They say good things come to those who wait. Well in this case, I’ve been waiting a long, long time. Back when the world was young, in the distant, swirling primordial soup that was 1993, I was but a 12-year-old waif. Enticed by heady promises of FMV, interactive CD-ROMs and 32 whole shiny bits of computing power I desperately wanted the very latest sexy bit of hardware from Commodore. The CD32. Touted as the world’s first 32-bit CD games console (it held the honour in Europe and the US but was beaten to market in Japan by the FM Towns Marty which was at least partially 32-bit) the CD32 was in fact little more than an Amiga 1200 with a double speed CD-ROM bolted on.
Given that I already owned an A1200 that my parents had spent a considerable sum on, I was, of course, rightly denied the chance to own a CD32 when new. That was probably a good thing for the console, despite taking half of the UK’s CD gaming share in its first year on release, soon became a victim of Commodore International’s financial meltdown. The console was discontinued, though dozens of games were released for it even after the parent company went belly up, and some hundred thousand unites were sold, mostly here in Britain.
Those games though were, almost exclusively, lazy ports of existing Amiga title. Most didn’t even add any new features to take advantage of the CD-ROM medium. While point and click adventures like Beneath a Steel Sky and Simon the Sorcerer added speech samples, most publishers just shovelled the contents of a floppy disk onto a CD, leaving about 599MB of unused space. It was criminal at the time, but today it means authentic Amiga goodness packaged in an easy-to-use console form – and a great way to get into classic Amiga collecting, especially as CD32 ISOs can be found online and burnt in just about any CD-drive (another consequence of so many developers failing to use the full space on each CD being that the ISO files are really small). There are even compilation CDs that use Amiga disk images to bring hundreds of original A500 and A1200 titles (many that were never ported officially) to the CD32 on a single disc.
I remember thinking the CD32 was a handsome machine in its day, and it’s not too shabby looking in the flesh now. The hard edges and charcoal grey matte plastic give it a utilitarian charm, with only the flimsy build of the switchgear and the dated typeface of the red and white logo betraying the system’s true age.
The machine I bought (£40 off eBay) came with an RF cable, original controller and power pack. The PSU is huge, black and sinister it seems very similar to the unit that came with the A1200, mind you it’s a tiddler compared to the huge grey monolith that comes with the Xbox 360, so I supposed times haven’t really moved on too far. The controller too is a big one. Packing four face buttons (one, the main red button is slightly larger than the other) and pause button and two shoulder bumpers, the pad was a big step up for Amiga owners used to one button joysticks. Of course most ported games still used the one button, but some titles, like Pinball Fantasies, used the pad as it was intended. The controller is built fairly poorly. The cables at both end have worked free of their plastic shielding, requiring a bit of black duct tape to keep everything nicely insulated and connected. There’s a lot of play and wobble on the face buttons, they almost feel like analogue buttons the travel is so long. The d-pad too is very basic. A simple black disc with four nipples at each compass point, it has neither the precision nor the ergonomic satisfaction of better designed offerings from Sega and Nintendo. Fortunately standard Amiga joysticks can be hooked up to the CD32 (though of course they only offer one button) as can MegaDrive pads, so one need not be stuck with Commodore’s big cheap pad.
While it is possible to solder an RGB connection together on the CD32’s motherboard, the standard display options are fairly limited. So far I’ve only hooked up using the RF cable (wow, the noise on those old connections!) but there are also composite video and stereo audio jacks which I will play with this weekend, as well as an S-video port. Either way, unless you want to get busy with a soldering iron, you should expect some noise and blurring on your video output. What I hadn’t reckoned on were v-sync issues, though. It’s nothing too drastic, just an occasional flickery shimmer running down the screen every few seconds on some titles. It’s also worth noting that many Amiga games were designed to run in an NTSC sized resolution, even on a PAL display, so you’ll have to put up with a big black border taking up the bottom quarter of the screen, unless you plug in a mouse and hold both buttons on starting the CD32 to access a hidden NTSC / PAL switching menu.
Update: Having found an old s-video cable lying around I’ve now hooked the CD32 up with that. The picture quality is fantastic. Of course it does mean using the stereo left and right leads to hook up to audio source, a facility my TV doesn’t have. Lucky that there’s a TEAC hi fi with a spare aux input right next to the TV then!
All the CDs I had burnt in anticipation of the CD32’s arrival worked flawlessly. The double speed drive is far, far quieter than I expected, putting later consoles like the original PlayStation and the Xbox 360 to shame on the noise front. In fact, were it not for the orange CD access light on the machine’s front panel it would be hard to tell sometimes if the disc were even spinning. Of course, being just double speed games can take a few seconds to load, but for those of you used to running Amiga games from floppy, the CD access times are a revelation.
It’s great to revisit old classics on the CD32. Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge hasn’t aged too well, but classics like Pinball Fantasies and Speedball 2 still hold tons of entertainment value, and its truly a relief not to have to faff around with boxes full of floppy disks to get them working.
The CD32 may never have been cutting edge, even when it hit the market, but it still has value, and as something more than a curiosity. Bad decisions may have killed Commodore off in the mid-nineties, but it’s last major hardware release was a well thought out piece of kit that today works brilliantly as an easy to use Amiga gaming machine that takes minimal effort to set up but offers maximum rewards to those retro gaming enthusiasts with a taste for slightly less than mainstream action.