Arcade Game Typography
This month sees the publication of an expansive book about the typography of arcade games, researched and written by Toshi Omagari, type designer at Monotype. We got a sneak preview of what’s inside, and asked Toshi for some comments on the book and his work making it.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I was born and raised in Japan, and have been working at Monotype in London as a typeface designer. I work on custom and retail fonts, including non-Latin ones like Cyrillic, Tibetan, and Arabic. And I’m into aquariums, knives, and of course, gaming.
What’s your arcade/video gaming history? And what are your all-time-favourite top three games?
I started with the NES [Nitendo Entertainment System] but most of my formative experience was on the Super Nintendo. I then moved on to Nintendo 64, XBOX, XBOX360, and Nintendo Switch. I have never been a PlayStation guy; even though our family had one, it was exclusively a Dance Dance Revolution machine. I started with arcades a bit later when I could afford it in my late teens. I remember most fondly the shooting and dancing games. My all-time favourite games are Contra 3: Alien Wars, Super Metroid, and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
How did your interest in arcade/video gaming typography come about?
I think I was always sensitive to video game graphics in general when I was young, but it took a while for me to return to it. I routinely return to retro games, but it was when I started typeface design professionally that I noticed the artistry of pixelated fonts, especially coloured ones, which were virtually unknown among the professional designers. Having said that, “unknown” was not fair and there were predecessors like NFG that encouraged me to build my own collection.
When we met a while back you were in the ‘analysis’ stage of the book, recording numerous fonts from games. Can you expand on the process you used to compile the book, including some facts and figures of what you analysed?
I collected the typefaces as images, but they were not as useful as I would like. I decided to convert them to colour fonts so that I could use them as fonts. Since I had thousands of them to process, I automated the conversion using Glyphs and Python scripting. Compared to handling them as static images, the benefit of fonts in what is essentially a font specimen book cannot be overstated. I was also very careful to get the details of each game right; release dates, regional names, etc. The research process was quite academic, something I was trained to do in my postgraduate course.
What limitations did you impose on the fonts for inclusion in this book?
The entire history of video game fonts, even only the pixelated ones, would have been too long. I decided to limit my scope by platform, and arcade was a natural choice. It’s not one hardware, but encompasses the entire history of pixelated fonts. Arcades were generally representative of gaming art and technology from ’70s to ’90s, and generally had the best stuff.
Can you give an outline of what is covered in the book?
The book contains about 10% of my typefaces collection, all accompanied by a short description and review. There are also short essays focused on certain topics.
Which of the fonts featured did you find most interesting, and why?
There are so many interesting typefaces in the collection. I think the most interesting one is by far the Atari Quiz Show font, not because of its graphical features but how influential it became. It was a standard-looking sans serif originally designed in 1976, and went on to be the most frequently used typeface in the video game history. You could say it was Helvetica of video game fonts.
What did you learn through the process of compiling and writing this book?
It became immediately obvious that the seemingly limiting 8×8 pixel matrix actually offers countless design variations. They were also not made by professional typeface designers like us. The research made me appreciate the unsung creative minds behind these beautiful fonts. Compared to these, modern video game typography does not seem to be at the artistic height it once reached, and I hope the book will bring back the attention to it.
Where do you see the future of video game typography, and what excites you about the opportunities offered by new technology?
Video game typography has become quite difficult compared to the simpler times, especially when it comes to screen size. Nowadays you can play the same game on large TVs as well as mobile displays, whose legibility requirements vary so much. Needless to mention the multilingual support necessary in modern games. The technical challenge of video game typography has become quite similar to other on-screen ones like web design, but the focus on entertainment hasn’t changed.
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers about this book?
Whether you have grown up with video games or not, whether you are familiar with letterforms or not, I think there is something for anyone to enjoy in these pixel fonts. I also encourage you to make a colourful one yourself; you will appreciate the subtlety and craftsmanship of the art even more!
Arcade Game Typography can be ordered direct from publisher Thames & Hudson (soft cover) or in a special limited edition (hard back) from Read Only Memory.
A massive thank you to Toshi for sharing this fascinating project with us. With many emulators now available, and devices being released with hundreds of these retro games, it’s time to dust off those controllers and get back into it, if you can take your eyes off the typography!