very convoluted history with SWIV. SWIV was created by a guy called Ned Langman at The Sales Curve Interactive back in the day and, obviously, now he’s part of the Eidos group.
GC: Square Enix publishing SWIV? That doesn’t seem likely.
DM: And will never happen. But SWIV was a game that started as part of my tenure at The Sales Curve. I was the first ever employee at The Sales Curve, back at the end of ‘87, beginning of ‘88. It was Jane Cavanagh and I in an office when she just left Telecomsoft and that was it. The Sales Curve was two people for a long time.
GC: What was your role at that point?
DM: I was a development director. I was all of 19 years of age and development director.
GC: Well, I bought your games so you must’ve been good at it.
DM: Thank you! I think we did a pretty good job for the time we had. SWIV was a massive highlight for us, it was designed by Ned Langman and… you can set your readers a quiz and only Ned Langman can tell you the truth. SWIV obviously stands for Special Weapons Interdiction Vehicles… yes?
GC: Err… sure.
DM: That’s not what it stands for. So, you can put that out there and see if anybody can work out what it actually stands for. Maybe Ned one day will come forward and tell you.
GC: It was supposed to be a sequel to Silkworm, wasn’t it?
DM: Well, we couldn’t possibly say it was a sequel to anything because then we would’ve got…
GC: Because you didn’t own it.
DM: ‘Cause we didn’t own it. But it does have a passing similarity to Silkworm.
GC: Who was Silkworm by, it was Konami or someone like that wasn’t it?
DM: Yes, I think so. No, wait it was Koei Tecmo!
GC: God, we have gone full Reservoir Dogs, haven’t we?
DM: [laughs] Honestly, I can ramble about retro gaming and nostalgia for hours upon hours.
GC: Well, we just managed one hour so I better wrap things up, as I think that all trailed off in a reasonably organic manner.
DM: Great, well if you’ve got any other questions just email me and let me know.
GC: Excellent, thank you. Thanks a lot for your time.
We did think of one other questions later, about what Retro Games’ plans might be after TheA500 Mini, and if they’d ever approached Sega about the notoriously hard-to-emulate Saturn. This was the answer, which despite trying to sound non-committal does offer some hope for the future:
DM: Retro Games have a roadmap of products, some of which are probably relatively predictable and some which we hope will surprise everyone. Obviously, at this time we’re concentrating on TheA500 Mini right now, but we will be more than happy to discuss our future plans at a later date.
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