RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Jan 4th 2000 at 08:00:00 AM by (singlebanana)
Posted under Review, Books, Game Art, Arcade Games, Typography

I thought about doing a top 10 list this year, as I always try to do, but I'm just the latest in a seemingly endless string of writers saying 2020 was unlike any year I've seen in my lifetime. I feel like I have an excuse every year for why I didn't play as many games as I would have liked, but frankly, I feel less apologetic about it this time.

On the bright side, this was a great time to dip into the warm, fuzzy, comfort food of pixel art. I recently came across the book Arcade Game Typography: The Art of Pixel Type and hadn't seen anything like it before. As the name suggests, it highlights early gaming fonts and details the differences from the perspective of someone who is a trained typeface designer. Paging through it was just the kind of happy place I've been going to a lot this year, and I have a feeling it'll spark some interest with this group as well.

As video game art has gotten better since the dawn of 3D graphics, the proliferation of video game art books has grown in kind. In the last decade or so, it was not uncommon to see short, minimal effort books not much bigger than index cards thrown in as pre-order bonuses for triple-A titles. On the other end of the scale, some game art books are epic, coffee table-worthy tomes filled with magnificent displays of everything from poster-quality in-game scenes to high-density concept drawings.

One of the more impressive game art collections I've seen. And it wasn't as expensive as you might think.

Personally though, I've always had a soft spot for the limited but personality-rich pixel art of the 80s and 90s. Several of the art pieces in my home are comprised of pixel graphics from various games of that era, distinct enough to be recognized by those familiar with them, yet tasteful enough (I tell myself, anyway) to be appreciated by those unfamiliar with the games they depict.

One area of pixel graphics that nearly always goes unnoticed, sadly, is typography. When most of us think of fonts, we think of common word processor fonts like Times New Roman, Helvetica, or even goofier ones like Comic Sans and Wingdings. But in the early days of arcade games, the capabilities of the graphics processors and memory capacity made using normal type settings impractical. Just like with the games themselves, limitation bred both creative inspiration as well as nonsensical curiosities.

Ah, good ole Atari font. We know it, we love it.

The author, Toshi Omagari, actually studied typography and typeface design in Tokyo and now works as a typeface designer for a major UK font design firm. As such, he's a perfect person to dissect a font and describe differences in a clear, understandable way. That said, he says in the introductory pages that he wanted to strike a balance between technical jargon and appreciation for the game art itself. For the most part he succeeds, and I found the book both enjoyable as a video game fan, and also was surprisingly fascinated in the nerdy nitty gritty of what makes a certain letter set work better than another.

It's worth noting that Arcade Game Typography narrows its scope to specifically arcade games of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, leaving out home consoles, non-Latin alphabet games, and games from companies like Midway, who favored their own proprietary typesetting to the monospaced norm. Also, Omagari sticks to fonts that adhere to the 8 pixel by 8 pixel format of the time. There were others, but 8x8 was the most common since it was often thought of as the best compromise between size/memory limitations and legibility. "There are a variety of sizes of typeface available in videogames, in different multiples of eight - 8x8, 8x16, or 32x32 - but 8x8 imposes the strictest graphical constraints, making it the most interesting to study," he writes. It sounds like these are heavy restrictions, but even so, Omagari reviewed about 4500 games in researching this subject.

Interestingly, the two-tone font of Food Fight wasn't just to provide shading. Putting darker or lighter pixels in the angled corners was a common early attempt at font anti-aliasing.

The introductory pages provide a detailed context in which to review the hundreds of photographs that are the meat of the book. Each of a handful of chapters is dedicated to a specific style, and within each style are many examples of the variations different companies and games used to make their text distinct or stand out against the backdrop of gameplay. The most common, and recognizable of which is the beloved Atari font, more formally known as Sans Regular. Omagari provides a lot of detail and does his best to go into the origins of many of the fonts, but in many cases a font variant's origins are unclear. The industry has never been good at archiving itself, and due to many Japanese game company staff not being able to use their real names in a game's credits, the original font designers' names are more often than not lost to time.

Even though the history of some of the fonts presented in this book aren't clear, each one is featured with pictures of their complete alphabets (except in cases where a font doesn't include certain letters) and coloring, all within the pixel-grid boundaries in which the designers had to work. Looking at a typeface outside of the game is a unique thing. Sometimes it results in a font that is harsh on the eyes or difficult to read without the game art behind it for contrast. Other times it presents a clearer view of the details of the letters than you could ever get in-game. Occasionally a font is paired with a full picture of the game itself. These pages were some of the most interesting, as I was able to compare the font on its own with the in-game text.

Gotta love that After Burner font. Even with the inconsistency of upper and lowercase letters in the same type set, its cool factor is undeniable, and was a great fit for the frantic game with which it was paired.

There are some parts of this book that can seem dry and boring for someone who isn't a typography geek, but Omagari does a good job of making the descriptions of style differences easy to understand for someone who isn't steeped in font vernacular. It also helps identify failures, such as when font designers did crazy things with letters like 'Q' or 'S'. Even without the technical font jargon though, Arcade Game Typography works as an art showcase for a part of gaming's past that is often overlooked. To be able to read about old fonts and look at them at length outside the context of their respective games is a fun and unique experience. I'm happy to put this book on my shelf next to the other non-fiction gaming reference titles in my collection, and I recommend it for anyone else interested in such things.

The Calligraphy & Lettering section housed some of the more stylized and interesting typefaces used.

If you have any off-the-beaten-path gaming art or reference books you've enjoyed, I'd love to hear about them. Let us know in the comments if you have any you'd like to share.

**Arcade Game Typography: The Art of Pixel Type is available at the publisher's website, or other online book sellers like Amazon**
**Note: All products I review are bought and paid for myself, unless otherwise stated**

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