Commodore made some fabulous music and Lionel Richie should be very proud machines. The PET, VIC-20, C64, Amiga*, but one of their major problems is that they couldn't learn from their mistakes. Today we will be focusing on the later end of the timeline where quality control and thought in products had been thrown out and replaced with anything that could generate money as quickly as possible with the smallest amount of effort.
Part 1: Standing on the shoulders of giants
The Commodore 64 GS (Game System)
What is it?: It's an 8 bit games 'console' based on the popular C64 computer.
Release date: 1990
Now when I say based on, I mean it IS a C64 with no keyboard and no ability to hook up a tape or disc drive. This is where the fun begins. As we all know a console is only as good as the games that it comes with. One of the ‘killer games’ of the time for the C64 was Terminator 2 and to this day still a pretty big deal for the C64. But the problem is it was also released for the GS. How is that a problem you ask? Well lazy developers/publishers is the answer, as you couldn’t actually play the game on the GS as it was a direct port from the C64 with no changes and this game requires you to press 1 to start so you couldn't play it as you needed to use a keyboard get past the title screen. Also, the games cost £40 and there weren't many specially coded games for the system, just the same games you could buy on tape for 7.99(or less by this time) on tape repackaged on a cartridge and flogged for 40 notes. It's also important to note this is the same year that the SNES was released in Japan! Needless to say, it completely bombed most of those bought were returned to Commodore and they were turned back into C64s
Part 2 : Second verse same as the first
CDTV (Commodore Dynamic Total Vision)
What is it?: In Commodore's own words it’s a home multimedia entertainment and video games system.
Release Date: 1991
Format: Compact Disc
Having not learned a single thing from the C64 GS, Commodore unveiled the CDTV. It's an Amiga 500 with a CD-ROM drive and no floppy drive or keyboard. This machine was a probably responsible partly for the CDI and “home multimedia” explosion and faired just about as well. Although the machine was built on solid hardware sadly the market for a multimedia system was just not there at this point. We lacked the experience and the technology to truly drive multimedia revolution at this point. No one was quite sure where this would fit in in the home. Does it belong in the office or the living room? Is it something for the business person or the family? They just didn't know and no one at the time knew so they attempted to cater to everyone and no one was pleased.
Another problem with the system is that although solid, the Amiga 500 was discontinued and obsolete. Many people still loved the hardware but why would they drop ££499 ($999 in the USA) for essentially a A500 with a CD ROM drive and few original titles that used the CDROM?
Like the GS, the CDTV's library was mostly comprised of software already available to the Amiga 500 with some straight ports, while some offered some slightly better graphics and sound. The remainder were just crapware and educational titles.
A floppy drive and keyboard were also available for CDTV to turn it in to what equated to a A500+ but that came with problems too. The 500+ changed a few things including the OS (aka Kickstart ROMS) and moving from OCS (Original Chip Set) to ECS (Enhanced Chip Set). This created quite a lot of incompatibilities with some older games which would just end up crashing ( This was an issue for all later Amigas had ) but there was a solution at hand you could downgrade your Temporarily using the ReloKick - This software loaded in the old version of the Kickstart rom in to memory, allowing the running of games that were incompatible with the new version.
During the time that these machines were sold, Commodore actually wanted to distance themselves from the Amiga branding and pushed for them to be displayed away from the 'computer' sections of stores. Which really didn’t help matters and just pushed people away from buying the system as most stores who would bow down to commodores demands ended up with the system at the back of the store with HiFi equipment and hidden from public gaze
Part 3: The final nail
Commodore Amiga CD32
What is it?: It's a 32-bit CD based games console
Release date: 1993
Format: Compact Disc
Before we dive in to the main bulk of this this is something we need to get out the way first. A lot of people attribute this as the first 32-bit CD based games system. Sadly, this is only a half truth. In fact, the first 32-bit CD based games system has to the FM Towns Marty**, but that was never released in the west so, the CD32 can proudly say it was the 32-bit CD based games system in the west.
Like the CDTV and C64 GS, the CD32 is essentially an Amiga 1200 in a new form factor with a CD ROM drive. It suffered from exactly the same problems as the previous machines. The games were quick ports of existing Amiga games, usually with CD soundtracks and some FMV thrown in for good measure. This time it wasn’t as simple as connecting a CD drive to the Amiga 1200. With a little time though ways were found around this by emulating the Akiko Chip, but an add-on CD drive was in development which included a breakout board which fitted in the trapdoor of the Amiga 1200 with an Akiko chip. Only 2 of the drives are still known to exist, but sadly the expansion board has been lost to time.
The CD32 was actually quite successful in the UK initially. With over 50% of CDROM market belonging to Commodore, beating out both the Sega MEGA CD and the PC-CD ROM markets. To further this, a hardware add on was released that allowed the playback of MPEG video, turning the CD32 into a VCD playback machine.
The CD32 was also used to run interactive museum exhibits at the London Transport Museum as well as being used in arcade machines (9 original games are known to exist).
But this is where things soured for Commodore. Although the CD32 had been released in the Canada and promised to be released in the USA in 1994 there was a problem. Commodore had lost a lawsuit and it was time to pay up. Sadly, at this point they simply didn’t have the funds to do so. A Federal judge placed an injunction against Commodore forbidding them from importing anything in the United States and with their consoles being produced in the Philippines they only had one option. The blindfold was put on and the last cigarette was smoked, Commodore filed for bankruptcy and that was that.
Part 4 : The funeral
Something went on for a while after and now has be calved up and sold to the highest bidder but has yet to rise from its grave in any meaningful way. The sad fact is by 1990 Commodore was done. Most of its talented engineers had jumped ship and left for pastures new. The finances were in a bad shape and commodore bosses just didn't know which way to turn. Given the choices of creating something new, squeeze out the C65 prototype with few engineers who really knew what they were doing and having very limited resources or trying to new life out of old systems for less and find.
It’s funny to think the end of Commodore International could have sparked a new beginning for Commodore UK with David Pleasance at the helm trying to save at least the Amiga brand with at least 2 products that could have revolutionised and complimented the current range of Amigas. But sadly, his attempts were met with a lot of backstabbing from former Commodore International staff which led not only to the demise of both the Commodore and Amiga brands but the demise of a Chinese manufacturing company.
It is important to say that there really is no one reason why Commodore failed, there are a lot of factors to consider. Things are rarely black and white as to why they go the way they do. What I have briefly outlined here is just a few of the events that led up to their demise from the customer's perspective. I've never really delved much into the business side, who knows maybe I will one day but I’m not really a business guy. I imaging given the characters involved there was a lot of greed, backstabbing and betrayal.
As always please feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer. My next blog will probably end up being an update on how I’m getting on with my Amiga 1200, what's been happening with it and how close it is to being fully functioning again. Not gonna lie there have been a couple of roadblocks on this and a couple of crappy ebay sellers.
*The Original Amiga wasn't actually developed by Commodore, but by Amiga Incorporated (Formerly Hi-Toro ) a bunch of ex-atari and activision staff that wanted to make a games console that would blow our minds - which they did, with Commodore's help do but this is a story for another day and also the story of how it was almost the Atari Amiga.
** This one of those Atari Jaguar moments which sees this topic even today be argued about (what can I say Commodore Fanboys do still exist haha) but the CD32's 68EC020 is 32-bit both internally and externally. Whereas the 386SX in the FM Towns Marty is only 32-bit internally with 16-bit bus externally. In my opinion this is rather nit-picky but important to note all the same
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