Forgotten Consoles: Amiga CD-32

by Terri Rose

Retro gaming tends to focus on the big guns -- the NES, the SNES, the Genesis/Mega Drive, and in Europe the microcomputers and Sega Master System. But what about the oddities, the weirdos, the systems that didn't break through? In Forgotten Consoles, I'll be exploring some of these machines. First up: the Amiga CD-32, one of Commodore's many mid 1990s follies. 

 Photo of Amiga CD32, public domain

Photo of Amiga CD32, public domain

Sometimes it's not hard to see why a console failed. Just look at that photo -- that is not the sleekest, most dynamic looking console you've ever seen before, is it? Consider that it was competing against the SNES and Mega Drive/Genesis and...yeah. This one probably was a bad idea out of the gate.

But we need some history, ugliness of the console (and especially that ghastly controller) aside. What inspired Commodore to make the CD-32 at all?

The Commodore Amiga was a home computer first launched in 1985, a 16-bit follow-up to Commodore's wildly successful C64 machine. After a slow start, the machine managed to break through in Europe, becoming a huge seller in the UK especially. It never exactly managed to do this in North America, but it did sell respectably among hobbyists.

By the early 1990s though, there was only one thing keeping the Amiga alive in Europe: games. The business market had been completely dominated by IBM PCs and their clones, and so other than some artistic professionals the Amiga was basically a games machine.

And Commodore UK, to their credit, marketed it as such. The Amiga 500, a lower-cost option that first launched in 1987, was still riding high as a games machine in the early 90 in Europe. However, this was basically the only thing Commodore was doing right at the time -- their head office in the US was bungling basically every other decision related to the Amiga, and by the early 90s they realized the games market was basically all they had left. And thus, the CD-32 was born.

The CD-32 was announced publicly early in 1993, promising a huge software library and hardware based on the Amiga 1200, an upgraded version of the Amiga 500 that had received poor notices a year earlier for being too little, too late. The system was released in Europe, Australia, Brazil, and Canada, with plans to be released in the USA later on.

The CD-32's main selling point was the first 32-bit console, though it had been beaten to the punch by the FM Towns Marty in Japan. However, while technically using a 32-bit architecture, the console's use of the Advanced Graphical Architecture chipset meant that it was basically able to run graphics at the same level as a year old Amiga. It was hopelessly outdated, and soon-to-be-released 32-bit consoles would make its graphical prowess look laughable.

The system launched with two very good games as its packing titles: Digital Illusion's Pinball Fantasies and Ocean Software's Sleepwalker. However, both of these games were previous Amiga releases, coming out in 1992 and earlier in 1993 respectively. The Amiga CD-32 did not launch with any new material, and very few games were ever developed for it exclusively. What was the point, as they could just develop the game for the Amiga anyway?

Despite all its many, many flaws, the CD-32 somehow sold well in Europe in Christmas 1993, outselling the Sega Mega CD. It was, of course, a gigantic flop in the rest of the world. It was too expensive to produce, and its European sales were not enough to save it, or indeed Commodore as a whole. In April of 1994, Commodore International declared bankruptcy, causing the CD-32 to be cancelled mere months after its launch.

Could the CD-32 have developed into something great, a low-cost option during the PlayStation years? Perhaps. Amigas did have a history of slow starts. But the mid 1990s were a cruel time for the video game industry, and the CD-32 never stood a chance.