Do Not Attempt To Adjust The Picture

Actually, DO Adjust It For These Games

Color monitors are ubiquitous now, but that wasn't so in the early days of computing. On early computer systems and game consoles where support for color displays was even an option, color was always achieved with various trade offs (usually as a result of limited amounts of RAM in order to keep prices low). Some computers simply limited the number of colors available at once; the Amstrad CPC and IBM PC with CGA let programmers set any pixel to any color, but no more than four colors at a time could be on screen (without clever programming that is). Many systems, including the popular Commodore 64, allowed more colors on screen at once with the catch that you couldn't just set any pixel to whatever color you wanted willy nilly; the screen was instead broken up into blocks, and within each block there could only be a limited number of colors (typically 2 or 4) depending on the resolution and computer. And finally, among this list of tricks to achieve color are systems that took advantage of artifacting in NTSC composite video. This oddball technique turned a flaw into an advantage to achieve more colors on the screen with the disadvantage being a loss of resolution and clarity.

The Apple II series is, perhaps, best known for utilizing composite video for color, however IBM CGA cards, the TRS-80 Color Computer, Atari 8-bit computers, and several other systems also utilized the trick to varying degrees. It's composite monitors or TV's we'll take a look at here, as unlike RGB monitors of the era, composite displays came with a tint control (sometimes labeled as hue). The intent of this infamous knob had its origins in NTSC broadcast TV; color errors could occur due to the phase of the signal being altered during transmission, and an adjustment to the tint control which would adjust the phase again to restore the color to a more natural appearance (the usual joke is NTSC stands for Never The Same Color). Normally, once set to something that looked good it could be left alone. Some games, however, startup with an unusual ask; they want the tint control adjusted in a manner so the game looks better, however the color is so far off from normal as to be unique and completely useless for everything else!

Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World - Volume One: Pebble Beach

The IBM PC version of Championship Golf only supports CGA graphics, but does make use of composite CGA capabilities. Both CGA's 320x200 and 640x200 graphics modes would display artifact colors and changing the palette would give you a fairly large choice of color sets to work with. Despite the flexibility, only a small subset of all the possibilities were chosen by most games (to be fair, some of the possibilites were ugly, too dark, too light, or didn't have a useful variety of the 16 colors available). Probably the most used option is utilizing the 640x200 mode with the foreground color of white (high or low intensity) which, on a composite monitor, provided a nicely varied palette that was much more versatile than most choices and was also quasi-similar to the usual 16 RGB colors. Using 320x200 graphics with the cyan/white/magenta/black palette was another popular choice; the artifact colors generated weren't as versatile, but the blues, reds, greens, and oranges were nicely reminiscent of Apple II colors. Some games did make different choices and were more creative, and Championship Golf is one of those which chose a completely different approach. It uses the 320x200 graphics mode with the cyan/magenta/white palette for foreground colors and green is chosen for the background color instead of the default black. Here's the palette the game uses; first, shown as it would appear on an RGB monitor which reveals the dithering patterns, then as shown on a composite display with both the default and tweaked tint settings.

Championship Golf CGA Composite Color Palette
RGB Monitor
Composite Monitor - Default Tint Composite Monitor - Adjusted Tint
Either way, it's not the worst possible palette. When used for the game, the resulting colors give us some greens for the grass, a blue sky, and yellow sand. A little pale perhaps, but workable. Water is the most noticable issue in the game: it's purple! Also, our golfer has rather yellow skin. Here's the composite display view with both the default tint and after adjusting it.
Championship Golf CGA composite screenshots
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
The result does improve our water color and our golfer's skin tones (sort of), but annoyingly the sand color is rather pinkish; To me, even if you do follow the directions it doesn't seem possible to get all around better results, something is always a little off. Not all colors are shown in the game's calibration screen, but looking at the full set of 16 colors I think there is a color or two in there which could have been used instead of the purple for water which would have allowed us to leave our tint setting alone.

Additionally, no amount of adjustment explains the title screen; We'll probably never know why purple or blue was used for the title graphics when better options abound!

Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
At least the rest of the game looks decent enough. Given that this game came out in 1986, it would have been far more useful to include Tandy and/or EGA graphics; by this time, CGA cards connected to a composite monitor were becoming less common so most players likely saw the RGB monitor version anyway.

Championship Baseball

Colors on the Apple II are unique, even compared to other systems using composite video. In Hi-Res mode, the mode used by Championship Baseball, 6 colors at a time were available (black, white, blue, purple, green, and orange). You may notice that 6 is not a power of 2 which is what would be far more typical for computers. This results from having two sets of four colors each which were selected by setting a bit which adjusts the phase of the video signal. Since both sets are available on the screen at the same time it may sound like you should have eight colors then, however black and white were repeated in each set which is where that peculiar, not a power of 2 number of colors comes from. The Apple II is often noted for having colorful fringes on text and graphics giving the system a characteristic appearance; part of that is simply the color fringing that's common to composite video, but the unusual system of switching the composite video phase caused a few limitations on how pixels could be placed on the screen. Among the most notable of artifacts results from attempting to have green and blue pixels adjacent to each other which would cause very noticable orange fringes between the two colors. But, despite all of that, it seems we still should have had enough for Championship Baseball to work with. I think they could have easily utilized green for the field and blue for the sky while keeping the dirt orange for an overall better appearance that didn't require adjusting the tint. Maybe artifacts were a concern since we would have blue and green pixels adjacent, but there is already a dividing line so it shouldn't have been much of a problem. Even if it was that would have been better than the odd setup they went with. Unfortunately, Apple II players are stuck with this odd color setup so here's a few screenshots showing the game before and after tint adjustment.

Championship Baseball (Apple II)
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
Even with the color set so the grass is green, the results still aren't particularly flattering as the dirt is now anywhere from purple to red-ish depending on how you adjust the tint. The Apple II version plays fine, but there's just no winning with the colors!

Adjusting the hue/tint on an Apple II could sometimes be a pain; if you had your system connected to a TV this probably wasn't an issue, but some Apple monitors didn't have a tint control. Instead, this was on the system motherboard and required opening up your computer if you needed to adjust it. A not at all unusual Apple II setup was to have the disk drives and monitor sitting on top of the computer, so if you happened to have this rather common hardware configuration adjusting the tint was not something you wanted to do often! Perhaps the programmer was in a rush and this was the quickest way to get the game out, or maybe the game just looked better this way to him...

Wilderness: A Survival Adventure

Wilderness: A Survival Adventure also has some interesting color choices. Released for both the Apple II and IBM PC/PCjr, each version can benefit from some tweaks to the tint depending on what type of hardware you have. In fact, the instruction manual states “We suggest you use a color monitor or television to more vividly recreate nature. Make sure the tint is adjusted so that the sky is blue and the world appears in its proper hues.”. So the odd colors you see make more sense with this in mind (especially the Apple II version). Now let's take a look.

First, the Apple II version; with a purple sky and green grass and trees, initially this version seems to get at least half of the colors right. A blue is available on the Apple II which would be nice for the sky, however that quirky color scheme mentioned above comes into play. This is again due to the composite video phase where you can have purple and green or blue and orange at the same time. To get a blue and green together you need to switch the phase at appropriate points which not only would add to complexity but also adds visual artifacts as the blue and green near each other don't play nicely. With lots of blue/green boundaries, it's possible this would not only lead to some more complicated programming but also some ugly graphics deemed worse than having a purple sky. However, with a little adjustment of the tint control we can actually get some colors a little more reasonable! Here's one possibility:

Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (Apple II)
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
Wilderness for Apple II with default tint Wilderness for Apple II with adjusted tint
Wilderness for Apple II with default tint Wilderness for Apple II with adjusted tint
Getting a perfect blue sky and green grass and trees doesn't seem possible without one heading too far out of range, but I found the above balance to be pretty reasonable.

The IBM PC version is a little more all over the place. It was often the case that not enough effort was put into porting games from one platform to another even if the target platform had better capabilities, and Wilderness is definitely a case where a 1986 PC could have done more. Surprisingly, the game looks best on an IBM PCjr with a composite monitor; while not the only game to seemingly be optimized (or even support) for this setup, it's pretty rare! In this case we'll get green grass, a blue sky, and...blue trees. Pretty close, and at night it can make the trees look in shadow. If you have a CGA card instead of a PCjr, the results really vary; with a direct-drive monitor, the cyan/magenta/white colors are typical CGA; both close enough and representative of the Apple II graphics. With a composite monitor, it really matters whether or not you have an early model or late model card. Due to changes IBM made to better support monochrome composite displays such as that used by the IBM Portable PC (aka the luggable one), composite colors vary between the cards. Usually it doesn't matter much, but in this case late model cards have much brighter reds which make the colors appear wildly off where the early cards have (for this game) more reasonable blues and greens. Adjusting the tint slightly with early cards can really improve results whereas with the later cards something is always off and there is seemingly no ideal balance.

Let's take a look at all of these combinations; for reference, here's the game with an RGBI direct-drive monitor:

Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (CGA with RGB monitor)
Wilderness for the IBM PC with RGB monitor Wilderness for the IBM PC with RGB monitor
Next here are the colors with an early model CGA card and a composite monitor. If you adjust the tint too much, you'll end up with a green sky along with the trees and grass, so here's a balance I found to work well:
Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (CGA composite with early model card)
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
Wilderness for the IBM PC with old model CGA card and composite monitor and default tint Wilderness for the IBM PC with old model CGA card and composite monitor and adjusted tint
Wilderness for the IBM PC with old model CGA card and composite monitor and default tint Wilderness for the IBM PC with old model CGA card and composite monitor and adjusted tint
Here's the results with a new model CGA card; The reds are brighter which for most games makes for more vivid colors, but for Wilderness creates an unnecessarily red hue with the trees and sky. I didn't find any adjustment that really worked all around; here's one option, but even this isn't great with the trees being too purple for my liking although one might argue that isn't much better or worse than the blue trees found with a PCjr.
Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (CGA composite with late model card)
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
Wilderness for the IBM PC with late model CGA card and composite monitor and default tint Wilderness for the IBM PC with late model CGA card and composite monitor and adjusted tint
Wilderness for the IBM PC with late model CGA card and composite monitor and default tint Wilderness for the IBM PC with late model CGA card and composite monitor and adjusted tint
Lastly, again for reference here's the game on an IBM PCjr with a composite monitor. Now let's get wild and crazy! For fun, here's both the default tint and a version with it adjusted. In the adjusted case, I went with a setting that made the sky and trees a lovely teal while some nice earthy browns and greens make up the landscape. I find this works surprisingly well, and of all the versions is my personal favorite. Here's the results...
Wilderness: A Survival Adventure (IBM PCjr with composite monitor)
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
Wilderness for the IBM PCjr and composite monitor with default tint Wilderness for the IBM PCjr and composite monitor with adjusted tint
Wilderness for the IBM PCjr and composite monitor with default tint Wilderness for the IBM PCjr and composite monitor with adjusted tint

With Wilderness, no version is perfect. But with some tint adjustments I find you'll get colors that do improve on the defaults; this is definitely one you can play around with to get colors more to your liking.

Pitstop II

The CGA composite support in Pitstop II has always been a bit of a mystery to me; the color palette chosen provides an image consisting of mainly blues and greens. Given the many other available CGA colors options, this is an incredibly odd choice. Unlike the two games above, Pitstop II doesn't instruct the player to adjust the tint so I'm not certain this is actually what the developer had intended. However, after doing so anyway, I find the colors almost start to make a little bit more sense and are closer to the PCjr version. The scoring area and map are yellow again, the grass and sky are nice shades of vibrant green and light blue, the car colors are slightly more vivid, and the road...is, um, green — ok, so the road color still makes no sense. Not all mysteries solved, but I think overall there's an improvement here! I still don't know how this oddity came about; could be the programmer had a monitor that was off but didn't notice that, or the composite version was never really completed and someone decided “it's playable, close enough — ship it”. However it happened, here are some screenshots showing the difference:

Pitstop II with composite monitor
Default Tint Setting Adjusted Tint Setting
For a handy reference, here's the IBM PCjr and CGA with RGB monitor versions.
Pitstop II with RGB monitor
IBM PCjr CGA with RGB monitor
This one may be a bit of a stretch as, again, I have no idea if this is what the developer had in mind. But if you wanted colors closer to the PCjr (or other platforms like the Commodore 64), or just plain more realistic, CGA's composite output offered many better ways to do it.

Software Calibration Settings

The games above are the ones I came across, or at least remember coming across, that actually were designed for adjusting the tint away from its proper position. It was a terrible idea having to mess up your monitor settings just for one game which, luckily, wasn't that common. I did also want to include a slightly more common scenario which was the need for a game to have to calibrate itself depending on what hardware you had. This was actually useful as on some computers the artifact colors could vary and it wasn't possible for programs to detect which colors a user was actually seeing. So for programs where the colors mattered, a screen was shown that would have a shape of some kind and ask the user what color it was. Based on the response the program could adjust dithering patterns in order to show the preferred colors.

This issue of unpredictable colors tended to come up on the TRS-80 Color Computer and the Atari 8-bit computers. On the CoCo, you could have orange or blue for colors in the artifacting graphics mode; unfortunately, due to the hardware design, which color was which was random everytime you turned the computer on! So a screen as mentioned above was not an unusual sight. Amusingly, some games simply told you to keep turning the computer off and on again until the correct colors came up (this worked as eventually you would get the preferred color, but it was an obviously more frustrating technique).

On Atari computers, the exact artifact colors you got varied depending on the computer model due to changes in the hardware over the years. The colors were at least consistent on a given computer each time it was turned on (only the CoCo had the random color on startup issue), but if colors mattered (such as having a blue sky in an adventure game graphics) then some consideration for the differences between Atari models was important and a handfull of games did indeed take this into account. Shown here is the Atari 8-bit version of The Wizard and the Princess. Depending on the system you're running the game on, colors could potentially be inversed so the game confirms what you're seeing. Both responses are shown; as you can see, the sky turns from the preferred blue to green if you make the wrong selection!

The Wizard and the Princess (Atari 800)
Color Selection Screen
The Wizard and the Princess Atari Calibration Screen
Correct color selection Inverse color selection
The Wizard and the Princess with correct colors The Wizard and the Princess with inverse colors
Both the TRS-80 Color Computer and Atari 8-bit line had video modes with direct colors so relying purely on artifact colors wasn't necessary. On the CoCo, the direct color modes were rather garish so the artifact colors were used often. On Atari the direct color modes were more useful and commonly used; artifact colors seemed to be used more often with games ported from other systems.

One of the modern day drawbacks of the artifact modes is the difficulty in emulating it accurately. Increasingly, modern emulators (or at least more recent versions of older ones) do a pretty decent job and can be close to what a real system would display; but some emulators (especially older ones), not so much. You'll still find plenty of screenshots floating around the internet with poor levels of accuracy. In some cases (especially for Atari it seems), you'll even see black and white or monochromatic screenshots when the developer had really intended for the game to be in color and that's what players would have truly been seen back in the day. Also, not all emulators support a simulated tint control so if you're playing one of these games you may end up stuck with the default colors regardless of your preference.

That's all for now...So until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and take care!

This page was updated 2024-03-04 to add Wilderness: A Survival Adventure to the article.