Jul 18, 2006

AMSTRAD: that sweetly flavor of yore...

Alan Michael Sugar wasn't quite the genius when it came down to naming companies. He was (and might just as well still be) quite enamored with his admittedly quirky family name too. Thus, AMSTRAD -Alan Michael Sugar Trading- was the name he picked for his first company. Or to use my sharp like the sharp thing precision, the name he picked for his legendary high-tech company.

AMSTRAD was born many-many years ago, back in faerie-tale 1968. At a time when the world was aflame and Paris was trying to show humanity the way, dear Mr. Sugar was entering the Hi-Fi corporate arena. To each his own I guess, but that's quite irrelevant.

Apparently, Mr. Sugar's Hi-Fi business wasn't enough for him. The not-just-yet (co)owner of Tottenham Hotspur, a man of apparently astonishing insight, decided during the early '80s to enter the rather lucrative home computer market, by launching nothing less than my beloved CPC series. The same series that eventually led to Mr. Sugar being awarded Sir status; quite appropriate for someone, who as a 21 year old during 1968 tried to become a major capitalist.

Paris '68: the art of the era.

The 8-bit era

Anyway, politics aside, in The Year Of Our Lord 1984, Sir Alan the Shrewd, even though sorely lacking help from either Sir Galahad the Chaste or Sir Robin The Not-So Brave, decided to follow Sir Clive's example, and unleash an 8bit Z80A based computer. It was the AMSTRAD CPC 464, an all-in-one concept, that crammed a tape drive in a sleek multi-colored keyboard, which in true '80s fashion also housed the 4MHz processor, 64kb of RAM, 48k of ROM, graphics and music chips, but not the power supply. This one was reserved for AMSTRAD's monitor (in colored and green flavor) and was another fine innovation, that actually forced you to buy one.

The CPC 464

The 464 was promptly followed by the 664, that sported a nice 3-inch disk drive, which was swiftly surpassed from the brilliant CPC 6128. Surprisingly the 6128 featured 128k of RAM and a disk drive. Shortly before releasing the 8bit powerhouse that was the 6128 plus, complete with game-cartridge slot and an updated graphics chip (featuring a 4096 color palette) in 1990, AMSTRAD also bought the rights to produce Sinclair computers. It then went on to create such miracles as the Spectrum +2 and +3, that generally managed to fail spectacularly. Just like its 6128plus based console, the GX4000. This one was so appalling, it was actually being given by CVG as a gift to the "crap letter of the month", and sold so poorly, it's quite a collector's item today, in our era of collectible stuff.

The AMSTRAD CPC 6128 plus

CPC games galore

The CPC featured an impressively powerful and user friendly BASIC. Aaah, yes, and quite an array of brilliant games, that as part of their loading procedure required you to type "cat" (an equivalent of the old DOS "dir" command). Top games included Head over Heels, Prince of Persia, Turrican, Pirates!, The Lurking Horror, Barbarian, B.A.T. and the early '90s and visually impressive Zap't'Balls and Xyphoes Fantasy. Run them all (and of course more) through the impressive WinAPE emulator.

Xyphoe's Fantasy

Oh, and can't quite understand how something as this came close to slipping my mind (I guess I've been a bad naughty gnome...), AMSTRAD also created a mascot. Roland, the AMSTRAD owned Amsoft character, who went on to star in quite a few horrid games like Roland Goes Square Bashing, Roland on the Run and Roland Ahoy, and in a couple of gems like Sorcery+ or Roland in Space. All in all more than 50 Roland games were released (complete list here).


PC oddities, other curiosities and today's AMSTRAD

Unfortunately, following a universal trend governing the fate of good things, the 8 bit era (a good thing) came to an end. Not unexpectedly mind you, but in a rather shocking way for quite a lot of 8bit computer manufacturers. Then the home computer market died altogether, managing to even eradicate giants like Commodore. AMSTRAD prevailed.

Despite its amazingly weird offerings, the company is still alive, still in the (almost) hi-tech business, and quite profitable too. But you care not dear reader, do you? Corporate matters are none of your enlightened interest. You simply want to find out about AMSTRAD's weirdest contraptions. The simple (XT) PCs it produced, namely PC1512, PC1640 or even PC2386, don't fascinate you either. The MegaPC though, will. It was, you see, a vastly overpriced (386SX) PC - SEGA MegaDrive hybrid. Obviously it sort of ... er ... flopped. Despite giving people the possibility of playing Sonic on a proper VGA monitor. And despite it's fine looks.

Sonic and Spreadsheet fun!

The PCW series, on the other hand, did extremely well and only ended their production in the late '90s (the final offering being the PCW16 released in 1996). If you indeed have to know, the PCWs were dedicated word-processing PCs, nicely bundled with a cheap dot-matrix printer. Find out more here and get the emulator there. There were a few PCW games released too, mind you...

The rest of AMSTRAD's unique, quite obscure and slightly paranoid products included the PenPad PDA, the portable PPCs and some satellite phones. Nowadays, they seem more interested in coming up with em@il-phones, a variety of sound-systems and decent digital satellite receivers. Not that exciting really...

Well, that's all. The rest you've got to find out for yourselves, I'm afraid.

But... Oh no! Look! More web-resources!

Related at Gnome's Lair : OXO; the first video game ever, Mario's complete gameography, the USSR home computer, Buy a Dreamcast

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  1. hats off (revealing bald spot) to a most well written and entertaining overview of Amstrad. Some inspiring links and indeed thank your for leaving me with the sweet flavor of yore..... ahh such a heady scent....

    (puts hat back on before anyone else arrives)

  2. Alan Sugar is best known now for "You're fired!", the catchphrase from his TV show The Apprentice. I can remember those heady days when his cheap PC's really were something.

    I used to have a PCW8256 myself. My dad gave it to me when he ugraded to an IBM compatible with- gasp!- a 4 MB hard disc and an 8 MHz processor with a button you could press to double up to 16 MHz. And this back in the days when 5 1/4" floppy drives were still fitted.

    I got that machine off my dad later too, but I never made as much use of it as I did of the Amstrad. And I upgraded to a real PC soon enough anyway. ;)

  3. Mr Elderly: Glad you enjoyed the scents and links... They were specially crafted with the elderly in mind.. Now, wear the fancy hat, and we're off to the carnival.

    John: You actually had a PCW! Impressive! All we had here were the CPC and PC series, thankfully including the MegaCD... On a side note, I still have a 5,25 disk drive connected to my PC.

    The Apprentice... I think I've heard something about this, but guess I'll have to google my way to more details.


  4. woo! Great post there Gnome. I used to have a CPC464 complete with the Burnin' Rubber/BASIC cartridge! I also had that Roland game: I fucking hated Roland. And still do. Grrr...

    Oh, check out Switchblade for the 464. Top game.

  5. Burnin' Rubber was a pretty decent racer. And Switchblade... a fantastic game, you're right.

    Cheers for the comment Tom..

    Oh, and John, It seems like the PCW was also available here!

  6. (puts on carnival hat)

    now i just look stupid!!!

  7. Of course you don't! It's a great hat. Colourfull too! What else could you ask for?

  8. (hands three large leather bound volumes of "things i want before i die" to gnome)


  9. Great post there. Minor correction - Sir Alan bought the rights to the Sinclair Spectrum in 1986 as it was all going horribly, horribly wrong for Sir Clive thanks to the wonderful (yet hideously expensive) Spectrum +128k.

    I always thought the Amstrad was the worst of the 3 common 8-bits (Speccy, C64 and CPC), but later found out that this was mostly due to the fact that Amstrad software tended to be ports of Speccy equivalents. Of course the Oliver Twins (of Dizzy fame no less) used the Amstrad to code for the spectrum, allowing them to churn out code at a rate of knots when other programmers were getting rubber key fingers.

    I remember the GX4000, it came with Burning Rubber and as far as I remember it only ever had 40 games made for it, most of which were cartridge conversions of full price or budget cassette games.

    I also used to use a PCW1640, as well as an 8256 and later an 8512. God they were shite.

  10. Mr. Elderly: Are they in alphabetical order? Should I start with the "Angelina" thingy?

    (at least I got a cousin working for Santa)

    Steve: Thanks for pointing things out for me my friend and very glad you actually liked the post...Guess Amstrad's PCs weren't really the best. They were cheap though....

    Oh, and the shitty speccie ports had mostly to do with Mr. Sugar's idea of going for the Z80, and the progammers' of yore laziness.


  11. well the angelina chapter does contain my best work....... to date.!

  12. Can't wait to see what your next magnum opus will be then.

  13. (shhh! you've forgotten the leprechaun pron!, winks)

  14. Ah yes!


    let's keep it a secret for now...

    (nods back; in a winking way)

  15. jingle.....jang....jinggel...ging..

  16. Hello, please to meet another retro fan. I'm organizer of Speccy Tour, a Sinclair Spectrum games tournament running since 2001.

    I know you are an Amstrad fan, but may be you'd like to have a look to my blog (http://weblog.speccytour.com) and our site (you have links in the blog). And of course I invite you to take part on the tournament if you like it.

  17. I can't say I don't adore the Speccy... Thanks for the tip


  18. anyone remember a racing game for the 6128 it had a guy with a mohican hair cut on the cover?

  19. Think it must have been Techno Cop gary, thouhg not 100% sure...