7x5 Charset Design Theory

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By Kodiak

I have heard it said that all charset designs on the Commodore 64 that could possibly exist have already been created and I would guess that, as far as the standard 6x7 pixel or 7x7 format goes, it might be close to being true.

However, I would also speculate that other less common matrices have not yet been exhausted and with that notion in mind, I set about tinkering with a baseline model of 7x5 pixels instead of the standard 7x7.

7x5 px charset theory on the Commodore 64

The theory behind it is that it offers natural symmetry around the horizontal axis, since 5 is an odd number and we could have 2 pixels of reach or "stroke" above the centreline, and 2 more below it, perfect for forming the perennially awkward letters "B", "E", "S", etc.

So now let's check out some of the results of my experimentation and marvel at the pretentious "fonty" names I assigned each new typeface (I suspect the names took more creative thinking time than the actual fonts did - how's that for pretentiousness?)

Font Swatch A

Font Swatch A

Some commentary on each design in turn, and please note that the names were also chosen to include critical letters of each font, just to see how they would perform "in the wild":

  • Cyber Samurai Scriptography: This one started out as a standard 7x5 but then some little embellishing strokes were added to give it a futuristic Japanese vibe. This is a trend, by the way, I found in developing these designs: use 7x5 as baseline and then work from that foundation.
  • Tech Noir Typographical: This, of course, is a scaled down version of the font in the Tech Noir logo I designed for branding all my games, and that in turn was a C64-ified take on the Terminator 2 font.
  • New Mnemonic Monotype Retropolis: A nice mouthful to pronounce, this design was meant as a squared ultra-retro 8-bit font, which would go well in a space shooter type of game or something designed to look pre-1985 in the C64 scene.
  • Seawolves Light: Actually, this should have been #1 on this list as it was the first one I designed under this methodology and was, I am going to reveal now, meant for the other game I am working on (concurrently with Parallaxian) which, strange as this may seem, is actually called Seawolves (look out for a preview clip of that on this blog in the near future, all being well).
  • Seawolves Heavy: As above, but with thicker strokes. I still can't decide which version I prefer.
  • Tesla Retroactive: Obviously, this one was inspired by / modelled on the font used in those impractical electric cars made by that dude that thinks he's Iron Man. I find it legible, but it's probably my least favourite of this batch.
  • Delorean Dystopian: All that Tesla stuff got me thinking about cars, the future, Back to the Future and my homeland of Northern Ireland where the car used by Marty McFly in said movie was manufactured. That car being, of course, the utterly awful Delorean. It did have one redeeming feature, though. It had a nice logo and so I based this font on someone else's idea of what that logo turned into a font should look like.
  • Chunky Blox Gamer Font: Changing direction somewhat, I thought I should round the first batch off (or should that be "square it off?") with an upbeat, less sci-fi, less 1980s tech noir, more silly, more playful kind of font suitable for deployment in a platform game. It's not the most legible on this list, but it still works.

Font Swatch B

Font Swatch B

This was the second tranche of experimental designs, and with these I took a few extra liberties.

  • Ninja Neon Nightlife: I can't remember whether this was inspired by some 1980s sci-fi mental flashback or just some glimpse of a Chinese takeaway logo, but in any case, it is meant to be redolent of a neon sign for an oriental shop of some flavour.
  • Art Deco Narrow Empire State: I have never mentioned this before (as far as I know), but I have been a huge fan of art deco style design for many years, and would like to make an art deco style game environment some day, but in the meantime am pleased to dabble with art deco fonts. Now to be clear, this is not a 7x5 font, but pretty much a 4x7, so it marks a major departure from the stated model. Nevertheless, it comes from the same kind of approach, i.e., "let's try something else".
  • Art Deco Medium New York: You can tell I was struggling for inspiration for names here, as the half-educated among you will know that New York is also known as... The Empire State. This design is just a heavier set version of the previous one, with the same art deco notes.
  • Art Deco Heavy Gotham City: Okay, I get it, I'm really milking the New York theme now (well, why not, it has some very iconic art deco architecture, such as the Empire State Building, which looks like it might belong in Jellyland in Mayhem in Monsterland). And as all Batman enthusiasts will know, Gotham is a longstanding nickname for New York. As for the font, it's probably the least legible of the three art deco variants, but I personally still find it quite iconic.
  • Seawolves Light Squared Off: This is just as it says: the Seawolves Light font squared, and I really like it and feel it has potential for in-game use.
  • Seawolves Heavy Squared Off: As above, but it doesn't gel for me as well as the light version does..
  • Vintage Radio: I was looking for a 1950's vibe narrow font (and actually designed this before the art deco ones), somewhat based around the kind of lettering common on old radios, diner logos, maybe even cars and fridges back when the world was much, much saner than it is now. Sometimes I think this is a great design, other times... just okay.
  • Rounded Broadstroke: I could pretend I knew what I was thinking with this one but I don't really know much more beyond the fact that it started as another squared-off design and somehow ended up nicely rounded. And, being another 7x5 design, it brings us back to where we started this little study.

In closing, I hope the above was interesting and helpful if you are into C64 gfx design, as I realise probably too many of my articles are coding-centric.

Anyway, enjoy and kindly share on the usual places if you think it's any good!

Special Afterthought #1

Over on the Reddit thread for this article, someone rather sagely pointed out a traditional shortcoming of single pixel width vertical stroke char designs, namely, that they tend to be not the most readable on the CRT displays typically used with real hardware back in the 1980s, so that has rather swayed my decision in favour of using the heavier Seawolves font in the actual game.

Special Afterthought #2

While researching ideas for title screens, I noticed that Dropzone uses a 6x5 font in its "Arena Graphics" / copyright line just below the game's upper logo; as usual, Archer Maclean was ahead of his time (okay, so it's not the 7x5 I like, but it's close!)

Dropzone title screen


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