Updated: Feb 26, 2021
In the last article, we looked at gaming on the Commodore C64 8-bit home microcomputer. Earlier in the series, we looked at the 8-bit Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Although these were extraordinarily successful, they did not have the 8-bit micro market to themselves for long. In 1984 a self-made millionaire decided he wanted his company to own a slice of the 8-bit pie. That self-made millionaire was Sir Alan Sugar, his company was Amstrad and the computer was the CPC 464. This is its story.
Amstrad – short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading – was founded back in the 1960s. The company soon made a name for itself in the consumer electronics market, providing low-cost and easy to use Hi-Fi systems, TVs and in-car stereo tape decks. By the 1980s Amstrad was trading publicly on the London Stock Exchange and was seeing significant growth. Sugar saw the success of the C64 and ZX Spectrum in his native Britain and deduced (correctly) that there was room in the market for another competitor, and that huge profits could be made.
When designing the CPC 464 Sugar’s instructions to the designers was that it should be as simple and intuitive to use as possible. The intention behind this was to create a computer that everyone could use, not just the technologically savvy. This decision informed much of the CPC 464’s all-in-one form factor and internal hardware.
It was also designed to be affordable, with introductory prices of £199 with the monochrome green monitor, and £299 with the colour monitor.
This philosophy and price point proved a resounding success in the UK and Europe. In the UK it was the third best-selling micro after the ZX Spectrum and C64. In Germany, Spain and especially France it was even more successful - in part due to TV adverts such as the one below.
Amstrad CPC advert (French)
Those cheeky crocs...
Video by Zik Zak
Amstrad wisely decided not to attempt to ‘break America’, realising that the 8-bit micro market was not as successful there. Globally however the CPC was a resounding success, selling some two million units.
The CPC is notably longer than the other 8-bit microcomputers. This was in part due to the inclusion of an integrated tape deck. This was in-keeping with Sugar’s vision of an easy to use all-in-one computer.
Incidentally, this is likely why the post-Amstrad buyout ZX Spectrum 128K +2 and +3 featured integral tape decks and disc drives.
The CPC’s length was also due to its full keyboard, complete with number pad and cursor keys – keyboard elements that both the C64 and ZX Spectrum lacked.
The decision to include cursor keys was allegedly made so that the cursor could move around the home screen, as this is what felt natural. He suspected customers had found the inability to do this on the C64 and ZX Spectrum counterintuitive and frustrating. Considering all computers and keyboards now possess cursor keys as standard it is safe to say he was correct in his assessment.
The location of the cursor keys was a little awkward however, being near the ‘top’ of the keyboard, above the number pad. Still, it was a start, and the keyboards of later iterations of the CPC line would migrate the cursor keys to their now standard location.
One of the alleged reasons for including a full keyboard was Sugar’s desire for the CPC 464 to “look like a proper computer like you would see at an airport when checking in.”
The CPC featured the 9-pin joystick port which was standard across all the 8-bit micros and an expansion port for external ROMS.
One thing the CPC lacked, however, was the ports for connecting to a standard TV. Sugar felt that having to mess around with connecting the computer to a TV would be a hassle for less-tech savvy customers. Therefore, the decision was made to ship the CPC 464 with a bespoke monitor, either the economy green and black screen or the full-colour display.
This removed much of the hassle of connecting a computer to a display and arguably resulted in a sharper image. It also meant that someone could use the computer whilst someone else was watching the TV. In an era when most homes possessed only one television set (at least in the UK and Europe), this may have been a significant selling point.
Hitting the market several years after the ZX Spectrum and C64 allowed the CPC to incorporate the best elements of both.
The CPC used the same 4 MHz Z80 CPU as the ZX Spectrum, giving it a significant clock speed advantage over the C64.
Its 64K of RAM matched that of the C64 and overmatched the ZX Spectrum’s 16K to 48K RAM.
What’s more, the CPC 464 featured a 27-colour pallet, which was about one-and-a-half times as many colours as the 16-colour palettes of the C64 or ZX Spectrum. The colours in the CPC’s palette were significantly more vibrant than the muted tones of the C64’s.
Similar to the C64 The Amstrad CPC 464 had multiple colour modes running at different resolutions. This allowed developers the flexibility to choose the colours and resolutions most suitable for their game. The two most commonly used for video games were modes ‘0’ and ‘1’.
Mode 0 had a resolution of 160 x 200 and allowed 16 colours on screen at once.
Mode 1 had a resolution of 320 x 200 but allowed only four on-screen colours at once.
Mode 0 games tended to be far more colourful but with ‘chunky’ pixels. Mode 1 games lacked the colours of Mode Zero games but compensated for this by their less pixelated look. Gamers were sometimes in disagreement as to which mode they preferred. The videos below illustrate the differences in graphics modes well so you can judge for yourself.
Turrican Amstrad CPC – Mode 0: 16 colours – 160 x 200 resolution
Video by Amstrad Maniaque
Flying Shark Amstrad CPC – Mode 1: 4 colours – 320 x 200 resolution
The extra colours make seeing the enemy’s bullets far easier on the CPC version of Flying Shark than on the ZX Spectrum’s
As with the other 8-bit micros, programmers and artists were keen to show off what they could do with the hardware. This inevitably led to a flourishing ‘Demo scene’, which enthusiasts are still creating demos for in the 21st century.
Batman Forever - Amstrad CPC Demo (2011)
Video by BG Prods
Sound for the CPC 464 was provided by the 3-voice General Instruments AY-3-8910 Sound Chip. This enabled sound similar to the C64, and well in advance of the ZX Spectrum. Video game music composers were able to put this to good use, as you can hear in the video below.
Best Amstrad CPC Music
Video by Classic Replay
As with most computers at the time, the Amstrad featured a 9-pin joystick port. This made it compatible with the vast majority of joysticks such as the Quickshot range, the Cheetah 125+ and the Competition Pro.
The CPC was also compatible with the AMX Mouse, which connected via the joystick port. Its design was a far cry from the ergonomic curves we see and feel today.
Due to it plugging in via the joystick port, it could, in theory, be used to play any game which supported a joystick. The results of playing games with a mouse that were designed for a joystick might have been ‘interesting’. Imagine playing R-Type or Turrican with a mouse?
(I couldn't find a higher resolution image, sorry)
Video by Retro Gaming TV
Later Amstrad CPC Models
Keen to capitalise on every gap in the market, Amstrad added several newer models to the CPC line.
In May of 1985, Amstrad released the CPC 664. It featured a new ergonomic keyboard and an internal 3-inch disc drive (The same disc drive as the ZX Spectrum 128K +3). It also featured redesigned cursor keys and a less psychedelic colour scheme for the keyboard in general. Its production run was short-lived, however, as it was replaced six months later by the CPC 6128
In August of 1985, Amstrad released the CPC 6128. This featured both an internal 3-inch disc drive and 128K of RAM. Unlike earlier CPC computers it was released in America and was marketed towards business users as opposed to home users and gamers. As such its impact on the home gaming scene was limited. Note in the image below it says ‘Schneider’ not Amstrad. CPCs were manufactured under licence in Europe by various companies which used their own branding.
464 Plus and 6128 Plus
By the time the 1990s came around the CPC was starting to look dated. Redesigned models called the 464 plus and 6128 plus were released with the aim of reinvigorating Amstrad sales. The new look resembled the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST; however, their internal hardware remained the same as the 8-bit 464 and 6128. Due to this drawback, they were not particularly successful. Incidentally, Commodore attempted to do something similar with the C64C, which met with a similarly lukewarm response.
In 1990 Amstrad attempted to enter the console market with the Amstrad GX4000.
Similar to Commodore’s C64GS, the GX4000 was essentially a ‘consoleised’ version of the CPC 6128 plus with a cartridge port in place of a disc drive. And just like the C64GS, it was a commercial failure.
Other than faster loading times the GX4000 offered little in the way of enhancements over its tape-based microcomputer ancestors. Games for the GX4000 were largely the same as on earlier Amstrads, but due to being based on carts, they were considerably more expensive to buy - roughly £25 on a cart compared to around £3.99 on tape.
What’s more, the GX4000 was marketed as an 8-bit machine when 16-bit computers - such as the Amiga and Atari ST - and the 16-bit SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis console were all available. As such interest from the public was low, and support from software companies was also in short supply. The system was discontinued in 1991, and Amstrad would bow out of the microcomputer gaming scene soon after.
And that concludes our look at the hardware and audio-visual chops of the Amstrad CPC 464 and its descendants. In the next article, we will investigate its popular - and still thriving - gaming scene. See you all then.
What are your thoughts on the Amstrad CPC 464? Did you own one, one of its European counterparts or one of its descendants? Did you ever own, see or play on a GX4000? What did you like about it, and what did you not?
What are your thoughts about the CPC’s graphics modes? Do you prefer the sharper resolution of mode 1 or the added colour of mode 0?
Feel free to put your answers, or indeed any other comments you would like to share, in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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