Between the mid 80s and early 90s, Amstrad were one of the largest manufacturers of IBM PCs on the market, especially in Europe and Australia. Considered a premium brand at the time, Amstrad lead the way in innovate products that suited specific elements of the market. Near the end of their golden years, Amstrad struggled to compete with their now growing number of competitors. Cheaper, faster, smaller and well, cheaper, Amstrad needed to push themselves out of the ordinary develop something extraordinary, especially for its time.
A product that appealed to both aspects of the PC market, and also revolutionary enough to save their market share. This product was the Amstrad Mega PC.
Developed in 1993, the Amstrad did what no PC had done before – destroy the gap between a gaming console and a desktop computer, providing one compact system that could entertain your kids and run Windows 3.11 at the same time. That’s right folks, this amazing beast actually included a Sega Mega Drive 2, slotted right in front of the box, next to the floppy.
The specs of the PC wouldn’t seem too impressive now, and didn’t really back then either. With a Intel 80386 processor running at a whopping 25mhz, that’s right, MHZ and a single megabyte of RAM, you’d probably have more power in a Nokia 3320. Even back then, this was pretty obsolete on release. Because of the small form factor, the system was very tightly packed, making expansion (to 16mb) possible but difficult.
But I’m sure you’re more interested in how they managed to retool a Genesis inside a PC. Slotted onto the left side of the case is a very large ISA card, containing everything that made a Mega Drive tick. Graphics, Sound and Processor, with a small ribbon cable linked to the motherboard for power. This card then connected to a cartridge port on the front of the PC, as well as two controller ports, reset button and sound control.
The monitor was a simple 14′ CRT, but interestingly enough for the time, actually included stereo speakers. In a bit of innovative engineering, two of the spare, unused pins on the VGA cable were used to carry sound from the PC to the monitor, allowing almost perfect (if not a little off) audio for your Sonic needs.
So how did it work?
On the front of the PC was a sliding panel, which at one time, would cover either the Mega Drive port or the floppy drive. Depending on which was covered, the picture would flip between either the PC or Mega Drive. Unfortunately, while both could run at the same time, it wasn’t possible to split the screen. But you could, say, work on an essay then flip over for some Shinobi on a break.
The most unfortunate part of this meeting of PC and console, was that both were completely independent of each other. The console cannot interface with the PC and vise-versa, removing any possibility of using the device as a development kit. This was especially amplified by the fact that only one part of the system can be active at once time. You physically can’t have a cartridge in the slot and have the floppy port active, which in turn would turn on the PC.
For such an epic crossover of worlds, that the Amstrad would have sold like hotcakes. But, alas, there were a few minor problems that prevented the device from taking off and becoming the solution to the epic problem. The first, unsurprisingly, was price. The Amstrad debuted in the UK for the astronomical price of £999. That’s right, a thousand pounds. For you Americans, that’s about $2783 in todays money.
Back then, it was still ridiculous. You could get both a Mega Drive and probably a more powerful PC for less, and while it wasn’t all in one, many people back then didn’t see the need, especially when PC’s were not commonly used for playing games. The other was usability. In ’93, game consoles were for kids, and PC’s were for adults. Combining the two only appealed to families who wanted a single entertainment and work device, but in most cases, it was unlikely that Dad would allow his kids to use his business PC for gaming.
Also It had only a limited release in the UK and Australia, making its number very limited and almost completely non-existent outside of the PAL territories.
In any case, like any other concept product that actually makes its way to the market, we must thank the people who developed it. For it’s time, the Amstrad was a revolution, one that still has yet to be replicated to this day. Multi-platform titles have, granted, removed the need for an all in one device, and companies like Microsoft have started to bridge the gap with Games for Windows Live, putting the option for duplicated controls in their PC ports.
But we still may yet still meet the day where the console of the day can be slotted into a PC like a new hard drive, working in tandem like a two people on a bicycle. The console is completely self-sufficient of the PC, and only utilizes the speakers and display.
I did manage to get my hands on one of these ultra-rare beauties, and for a retro-fan like myself, its honestly bliss to be able to use one. So, for the pleasure of Gamer Limit readers and the rest of the Interweb, I’ve made a small video feature supplement of the Mega PC in action. Note: Due to age, the picture has become slightly mangled. Please ignore this and be thankful the 16 year old beast actually turns on. Please excuse the video quality too!
[flv:http://videos.gamerlimit.com/jimmypc.flv 512 384]