Font size: How big is big enough?

Discussion of programming and development for the original Game Boy and Game Boy Color.
Post Reply
Posts: 22327
Joined: Sun Sep 19, 2004 11:12 pm
Location: NE Indiana, USA (NTSC)

Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by tepples » Thu Jan 17, 2019 6:07 pm

A few days ago, I had a relative try one of my Game Boy games, and she complained that the text in a font size typical for the platform (compare Pokémon generations 1 and 2 or Hamtaro: Ham-Hams Unite) was too small for her to read. So I took her into another room and had her try it on a Super Game Boy, and it was fine.

Later, someone was discussing video game accessibility on Twitter. I asked about this case, and in this thread on Twitter, Ian Hamilton replied:
One thing you definitely can't do is assume that popular games do a good job! Font size is pretty awful across the board. What your playtester was saying was that Pokémon and hamtaro are too small.
you can't multiply up like that, because the ratio between screen size and viewing distance is different
So I did the math myself.

In the web formatting standard CSS, the unit px doesn't necessarily mean one hardware pixel. It's the round number of hardware pixels closest to 1/2688 of the distance from the eye to the screen. This approximates the length of a pixel on a desktop computer before high-density displays became common, or 96 dpi at 28 inches away. This 2688px per radian is slightly coarser than the nominal visual acuity of the eye: one pixel per arc minute, or 180*60/pi = 3438 pixels per radian. This is why a typical PC display, with one pixel per px, isn't considered a Retina display.

W3C's article "em, px, pt, cm, in…" serves as an accessible introduction to CSS units:
To get an idea of the appearance of a px, imagine a CRT computer monitor from the 1990s: the smallest dot it can display measures about 1/100th of an inch (0.25mm) or a little more. The px unit got its name from those screen pixels.
From the official spec, "CSS Values and Units Module Level 3" section "Reference Pixel":
The reference pixel is the visual angle of one pixel on a device with a pixel density of 96dpi and a distance from the reader of an arm's length. For a nominal arm's length of 28 inches, the visual angle is therefore about 0.0213 degrees. For reading at arm's length, 1px thus corresponds to about 0.26 mm (1/96 inch).
So how many CSS px are in the display of a Game Boy compact video game system? When I hold a handheld, my wrists rest on my ribcage, which is a lot closer than arm's length. I measured myself as holding my Game Boy 270 mm (10.6") away from my eyes. Its screen is roughly 64 mm (2.5") diagonally, and by the Pythagorean theorem, that's (160^2+144^2)^.5 = 215 hardware pixels. But at 270 mm away, a 64 mm screen subtends 64/270*2688 = 637px. Thus in CSS terms, 1px equals one-third of the length of a hardware pixel, implying a 3x zoom to 480x432 on a desktop monitor. This would make the 8 pixel tall font on the Game Boy equivalent to a 24px tall web font.

So I suspect that the observation "8 pixels is not tall enough" must have some other cause. I can make a couple guesses:
  • The shadow effect, where the LCD blocks light on both the way in and the way out. The distance from the plane of the liquid crystal to the reflector combines with the oblique angle of incident light to cause parallax (misalignment) between inbound and outbound pixel planes. Apparent on Game Boy (DMG) and Game Boy Pocket (MGB); absent on Game Boy Color (CGB) and later.
  • Presbyopia, or farsightedness (inability to focus on close-up things) due to hardening of the lens in an older person's eye. This is the sort of condition for which reading glasses or bifocals compensate.
Did I miss something?

Posts: 331
Joined: Sun Jan 26, 2014 9:31 am

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by Shonumi » Thu Jan 17, 2019 8:10 pm

Simpler answer could have been lighting was an issue. It's not just the shadow effect of the LCDs on DMGs and MGBs, not having backlights (or even frontlights) can be hard for people on any Game Boy model. I wonder if the situation would have improved if you'd given this relative an AGS-101 (or even a 001). It makes a world of difference. Also should help with contrast, which may have been an issue for your relative too. Obviously when playing on an SGB, you eliminate all lighting problems (well, if your TV/display is working just fine).

Anyway, 8px should be enough as far as height goes. There are other things that can help readability (increasing letter space, ALL CAPS, the font itself). I'd say adjust the width as you see fit (which may mean rendering text via meta-tiles). Another rule of thumb would be to maximize contrast (avoid drawing fonts on the DMG/MGB with Colors 1 and 2, use 0 or 3 with the other as the BG). Dunno how useful this anecdote is, but Star Ocean: Blue Sphere uses 8x8 for the whole game, and I'm pretty sure it puts more dialog on a cart than any other Game Boy JRPG. Kanji is pain to read for beginners but it manages hiragana and katakana well enough. So, the Latin (or English if you want to be super specific) alphabet shouldn't prove too difficult, in light of that.

Posts: 1329
Joined: Tue Oct 06, 2015 10:16 am

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by calima » Fri Jan 18, 2019 1:51 am

They're probably just getting old. 8x8 GB fonts are fine for most folks. I recently played Dragon Warrior 3 for GBC, and it surprisingly had a 8x16 font, so some GB games do use larger too.

Posts: 1817
Joined: Tue May 28, 2013 5:49 am
Location: Hokkaido, Japan

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by Pokun » Fri Jan 18, 2019 4:10 am

Yeah 8x8 should be fine for most things. I personally never had any problems reading anything in any commercial Game Boy game English or Japanese, including Zelda, Pokemon and Seiken Densetsu. Backlighting is a problem on original GBA and sometimes on GBC but the DMG uses a green-yellow LCD which shouldn't need backlighting as long as the contrast is turned up (an aged screen may be a problem though I guess).

User avatar
Posts: 46
Joined: Fri Jan 04, 2019 5:31 pm
Location: France, right of a pile of consoles

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by ISSOtm » Fri Jan 18, 2019 6:17 am

I agree with Shonumi that contrast might have been a problem. This would stand especially true on a DMG, where even colors 0 and 3 can bleed into eachother, and perhaps the contrast wheel wasn't adjusted to their taste. On CGB/AGB, you can have true black contrast with true white (or #eee, perhaps?)

As for font sizes, wider fonts imply one of two things: either more VRAM (fixed-width fonts), which is a cut-back on the tiles that can be allocated to the background; or significantly heavier logic (variable-width fonts).
Both further result in a loss of text density, which complicates writing the script (some of the lines in international GB Pokémon games sound fairly awkward due to the space constraints). Besides, this would have been a greater problem during the console's lifespan, but I'm inclined to think that most users now play their Game Boy games using emulators, where they can simply resize the window - at least on a desktop, I'm unsure about mobile emulators. (Note: would clicking L on an AGB also improve readability?)

tl;dr I think that "inaccessible" games are okay due to how constrained the medium is - making a game for non-disabled people is hard enough due to the small screen and lack of color diversity (even on CGB, where you can have up to 32 colors at once, barring hi-color which tends to be unsuitable for games). And the issue is void when playing on emulators, where the screen can simply be stretched.
The French Lord of Laziness (and a huge Legend of Zelda fan)
ASMu is laifu <3

User avatar
Posts: 1
Joined: Thu Mar 04, 2021 4:53 am

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by Alduinn » Thu Mar 04, 2021 4:54 am

It really depends on how good your sight is . I never had issues with Game Boy when I was using it. When it comes to the size of the font I think it's entirely has to do with what are you trying to achieve. I had projects at work that required me to use a luxurious and authoritative font in order to give a serious look when trying to promote the product itself.I had a client that was trying to promote skate shoes and he loved the looks of Kabel Bold and Bodega Sans Light (as seen in the first Super Smash Bros.) for his order. I tried using it for another client with women clothes and it looked too weird. It's way too objective.

[Removed link to probably infringing font download site, replacing with names --MOD]

Posts: 1343
Joined: Fri Feb 24, 2012 12:09 pm

Re: Font size: How big is big enough?

Post by nocash » Sat Mar 06, 2021 3:01 pm

As much as I do like wearing women clothes, I had never thought that I could look too weird with the wrong font download.
homepage - patreon - you can think of a bit as a bottle that is either half full or half empty

Post Reply