Today’s Blog entry (second entry but the one _meant_ for today) is about Black and White.  Not the Michael Jackson song, not the game by Peter Molyneux and nowt to do with Chess.  Picking up the sidetrack I began when writing about Platoon, I want to write about Black and White Televisions and the early video game industry. 

Why the hell would you want to read such an article of limited interest after all, we’re now in the middle of the 3D gaming experience (albeit Augmented Reality)?  Excellent question – here’s my answer.  Wayyyyyy back when dinosaurs coexisted with humans (or so the creators of the Flintstones would have us believe…), the first video games weren’t capable of being played in more than one colour.  That’s because the microchips used in their manufacture were really basic, crude items barely a step up from the punch card.  Pong of course was the first game to capture the imagination of consumers and the only way that manufacturers were able to colour the sprites was to insert a piece of cellophane behind the glass of the arcade machines.  Space Invaders notably copied this technique, turning white sprites into the green ones we are familiar with. 

Anyway, the second generation of gaming introduced the first games consoles we’re familiar with today; the Atari 2600 led the way closely followed by ColecoVision and Intellivision. Video Gaming was still something of a minority interest despite the burgeoning market, many gamers were unable to play their machines on colour television sets, instead they were relegated to black and white machines for whatever reason.  And this tended to hash up the colours.  As the demand for Arcade games forced programmers to deliver so that the youth of the late 1970s would part with their coinage, so too did the complexity of the graphics. 

The Atari 2600 had an impressive 128 colour-palette (by contrast, the C64 only managed 16 and that came later) but the subtleties of the colours tended to be indistinguishable on a black and white screen.  Ever played Yar’s Revenge?  The Neutral Zone?  Now imagine trying to see that irksome blip/missile in the midst.  Or the Quotle changing colour to let you know you can shoot it.  Mercifully, these games had a black and white mode which wasn’t quite a straight forward palette swap but subtly shifted the game to make the features of the game pretty distinguishable. 

Home computers – Commodore, Sinclair, BBC and Amstrad – emerged as the front runners of the gaming market after the North American Video Game crash (thus providing a boost to the British end of the market).  And again, these machines tended to be plugged into black and white monitors but their inherent graphic capabilities worked in their favour as special black and white modes were not always necessary.  Certain games could be played just as easily in monochrome as well as in colour.  Text adventures were particularly popular in the early days – who needs graphics for those? 

The nature of the games for the computer market was different – the early consoles were more action/adventure and replicated faithfully what you saw in the arcades.  But the home computer market looked after different sorts of gamers.  Many units were sold/fobbed off on unwary consumers as educational devices therefore the games that tended to be purchased by slow-witted parents for their devious offspring were puzzle games.  Games like Q*Bert (a simple “switch lights on and off”) and M.U.L.E. by the late and oft-lamented Danielle Bunten-Berry provide that big sellers didn’t have to have fancy-schmancy graphics, as long as the premise was good then it’ll sell. 

By the mid 1980s, when consoles like the NES and the Master System were emerging and home computers entered the 16-Bit era, colour television sets were beginning to be recycled through households as big-screen and wide-screen formats made smaller sets unfashionable.  These were often given to kids to use so they could begin to see their favourite games in colour.  Really, this is the beginning of the era when graphics became far more important to the concept of the game compared with the actual playability.  The 16-Bit home computers came with moderately priced monitors delivering a sharper image and so too did puzzle and strategy games up their oomph, seeing games such as Civilization (yeah, I had to get in a reference) and Elite 2 which just weren’t possible on a monochrome system. 

I grant you it was inevitable that black and white televisions would slowly be phased out and manufacturers were bickering over HD formats for many years before a uniform system was agreed.  But rather than assume that everyone had the ability to play games in colour, video game companies worked with the market to deliver product that would match up to and meet their customer expectations.  Although expensive, computers were not a rich man’s toy, indeed they would have scoffed at such pursuits.  But there is only so far one’s budget will take you so Black and White sets were by far the norm. 

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