At the dawn of the 90s, Commodore had a vision. Well, truth be told, Commodore had a lot of visions but the one we’re looking at today was one that was going to revolutionize the consumer market. This is the History of the Commodore CDTV and how it failed to change the market or, well, even to make a dent in consumer history at all.
The idea was centered around the new digital medium of the compact disc and how Commodore’s previous computer, the Amiga, would interact with it. The company’s original vision was called the Commodore Dynamic Total Vision.This was a unit one would hook up directly to the television and would function as the big entertainment center for the whole family.
In reality, inside the CDTV there was an Amiga providing only the basic functions of playing games and multimedia programs on CDs. First announced in 1990 at that summer’s CES, with an announcement release of Christmas 90, it was instead released the following year in both the UK and US. Bundled with a remote control and two titles, it retailed at around 999$ (today’s 2100 dollars, more or less).
Commodore’s vision for the CDTV (later rebranded as the much easier to swallow “Compact Disc Television”) was one of a unit that would sit in the main room in the house, to be used by kids and adults alike. It would play also music CDs, so it would also function as a stereo and an entertainment center for the whole family. There was one thing Commodore wanted to be absolutely sure of: the CDTV should not ever be described as being “an Amiga with a CD player attached to it”, even though that was basically what it was.
That was also the reason why the unit was being sold with a single remote control, along with being styled very much like many other entertainment appliances of the early 90s. It did not need to look like a computer, it could be perfectly at home sitting next to Dad’s VHS player. Despite being often heralded today as a “total failure”, the unit was solid and could be described today as being pretty ahead of the times.
Commodore wanted the unit to be marketed as a completely distinct product from their successful brand of home computers. But there were several problems with the company’s ambitious plans for its CDTV. In 1990, most software developers had not yet figured out what to do with CDs. Even worse, consumers were still at all familiar with this new and strange medium. It came at a wrong time, finding itself sandwiched between an audience who wasn’t sure about spending a thousand bucks for something unfamiliar and developers being unable to make use of it.
Despite Commodore’s slashing the price down (and even discounting £200 if one traded in an Amiga), the CDTV sold something around less than 100k units worldwide. The exact number of units sold is not exactly easy to discern, some say 50k, others closer to 75k. The marketing just wasn’t sure of how to sell it, especially because of the lack of actual exclusive and interesting titles. Still, for the time, and for being something that is usually described as an abject failure, 50k would not be a terribly small number. Perhaps, it would not be entirely correct to describe the CDTV as a failure just on the basis of its not stellar sales numbers.
CDTV Welcome Tour
The unit was also never officially discontinued, but the moment Commodore released a CD add-on for the Amiga (the A570, in 1992) that was basically the death knell for the “media entertainment unit”. We can place the death of the unit around 1993. But still, I would guess no one in 1992 would think it made sense to buy a more expensive version of an Amiga 500 that could actually do less than an ordinary A500.
The CDTV, as we mentioned, was sold with no keyboard, floppy units or mouse. In 1992/3 many units, for example, several units of the CDTV were being sold by Italian editor Giunti. The company would bundle the units together with multimedia encyclopedias. It had a similar arc to that of the CDi, when it failed to be a gaming unit, they tried to sell it off as a educational tool for the whole family.
I would say the failure of the CDTV was more on the side of promising things that it would (or could) never manage to deliver. While it was possible to transform it into an actual computer by buying Commodore’s accessories (a wireless mouse and a keyboard, for example) the cost would still be basically double to that of an average Amiga 500 which already came with these peripherals.
The amount of titles listed in magazines and promo leaflets as to be “upcoming” for the platform was quite plentiful. In the end, only one out of three was actually released. The rest were either quietly canceled or simply released later on the Commodore CD32, which is actually fairly retrocompatible. Most of the small CDTV library of titles seem to work pretty much effortlessly on the latter platform.
The Commodore CDTV launch games and exclusives
Let’s take a look at the titles that Commodore promised would launch alongside the unit and check of many of those did actually see the light of day. Originally, it is not surprising to find out that most of the planned titles for the CDTV’s launch were simple revamped versions of games already available on the Amiga (or other platforms).
In many cases, these games seemed to be basically identical to their “inferior” counterpart. These types of titles would include the likes of Battlestorm and Wrath of the Demon. For example, Xenon 2 is identical to its Amiga version, just with CD music added. The CDTV version of Defender of the Crown adds speech here and there, but it is otherwise identical to the diskette version.
Lemmings on the CDTV is also basically identical to its Amiga counterpart, but there is something interesting in its CD. The disc contains the Planetside demo, a title in development by Psygnosis which was going to be one of the few real CDTV exclusives. Planetside was supposed to have a full on 3D engine that looked quite promising but never got past the early development stage. While Psygnosis did not intend to abandon the game, the poor sales of the CDTV and different company plans, meant that the engine of Planetside was chopped up, with pieces used in later titles published by the company, such as Microcosm.
With Lemmings out of the way, there are basically only four more launch CDTV titles to look at, two of which were undoubtedly the cream of the crop. F-16 Falcon was the sort of “ultimate” version of one of the best flight simulators already available on the Amiga, with updated graphics, mission packs and added intro movies and CD music. It is one of the best experiences of the genre on the Amiga, for sure.
Finally, on the side of games that were already available elsewhere, Sim City on the CDTV is also one of the best versions of the Maxis classic that one could find in 1990. It adds more graphical detail to the diskette version, plus it comes with all of the already available expansion packs.
But again, these were still deluxe versions of several year old games (Defender of the Crown was five years old!) that were already available. What about 100% exclusives? Well, the Commodore CDTV did launch with two exclusive titles, both of which were being developed by UK studio On-line systems, run by Clement Chambers. Having spoken with him, he did mention how they ended up being the only developers who had actually finished their games in time for the launch of the CDTV.
Therefore Commodore had no other choice than to follow through and market their games, despite coming from a studio that no one was really familiar with. These were games made on the cheap, on an unfamiliar format so, naturally, they are often remembered to be terrible.
The two exclusive launch games were Psycho Killer and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The first is probably the more interesting of the two, being a sort of FMV point and click adventure, before they were even a thing. As a first attempt at the genre it is rather clunky, repetitive and there’s a game over waiting just around the corner.
You are on the trail of a crazy machete wielding maniac loose in the park, catch him and the game is over. The average gameplay clocks in at around twenty minutes. It was shot with a camera held by writer and designer Fergus McNeill, who also brought the machete. As Chambers himself remembered recently “it is a wonder he didn’t get arrested!”. Apparently, a sequel was fully shot, but the game never reached the development stage, since the CDTV was already on its deathbed.
The second CDTV launch title developed by On-line Entertainment was The Hound of the Baskervilles. As the name does suggest, it is a Sherlock Holmes adventure game based on the well known detective story. But instead of having the player work to track down clues, it is just the book recreated in a format which is difficult to read and interact with.
The player is just supposed to peruse all the different letters and clues from the book and pierce the story back together. It definitely “plays” closer to a board game, rather than an interactive video game. Not really the interactive next generation CD experience one would imagine, even though it makes clever use of black and white photography.
There is one final launch game to be mentioned, Classic Board Games by Merit Software, an okay collection of backgammon, checkers and chess. Beyond its launch titles, while the CDTV does have a selection of interesting and overall decent games. It simply does not really have exclusives worthy of note for any players.
One of the few exclusives, which was at one point in development by Electronic Arts, was the solid The Labyrinth of Time. In the end, the company ordered the developers to finish the PC port first, so it also missed being a CDTV exclusive even for a short time.
Labyrinth of Time (PC)
As mentioned, the real death of the platform was Commodore’s own decision not to support the unit anymore, with many of the planned games (and exclusives) ending up on the cutting floor. Some of those games ended up simply being released on diskette on Amiga/CD32 or, well, not at all, like in the case of Planetside
In the end, the history of the Commodore CDTV is one that needs to be slightly rectified. It wasn’t an overall failure, bur rather an interesting and unique platform, which came out at the wrong time, trying to find an audience that just wasn’t there yet and fell victim to not enough marketing and exclusive titles. Unfortunately, it would only be the first of several other failures by Commodore in the 90s.