Classic arcade font

Nearly anyone who has seen an early arcade game from any company has probably seen this or a very similar font. Who created it and where, and why did it become so widespread, ending up in games from completely different companies?

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    There aren't that many ways you can draw an 8x8 font with lines that are at least two pixels wide so they show up on the display. So they're going to tend to look similar. – user722 Dec 26 '19 at 3:10
  • Japanese developers created it but there were several variations. They all copied each other and I don't think there was an original as such. – user Dec 26 '19 at 7:41
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    I don't know whether it is still true, but US law is (was?) unusual in the way it treats font IP. You could trademark a font's name, but could not protect the patterns of dots which make up the font characters. So even if multiple vendors were using the same font shapes, it would have been legal in the USA. – RichF Dec 26 '19 at 15:04
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    I was just about to ask a similar question and found this as a duplicate. Look at this: gamesdatabase.org/game/arcade/sprint-2 - that's a 1976 black-and-white Atari arcade game where that font appears (except the E is slightly different). That might be the earliest example. I think the font had to have originated with Atari (way back when it was Kee Games). – LawrenceC Jan 29 '20 at 5:39
  • @LawrenceC Good find! The programmers were Dennis Koble and Lyle Rains. I think they're both on LinkedIn if someone wants to ask them where they got the font from or whether they designed it themselves. Earlier arcade games didn't have much text other than a numerical score, and I also don't think it's a terminal font because it doesn't seem to be designed for readability. Maybe you could expand your comment into an answer. – snips-n-snails Feb 4 '20 at 19:55

It's a bold 8x8 pixel sans font.

Hard- and software wise using an 8x8 font is the most simple way to go and to create emphasis making it bold needs the least effort. Within an 8x8 grid, there aren't many ways to create fonts and even fewer bold ones (*1).

When bolding, the font design choice in 8x8 is usually vertical doubling, due the rather upright nature of latin characters. Vertical offers more room while still keeping a recognizable ratio. There is as well not much room for bells and whistles, as the main concern is still readability - after all, it's all geared to make the reader play, not decipher text.

Bottom line: Similarity evolved as a result of restricted resources and desired function.

Which BTW is true for any classic 'font' design - next to all scripts design can in large parts be attributed to the technology used for creation. It wasn't until the movable letter and highres displays that it got freed from such mundane limitations :)

The font issue nothing specific to arcade games, but true for all microcomputers using low resolution displays, with 8x8 being a cornerstone. IBM's CGA gives a great example, as its charset was as well 8x8 and by default available in bold (lower half):

IBM PC CGA Font (picture taken and upscaled from https://www.seasip.info/VintagePC/cga.html )

Now, using an 8x8 grid doesn't mean there is not room for variations, above CGA font designers even managed to include basic elements of a serifed font integrated - visible on some of the upper case letters - while the font mentioned in the question and many other 8x8 fonts go for a more simple sans style.

This nice page (supplied by LangLangC) shows a wide variety of character sets used on PC and PC like systems. There are many font variations within 8x8. People invested a lot of time to customise appearance. But when it comes to simple, conventional, easy to read fonts, the limited resources in pixels and shapes make them superficially the same.

*1 - As Ross Ridge already commented

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    Here are just two other bold 8x8 fonts: style64.org/file/image/projects/c64_truetype.png and ffonts.net/ZX-Spectrum-7-Bold.font (the latter is made programmatically from the non-bold default ZX Spectrum ROM font), and it is obvious they are all different. So "Within an 8x8 grid, there aren't many ways to create fonts" is simply not true. You can find unlimited kinds of fonts in various demoscene productions on 8bit machines. – lvd Dec 26 '19 at 13:48
  • @lvd your point is? Of course there is variation. The CGA font for example is even a serifed one - whereas the above and the ones you cite are sans. But that's not the point here. Mind you, the question explicite mentiones "this or a very similar font" And I thing we can agree that the ones you cite are very similar aren't they? – Raffzahn Dec 26 '19 at 13:55
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    @LаngLаngС well, it's one on one, showing quite well how puny resolutions were back then,doesn't it? – Raffzahn Dec 26 '19 at 16:24
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    @TobySpeight I added it to show that even fonts that did a good job to add style within 8x8 do still reassemble each other at first look. That's the point I tried to make. There isn't a single 'The Arcade Font' but many that due the shared restrictions and criteria that make them all similar at first sight - and in memory. – Raffzahn Jan 30 '20 at 18:53
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    @fadden: I hadn't seen that collection of fonts. Apple seems to have missed a trick, though: when drawing characters aligned on 7-pixel boundaries, it's possible to shift any combination of rows by half a pixel, a fact which can help with characters like "v", and would really help the slanted fonts. I recall having seen that trick used in a piece of educational software around 1987. – supercat Feb 6 '20 at 6:26

In the Sprint 2 hardware design, the text is part of a character-cell based playfield, generated through a lookup into a 512x8b character ROM (actually a pair of 512x4b ROMs wired in parallel, in sockets P4 and R4). This ROM could not be read by the CPU, but fed directly into a shift register which, after being combined with the car sprites, drove the video output. It provided 64 characters, which were used for both the text and the background graphics.

These playfield-generator ROMs appear to have been standard mask-ROM or PROM parts, so their contents would have been specified by the game's manufacturer. I think for earlier examples you should look for games by the same manufacturer. Notably, this cabinet was one of the early applications of the MOS 6502, but it's plausible that an earlier game used the same font but a different CPU.

Dedicated character-generator chips also existed at the time, most notably those made by Signetics - however, these did not use the 8x8 pixel format seen here. The contemporary DEC VT52 terminal did use a 7x7 format (which with spacing was effectively 8x8), but used a thin-line font with a very different appearance.

  • Might be good to specifically mention that Sprint 2 is the earliest example of such a font. – supercat Feb 5 '20 at 22:31
  • @supercat Except that I wasn't able to eliminate all possibilities myself. After all, the game being called Sprint 2 implies that there's a Sprint 1, and that was far from the only arcade game being made at the time. – Chromatix Feb 6 '20 at 3:50
  • Fair point, but you should still say that you are mentioning it because it's the earliest example you know. If memory serves, the other games I can think of didn't show any text, and used 7-segment-style digits for score readouts. The game Night Driver had alphanumeric readout, but its font was different and I think it came later. – supercat Feb 6 '20 at 6:24

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