Thursday, 8 January 2015

Commodore Amiga Special - Modern Amiga Gaming - Gotek USB Floppy Drive

Modern Amiga gaming 

Gotek USB Floppy Drive Special

Recently I have been having a long overdue Amiga revival! For those of you who don't know (have you been living under a rock?) the Amiga is a 16-bit home computer made by Commodore and released way back in 1985. While originally released as a high end computer for business use (yawn) it wasn't long before it became known as a gaming machine thanks to its fantastic graphical capabilities and fun software. A couple of years later the most famous model of Amiga, the Amiga 500, was released and it cemented Commodore's machine as a home gaming platform bar none - It took PC games many years to catch up to the same level!

The Amiga 500 - the best selling model in the Amiga range

I was lucky enough to be given an Amiga 600 (a revised A500 with more memory and smaller case) for my birthday in 1993 and was instantly smitten with the incredible 16-bit graphics, wonderful Amiga soundchip and huge library of fun and quirky games with a uniquely British flavour. From a plethora of 2D platformers and action games such as Superfrog, The Chaos Engine, Alien Breed, Turrican and IK+ to mouse driven games like Cannon Fodder, Lemmings, Syndicate and The Secret of Monkey Island, the Amiga's varied selection of gaming goodies kept me hooked. It also helped that the machine used floppy disks as opposed to the incredibly expensive cartridges used by companies like Sega and Nintendo. While they took time to load and often came on a silly number of disks (often resulting in some repetitive disk changing) the disk medium meant the games were much cheaper than console games, with budget re-releases of top sellers often going for a few pounds. I may have joined the party a little late in the Amiga's lifespan, but I had the benefit of an enormous library of games to choose from.

Team 17's classic platformer Superfrog

Fast forward to the present, and I consider many Amiga titles to be some of my favourite games of all time. I am always returning to Rick Dangerous to attempt to beat those fiendish levels for the millionth time, or hear the comedy screams of the little soldiers in Cannon Fodder as I let rip with the machine gun. I love to return to Superfrog - a game I find infinitely more enjoyable than any Sonic The Hedgehog title - for some good old fashioned jumping and coin collecting, or blast some xenomorphs in Team 17's masterpiece, Alien Breed. I even play sports games - something usually unheard of - in the form of Sensible Soccer!

Another Team 17 classic - Alien Breed Special Edition '92


I am a huge advocate of emulation and, on PC, you are sorted when it comes to the Amiga. WinUAE has been around for ages and is constantly being updated. It performs extremely well, playing everything you can throw at it - It does require slightly more tinkering with than the average SNES or Mega Drive emulator but it's well worth the effort. However, I have found Amiga emulation on other devices such as the original Xbox, Wii and PSP to be less satisfactory. Often the games don't load, or feature stuttering framerates, sound issues or crashes. It's here where I strongly recommend the original hardware! 

Sensible Software's Cannon Fodder is one of the greatest games of all time

Original Hardware

Amiga 1200 / Compact Flash Card

So, what's the best option for someone wanting to play Amiga games today? Well, for the true Amiga aficionado I would recommend the more powerful Amiga 1200 model - capable of playing the more visually impressive AGA titles. Next you will need a compact flash card that can be used in IDE mode (stick to SanDisk's range or Transcend cards) and a 44 pin 2.5" IDE to compact flash card adapter. These can be bought together from Ebay for around £20, though you may be able to get them cheaper if you purchase them separately.
Once you have the two items it's a simple matter of taking out the stock Amiga 1200 Hard drive and plugging in your CF card / IDE adapter combo. If, like me, you are happy with using an Amiga 600, you will be pleased to know you can use this CF card method on that model too.

A Transcend CF card slotted into the necessary IDE adapter

On this CF card you will need to install WHDLoad - a fantastic piece of software that you use from Workbench to launch your pre-installed Amiga games. It is worth noting that these are different files to the usual .ADF files and will only run on WHDLoad. There are many fantastic tutorials online should you need any further help with installing both a compact flash card and WHDLoad! 

WHDLoad is a fantastic and easy way to load Amiga games - 
it even combines multiple disk games into one file

Amiga CD32

If you aren't up for opening an A1200 and installing a flash card you could always take the easy option - buy an Amiga CD32! The CD32 is often cited as one of the worst consoles ever made and one of the biggest failures - up there with the Atari Jaguar and Nintendo's Virtual Boy - but these days it is a great way to enjoy Amiga games. When it was first released in 1993, Commodore's 32-bit CD-ROM gaming console sounded great in theory, but with a library of software that was little more than A500 or A1200 games with some CD audio, it wasn't long before gamers abandoned the console for superior platforms such as the PlayStation and Saturn. Indeed, the CD32 was only in production for 6 months before being discontinued - surely a record of some kind?
The ill-fated CD32 console

These days you can pick one up for around £80 (with the controller and a few games), which is pretty decent value for money. Many of the games are excellent, though practically identical to the standard Amiga versions, and the CD music is often great as it captures the rave and techno vibes of the early 1990's (if you were in the UK, of course). The CD-ROM technology also allowed for full voice acting in games, with the first being the wonderfully voiced Simon the Sorcerer (featuring Red Dwarf's Chris Barrie as the titular hero) point & click adventure. The second great thing about the CD32 is the controller - sure, it's not to everybody's taste, but I rather like it and it also allows you to use a second button for jumping instead of up on the joystick like the majority of Amiga disk software.

Simon The Sorcerer was the first Amiga game to feature voice acting

Best of all, there exist online several custom made CDs that contain either 200, 400 or a whopping 800 Amiga games from the A500 / A1200 range. Once downloaded these can be burnt in a specific way to enable them to be played on a standard CD32 - That's right, there is no copy protection on a CD32, so you can burn disks from downloaded ISO files.. though I couldn't possibly condone such naughty behaviour (cough!). 

I rather like the CD32 controller, though many others feel differently

If piracy just ain't your bag then you could always add a floppy drive to the CD32 in order to play all your wonderful floppy disk originals! I have not had any experience of this method but I hear that you need certain adapters and software. I believe you would also need to have a keyboard in order to play many non-CD32 games. If this is something that interests you then head over to one of the many helpful Amiga forums online and see what people have to say. If I get around to trying out this method for myself I will add the information to this article!

The CD32 was the only Amiga machine to get Psygnosis's 
gorgeous 2D platformer, The Misadventures Of Flink

Amiga 600 & Gotek USB Floppy Drive

Despite the above method being the best way to enjoy Amiga games, I stand by my choice for an Amiga 600 with a Gotek USB Floppy Drive installed.  The ease of copying .ADF game files to a USB drive is the deciding factor for me. The Amiga 600 holds the most nostalgic memories for me, personally, and its smaller design is far more appealing than the humungous A500 model. You don't get a numerical keypad but, if you only intend to use your Amiga for games, you won't miss it!

The smaller, sleeker, Amiga 600

The Amiga 600 I had been using over Christmas suddenly died on me. Thankfully I was able to pick up an Amiga 500+ locally for only £35. It also works perfectly with the Gotek, though the sharp edges contained on the metal parts inside the machine have rendered my hands a sliced up disaster area. I was pleased when my replacement Amiga 600 arrived this morning and after a couple of minutes cleaning and installing the Gotek I was soon playing the brilliant Ruff N Tumble again!

My Gotek USB 

The Gotek USB Drive is a nifty little device that, once installed, allows you to plug in a USB flash drive and run games in .adf format (.ADF being the image of an original Amiga floppy disk - much like an ISO for CDs today). Installation is exceptionally easy and consists of the following easy steps:

1. Open Amiga and lift off top case

Inside the Amiga 600

Be careful when lifting the top off an A600 as this small connector
 in the bottom left only has a short cable to attach it

2. Unscrew and unplug the floppy disk drive

3. Plug in the Gotek using the provided cables (which look almost identical to the ones you just unplugged)

4. Leave the Gotek inside the case or feed the cables through the casing (the disk drive part) and leave it on top of the Amiga

5. Close case

Side view of Gotek inside case - note the plastic part broken off to make 
USB stick fit and create easier access to tiny disk swap buttons

With the Gotek on the outside (A600)


With my first Amiga 600 I had the Gotek inside the casing, using some card to keep it in place, but I had to snap a little piece of plastic from the casing off so I could press the tiny buttons on the Gotek. For the A500+ and current A600 setup I am happy for the Gotek to sit on top of the case!

On the software side of things, you need to download the Gotek software.

1. Unzip the file.
2. First place the SELECTOR.ADF file (located in the 'Bootdisk' folder) into the root directory of a formatted USB data stick. 
3. Add the 'Bootdisk' and 'Firmware' folders to the root directory.
4. Add your games in .ADF format (again, to the root directory)

All games on the USB stick are listed for easy selection - be sure to copy them to the stick in one go so that they appear in alphabetical order. Any newly added games will appear at the end of the list.

When you boot up your Amiga you will now see a long list of all your games on the USB stick. Simply use the joystick or arrow keys to select the disk image you want then press fire or enter to select it. You then assign it to a drive (number 1), and then any additional game disks can be assigned to drives 2, 3, 4, all the way up to 99. You then choose 'save and restart' and the machine reboots and loads the game. When promoted for any disk changes in-game, you tap one of two tiny black buttons on the front of the Gotek (one changes up a number and the other down).

Assign the game disks you want to run to the virtual drives as shown above. 
Then choose 'Save & Restart' to reboot.

Adding new games to the USB drive is a simple matter of copying the .ADF file onto it via your PC. While most .ADF files worked without a hitch, I did experience quite a few that wouldn't load. This was resolved by downloading a different .ADF file for the game in question and I now have every game I want working fine.

Amiga 600 running The Bitmap Brother's Magic Pockets via the Gotek

Amiga 500+ running Superfrog via the Gotek

You are now ready for hundreds of hours of fantastic 16-bit gaming. The Amiga is an absolute treasure trove of retro treats, from excellent arcade ports such as Rainbow Islands and New Zealand Story, exclusive titles such as Benefactor, Superfrog, Shadow of the Beast 3 and Ruff & Tumble, to some classic point and click adventures such as Monkey Island 1 & 2, Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones & The Fate Of Atlantis. There are many 8-bit style games that got a 16-bit lick of paint but retain the same old school gameplay, so fans of flick-screen platformers and arcade space shooters are sorted. 

Lemmings - a brain scratching classic

There are many games that will be instantly familiar to Mega Drive and SNES gamers too, with titles such as James Pond : Robocod, Chuck Rock, Alfred Chicken, Lemmings, Risky Woods, Shadow of the Beast, Gods, Stormlord and Zool appearing first on the Amiga. While the console versions often felt slightly slicker, with more colourful and detailed visuals than a stock Amiga 500 / 600, the music was usually worse than the excellent soundchip provided in Commodore's machine. The only downside was that many Amiga games only allowed you to hear either sound effects or music while playing, but not both at the same time, which often spoiled the experience. 

The Chaos Engine - Another classic title that was ported to many systems, 
but is best on the original Amiga platform

If you want to stump up the extra cash for an Amiga 1200 you will be treated to 32-bit AGA visuals. Though '32-bit' is a bit misleading as these AGA games are far more akin to a Mega Drive than a PlayStation or Sega Saturn. Having said that, AGA games do look lovely - just look at the beautiful AGA version of Exile compared to the regular version to see what I mean! 

Banshee is a fantastic Shmup and well worth getting an A1200 for

There are also several exclusive AGA games that were too graphically intensive to appear on the A500 / A600. Games such as the excellent Banshee (which gives Capcom's vertical shoot-em-ups a run for their money), 3D 'Starfox style blaster' Guardian, and even first person shooters in the form of Gloom, Alien Breed 3d 1 & 2 and Fears. However, don't come to these expecting Doom (or even Wolfenstein 3D for that matter) as the visuals and speed are pretty ropey on anything other than a suped-up behemoth of an A1200 (you will need an accelerator card). Speaking of which, if you do go down that route there are even Amiga ports of games such as Quake, Doom and Duke Nukem 3D which are apparently very impressive!

Even 3D FPS games are possible on the Amiga 1200

But enough from me, I bet you are keen to get gaming. If you are new to Amiga games, or just want to discover some classic or fun games you may not have been aware of, I highly recommend a trip to the excellent LemonAmiga website. There, you can find every single Amiga game listed, all with handy screenshots and an average rating from the users. The advanced search engine allows you to filter games by score, genre, developer, publisher and many more, so it won't be long before you find a plethora of gems you will want to try out!

I will be back soon with a special Amiga games feature and also some regular reviews of some of the games I have been playing. In the meantime... happy gaming!