tribute to text-mode games

Why Text-Mode Games are Cool

To many people, “cool” and “text-mode” are two words that do not belong in the same sentence. After all, text mode was the standard in the Dark Old Days of DOS. Wasn’t the whole idea behind graphical user interfaces (such as Windows and the Macintosh) to finally rid the computing world of text mode forever? Why celebrate something that is long dead, was never cool to begin with, and that most people hated anyway?

The fact is, text-mode has gotten a bad rap, mostly due to early operating systems like DOS and UNIX that presented users with a mysterious, dark, nasty-looking command prompt:

The DOS prompt

To this day, the DOS prompt is capable of instilling a unique sense of dread in uninitiated Mac and Windows users. But it didn’t have to be this way. Text mode was in fact capable of a wide range of graphical effects, as the games in this collection amply demonstrate.

Text-mode games are cool because they managed to take dark, nasty, terrible text-mode and turn it into something fun, colorful, and playful. These pages are a record of the challenges programmers had to overcome to make that happen.

Of Pictures and Pixels

I realize that many people whose first exposure to computers was Windows or a Mac have never even seen text mode. Therefore, I need to explain what text mode is. The best way to do that is to compare it to graphic mode, the display standard for most operating systems in use today.

Let’s begin by explaining what graphic mode is. If you are using Windows, a Mac, or pretty much any modern personal computer, you are in graphic mode right now. In graphic mode, every tiny point (pixel) on the computer screen can be individually painted by the programmer. See the little box underneath this paragraph? Can you see the teeny-tiny black dot at the center? Look closely:

A single black pixel

Did you see it? That was one pixel. Just how many of these are on your computer screen? Well, a typical screen resolution these days is 1024 by 768 pixels. At that resolution, there would be 786,432 pixels per screen.

Another aspect of graphic mode is that each and every pixel can be painted a different color. Take a look at the rectangle below. There are six colored pixels inside it, from left to right: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Can you see them?

Six pixels of different colors

When you consider that there are tens of thousands of pixels in graphic mode, each of which can be set to hundreds of different colors, you can begin to understand the kind of power and flexibility that programmers have when displaying images on your screen. This is one of the primary reasons why so many programs use graphic mode today (also known as GUI, for graphical user interface). GUIs allow developers to represent system commands using pictures (icons) that anyone can understand.

But this is not the whole story. You see, pervasive use of graphic mode is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of computing. It was first introduced by the Apple Macintosh in the mid eighties, and has only been widely in use on PCs since the release of Windows 3.1 in 1991. Before that, text mode was king.

Characters Have Character

As its name implies, text mode can only display text—that is, any symbol that can be produced by pressing a key on the keyboard (plus a few extras that we’ll get to in a moment). Text mode cannot be used to paint a picture, draw a pie chart, or display a scanned photograph.

To put it in technical terms, all the available pixels are divided up into an 80 x 25 grid of characters. A character is defined as one of the 255 symbols in the IBM extended ASCII character set:

The IBM extended ASCII character set

As you can see, there is not much to choose from: upper-and- lower case letters, numbers, foreign letters, symbols for line and box drawing, and miscellaneous symbols for things like mathematical equations and foreign currency.

So you can see already that text mode is very restrictive, from a visual design standpoint, compared to graphic mode. First, you are limited to drawing with just 2000 characters, rather than 480,000 pixels. Second, you cannot just design your own characters; rather, you must choose from one of the 255 symbols provided in the ASCII character set.

A Color Conundrum

As if this weren’t limiting enough, there is also the matter of which colors you have to choose from. In stark contrast to graphic mode, where developers have a minimum palette of 216 colors, text mode provides only these 16 colors to work with:

Text-mode colors from conio.h

Of course, that only adds up to 16 if you consider white, black, and gray to be colors (and I suspect most people don’t—would you be happy with a “color” printer that could only print grayscales?).

Text-Mode Games ARE Cool!

Are you beginning to see why a well-designed, visually appealing text-mode game is such an achievement? As I look over the games in the collection, I am amazed at how each one manages to stake out its own unique look and feel, despite the enormous restrictions imposed by the use of text mode.

Now it’s time to take a tour of our collection. As you look at, read about, and (hopefully) download and play the games, think about the combination of technical skill and artistry that went into them. I consider these games to be works of ASCII art, and I’m proud to have them on display in our virtual gallery at TextModeGames.com.

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