Posts in category typography

ZX-Origins - free 8-bit fonts for games

I started designing fonts around 1987 on an 8-bit Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Many years later, my involvement in the Spectrum emulation scene led aul Dunn to ask me if I could provide fonts for his excellent BASIN Sinclair BASIC for Windows. My interest in 8x8 fonts was suitably rekindled, and I ended up delivering about 60 - some even extracted from my original +3 disk images.

I wanted to get these fonts online earlier! Raw 7698-byte files, however, are only of use to BASIN users or those suitably familiar with the convoluted process and tools to get them into a Spectrum or emulator. Even trying to use them on Windows was a pain given that TrueType only cares about scalable fonts (SBIT embedded bitmaps are rare these days).

Fellow typographer and Spectrum fan Paul van der Laan gave me some tips for pixel-perfect TrueType fonts at specific multiples (8px on Windows). Armed with this knowledge, I put together an automated pipeline using a modified version of John Elliot’s psftools which converts the original ZX font to PSF and then to BDF. Converting to TrueType TTF involved FontLab 5 Studio and some Python scripting while other conversions required some off-the-shelf tools and a bunch of custom ones all tied together with bash scripts.

It’s impossible to get a real feel for a font from a simple run of letters. To alleviate this, I created code that re-renders hand-picked game screenshots to show them in real-world scenarios. If your browser supports HTML5 canvas, you’ll see these. You can also drag any raw 768-byte Spectrum font file such as those created by BASIN to any of my ZX-Origins pages to see your font rendered with these samples.

The uploads are now mostly complete - there are 78 typefaces and well over 120 actual fonts once you include the variations, styles, and weights that some typefaces have. This number may increase from time to time if, and when, I finish off fonts in my _incomplete folder, resurrect some abandoned ones (sorry Unwanted Attention), or get inspired for something entirely new.

So without further ado, head over to ZX Origins and grab a font or two for your latest 8-bit retro game!

Typography in bits: For a few pixels more

It’s been a while since I visited the bitmap fonts of old computers (see the bottom of the post for links), there are still some to evaluate!

There are subtle variations here as machines often used an off-the-shelf video chip and then made a few tweaks or had them slightly customized.

TRS-80 Color Computer & Dragon – custom MC6847 (1982)

TRS-80 system font

The initial model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – affectionately known as CoCo – as well as the UK’s Dragon 32 & 64 computers, used the Motorola MC6847 character generator, and so used the same embedded font.

Unusual characteristics

  • No lower-case
  • Serifs on B&D
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Asterisk is a diamond!
  • Square ‘O’
  • Cute ‘@’
  • Thin ‘0?’
  • Tight counter on ‘4’
  • Unjoined strokes on ‘#’

Rationale

The font has some rough edges although, the softer fuzzier look of a CRT TV almost certainly fuzzed those out like many home computer fonts at the time. The awful dark-green-on-light-green colour scheme wasn’t helping.

Influences

It has similar proportions and glyphs to much of the Apple ][ font but feels like they tried to make the characters more distinguished on low-quality TV’s hence the serifs on B & D and the differentiation between 0 and O.

Technical notes

Motorola offered custom versions of this ROM so, it would have been entirely possible to have an alternative character set.

TRS-80 Color Computer v2+ (1985)

TRS-80 v2+ system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Serifs on B&D, over-extended 7 as per v1
  • Ugly ‘@’
  • Very soft center bar on ‘3’
  • Tight counter on ‘4’
  • Tight top of ‘f’

Rationale

Generally, this font is much-improved over v1. It fixes oddities with the asterisk, O, 0, 3, 4, S, ?, and #, as well as straightening the slashes. It reduces the boldness of comma, colon, semi-colon, and apostrophe. Unfortunately, the @ and 3 are worse than the previous version.

Influences

Based on the previous model, however, lower-case does have some resemblance to Apple and MSX. This font may be a custom version as the spec sheet for the T1 variant has bold versions of ,;:.’ glyphs, shorter descenders on y and g, more curvature on p and q, more pronounced curves on 369, tighter t, semi-broken #.

Technical notes

You can identify CoCo2 models featuring the lower-case as they print Tandy on the screen rather than TRS-80.

Tatung Einstein (1984)

Tatung Einstein system font

The Tatung Einstein TC-01 was a British Z80 based machine launched in the UK that never really took off with the public. It enjoyed some success in game development as a compiler and debugger for other, more popular, Z80 systems. This use was likely due to its CP/M compatible OS and disk system (it came with the same oddball 3″ disks used on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 and Amstrad CPC/PCW range)</a>.

Unusual characteristics

  • Odd missing pixels on ‘9S’
  • Little flourishes on ‘aq’
  • Massively tall ‘*’
  • Chunky joins on ‘Kv’
  • High counters and bowls on ‘gpqy’

Rationale

Given the 40 column mode, the generous spacing in 32 column mode makes sense, and the font isn’t too bad. Many of the unusual negative characteristics would be lost on a CRT.

Influences

It feels like the Sinclair Spectrum font with some horizontal width sacrifices.

Commodore 128 (1985)

Commodore 128 80-column font

While the follow-up to the Commodore 64 used the exact same font at boot – it had the same VIC-II video chip – switching it into 80-column mode reveals a new font with double-height pixels powered by the MOS 8563 VDC.

Unusual characteristics

  • ‘£’ aligned left not right, thin strokes
  • ‘Q’ fails to take advantage of descender
  • Cluttered redundant stroke on ‘7’
  • Rounded ‘<>’

Rationale

A nice font that probably looked great on any monitor at the time, although TV’s probably struggled to display detail with such fine verticals on some letters.

Influences

Technical

Switching to 80 column mode could be achieved by using the keyboard or the GRAPHIC 5 command.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (TMS9918) (1985)

TI-99/4A system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Lower case is small caps
  • Serifs on ‘BD’
  • Square ‘O’
  • Poor slope on ‘N’
  • Bar very tight on ‘G’

Rationale

The lower-case small-caps feel quite awful and appear to be an attempt to avoid having to deal with descenders. Other fonts brought the bowl up a line. Descenders look a little off, although some machines like the Sinclair QL just left space for them.

Influences

Based on the previous model, however, lower-case does have some resemblance to Apple and MSX.

Oric Atmos (1983)

Oric Atmos system font

The follow-up v2 model of the TRS 80 Color Computer – also known as the Tandy Color Computer used an enhanced Motorola MC6847T1 variant.

Unusual characteristics

  • Bold ‘{}’
  • Vertical line on ‘^’
  • Awkward horizontal stroke on ‘k’
  • Square ‘mw’

Rationale

Not a terrible choice, although I suspect cheaper TV’s would struggle with the non-bold and tight spacing. The high-contrast black-and-white colour scheme helps mitigate this.

Influences

A complete copy of the Apple ][ system font with only a few tweaks to remove over-extension of 6 and 9 and un-bolding [ and ] but they forgot { and } weirdly. Additions of ^ and £ don’t quite fit right.

[)amien

Typography in bits: Other English micros

I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up to the popular system fonts posts for some time and recent Hacker News and ArsTechnica traffic reminded me that I’m not the only one nostalgic for chunky pixel fonts of old.

This time I’m focusing on a handful British machines that were much less well known around the globe which – all seem to borrow heavily from other machines!

Sinclair QL (1984)

Sinclair QL system font in medium resolution

The short-lived Sinclair QL was Sir Clive’s attempt at getting into the business market but the corner cutting on the CPU (a Motorola 68008 – the 8-bit data bus version of the 68000) and storage (Microdrives consisting of loops of high-speed tape instead of disc) meant it wasn’t taken seriously. This was a shame as the operating system and software were advanced for its time.

Unusual characteristics

  • True descenders making the font effectively 9 pixels tall
  • Single story lower case ‘a’
  • Over-extended ‘7’
  • Squished lower-case ‘f’
  • Aligns braces and brackets to tightly wrap contents
  • Soft curves on ‘gil’
  • Unusual join on ‘k’

Rationale

A rather tidy condensed font very similar to those used on LCD displays still today. Almost certainly looked good on a monitor although perhaps not using the system default colors shown here. Almost certainly too hard to read on a TV at the time.

Influences

Has similar proportions and characters to much of the Apple ][ font but with various visual improvements such as on the 6,9,2,$ etc.

Memotech MTX512 (1984)

Memotech MTX512 system font in low resolution

Memotech were a peripheral maker who decided to get in on the action and produce their own machine in the 1984-1985 period that saw a lot of machines and failures. Despite some good specifications it never made a dent and its claim to fame being the computer in the movie Weird Science.

Unusual characteristics

  • Some quirky decisions especially in lower-case
  • Awful character alignment especially on ‘q’
  • Uneven descenders on ‘gy’
  • Mismatched ‘.,;:’
  • Weird serifs on ‘adu’

Rationale

This quirky font doesn’t look okay on low-quality TVs of the time with oddities lost in the blur. On sharper displays, it looks amateur and unfinished.

Influences

Despite some similarities in the upper-case to the Apple ][ font it doesn’t take many cues from anywhere else.

Amstrad PCW (1985)

Amstrad PCW system font in high resolution

Alan Sugar’s Amstrad didn’t waste any time after the CPC in going after the business market with a range of cheap machines for word processing and other general tasks. In the UK these machines could be found everywhere either paired up with Amstrad’s own daisywheel or dot-matrix printers.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)
  • Distinctive curves on ‘CGOQ’
  • ‘X’ looks like a different style because of high mid-point

Rationale

These machines came with their own monochrome monitors and were high resolution for consumers at the time. The font is not a bad choice and did allow for 90 columns of text but smarter alternatives existed in word processing programs such as Locoscript.

Influences

An almost direct copy of the Amstrad CPC font disguised by the double-height pixels. Actual changes are the 0 taking on the more oval shape, O and Q taking on the boxier shape and the apostrophe losing its slant.

The PCW was not alone in using an existing 8×8 font in a double-height manner. The Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, and Acorn Archimedes all used the same trick.

Acorn Archimedes/A series (1987)

Acorn Archimedes using double-height pixels

Acorn’s successor to the BBC Micro was a lovely piece of hardware with an all-new 32-bit RISC processor they developed dubbed ARM. While it did well in Acorn’s entrenched education markets it never found a foothold anywhere else. After various models they canceled their upcoming Phoebe workstation (yes, named after the Friends character) and would concentrate on thin-clients before abandoning that and focusing purely on processor design where they had immense success. The ARM design now powers almost all the smart phones on the market today.

Unusual characteristics

  • Pixels were actually rectangular (simulated here by doubling the vertical size)

Rationale

These machines came with Acorn’s color monitors and were capable of running VGA-like resolutions. The GUI on these machines really missed an opportunity here to use a specifically designed font and to add proportional text printing and take on the Mac. Instead, these used a scaled fixed-width font like the Amiga and ST despite being a couple of years late to that party. Proportional fonts were supported later.

Influences

Identical to the BBC font except for ‘^

SAM Coupé (1989)

SAM Coupé in high resolution

MGT were a third-party producer of expansion products for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum who bet their company on a Spectrum successor using VLSI technology that would ‘rival an Amiga’ at a fraction of the price. While the machine was impressive by 8-bit standards when it finally arrived somewhat late and more expensive than originally touted it failed to make a dent as the market went to the 16-bit machines and it took MGT down with it.

Unusual characteristics

  • Rather ugly ‘*’ asterisk
  • Inconsistent ‘.,;:’ set
  • Inconsistent ‘ and “

Rationale

A smart font that despite the various inconsistencies looked good on a quality display in both high and low-resolution modes.

Influences

Almost a direct copy of the Sinclair QL font. The upper-case are identical and a most lower case with some exceptions to squeeze the QL’s 9-pixel high font into 8 pixels. This is especially apparent in the over-extended 7, the slashes and the bracket alignments.

[)amien

Typography on the Microsoft Campus

One of the great things about working for Microsoft was the sheer breadth of the company means there are lots of cool and interesting things going on that you can peek into even if it’s not your area. With a few exceptions your Microsoft badge gets you into the whole campus (some of the Xbox studios and the executive floor are exceptions).

As many people know I have a bit of a passion for typography and the Microsoft typography team are a very nice bunch of people happy to humor a crazy enthusiast.

Before I left I paid one final visit to the typography team to snap some cool pics. Here they are, admittedly a couple of years late, with some additional typography-related snaps from elsewhere on campus.

Microsoft Typography

Gabriola rendered in 4 level (2bpp) grey-scale using 1x1x1 LEGO pieces.

Microsoft, Linotype and Hermann Zapf collaborated on Palatino Linotype and these beautiful posters commemorate the occasion.

The old Windows Start button in its pixelated glory alongside the Blue-themed XP replacement presumably rendered in Photoshop.

Poster showing an italic single-story a aliased and then rendered with ClearType.

Lots of lower-case ‘e’ glyphs from various fonts on display in one of the Windows UI buildings.

Simon Daniels on the typography team has his surname in steel cut in Segoe.

The Mac Quadra that Vince Connare used to create the polarizing Comic Sans.

Studios

Microsoft’s XNA has had a bit of a bumpy journey but it does have a very cool logo with some subtle typography.

In our own Shark Tank scrum area we used the time-honored tradition of sticky notes to create pixels for our own sign. Sub-pixels were added later.

Our content management system’s sister team had their own sticky note sign too.

Elsewhere

Even the product fair can’t resist some blocky 8-bit inspired fonts.

Somebody made their own pretty Microsoft logo. Don’t recall where this was…

The counter behind the Microsoft company store is an explosion of typefaces.

Some more

Check out Guerilla pixels via John Berry too.

You can see the full set including a few more shots, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft at Microsoft Campus on Flickr.

[)amien