Game Font Forensics

That's DPaint Comix! I can tell from some of the pixels and from seeing quite a few fonts in my time
"THAT'S DPAINT COMIX! I can tell from some of the pixels and from seeing quite a few fonts in my time"

Unless you're a first time reader, you might have picked up on two recurring topics around these parts: ancient PC games, and ancient bitmap fonts.  Somehow the obvious combination between the two never came up, but as it happens, the twain can meet.  I was recently motivated to tackle a few riddles which had puzzled me for a while, and which happened to involve (are you sitting down for this?) ancient games and their fonts.



Game typography can be talked to death from any number of angles, and you can find entire books on the subject (a while ago I was gifted a copy of Toshi Omagari's Arcade Game Typography, which knocks it right out of the park).  But the nice thing is how font designs can moonlight as evidence for research - they give us hints about the tools used to create the games, reveal unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated games, and generally provide valuable insight into how things were done at the time.

In many cases, what they reveal isn't all that new or interesting.  You could point to hundreds of games just using the BGI fonts that came with Borland compilers, or those included with Deluxe Paint II, Autodesk Animator and other graphics tools.  Some were happy enough with the default video BIOS fonts, and games ported to the PC from other systems (Amiga, Atari ST) occasionally took those machines' system fonts along for the ride.  Things like that can be easy enough to spot, but in some instances, tracing the connections gets a little more complicated.

Beneath Apple Manor (Special Edition) vs. Hard Hat Mack

These two games don't seem to have anything in common whatsoever; different developers, different publishers - but both were released for the IBM PC around the same time, and seem to use an identical font.  In Beneath Apple Manor, the font in question is confined to the title screen, where it spells out "THE SPECIAL EDITION BY Don Worth"; but Hard Hat Mack uses it throughout the game.

Beyond Apple Manor: IBM PC title screen
Beyond Apple Manor: IBM PC title screen
Hard Hat Mack: IBM PC title screen
Hard Hat Mack: IBM PC title screen

Now, I was looking at the IBM PC versions, because that's my wheelhouse; but it doesn't take rocket surgery to figure out that their true origins lie elsewhere.  As its title so subtly implies, Beneath Apple Manor was originally an Apple ][ release.  Even the later Special Edition came out for the Apple first (1982), then for the IBM PC and for Atari's 8-bit series (1983).1

In fact, looking at the PC title screen, the picture only takes up 280 pixels horizontally, out of the 320 available in this CGA mode: that's a rather fat clue that the graphic was created on the Apple and then converted for the IBM, without so much as centering it.

As for Hard Hat Mack, the developer credits for the various releases make it clear that the Apple version came first.  I used to enjoy this game as a kid (much later, I even went through the trouble of patching it to add 16-color composite graphics on CGA),2 but back in those days I was completely unaware of the original Apple game.  At some point, there emerged some pretty convincing evidence that the PC version was machine-translated(!) from 6502 to 8088 code - I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it, since the internet is written in sand, and the details have been lost to link rot.  But that would explain why it feels a bit sluggish compared to the original, and frankly embarrassing next to well-written native 8088 code.  I can only assume that TMQ Software, Inc. couldn't be bothered to optimize the code that their automated converter spewed out.

Anyway, now that we know where to look, here are the Apple ][ title screens for both games.  Not very surprisingly, we find the exact same font cheekily staring back at us:

Beyond Apple Manor: Apple ][ title screen
Beyond Apple Manor: Apple ][ title screen
Hard Hat Mack: Apple ][ title screen
Hard Hat Mack: Apple ][ title screen

Evidently the source of the font must lie somewhere in Apple land, as well.  I can't say I've ever had much experience navigating the primordial soup of very early Apple II graphics programs, but I figured I'd give it a shot.

The Graphics Department

Luckily, the smoking gun was found in very first source I consulted, Apple Graphics: Tools and Techniques by Michael Callery and Roberta Schwartz (PDF link).  It probably has more than you ever wanted to know about the subject, and it's sprinkled with a bunch of very nice pixel art illustrations, but what caught my eye was this simple bar chart on page 261 (in the PDF; the actual book doesn't number it):

Apple Graphics: Tools and Techniques (cover) Apple Graphics: Tools and Techniques (bar chart)

Well, I'll be damned if those chart labels don't look exactly like the lettering in both BAM and HHM.  "Created with The Graphics Department", was it?  I had never heard about that particular piece of software, but helpfully enough there's a section in the book discussiong it, in which we learn that it's a "business and presentation graphics utility" from Sensible Software (not the later British game company), and that among other things, it allows you to "choose lettering from twenty character fonts".

Finding a copy of The Graphics Department was easy enough, and after a bit of disk-shuffling in AppleWin, I was able to have a look at the included 'Lettering Kit'.  As it happens, the suspect typeface is the default "mono" font, and indeed we do have a match.

It's still not precisely 1:1, however: in the program, the character cells appear to be 8 pixels wide, while both games (in their Apple and IBM versions!) use the more Apple-native3 width of 7 pixels.  The "KERN" option lets you increase the character spacing in Department, but apparently you can't reduce it.  Taking a screen grab and tightening up the spacing by 1 dot, the characters fit onto a 7-pixel grid - a better match for what we see in the two games.

The default font in The Graphics Department
The default font in The Graphics Department
The same font, condensed into 7x8 character cells
The same font, condensed into 7x8 character cells

All that's left to do is to compare this to what's actually stored in the game data.  Manor won't help us out here, because the font is baked into the title graphic, and isn't used anywhere else to display actual text.  On the other hand, Hard Hat Mack prints its text at runtime (on the title screen as well as the in-game status display), so it has no choice but to store its charset as an actual font.

Comparisons

The easiest way to exhume this sort of data is to view our binary blob (file or disk image) as one large set of graphical tiles.  If no compression is used, and if you choose the same data format used by the display hardware, there's a good chance you'll ferret out some fonts, among other things.  When we do this for both versions of Hard Hat Mack, we can see what's up:

Hard Hat Mack Apple II font
Hard Hat Mack: Apple II, disk offset 1F707h
HGR format (1bpp/low bit first)
8x8 tiles
Hard Hat Mack IBM PC font
Hard Hat Mack: IBM PC, disk offset 0C1F1h
CGA mode 4 format (2bpp/high bit first)
8x8 tiles (2-byte skip between tiles)

The Apple version's font may be missing the lower case portion, but the part left over is better than what we got from The Graphics Department - TGD's characters are cut off past the 6th dot column, so a bunch of them are visibly missing vertical slices on the right: m, w, #, %, ?, /, \, ] and the apple icon.  If the idea was preventing the characters from sticking together, you could make a case for doing that; but since the program draws its characters on 8 dot boundaries, not 7, that 7th column shouldn't have bothered anyone.

The game data has those characters fully formed, despite the fact that they're never actually used.  That means there was no reason to fix them up by hand, so the developers must've had a better version of the font to start with.  That is, there's either a bug in the version of Department that I found (2.03), or a problem between the chair and the keyboard... or the font really does come from somewhere else after all.

As for the IBM PC conversion - besides the fact that the character order is obviously reversed, we can spot a couple of other changes.  1-dot stretches show up in alternating colors rather than white: whatever tool was used to convert the Apple HGR data to IBM CGA format, it was likely trying to crudely mimic the phenomenon of NTSC color artifacting (that's very roughly what happens to isolated pixels on the Apple; compare to that Graphics Department shot).

The thing is, the subset that's actually used in-game doesn't have those errant colors.  So that was obviously a manual fix, but they went ahead and made a few others too: comma and period are shifted left, "Q" doesn't look like a "0" flipped around anymore, and the "&" has been miracu­lously cured of its crippling disfigure­ment.  Some­what regrettably, the apple icon wasn't replaced by a "Charlie"/"Tramp" hat... contrast with the IBM version of Beneath Apple Manor, where the Golden Apple (the object of your quest) turns out to be something considerably less, uh, fruity.

Flightmare vs. Ninja

Ninja is a fun sort of game if it's 1986 and you own a PC/XT clone (especially a Tandy 1000, which I did not).  Not great-looking next to the arcade/Amiga/Atari ST versions, but having so many different combat moves was a novel thing at the time... even if the novelty may wear off when you realize that spamming a single key combo mows down entire armies of baddies.  And the fact that the devs left a sprite editor in the game itself (by mistake?) gave me one of my first "modding" experiences.

Later I came across an older game, Flightmare ("The Ulti­mate Expe­dition into Horror"): a ghoul­ishly difficult shooter where you wage post-apocalyptic aerial combat against desert warriors, vandals, and "maraudering beatnicks" (!).  On top of the humor, and the original idea of having you control your plane on a top-down and a side view at the same time, the author was skilled enough to squeeze excep­tionally smooth and fast action out of a 4.77-MHz PC.  (It also tries to pull some mightily silly tricks to fool disassem­blers and debuggers, but that's another story.)

Flightmare: title screen
Flightmare: title screen
Ninja: title screen
Ninja: title screen

Again, the two games appear completely unrelated: Flightmare may require ninja reflexes and discipline, but it's a shareware/user-supported game released in 1984 by Peter Adams, for the IBM PC only; while Ninja was a commercial game from Steve Coleman at Sculptured Software, with the IBM PC version written by Bryan Brandenburg ("and Soft Arts", it says here).  So, where did they get the exact same font?

Flightmare: status display
Flightmare: status display

I say "font", but Flightmare in fact has two of them.  The 8x8 charset seen above is used for almost everything, but there's a smaller 4x8 one, which serves to keep track of lives, enemies and time on the status display.  For this purpose the numerals (and colon) are sufficient, and as far as can be seen in the game itself, this is all that's used.

But if we look at the executable's data as tiled graphics in 2bpp CGA format, we find full sets of alpha­numerics for both the large and the small fonts.  Here they look kinda jumbled and junky; we could play around with the offsets and clean things up a bit, but it's usually easier to look at what's actually in RAM while the game is doing its thing.  Running the game, dumping the data segment, and giving it the same treatment gets us tidy renditions of both sets:

Flightmare: FLIGHT.COM offset 1E22h (8x8 tiles)
Flightmare: FLIGHT.COM offset 1E22h (8x8 tiles)
Flightmare: 8x8 font cleaned up
8x8 font in program memory (at DS:2871)
Flightmare: FLIGHT.COM offset 26FAh (4x8 tiles)
Flightmare: FLIGHT.COM offset 26FAh (4x8 tiles)
Flightmare: 4x8 font cleaned up
4x8 font in program memory (at DS:3174)

Apart from the full set of (unused) uppercase letters in the smaller charset, both fonts have a second set of the letters A through F right after the numerals.  That's a neat thing to have when you want to print out hexadecimal values, since you don't have to bother fixing up ASCII codes, so maybe this was used to show debug infor­mation in develop­ment builds or something.

Ninja also has two different fonts, in FONT2.DAT and FONT2B.DAT, but that's because they're intended for different video modes - the one that looks like Flightmare is used in plain CGA (320x200 at 4 colors); the other one is used for the Tandy 1000 mode (160x200 at 16 colors).  This mode trades resolution for bit depth, so the more-detailed CGA font data would have resulted in unsightly artifacts.4

Ninja: FONT2.DAT (CGA)
Ninja: FONT2.DAT (CGA)
Ninja: FONT2B.DAT (Tandy)
Ninja: FONT2B.DAT (Tandy)

So yep, Ninja's CGA font is dot-for-dot identical to Flightmare's, except that the period and comma have disappeared (and the "8" has acquired a bonus pixel at its lower right corner).  The thing is, this .DAT file isn't the only place we can find it: the executable, NN.EXE, has another copy of the CGA font at offset 0346h.

And what greets us just after this redundant copy within Ninja's .EXE file?  Why, zoinks!  It's the small 4x8 font from Flightmare:

Ninja: NN.EXE offset 05EAh (4x8 tiles)
Ninja: NN.EXE offset 05EAh (4x8 tiles)
Ninja: 4x8 font cleaned up
Ninja: 4x8 font cleaned up

Ninja doesn't use this smaller font in any way; it just got dragged along when its larger cousin made the jump from Flightmare.  We of the "size matters" school of thought will be appalled at the waste of space (those two surplus fonts take up over a kilobyte... for shame!) - but that aside, it all smells like something you'd get when the data was sourced from the original developer, not like an unautho­rized rip or something.

So what's the connection?

Peter Adams (author of Flightmare) isn't credited anywhere on Ninja, but MobyGames tells us that the latter's publisher, Sculptured Software, had a Peter Adams as a co-founder along with Bryan Brandenburg (he of Ninja's "IBM version by")... and this 1996 newspaper article lists a few more people.  MG simply has entries for eight different developers who go by some form of the name "Peter Adams"; some of them may very well be the same person, but the author of Flightmare isn't explicitly linked to Sculptured.

Another fact missing on MG is that Adams and Brandenburg did work together on at least one game - the Apple ][ version of Raid Over Moscow.  And just to round out the big happy family, Ninja's designer Steve Coleman shows up in the Atari port of the same game.

Raid Over Moscow: Apple ][ title screen
Raid Over Moscow: Apple ][ title screen
Raid Over Moscow: Atari title screen
Raid Over Moscow: Atari title screen

So it's all a bit convoluted, and those puzzle pieces had to be picked up from all over the place, but I think it checks out.  If I hadn't noticed the identical lettering, I'd never have assumed that there might be a connection between these two games.

You may remain skeptical that the two iterations of Peter Adams (from Flightmare and Sculptured Software) are neces­sarily the very same person.  After all, there were a few others in the industry.  Besides, Sculptured was supposed to be based in Salt Lake City, Utah - while Flightmare's author wants you to send your "monetary thank you card" to him in Livermore, CA.  Then again, Flightmare itself asks you at one point: "WOULD YOU RATHER BE IN UTAH"5... perhaps the programmer was asking himself the same thing?

Poking Around in Pharaoh's Tomb

Pharaoh's Tomb has been the title of several unrelated games over the years, but PC old­skoolers would undoubtedly be thinking of the early Apogee shareware title - and they'd be right.  This was when George Broussard made the jump from el cheapo trivia games to action plat­formers.  Not that a flip-screen CGA/PC speaker game did much to set the world on fire in 1990, but it did a decent job carrying the torch for a genre that had lost some of its commercial appeal by then; and with the 'Apogee model' you got quite a lot of game for not that much money.

Games of this type normally don't get very wordy, so most of them tend to pick a single type­face for their lettering and stick with it.  But Pharaoh's Tomb goes above and beyond the call of duty, and uses four different fonts (not including the one in the title)... sometimes all on the same screen.

Pharaoh's Tomb: title screen
Pharaoh's Tomb: title screen
Ordering infomration: 4 fonts, one screen!
4 fonts on ONE SCREEN? Take my money, Apogee!

With all the lavish attention given to the appearance of text, Broussard still managed to famously mis­spell his own name on the title screen, but that's neither here nor there.  What made me nose around in the game's font usage was a silly little bug that can show up if you run it on EGA/VGA - depending on your system configura­tion.  Most of the text will look just fine, but the numbers (and symbols) on the status bar will be garbled.

Pharaoh's Tomb status bar: right
Pharaoh's Tomb status bar: wrong
Pharaoh's Tomb status bar: right vs. wrong

As some of you may guess, the guilty party here is DISPLAY.SYS - the DOS driver that controls code page selection on the video hardware level, usually used along­side other drivers for localiza­tion.  On EGA or VGA, if you use it to specify a code page, it'll hook the video interrupt (10h) and try to make sure that you always see the character set you selected.  Remove it, and the problem goes away.

Since DISPLAY.SYS relies on trapping the BIOS video service, the only programs affected are those that use the BIOS text rendering rou­tines.  This is what Pharaoh's Tomb does - although as a CGA game, it has to be tricky about it: in CGA graphics modes, only the top ("high-ASCII") half of the charset can be rede­fined.  The usual work­around is to use that for your custom font, and remap your ASCII text to those higher code points before you feed it to the BIOS func­tions.6

The BIOS needs a pointer to the font, which resides at the vector for interrupt 1Fh.  So if we peek at the various addresses that the game puts there, we can get at the raw fonts.  Here the memory dump is treated as 1bpp data, since that's what the BIOS routines use:

Pharaoh's Tomb fonts, dumped from RAM

Pharaoh's Tomb fonts, dumped from RAM

Woah, hold up there, Chief... who's "Donald L. Pavia", and what does he have to do with this game?

If you look up the name, you'll probably find that Donald L. Pavia authored a few share­ware/public domain games in his time; one example is this compilation from 1986, with educational games he wrote for his kids in Turbo Pascal.  And if you try out a few of them, such as Alphabet Games from that pack, you'll actually spot one or two of these lettering styles here and there.

You might suspect that the fonts were summarily ripped from one of those games and stuffed into Pharaoh's Tomb... and with the original author's name and address still intact, that would certainly be the more hilarious prospect.  But none of Pavia's games contain the full selection of characters and styles we see in PT, and what's there is already part of a static image, so the fonts themselves must've come from somewhere else.

Turbo Paint and NewFonts

One of those games did have a clue in its README file - it mentioned that the title graphic was created with something called TURBO PAINT, another program by Pavia.  Turbo Paint 2.0 can be found here, and turns out to be a decent share­ware alter­native to PC Paint and the likes: a mouse-driven paint program, written in Turbo Pascal again.  The docs say that it's been tested on the PCjr, and on EGA cards, but it can only do 4-color CGA.

The text tool has some built-in fonts you can use, and whaddya know - those 8x8 character styles sure ring a bell:

Turbo Paint 2.0: title screen
Turbo Paint 2.0: title screen
Turbo Paint 2.0: font selection demo image
Turbo Paint 2.0: font selection demo image

Just like in Pharaoh's Tomb, these fonts are upper­case-only, and the 'Fat' and 'Thin' ones are 100% identical to what Broussard ended up using... but those two other fonts from PT are still not accounted for.  One of them does look like Turbo Paint's 'Gothic' font, but it has those hollow vertical strokes filled in; and the other one (with the small caps) there's no sign of.

Hold on though: Turbo Paint's documentation tells you that you can load your own font files, and refers you to the author's own font editor, "NewFonts­.com".  Is that program included on the disk, you may ask?  But of course it isn't - that'd be too easy.  Pavia doesn't tell us where to get it, either, so our little archeolog­ical expedi­tion isn't over just yet.  If PT's protagonist Nevada Smith ever stars in another game, he should definitely go digging through old software libraries and BBS lists.

'NewFonts' finally turned up in the PC-SIG shareware library on disk 0484.7  It's a fairly straight­forward editor, made for the specific use-case of creating 8x8 fonts for CGA graphics mode, to be used with the BIOS routines via the above-mentioned "high-ASCII" trick.

NewFonts: title screen
NewFonts: title screen
Turbo Paint 2.0: NewFonts: editor
NewFonts: editor

The disk also has some demo programs showing usage examples, a few source files to help out, and even some code to access 16-color PCjr graphics and CGA's 'lo-res' 160x100 pseudo-mode from TP (you can use your custom fonts in these modes, too!).  But we're looking for fonts - and there are no less than 19 .FNT files inc­luded.  Here are five of them:

NewFonts sample font 3
NewFonts sample font 4
NewFonts sample font 5
NewFonts sample font 6
NewFonts sample font 7
NewFonts: some samples

Sure enough, that's pretty much exactly what we saw in the Pharaoh's Tomb RAM dump, complete with the author's contact info.  The game just moves some code points around, and adds those little icons for the status bar.  Even the fancy Greek-patterned frame is there.  Pavia specifically writes, "You may freely use the font files [...] in any of your own programs", so it's all legit.

These same fonts were later reused in a few related games: the commercial version of PT (retitled Pharaoh's Pursuit), the sequel Arctic Adventure, and also Monuments of Mars - my personal favorite of this bunch, and a game that obviously has much in common with the others, although it was written not by George Broussard but by Todd J. Replogle.  Unlike Broussa(r)d, the latter got his own name right on the title screen... but then promptly proceeded to misspell "Scenario Software" as "Scenerio".  Was this a contractual requirement with Apogee, or just something in the water?

Notes

  1. The Atari and PC releases came about through reverse-engineering the compiled BASIC runtime module which ran the Apple ][ version, then trans­lating it, with Don Worth handling the IBM version himself.  He gives some more background at the game's GUE page and in this interview. [↑]
  2. Here's a YouTube video. [↑]
  3. On the Apple ][, normal text is displayed using 7 pixel wide characters, so you get 40 columns on a screen that's 280 dots across.  In hi-res graphics mode, the most significant bit of a byte is not displayed - it controls the "half-dot" offset applied to the other 7 dots, which (on a color NTSC monitor) also determines the 4-color set in use; so characters stored in a simple, byte-aligned format will be some multiple of 7 pixels in width. [↑]
  4. For examples, see Murder on the Zinderneuf or Pitstop II, which didn't account for this when they used the same 160x100 16-color mode on the PCjr. [↑]
  5. More choice quotes are available on Crummy's Flightmare Text Dump. [↑]
  6. There are ways to stop DISPLAY.SYS from sticking its nose in and over­riding your changes; for instance, whenever you set the video mode, follow it up by resetting the font pointer once again.  But unless you test your game on EGA/VGA (and with the driver loaded), you'd never encounter the problem in the first place. [↑]
  7. The CD-ROM image doesn't play nice with most modern tools, but DOSBox will happily mount it.  PC-SIG has some more stuff from Donald L. Pavia - a sprite and animation toolkit on disk 0511, and the "KIDGAMES" set on disk 0705. [↑]

13 comments:

Scali says:

Some examples of fonts here almost touch on a certain subject: multicolour fonts.
The converted CGA fonts show that the fonts are not stored as 1-bit data, but actually contain colour data, even though it's only used to presumably mimic the NTSC-artifacting on Apple II.

But that makes me wonder: when exactly did games start to use multicolour fonts on PC? I know that in the VGA age it was common to at least have some antialiasing at the edges. But on C64 and Amiga at least, it was common to have colour in the charactersets.
It also became common to use larger fonts than just 8x8 (even more so in crack intros than in actual games. On the Amiga there is the legendary 'Angels font', from an Angels crack intro that was re-used by tons of intros/demos: https://blenderartists.org/uploads/default/original/4X/3/0/f/30f349ab6b68c00e316346c55816595a74ae2971.png).
If you look at a game like Lemmings for example, it has a very nice multicolour font in-game.
The PC version has the same, because the graphics were pretty much a direct port.
But that makes me wonder, did PC games have such 'fancy' fonts even when they were not ported directly from Amiga or Atari ST or other 'fancy' platforms?
And if so, when did this 'era' start approximately?

VileR says:

@Scali: Good question! It can be hard to tell, since sometimes a game will use a 1bpp or solid-color font and then make it "multi-color" at runtime, with gradient/border effects and such. Games from Bitmap Brothers etc. had 'true' multi-color fonts on the PC, and even earlier ones all the way back to CGA (Wizball, Goody, even Montezuma's Revenge if that counts). But naturally those weren't IBM PC originals... for a long while most of the decent-looking PC games were ports from other systems, or at least weren't PC-exclusive, so it's difficult to nail it down.

Off the top of my head, the earliest "PC-first" example that I'm absolutely sure of is Doom. It's probably not a coincidence that Doom's artwork was largely made in DeluxePaint II, since that was one of the first pieces of software that supported multi-color fonts on the PC.

Those cracktro fonts were always awesome. There used to be a website with hundreds of them, which was around for ages (it was old enough to have a Java applet doing "wobble" effects on the title). Now it's gone, and the Wayback Machine never archived the contents, but lots of them can be found at ArtCity (gotta love the font tag) and even at github.

Scali says:

Ah yes, so in that case multicolour fonts weren't used on PC-only games until very late in the day (but who knows, some esoteric exception to this rule might turn up).

Also, it seems I have to 'well actually' myself: it seems that the PC version of Lemmings does not use the exact same font in-game. It seems like a lower detail reworking of the font used on the Amiga.
The Amiga seems to have an altogether more detailed interface at the bottom than the VGA version of Lemmings.
I'm not sure exactly what is happening here. The Atari ST version seems to look the same as the Amiga version, and that version would be limited to 16 colours.
On the Amiga, the game also is just using 320x200 resolution (on PAL systems they could have used 320x256, but in practice, many games were designed only for 320x200, and would just show a black bar at the bottom on PAL systems. This is such a game). So that's not it either.
And it's not like the PC version only has an EGA version either. The VGA version does have subtly better palette choices than the EGA version. Although not as good as the Amiga or Atari ST versions.
From here it looks like the interface for VGA is the same as the one for EGA/Tandy. So perhaps they reduced the colours to fit the limited EGA/Tandy palette, which would eliminate certain shades that EGA/Tandy cannot reproduce, and then reused those assets for the VGA version. The result is that the font only uses one green and one white, where there are multiple green shades in the Amiga/Atari ST version.
Likewise, the icons have less shades on VGA.

Which is interesting: even on PC hardware that is technically as good or better than Amiga/Atari ST, the resulting games might still look worse.
Aside from just the colour-reduced font and icons (and probably the levels themselves), there are also some more subtle details missing or simplified in the PC version.

VileR says:

I'm pretty sure there should be a pre-Doom example of multi-color fonts on the PC, but it's surprisingly difficult to even come up with a list of games that were PC-exclusive - or even just "PC-first", other than maybe Sierra adventures and MS flight sims. You have the homebrew/shareware stuff, but those things rarely even ventured beyond the fonts supplied by the BIOS, or by whatever libraries they were using (even if this post happens to have a couple of examples).

If I remember correctly, the Amiga has always had 'ColorFont' support as a standard feature of its font libraries, so it can't be a coincidence that they took off on that machine first!

About Lemmings: I found some (hopefully accurate) screenshots of level 1 from different systems, and checked how many unique colors XnView could find in each version. The results were Amiga: 38, Atari ST: 35, PC/VGA: 15.

So while the ST version is limited to 16-color palettes, it must be changing them in mid-frame - probably once for the green status text, then again for the icons/map at the bottom, and that's how it matches the Amiga version so closely. If they had done that in the PC/VGA port (or just used a 256-color mode), they couldn't have used the same code/assets as the EGA version, so like you said that's probably the reason. I guess it's the "baggage" of the PC platform again, in that it wasn't a fixed quantity in terms of video.

Scali says:

When I started looking for Lemmings screenshots on PC, I found that there appear to be multiple versions. The version I remember from the old days, has yellow-ish icons, very close to what they look like in EGA mode. But I also saw screenshots where they were brown-ish, closer to the Amiga/Atari ST version. They still lacked the detail of those versions though. In that version the font was also a bit different. Where the 'yellow' version had a font with only green and white in it, this one also has some red/brownish pixels in the font (which actually looks horrible).

But yes, the screen layout is an excellent candidate for changing the palette for the font, and again for the icons. That is likely what is being done on the Amiga and Atari ST. On PC that would be very difficult to pull off, because the system timer is not synchronized with the VGA CRTC, and there is no way to find out the current scanline or any other kind of indication of where you are in the frame. I did it in the 1991 Donut intro, but I had to have a few black scanlines in the area where I switched palette to allow for some margin between different PC speeds (the slower the PC, the longer it takes to switch palettes, so the actual switch may occur one or two scanlines lower than on a faster system). On an Amiga or Atari ST you can perform cycle-exact palette switches, which look the same on any system.

I suppose they could have pulled it off if there was some kind of 'calibration' screen, where the user would have to fine-tune the palette switch to occur int he right place. Then again, the game was aimed at 8088 machines, which had enough trouble with animating 80 lemmings as it is. The additional overhead for such a minor cosmetic improvement may not have been an acceptable trade-off.

From what I recall, they actually DO perform palette changes during the high-resolution screens in-between, even on EGA. It shows the level layout on top, and text at the bottom. The level is in a different palette than the text.

Scali says:

Ah, I have found why there are two different types of screenshots around. The game has two modes: a regular one, and one for 'high performance PCs'. That explains the difference. The yellow-ish EGA-like colours are for the regular version, and the high performance version gives the brown-ish colours, more similar to the Amiga and Atari ST versions. Although still not quite as good.
But it might be that it actually does perform a palette change mid-screen for that. They may have found a way to get it to auto-calibrate accurately enough on fast enough PCs.

VileR says:

@Scali: Ha, interesting - yes, if I select 'High Performance PCs' (or 'IBM PS2 Machine') in the machine type menu, the status area colors and font are different. That increases the 'unique colors' count to 21, and since it's still mode 0Dh, there's gotta be a mid-frame palette change.

So why is the status area still uglier than the Amiga/ST versions? I think the clue is that the status font is also a bit smaller, compared to the 'regular' version: you can notice some extra black scanlines between the playfield and the green lettering. As you know, the VGA can't read the palette when you're writing to the DAC registers, so the output has to be blanked while you're modifying the colors.

To do that within the active display area, it looks like they had to set aside a few lines as a 'safe zone'. And there's only enough room to do that once - so the font and the icons below have to use the same 16 colors, unlike the Atari ST version where they can afford to switch palettes again between the font and the icons.

VileR says:

@zaratustra: since you already have the fonts as images, you can use Fony to create .FON files, and Bits'N'Picas for TTF. Both can import glyphs from png images, although in the latter case you might need another tool to fix up the encoding - I use FontForge for that.

Scali says:

Heh, the plot thickens even further:
The Amiga version runs the UI part in 640x200 resolution. That explains why it looks so detailed.
The Atari ST version does not do that, it's all 320x200. But still it looks better than the PC version in high performance mode.

Frenkel says:

The Gothic font is used in Scott Miller's Diamond Digger.

BTW, George Broussard says Monuments of Mars does not use the same engine as Pharaoh's Tomb:
"Not the same engine! Todd Replogle had his own for Monuments of Mars and I wrote on in Turbo Pascal for Pharaoh's Tomb ;) But they were both very similar and CGA, so hard to tell!"
https://twitter.com/georgebsocial/status/1225549048947658757

VileR says:

@Frenkel: nice - good catch on Diamond Digger... and that one was done in 1986, so not that long after Pavia released his font tools.

About Monuments of Mars: yeah, I remembered something about how it had a different code base. I guess when the basic premise is a flip-screen platform game with 16x16 tiles/sprites, there can only be so much difference, and they obviously shared ideas (and evidently assets) so it ended up looking and feeling very similar.

Julia says:

Cool!

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