Director: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Writers: Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield
Starring: Shahid Ahmed, Rich Alpin, Brian Bagnall
Running Time: 152 min
BBFC Certificate: E
A year or so ago I reviewed a crowd-funded documentary about the birth and growth of the British video games industry, called From Bedrooms to Billions. I was impressed by the film, which was much more than the fluffy nostalgia piece I expected. So when I heard they were releasing a follow up, focussing on the Commodore Amiga, I was eager to get a copy to review. It wasn't only the quality of the previous film that attracted me to From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years though. Like a lot of Brits around my age, my introduction to video games didn't come in the form of the Nintendo or Sega consoles. These tended to come out a lot later in the UK and weren't the be all and end all that they were in the US. We had an alternative, and that was the Commodore Amiga. I had an Acorn Electron computer first, but the games on this were very basic and I was very young. Our family replacement to this was the Amiga 500 though and it opened the floodgates to video gaming for me. The graphics were great, many of the games fantastic and it was modelled on a PC in design, so was more flexible than a pure games console in terms of offering word processor or paint programs etc. I loved it and the computer/console has long held a special place in my heart.
The documentary opens by describing the early history of home video game consoles, particularly those offered by Atari and Commodore (with some mention of what Apple were doing on the home computing front). Some designers working with these companies at the time grew unhappy with the way things were moving and decided to branch out on their own to form a new company, called Amiga. They had plans for a console/computer that would blow their competitors out of the water in terms of power and capabilities, yet cost a fraction of the price of the expensive PC's available at the time. They struggled for a time, coming up with brilliant ideas, but not having the backing to pull it off. After a successful demonstration at an important trade show however, Amiga got thrown in the middle of a bidding war between Atari and Commodore. This war was made even more messy by the fact that Atari had been taken over by Jack Tramiel, formerly one of the bosses at Commodore.
After the dust had settled and Commodore became the company to release the first Amiga, the computer was launched. The initial system, the Amiga 1000, came out in 1985 (though not widely released until 1986) and struggled to find a market. 1987's cheaper model, the Amiga 500, was a huge success though (in Europe at least). The graphics and sound capabilities were groundbreaking, allowing for near arcade-quality games at a fraction of the price. The documentary goes on to praise the importance of some of the machine's innovations and how they helped shape today's video games industry.
Like the previous film, The Amiga Years avoids empty praise of the long list of games released by the computer. In fact, it's almost an hour and a half into the film before we see any extensive footage of the Amiga 500 games roster. Instead, writer/directors Anthony and Nicola Caulfield take their time to tell the full story of how the Amiga came to be. Given the smaller focus, the film seems even more in-depth than its predecessor in fact. As such, I found some of the segments examining the hardware design a little much to get my head around at times, but the key message was always clear – a groundbreaking piece of kit was being put together. There's plenty of humour present too, to keep things from getting dry, such as how two developers stayed up all night to improve the system's demo during a trade show, working so hard they fell asleep in the booth, only to be found by their colleagues the next morning.
The film does spend much of the last hour praising the system, which gets a little repetitive perhaps. The later years of Amiga, when a number of models flopped and the computer was eventually discontinued, are surprisingly passed over (although this is looked at in the special features). The makers instead decide to end on a high, which does make the film feel a little more nostalgic than before. All the praise seems justified and at times quite fascinating though. The Caulfields don't merely list off great games, in fact little time is given to individual titles. Instead they look at what the Amiga inspired, like the success of the demo scene, the revolutions in music production aided by the computer and the improved possibilities in pixel art. So, although it's all very pro-Amiga, the film still feels like it has worth and substance beyond the kind of lazy rose-tinted 'documentaries' you often see on TV when a gap needs filling in the schedule.
Like the previous film, The Amiga Years comes in at a hefty two and a half hours. Also like before though, the film never feels overlong or dull. It's pretty tight and fairly fast paced, although not quite as before, largely because of the narrower focus the second time around. Once again the makers have got their hands on a wealth of archive material to keep things visually interesting too. We're not stuck watching talking heads all the time and there's more to look at than just game footage. We get to see the original plans for the system, old news reports and hundreds of photos taken by and of those involved in creating the Amiga.
It maybe falls slightly short of its predecessor, largely because the praise of the Amiga can feel a bit much towards the end. The content wasn't quite as revelatory as before either – I didn't find the story quite as surprising, but I still found it fascinating to watch. I'm not sure it would be as interesting to those unfamiliar with the Amiga and certainly not to non-gamers, but if, like me, you grew up playing the likes of The Secret of Monkey Island, Syndicate, Lemmings and Populous, you owe it to yourself to check out this rich and enjoyable documentary.
From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years is out in September on DVD and Blu-Ray exclusively at Funstock (both with a digital download included free). You can get Standard Editions in both formats or Special Editions.
There are tonnes of special features included. Here's the list:
Disc 1 (both versions):
- Directors Commentary
- Photo Gallery
- The US Video Games Crash
- What Commodore Should Have Done
- What Happened to Larry
- Launching the Amiga CD32
- Creating Turrican II Sound Track with Chris Huelsbeck
- Creating Syndicate with Sean Cooper
- Creating Lemmings – With Dave Jones and Mike Dailly
- Creating The Secret of Monkey Island with Ron Gilbert
- The Amiga Christmas Batman Pack!
Disc 2 (Special Editions only):
- Creating 'Another World' - Eric Chahi
- Founding Electronic Arts - Trip Hawkins
- Creating 'Flashback' - Paul Cuisset
- Atari Vs Activision - Larry Kaplan
- Ron Gilbert - Insights into game design and working at Lucasfilm
- The Business of Amiga - The continuing story of Commodore and the Amiga line.
- Creating the 'Desert Dream' demo - Anders Hansen
- Chris Huelsbeck - Creating music on the Amiga
- Dan Malone - Designing 'Speedball II'
- Stoo Cambridge - Designing 'Cannon Fodder'
- Demo Scene Sequence Expanded - Various contributors.
- Founding DICE
- 'First Samurai' - Design insights with Mev Dinc
- Team 17 - (Alien Breed, Super Frog), Andreas Tadic, Rico Holmes, Martyn Brown & Allister Brimble.
- Magnetic Fields - Shaun Southern & Andrew Morris insights, including Lotus and Super Cars series.
Deleted scenes from feature fiction films are generally of little interest to me. They tend to have been deleted for a reason. With a documentary like this however, they instead feel like a genuine expansion of the film. I can understand why the Caulfields didn't keep them in and have a documentary that was 6 hours long. That would be madness. Having them available to watch as supplementary features though means you can really dig into the entire story behind the Amiga. As well as adding to the history behind the computer, the added features allow in depth looks into some of the system's classic games too, giving you your nostalgia fix you may have felt you didn't get in the documentary itself. The clips featured on the standard edition are only short, so you might want to look to the special edition for a more substantial package, but the standard edition clips are great nonetheless.
Like with the first film, Gracious Films have really outdone themselves with this package. There's pretty much all you'll ever need or want to know about the Amiga. The makers must be applauded for putting this much effort in. I wish more distributors would.