Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 6    October 1998

The Color of Fun

The Role of the Palette in Modern Gaming

by Adam Trionfo

Has the majority of game-players and reviewers forgotten what makes a fun game? Is there a new rating system, based not on game play, but color depth, that has come into effect? Are the millions of colors offered by new systems oozing into the brains of game players worldwide? Has the depth of color and richness of animation begun to overwhelm game play?

This all began as a search for the reason that I find Banjo-Kazooie for the Nintendo 64 so boring. Don't worry; this isn't going to be another trek down the well-trodden road of poor game play. There is no need to rehash that here. In fact, I dare say that the industry may finally have heard us gamers, for game play seems to be making a general improvement. So, then, what is this all about? Simple: red, green, blue and all the variations in between. This is a series of observations about color, an important part of game play that few gamers give notice to, with even fewer realizing the attention to detail that a developer must pay to make a game playable.

Some games use color as the actual means of playing. Columns, Dr. Mario and Bust-a-Move all rely on the player matching colors in a certain sequence to complete a level. To me, these games are playable because I can differentiate between the colors. I match green with green, blue with blue and so on. But what about someone who is colorblind? It isn't so simple in that case. Of those three examples, only Bust-a-Move is still playable to someone who has difficulty distinguishing colors -- and I never would have noticed if not for a recent incident.

While my wife and a male friend were playing Bust-a-Move, the friend exclaimed, "Gotta find a star!". I had no idea what he was talking about. I later discovered that he was matching the small shapes inside each color instead of the colors themselves, because he is colorblind. I had never thought of playing that way, and had never even taken notice of the small shapes before. But anyone who is colorblind must play any game that relies heavily on color in a completely different way than I do. What other games are ruined for someone who is colorblind when a developer hasn't taken notice of this part of the gaming population?

That event gave me two realizations: It opened my eyes to the vastly different experiences each player glimpses when playing the same game and just how important color is to all games. Most individuals have favorite colors and color schemes. It is the reason why many people change their color environment in Windows. Of course, some colors look better together than others. Experience at work has proven this to me. I have come across users that have desktop colors that make my eyes whine -- dark-green backgrounds with bright-yellow foregrounds, yellow on red, thin vertical stripes atop large horizontal bands. Some of the colors, it would seem, go against nature itself. But if the user likes it, then even if my eyes might bleed from color stress, it is perfectly acceptable -- for them.

This is where the trouble can begin. Ever played a game and thought to yourself, "Who designed the colors for this? They're atrocious!" This happens all the time with shareware and PD products. This is because these are often one-person efforts, bless them, and little consideration is given to the user interface in certain respects. The theory seems to be, "What is good enough for me is good enough for you." While I don't agree, I can understand how this important factor could be overlooked by a one-person design team. But what about games that are released as large group efforts, as most now are? Shouldn't someone be held accountable for this?

The Nintendo 8-bit seems plagued with this problem, especially in platform games, wherein the limited colors often make it laborious to see the differences between the players' characters and the background patterns. The Ninja Gaiden series, for instance, uses really poor color choices that make the games difficult to play. Yet these titles are considered to be among the highlights of the NES library. And well they should be, because the games are fun to play.

Current consoles and computer set-ups are able to display millions of colors. This means that there is more potential for problems when a game is created. With so many choices available, it becomes easier to make a mistake that makes a game difficult to look at. But computer artists have realized this, and for the most part are making wise choices. The problem now seems to be that too much effort is spent on color choice and less is spent on game-play -- which is why, I have concluded, I despise Banjo-Kazooie.

Banjo-Kazooie is a recent Nintendo 64 game. It has all the speed and color depth that the machine can offer. It has become the new standard of excellence on that platform, with at least one good reason: it does look terrific. But with cartoon-like graphics along the lines of the Mario series, and a very silly storyline with many childlike features, this title seems squarely aimed at a young audience. My four-year-old son loves the game, so this insight may seem correct -- but it isn't. Banjo-Kazooie is popular among young and old alike, and it is a runaway best-seller. But why? The game is so boring!

How can a game that's touted as one of the best of all time, praised in all of the video-game magazines as top-notch fun, be so boring to me? I feel as though I am just going through the motions -- move the joystick left here, jump the bad guy there, get the power-up now, advance to the next level. In the same way that Zool was a rip-off of Sonic, Banjo-Kazooie is a blatant rip-off of Super Mario 64. They both have the same quality of game play as well; there is no pleasure at all involved in either game for me. But I am in the minority -- among the very few who look at Banjo-Kazooie in this light. So I know that more games are going to be released, for all platforms, that are played and drawn very similar to this pathetic excuse for fun.

The graphics in the typical game are meant to grab the player's attention. After this, the game has time to possess the player's continued interest. Both feats are achieved, in part, through the use of careful graphic detail and color balance.

The early game machines with only black-and-white display capabilities seemed archaic even by 1980 standards. When game systems began to have color capabilities in the mid-to-late seventies, they were rather primitive, but the colors were used to really grab the player's attention. Can you picture a kid asking mom and pop for a black-and-white system when a color one was available? It probably didn't happen (though Steve Jobs might have preferred the former). Atari always led the color crowd, with one of the best examples being the Atari 400/800, released in 1979. It had 16 colors with 16 different shades, for an effective color range of 128 (later increased to 256). This didn't change much until the original Amiga computer was released in 1985 with its palette of 4,096 hues and its ability to display 32 simultaneous colors on a normal screen (this was just one of the Amiga's groundbreaking features). Now we have the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64, each of them able to display more colors than the human eye can even distinguish.

With so much effort at building color machines behind us, it's ironic that color choice is a part of game play that rarely if ever gets mentioned, despite its importance. Developers have come to realize that well-balanced color makes a game look more attractive to the player and the reviewer. So much effort is put toward the placement of color that even poor-quality games make good use of it. There has become little need to mention color anymore, since just about all games now use it effectively.

Game developers have learned over the years how to grab players. Some of these ideas work -- like improving the sharpness of the graphics -- while others, though still used for some reason, have failed, such as movie-to-game conversions. The new trend seems to be in getting the best color from any system, and with good reason: It sells more games. Good graphics, movie titles and the use of color have never combined to make a good game on their own, but they do manage to sell bad games in quantity.

When the next best thing with rich color that "looks almost real" is released, keep your money and try before you buy. The game devlopers have figured out what makes a lot of gamers tick, and they are now pushing the rightly colored buttons to get you to buy inferior products. Think for yourself and see with your smile, not just your eyes. -- AT