Year Released: 1985
Original Price: £299 (with green-screen monitor), £399 (with colour monitor)
Buy It Now For: £25+
Associated magazines: Amtix, Computing With The Amstrad, Amstrad Computer User, CPC Attack, Amstrad Action
Why The Amstrad CPC 6128 Was Great: It may not have been as cool or as desirable as a Commodore 64, but the CPC 6128 was arguably the greatest 8-bit machine ever made. Adaptable (plug in a tape drive, fiddle endlessly with the volume control and you had a 464 with knobs on) and dependable, there was a mountain of games, a thriving community, and a real spirit of the underdog.

amstardcpc6128

Sitting atop a chunky slab of plastic, the CPC 664’s white and blue keys and the clumsy-looking addition of a disk drive exuded such ugliness that you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor sods who bought it. It was a step up from Amstrad’s iconic cassette-based 464 in the sense that it added a three-inch disk drive of the like seen in the Oric Atmos, some extra BASIC commands and both the AMSDOS and CP/M 2.2 operating systems. But while it sold around 10,000 units, within five months it was replaced by the 6128 – a machine which not only doubled the memory of its predecessor but looked far sleeker, too.

And so it was that the CPC 6128 came into being. It was launched in America in 1985 and it came to Europe shortly afterwards, making its UK debut at a glitzy press conference in London with BBC newsreader Richard Whitmore overseeing proceedings. Boasting the same three-inch drive, the only real features to distinguish the 6128 from the 664 were the 128K of RAM and a better, plain white, springier keyboard. The extra memory was an important addition, however, as it was used as a RAM disk or to store data such as gaming levels.

In some cases, the 128K versions of CPC games would carry sound not heard in their 64K counterparts and all of this allowed developers to give their titles a little boost from time to time. Before its unveiling, Mr Whitmore led the assembled journalists and dealers through a potted history of Amstrad. But it was Sir Alan Sugar himself who whipped the covers off the 6128 to show his new machine in all its glory. In doing so, he declared the 664 “well and truly dead” and he said the new arrival was due to “a leap in technology”. He later stated that the 6128 was aimed at a more serious buyer, although the decision to make the machine compatible with 464 and 664 software created an instant back catalogue of games for the new machine.

AmstradCPC464User“There was a simple reason for launching the CPC 6128,” says Cliff Lawson, who worked on the product launch of both the 6128 and 664. “It could be produced for the same money as the 664 so Amstrad decided it would be wise to go for the better product. It offered the punter more and it was, dare I say, much prettier, too.”

The 6128 was one of two computers to be unveiled by Amstrad at the same time. The other was the PCW8256, pitched mainly at businesses. That machine came with a monochrome monitor, 256K of memory, a built-in disk drive, a printer and word-processing software, but it wasn’t compatible with the CPC and there was no intention of opening its appeal to gamers. The PCW retailed at £460 and, as the trumpets blared for the 6128, the 464 was cut in price, bringing its cost down to £199 for the green-screen version and £299 for colour. In some sense, it meant that the 6128 was a halfway house – part business, part pleasure – bridging the gap between the PCW and the 464.

One of the first games to take advantage of the added capacity that the extra 64K of the 6128 offered was Sorcery+. Released in 1985, players of this disk-based joystick-only game saw many enhancements over the original Sorcery, including an extra 35 screens. Amstrad loved the lush look so much that it used screens of the game in its promotional literature and yet such enhancements didn’t become the norm.

DDI-1DiskDrivefor464Although it was possible for both 464 and 664 owners to buy a 64K memory pack, which could be inserted into an expansion slot at the back of both computers (Datel Electronics would advertise Dk’tronics’ 64K memory on a monthly basis), sales were not sufficiently high enough for all developers to put in the extra effort of creating additional enhancements. The gaming benefits of purchasing extra memory were not heavily pushed either, so whether or not a game carried the extra power depended on the whim of the developer or, in some cases, the near impossibility of making a game as impressive in 64K as it would be using double that memory.

Indeed, as the 6128 launched, some developers decided they wouldn’t be sticking their neck out in support of the added extras of the new machine. Paula Byrne, of Melbourne House, said she would see how well the machine sold and Taskset’s Paul Hodgson felt Amstrad missed an opportunity to enhance the graphics and sound chips and said he had no immediate plans to make games for it. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Gremlin’s Ian Stewart said it paved the way for better games and his company certainly made use of the new facilities on offer as the years went on.

“Amstrad didn’t encourage 128K disk-based games to be produced,” admits Cliff. “It wasn’t particularly important since the extra memory was seen to have greater use with serious applications. The 64K games at the time worked well on the full range of Amstrad’s CPC machines and it was in everyone’s interest to ensure titles operated across the entire range and that the market wouldn’t be split.”

Multiface2Around six months after launch, both the 6128 and the PCW were doing well. Amstrad announced £27.5 million half-yearly profits in April 1986 with sales in the six months to December 1985 increasing from £69 million to £128 million. The PCW8256 accounted for 20 per cent of the company’s turnover, but the 6128 was becoming a market leader in France, as well as making major inroads into Germany and Spain.

Yet, for the average gamer, such corporate guff mattered little. They were more interested in enjoying some of the gems which were launched over the course of the 6128’s life span. As time went on, more games arrived that could only be played with 128K of memory. They included Gremlin’s Nigel Mansell’s World Championship, one of the best Formula 1 games ever launched on the Amstrad and a title which deservedly won it much praise in the CPC gaming press.

Indeed, Gremlin, as we have discussed, liked to use the extra RAM to get the best out of its games. It produced 128K versions of Space Crusade and Super Cars. And titles such as HeroQuest and Switchblade contained music on the 6128, whereas, on an unexpanded 464, there were no tunes at all. Some differences were more subtle, however. “In Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge,” explains Nicholas Campbell, the CPC Games Review webmaster, “the only difference, as far as I am aware, is that the ‘handbook’ (the screens displaying the car’s specifications) is loaded separately on the 64K version, whereas it is included with the main game in the 128K version.”

Image3There was more… Level 9’s games, including Gnome Ranger, Ingrid’s Back, Knight Orc, Lancelot and Scapeghost, did not contain graphics on a non-enhanced 464, but the 6128 proudly showed off a host of pictures. This was also the case with The Famous Five as well as all four of Magnetic Scrolls’ adventures for the CPC (The Pawn, The Guild Of Thieves, Jinxter and Corruption), which were only playable if 128K was available.

Add to that little list less prestigious titles such as European Superleague and Computer Scrabble De Luxe, throw in the likes of Final Fight (this game came on a dual-format disk with the Spectrum version on the other side), tag on Gauntlet III, G-LOC, Gunboat, and most of Microïds’ later releases – Killerball, Sliders and Swap – No Exit, Pirates!, then make space for all four of Silmarils’ releases (Windsurf Willy, Targhan, Xyphoes Fantasy and Bunny Bricks), SWIV and Times Of Lore and you had a pretty good reason to go for Amstrad’s best machine at the time. If nothing else, the extra vocal samples on Chase H.Q. were probably worth the price of an upgrade alone. Well, probably anyway…

Four Great Amstrad CPC 6128 Games

05 - BarbarianBarbarian

03 - Head Over HeelsHead Over Heels

02 - 19421942

01 - Prince of PersiaPrince Of Persia

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Year Released: 1985
Original Price: £749 (with monochrome monitor)
Buy It Now For: £20+
Associated magazines: ST Format, ST Action, Atari ST User, ST World
Why The Vectrex Was Great: Atari would still be remembered solely as the company that flushed the entire videogame industry down the toilet in the early-Eighties were it not for the saviour that was the ST. It may have lost the war to the Commodore Amiga, but this legendary machine was the first true 16-bit home computer and played host to such seminal games as Dungeon Master and Starglider. It was also brilliant for bedroom tunesmiths thanks to its built-in MIDI support.

atari

Following the videogame crash of the early Eighties, Atari was in horrifying shape. The company’s failure to successfully build on the triumph of its popular 2600 console (a machine languishing in obsolescence by this point), coupled with a generally poor quality of software available had triggered a catastrophic meltdown that very nearly destroyed the entire videogame industry. After the dust had settled, Atari’s parent corporation Time Warner had incurred a cataclysmic $500 million loss and was predictably keen to offload its flagging games division. What occurred next has gone down in videogame folklore as one of the most startling turnarounds in the history of the medium.

Ironically, the man behind the product that would resurrect the ailing Atari brand had previously been instrumental in sullying the fortunes of the company. Shiraz Shivji worked at rival Commodore during the early-Eighties and helped build the C64 – the home computer that stole away vital market share from Atari’s 400 and 800 range, as well as its 2600 console. “I became interested in electronics from my early childhood in Tanzania and my education in the UK,” says Shiraz, when asked about how he became entangled in the fabric of Atari’s history. “I attended the University of Southampton and obtained a First-Class Honours degree and then moved to Stanford University in the US to pursue a PhD in electronics. I was granted a master’s and passed the qualifying exam but left before obtaining my degree as I was running out of funds. I started working in Silicon Valley and obtained experience in hardware and software.” By 1984 Shiraz had risen to the role of director of engineering at Commodore and it was at this point that fate intervened.

atari07Although Commodore was undoubtedly causing Atari some serious headaches, things weren’t exactly harmonious in the boardroom. “Jack Tramiel was president and CEO of Commodore and Irving Gould was the chairman,” explains Shiraz. “Irving was the largest shareholder and Jack was the second largest. In January 1984 there was a showdown between the two of them over the role of Jack’s sons at Commodore.” Polish-born Tramiel had founded the company in the Fifties after enduring a particularly difficult early life (he was interned in Auschwitz concentration camp for five years during World War II), so his insistence on ‘keeping it in the family’ is understandable. However, Irving refused to budge and this forced Tramiel’s hand. He called a board meeting and tendered his resignation. “I was tremendously disappointed and shocked at this decision,” remembers Shiraz.

However, it wasn’t long before the two men were reunited. “I soon met with Jack and discussed the possibility of joining him if he was to start a personal computer company,” recalls Shiraz. “There were a number of senior execs at Commodore with experience in finance, manufacturing, design, engineering, marketing and sales that felt the same way, so I told Jack he could count on a core team to start a company. At this time Warner Communications was thinking of selling or disposing of Atari as it was losing a lot of money. Jack made an offer for the company by injecting $30 million – $25m from himself and $5m from associates, such as myself. Eventually the deal was struck and that is how I came to be the vice president of advanced development at Atari.”

atari18Having switched sides in dramatic fashion, Tramiel had a new company to command in the shape of Atari Incorporated. He now needed a product that would get the firm back on its feet. Thankfully Shiraz and his team already had ideas forming. “The core team of engineers and developers were thinking of the next personal computer,” Shiraz says. “The work on the ST didn’t really start until Atari was actually purchased, but the main ideas of using a 32-bit processor as well as support for music and graphics were already important for us.”

Shiraz duly started work on the new project codenamed ‘Rock Bottom Price’, or ‘RBP’ for short – an indication of Tramiel’s desire to produce a cheap yet powerful home computer. “We moved everyone into the Atari facilities on Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale in July 1984,” says Shiraz, who had to dig into his own pockets to ensure development went smoothly. “I paid for airline tickets and hotel bills for my hardware team using my own personal credit cards and was not paid until much later. I think the real development began in August; we didn’t usually get home until 11pm some nights, and sometimes it was well after midnight.”

atari2This punishing schedule was made even more demanding because Shiraz knew exactly what would happen if he failed to deliver the goods on time. “If we did not come through we would have had to close shop,” he states, matter-of-factly. “You can imagine I really felt the very heavy burden of responsibility. We had no choice but to deliver a product that was superior in terms of performance and price.” Amazingly, this intense pressure seemed to bring out the best in the team. “I felt very confident and comfortable that I and the team were up to the task,” states Shiraz. “After all, I had a core hardware team of four engineers from Commodore that had worked for me in the past so I knew what they could do. We integrated with people from Atari and had a very small but efficient team that worked very hard to get the hardware done in record time. Somehow, although there was much pressure on us, I did not have any sleepless nights. This is because of the trust I had in the team.”

The engineers at Atari originally envisaged the machine as a ‘true’ 32-bit computer, but eventually compromised and settled for a 32-bit processor that communicated through a 16-bit external bus (the abbreviation ‘ST’ actually stands for ‘16/32’). “We had a meeting with the CEO of National Semiconductor, who was anxious for us to use their 32-bit NS3200 processor,” remembers Shiraz. “It turned out that even though the Motorola 68000 was a quasi-32-bit chip, the performance turned out to be as good, if not better than the National Semiconductor’s true 32-bit chip. Motorola had a number of parts that they could not sell as one of the parameters did not fully meet their specification, but we found that this particular parameter could be relaxed in our design and so we could use these parts that would have to be thrown away, saving both us and Motorola several million dollars.” Amazingly, despite these cost-cutting measures, the ST was still able to outperform more expensive rivals. “Our design was so optimised for performance and cost that you could emulate the Apple Macintosh – if you had the Apple ROMs – and an application would run faster on the Atari ST,” reveals a justifiably proud Shiraz.

As the project neared completion, Shiraz and his team started to realise just how amazing their achievement was. They had taken the ST from rough concept to final product in less than half a year, and when 85 per cent complete ST machines were shown at the CES show in 1985, it amazed the industry. “I was very proud that the team had accomplished so much in a short period of time,” says Shiraz. When the machine officially launched in May, it marked the dawn of a resurgence for the previously ailing company and it speaks volumes for the popularity of the ST range that when Tramiel took Atari public in November, stock was selling for nearly triple its original price just a few months later. The ST had saved Atari from the scrapheap, and all in less than half a year.

Notable Atari ST Games

Black LampBlack Lamp

Super SkweekSuper Skweek

Eye of HorusEye Of Horus

shadowgateShadowGate

Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 58, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop