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Growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, school playground banter often focused on the console war of the time: were you Nintendo, or SEGA? Whether NES or SNES, Master System or Mega Drive, you fought your corner, declaring Mario to be lame and Sonic to be rubbish even though, at the end of the school day when you all piled around one pal’s place, you played both happily enough. But beneath that headline bout was a second battle, one that saw home computers going head to head in a 16-bit race for market supremacy. On one side, the Atari ST; and on the other, the Commodore Amiga.
And the Amiga was the clear victor - both in our school, where I can remember two kids having an ST but several (myself included) owning an Amiga, and at the sales tills, with Commodore’s computer selling up to 4.8 million worldwide (that’s the higher end of estimates) while the ST managed less than half of that, achieving 2.1m. The Amiga was sold in a variety of forms and models, but the most popular - and the one that many players of a certain vintage think most fondly of - was the Amiga 500.
Check out THEA500 Mini in the trailer below…
Launched in 1987, the Amiga 500 was a machine that you could do your homework on, was ideal for accounting, and ran programmes that let you create amazing art. That, and so much more - but to me, and so many others in my class and around the country, it was first and foremost a gaming machine. Several incredible studios and publishers produced countless amazing games for Commodore’s hardware, amongst them Gremlin, LucasArts, Delphine Software, DMA Design (now Rockstar North), Psygnosis (later acquired by Sony), The Bitmap Brothers, Sensible Software, Codemasters (now owned by EA), Team17, Factor 5 and Mindscape. The Amiga 500 is as much a part of my gaming childhood as any SEGA or Nintendo console.
So I jumped for joy when news reached me that Retro Games - makers of THEC64 Mini and its full-sized sequel model (our review, here), plug-in-and-play systems that emulated in both software and hardware the Amiga’s popular predecessor, the Commodore 64 - were making a miniaturised Amiga 500 pre-loaded with a selection of games. I couldn’t not write about it at the time of its reveal, in the summer of 2021. And with the A500 Mini’s release now days away at the time of writing - it’s shifted slightly from a late-March launch to a date of April 8, 2022 - I wanted to speak to the people behind the return of a computer that meant so much to me, and many others.
“When we sat down and planned THEC64 Mini, we also sketched out a roadmap that included every machine that we would like to create, time, budget and demand notwithstanding,” Darren Melbourne, director and founder of Retro Games tells me. “The A500 was always firmly part of that wish list, but in those early days we were focused on the creation and success of THEC64 range of machines. When it became evident to us that THEC64 range had been successful and that the market for retro-inspired hardware was strong, then we were able to again turn our attention to our roadmap - with the A500 Mini being the very top of that list.”
I’ve played around a little with Retro Games’ THEA500 Mini, to give the mini-con… mini-computer its official name. It’s as simple to use as any other mini-console - just plug in the power and sling an HDMI lead between system and TV, and off you go - and the mouse that ships with it really takes me back. It lacks the ball of the original Amiga mouse, but otherwise feels spot on. “THEMOUSE is as authentic as we could make it,” says Chris Smith, chief technology officer at Retro Games. “We couldn’t produce a roller-ball mouse because those components aren’t made any more, so optical was the only way to go.” The boxed-in controller pad is a little curious, though, evoking the design of the official pad for Commodore’s failed CD-ROM console, the Amiga CD32. THEGAMEPAD, as Retro Games calls it, “was carefully crafted,” says Smith, adding: “we’re overjoyed that everyone appears to recognise it as being CD32 based.”
I’ll save specific criticisms of THEA500 Mini for my review proper - coming ASAP to these very pages (the embargo's up, but we're not quite ready yet) - but THEGAMEPAD doesn’t quite cut it for me. The CD32 pad was the only official controller Commodore released for any Amiga system, so I respect the tribute being paid; but it’s not as effective as many other design choices. It hopefully won’t fall apart as easily as the original CD32 pads could, but that shape, that button layout, and that d-pad - they’re distinctly outdated, and probably best left in the past. Thankfully, users of THEA500 Mini can plug in alternative controllers - “THEA500 Mini is also compatible with many third-party controllers and our own THEJOYSTICK,” Smith confirms, referring to the very decent joystick that was included with THEC64 Mini. I think I’ll be sticking to that, when I’ve next got THEA500 Mini set up under my TV.
Which I am sure to do, not only to complete that aforementioned full review, but because there are games on here that I love today as much as I did in the early 1990s. THEA500 Mini includes 25 built-in titles - more can be added via sideloading, and THEA500 Mini also supports Amiga 600 and 1200 software - and stars some real standouts of the Amiga catalogue: The Chaos Engine, Another World, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, Zool, Pinball Dreams, Simon the Sorcerer, Worms: The Director’s Cut, Alien Breed Special Edition ‘92, and Super Cars II. Inevitably, the 25 won’t all be to everyone’s tastes, but the Retro Games team did what it could to secure a mix they felt was representative of the computer’s best.
“We’re exceptionally happy with the catalogue of titles that we were able to secure for THEA500 Mini,” Melbourne tells me. “We’ve secured a range of exceptional games covering multiple genres, enough to keep even the most ardent gamer happy.” He accepts, however, that there are plenty of titles he’d have liked to have seen featured on the system, out of the box. “Of course if we were able to overcome the myriad of licences and parties involved and had more time, Dune II was an absolute firm favourite of mine.”
“We selected 25 games for a variety of reasons,” he continues when I ask why it’s capped at such a number, when THEC64 Mini had 64 games, and many other mini-consoles come pre-loaded with more. “The more titles that you have, the more problematic and time consuming the licensing of the titles becomes. However, for us, we felt that the 25 titles we chose represented a great breadth of both quality and variety, and therefore we weren’t concerned about the volume. Retro Games takes great pride in ensuring that all of the games ingested onto our hardware operate absolutely flawlessly. Bearing in mind that we are working with titles that are over 30 years old and without original source code or the original teams on hand, we have to ensure they work with our control systems, game save states and more, and this is no small task.”
Save states is one of the newer quality-of-life inclusions on THEA500 Mini - not that you couldn’t save your games in the 1990s, but now you can at any point of play, without using a separate floppy disc. The system has 50Hz/60Hz selection, scaling and filter options, if you really need a CRT effect on top of your 720p HD gameplay, and while a virtual keyboard can be accessed - the one on the unit is just for looks - a full-sized one can be plugged in via USB, should you feel it’s easier to do that. Which leads me to a pretty obvious question: when do we get THEA500, not Mini?
“We have received many requests for a full-size version of THEA500 Mini,” Smith says. “If [this system] is successful and generates enough interest in a full-size version, it is something we would consider creating.” Melbourne continues: “We made a call fairly early on that we would launch with the THEC64 Mini and judge the demand for a full-sized C64 as we progressed through the sales cycle. For Retro Games as a small development company, our roadmap decisions are based on two factors: passion and finance. It was always going to be considerably more expensive building a full-sized unit, and we needed confidence in the market before we commuted our finite resources to doing so.
“The same is true of the A500 Mini. We would of course love to create a full-size machine in the fullness of time, but the costs in doing this are relatively prohibitive if we don’t believe that the market exists. Quite simply, if we achieve our sales targets with THEA500 Mini then we will certainly look to produce a full-sized machine with a working keyboard and the appropriate bells and whistles.”
Which does feel a little like Retro Games is saying: if you want the proper Amiga 500 experience, you’re going to have to shell out for this one, first. And with retailers selling THEA500 Mini for £114.99 right now, it’s not a cheap way to replay some childhood favourites either, especially when some of these games are available on other devices and services, from modern consoles and Steam to retro-leaning options such as the Evercade and Antstream Arcade. All that said, there’s no denying there’s a passionate audience out there for this product, who’ll more than likely be as okay with double-dipping for the Amiga as they were the C64. And that mouse really does take you back in time, and is a far better way to play the likes of Battle Chess and Worms than with a pad.
Furthermore, if I can get The Secret of Monkey Island, Lemmings, Space Crusade, Syndicate and Cannon Fodder suitably sideloaded and up and running on this thing, with that mouse in hand, it’ll represent the best way to play such games in 2022. And Sensible World of Soccer with the C64-bundled stick in hand? And then Moonstone, The Killing Game Show, Magic Pockets and Turrican II? Positively dreamy, and all in a tiny device that I could so easily throw in my backpack and take over to an ST-owning friend’s house, to really rub it in.
Find more information on THEA500 Mini at the official Retro Games website. A full review of the system will be published on GAMINGbible in the near future. If you enjoyed this trip back in gaming time, check out our Perfect 10 games for the Commodore Amiga.
Featured Image Credit: Retro Games Ltd, Delphine Software, The Bitmap Brothers
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