Whatever Happened to…the Amiga CD32?

The Amiga CD32 was poised to take the gaming world by storm. Unfortunately, legal issues and hardware breakdowns brought the party to an end

TL;DR: The Amiga CD32 was poised to take the gaming world by storm. Unfortunately, legal issues, hardware breakdowns, and the indecisiveness of company honchos brought the party to an end before it even got started.

In this week’s “What Ever Happened to…” article, we’ll take a look at the rise and quick demise of Commodore’s Amiga CD-32. A console that was supposed to go head-to-head against powerhouses like the 3DO, Jaguar, Saturn, and even the formidable Playstation. Yet, the console died even before the box art was complete.

My friend, my amiga

Contrary to popular belief, the first next-gen 32-bit gaming system was not the Panasonic 3DO nor was it the Atari Jaguar. In fact, the 3DO wasn’t even the first CD-based gaming system to make it to market, as that honor falls to Commodore’s AMIGA CD32 which was released in September 1993, just a month before the 3DO launch.

So why haven’t we heard much of this gaming system? Well, for starters, it was only planned for a European release and was first demoed at the 1993 World of Commodore Amiga trade show to an eager crowd looking to get past the 16-bit era. Commodore had toyed with the idea of a US launch but wanted to see how well the console would do in the European markets first before committing on a North American release.

The tentative US release date, according to Commodore would have been around January of 1994 with a price tag of $399, which was very reasonable, considering the 3DO was priced at $699 when it debuted. As a reference, many of the consoles at that time were priced between $299 and $399, which placed the CD32 in a good position to compete against its competitors.

Amiga CD32 advertisement circa 1993

The tentative US release date, according to Commodore would have been around January of 1994 with a price tag of $399, which was very reasonable, considering the 3DO was priced at $699 during its official launch.

so, what happened?

The Amiga CD32 was marketed as the ‘world’s first 32-bit gaming system’ and on paper, it was. Just like the 3DO, the Amiga CD32 was capable of playing games and educational software as well as music CDs. Unfortunately, legal issues with Cad Track forced Commodore to halt their CD32 production. Cad Track had sued Commodore for copyright infringement on its computer graphics display system and had argued that Commodore stole their graphics assets for use on their hardware. A court decision in 1993 favored Cad Track and Commodore was forced to pay 10 million dollars in patent royalties.

The injunction also meant that Commodore would not be able to import anything into the United States. Commodore had built up a large inventory of CD32 machines in their manufacturing plant in the Philippines, but being unable to export them, they remained there until all debts were paid. After all the legal issues were settled, hardware and software supply breakdown further hampered its efforts and the lack of quality titles would eventually spell doom for the system. Within a short time, Commodore declared bankruptcy, and the CD32 was officially sucked into a void of obscurity.

By the time the executives at Commodore made their decision, they were already trounced on by 3DO and the Jaguar.

gaming console or pc-lite?

The CD32 offered some forward-looking features including a double-speed CD-ROM drive, a 3.5mm headphone jack port with volume control, two (2) mouse/gamepad ports, an AUX port for additional keyboards or storage devices, an expansion slot plate, RF, and Super S-Video, along with the standard composite and audio out inputs.

There was also a 182 pin expansion socket for a rumored MPEG decoder that would allow the user to play and watch movies at the same time along with another drive for inserting a floppy disc. All this was powered by Commodore’s own AmigaOS operating system which was the standard on all Amiga computers.

Unfortunately, Commodore could not decide which direction the Amiga CD32 would take. Would they market it as a hybrid PC/Console or just a stand-alone gaming system alone? By the time the executives at Commodore made their decision, they were already trounced on by 3DO and the Jaguar.

gaming guts or lack of

Powered by the Motorola 68E Series processor and with 2MB of Ram, the CD32 was able to output 16.8 million colors with a screen resolution of 320×256. (In contrast, the SNES was able to display up to 516 colors and the Genesis 61).

Despite the high-tech specs, many considered the system to be underpowered when compared to the 3DO or even the Jaguar. In fact, insiders claimed the CD32 to be nowhere better than the Turbo Grafx 16 which was running a generation behind. Even though the CD32 shipped with 2 MB of Ram, there was no dedicated Ram for the CPU which meant the CPU would be bottlenecked when accessing the system memory. This didn’t stop Commodore from hyping it as a formidable gaming machine nonetheless.

Many reviewers had given Dangerous Streets terrible scores (Amiga Power rated at just 3%) and were surprised that with a slew of powerful rival consoles about to hit the market, Commodore would choose to show off its machine with such a poor game.

the games and software

The CD32 launch bundle included two games: Diggers, a new game from Millennium Interactive, and Oscar, from Flair Software. A later pack-in game included the one-on-one fighting game Dangerous Streets, which was met with derision by the press. Many reviewers had given Dangerous Streets terrible scores (Amiga Power rated at just 3%) and were surprised that with a slew of powerful rival consoles about to hit the market, Commodore would choose to show off its machine with such a poor game.

The CD32 was capable of running most of the titles developed for the Amiga CDTV multimedia device, but differences in CPU speed and Kickstart version prevented some of the earlier CDTV titles from running. Most of the games released for the CD32 were simply ports of games that were already available for Amiga computers and home consoles. One benefit, however, were that many games retained the ability to use an Amiga mouse (in port 2) or Amiga keyboard (plugged into the AUX port).

Like all later Amiga computers, the CD32 had a hidden boot menu that could be accessed by plugging an Amiga mouse into port 2 and holding both buttons down while turning the system on. Most of the options in this menu were not useful on a CD32, but from this menu, the user can choose to boot in either NTSC or PAL mode. This is important to note, as there were some games that will not work if the system is in the wrong mode, and most games don’t advertise what video mode they were developed for. Despite the naming, the menu only allowed a choice of 60 Hz or 50 Hz video output; a PAL system booted in NTSC mode will still output a video signal using PAL color encoding, which will usually result in a black-and-white picture when connected to an NTSC television.

bye bye amigo, err…amiga

It’s always hard to see a gaming console die in such a way the CD32 did.

Both the Commodore and Amiga names lived on for many years after the former went bust, but they passed between companies and faded into obscurity. For those who owned a machine from the Commodore stable, however, the memories will live on forever.

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