First person shooter and Amiga

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First person shooter and Amiga copertina

How about firs person shooter? Hello commodoreblog‘s friends, today we go back in time and try to focus on the years in which the videogames market switched to first person shooters.

First Person Shooter, the revenge of PCs

The second half on 90s was a really weird time for amiga fans. Commodore declared bankrupty in April 1994 and it was a cold shower for all of us.

Nobody knew what happened to our beloved platform, in the specialized press it was chaos,

a multitude of news on top of each other, including acquisitions, bankruptcies, promises of relaunch, bombastic announcements and great disappointments were emerging
on the horizon.And, as if that weren’t enough, in the meantime the PC world was seriously starting to flex its muscles as a gaming platform.

First 3D engines with texture mapping

Yes, the same exact PCs that amiga fans were making fun of, strong of the monstrous audiovisual power of their beloved computer chipset. That PCs started to show something that until then on the amiga had only been glimpsed or simulated in some demo: 3d engines with texture mapping. A technique that, in two words, through very demanding calculations for the CPU, allows to draw a polygon with a bitmap image “stuck” on it. Today is a commonly known technique, but at that time it was a huge step forward for real time 3D graphics.

Doom, the power of First Person Shooter

A legendary game had given a taste of what awaited us in the future a few years earlier. This title is Doom, which showed the overtaking in terms of brute computing power against Amiga. These were the years in which x86 processors began to run.386, 486 and the early pentiums CPUs began to run and with the spread of increasingly cheaper VGA cards

they put unprecedented computing power in the hands of game developers. This paved the way for ever more complex and impressive 3D engines. What about us amigans? We were starting to do less of a badass and to ask ourselves: is this possible on the Amiga. The answer was yes, but unfortunately there were very serious issues.

Amiga Issues

Sporting a very powerful graphic processor called “Blitter”, capable to move and process up to 7 Mb/s of graphics in 1985.

Amiga had shown great capabilities in 2D and solid poligons 3D games, with moving objects and fluid multidirectional parallax scrolling.

One of the strengths was his way of representing graphics, with a technique called “planar”. With this technique, in memory there was a certain number of “bitplanes”, which could range from 1 to 6 in the ECS Amigas and up to 8 in the AGA Amigas. Each byte of these bitplanes represented 8 contiguous pixels which were superimposed with the corresponding byte of the following “bitplane”. The combination of the individual bits of each bitplane determined the color of the pixel on the screen, according to a palette defined by the programmer.

A system that is as functional as it is fragile

As mentioned, this type of approach was extremely functional and efficient when it came to displaying and moving bitmap graphics on the screen. But it was a bad Achilles’ heel when it was necessary to perform pixel-by-pixel processing instead, as in the case of texture mapping. In fact, to change the single color of a pixel, it was necessary to establish which bit to set or not to set for each byte of each bitplane.

An extremely expensive operation, especially for a CPU that, in 1994, was still traveling at 7.14 Mhz (or 14 in the case of the Amiga 1200), against the 60/100 of modern PC processors.

First Person Shooter, PCs were better suited

As if that weren’t enough, PCs displayed graphics in a completely different way, a way much more suited to a 3D engine. In fact, in the 256-color VGA graphics (typical of PCs in that era) the color of each pixel was saved in a single byte (256 values ​​in fact). This allowed pixel-by-pixel image processing directly, without any additional processing. This type of video memory management was called “chunky”. In short, a graphic mode more suitable for pixel-by-pixel graphics processing, combined with increasingly faster processors put PCs in a position of enormous advantage in the field of 3D engines in real time, compared to our beloved computer.

Chunky to Planar

Of course, the Amiga developers, who are almost always passionate and enormously knowledgeable, weren’t watching. They began to think about how to make the same types of “Doom-like” games on the Amiga, to give an answer to a market that was quickly and definitively deviating towards three-dimensional graphics. Thus began a long season of more or less creative and effective solutions to perform the so-called “chunky to planar conversion”. The 3D scene was always drawn in a chunky buffer (therefore, as we said, one byte for each pixel) and then perform the conversion to planar using particular techniques.

From artifices to Akiko

Initially they used some artifices, exploiting the ability (I don’t go into details) of Copper to change the palette on the fly while drawing the graphics. The problem is that it was not possible to do this conversion for every single pixel of the screen, because the copper did not have time to modify the whole palette for each row, forcing to render the graphics in blocks of pixels.

This, on the one hand, free the CPU that had to render the 3D scene

at a lower resolution and therefore guaranteed a decent framerate, on the other hand it made the resolution of the image extremely low, a rather humiliating thing in the face of the splendor of the 3D graphics that you saw on PC. To be honest, the Commodore at the last minute tried to “patch” this Amiga limit through a special chip called Akiko. Only the Amiga CD32 platform mounted it and was used to carry out this conversion directly into hardware.

First Person Shooter, small Amiga gems

Too bad that the CD32 was nothing more than an Amiga 1200 with the same 68020 at 14 Mhz, without keyboard and with a CD player, in my opinion one of the most absurd machines ever made by Commodore. Put this way, the Akiko chip was really of little use and, to my knowledge, it was hardly ever used. Fortunately, afterwards, very optimized conversion routines were created that managed to do miracles, especially in amigas equipped with accelerator cards with processors from 68030 upwards.

This was the beginning of a very prosperous period from this point of view, many companies (including Phase5 with the excellent Blizzard series cards) began to build accelerator cards for Amiga 1200 and beyond, which gave a little more brute force to the most passionate amigans, who were willing to spend even a lot of money to upgrade their systems and experience the magic of seeing 3D games start running at a decent framerate and resolution.

Thus, even the developers themselves could afford to develop more powerful 3D engines and gave us small masterpieces such as Gloom, Alien Breed 3D II and we proudly remember the very Italian Breathless.

Unfortunately, it was too late and, despite these laudable attempts, which represent great demonstrations of skill and passion, Amiga had missed the video game train. Also because in 1994 a small gray box thundered into the world of home video games.

Upsetting everything with its 90,000 texture mapping polygons per second and its 16 million colors on screen. It was called Playstation.

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