The cheerful pop-culture visuals of arcade games form a shared lingua franca for players worldwide, meant to guide them through multilayered narratives set in imaginary universes. They also represent a beautiful and underappreciated category of outsider art. Author and senior type designer at Monotype UK Toshi Omagari’s interest and expertise in multilingual typography primed him for a deep dive into the realm of bitmap typefaces designed between the 1970s and 1990s for use on 8- and 16-bit computers. Omagari’s book, Arcade Game Typography: the Art of Pixel Type, presents a comprehensive analysis of a previously undocumented type of typography, largely ignored by the design world and never before organized in a single volume. What unites these typefaces is a kind of irreverence in service of utility: they follow no established typographic rules of legibility or form, they merely needed to perform well at low screen resolution and limited machine power.
Omagari reviewed 4,500 arcade games out of more than 7,000 in existence, to select and categorize letterforms for inclusion in the book. As part of his exploratory process, he also wrote scripts to convert these images into fully functional typefaces even though, technically, the letters he’s interested in are not typography: they’re graphic images composed within 8×8-pixel square grids. Another significant way they diverge from traditional type is that while vector-based typefaces are designed in black as a coherent visual system of related shapes and voids, with any colorization applied later by graphic designers, arcade game fonts are patterns visualized in color, creating an entire custom vocabulary of distinctive designs.
MICR (Magnetic Ink Character Recognition)-based fonts are their own subcategory of letterforms used in games, drawing upon humanity’s endless desire to envision the future. Just as Eurostile became the default typeface for outer space movies, MICR fonts became the default for games devoted to science, outer space, and a future filled with aliens and machines. The squared characters fit perfectly within the 8×8 grid, and added a level of visual sophistication by upping the metaphoric quality of letterforms in a genre mainly designed for utility, not aesthetics. Something about MICR’s unorthodox placement of stem thicknesses and entirely mechanical appearance stimulated game developers’ imaginations and led to a dazzling variety of unique interpretations. While MICR fonts dominated the arcade game landscape during the 1980s and early- to mid-’90s, this genre was pretty much extinct by the latter part of the same decade.
“Arcade game fonts are patterns visualized in color, creating an entire custom vocabulary of distinctive designs.”
MICR tech was developed in the 1950s using ink containing magnetic iron oxide, meant to speed up bank operations by allowing documents to be machine-processed. Its oddly-shaped numbers caught the attention of London designer Leo Maggs, inspiring him to draw a futuristic-looking headline for a 1964 magazine article in About the House (the magazine of The Friends of Covent Garden Opera House). He later expanded the character set, basing its overall proportions on Gill Sans, and took it to Letraset to see if they’d add it to their collection of pressure-sensitive transfer type. They weren’t interested, so Maggs eventually found a home for it at Photoscript LTD, which published it as Westminster.
Five years later, Letraset released its own MICR typeface Data 70, designed by Bob Newman, and almost all MICR typefaces in arcade games derive from there. The use of MICR-based fonts was not limited to arcade games, however; Westminster makes an appearance as the titling font for Architecture 2000, a 1971 book by Charles Jencks that outlines a philosophy of architecture and predictions for the future.
Of all the MICR typefaces, the 14-color-per-frame RayForce typeface, one of Omagari’s favorites, stands out as a beauty. This Data 70 adaptation uses an alternating color palette to create an interlaced effect. (Interlacing technology beamed moving images in two sets of lines, one on odd frames and the other on even frames, horizontally across cathode ray tube [CRT] screens.) Because RayForce used the CRT screen rotated vertically, the fake interlace effect also moved vertically and had to be carefully planned into the type design. “RayForce was released in ’94, and it is one of the most complex and ridiculous multi-color animated fonts,” Omagari says. “It used flickering horizontal lines to imitate an interlacing effect across the vertically scrolling characters, meaning it was a deliberate design choice to make the typeface look more low-tech than it actually was. It was done in a subtle and classy way with so much effort put into the colorization and animation.”
The rich visual language of arcade game typefaces owes part of its charm to the fact that Japan dominated the early gaming industry and many of the game developers, unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet, interpreted letterforms as best they could on the 8×8 pixel grid. They had no choice, really, because it wasn’t possible to install commercial fonts on low-bit arcade cabinets using raster graphics. The resulting alphabets, with all their inherent oddities and inventiveness of form, illuminate how much can be squeezed out of a tiny, limited format. Arcade Game Typography is a gallery of pure joy to flip through, even if one’s personal arcade game experience ended in 1980 with Centipede.