PC Game Palettes

This section is dedicated to the often over-looked art of 8-bit color palettes of older PC games. Before hi-res 24 bit color became common in the computer industry, most programs were written using 320x200 resolution and 8-bit color, known as Mode 13h. 8-bit color only allows for 256 unique colors (compared to today where we have over 4 billion). This posed a major problem for the graphic artists of the time because they had to make their images look good with a very limited amount of colors.

Creating a palette for a game was a very important task because all the images of the game would have to be based off of it. Although I showed up late in the programming era, I arrived early enough to have to worry about color palettes. I have always been interested in the way different games set up their palettes.

Here is a list of different games from back in the days of 8-bit color.

Alien Carnage



God of Thunder

Hocus Pocus

Jet Pack

Mystic Towers

Realms of Chaos

System Shock

Ultima 7

Ultima 8

Wolfenstein 3D

There are many important things when selecting colors for your color palette. You have to understand the way the human eye distinguishes color and light in order to create a proper palette. You'll notice that many of the palettes shown above wasted space in their palettes by having too many colors that look the same like bright yellow and cyan. They could have easily made room for several more colors if they took the time to adjust their palettes properly. The average human eye is also good at detecting multiple shades of green, so it's important to have a nice amount of green in a palette.

One trick that games used before 16-bit color was palette manipulation. This involved changing the color of the palette instead of redrawing the screen. This was a very cool trick because drawing to the screen was very slow, and palette manipulation was fast in comparison.

There were different tricks with palette manipulation. One was palette shifting. This involved taking several shades of one color and shifting them down the line to create a motion effect. Another method was to change sections of the palette in order to change a sprite's appearance without having to redraw it. Neither of these tricks can be done in a nonpaletted display mode. However, because video hardware is so fast, it really isn't needed any more.