And while those captures are indeed pixel perfect snapshots taken from Amiga technology - so called 1:1 pixel perfect - back in the day nobody ever saw the output screens this way. Not the designers of the games nor the gamers themselves ever saw a single game on their 4:3 CRT displays in a pure 320x200 format. So, I decided to start to create my own images of the games we all love in the correct aspect ratio we all remember. Is it a task I’ll ever come close to finishing? Hell no. But I’ll at least have fun pecking away at it each week.
Back in the 1980s and early 90s, Amiga owners - usually when they first bought their machine - were expected to reach behind their monitor and twist a few adjustment knobs to ensure their computer’s picture fit their CRT 4:3 screen, whether it be on a computer monitor or broadcast TV.
Therefore, a 320x200 NTSC image created by the Amiga was physically stretched vertically to approximately 320x240 - 20% taller vertically than the computer’s literal output. This made the images taller vertically up and down just ever so slightly yet it made a world of difference.
I wrote about this issue in great detail in 2016 not long after launching AmigaLove. ￼The entire topic is extremely convoluted and at times quite complicated (especially when you include the PAL/NTSC differences into the mix) but researching the issues were enough to help me educate myself about this pervasive problem around how history is being saved and presented to future generations. Shot97Retro created an excellent video on the subject; it is long but gets to most of the relevant nitty gritty for those interested in this problem.
There is also an incredible article on Gamasutra about the amazing differences between pure pixels and NTSC signal artifacts mixed with CRT distortion which is a whole other topic worth considering. For example, most of the indie retro games out there are created in a very pixelated fashion but aren’t displayed the same way as they were 30 years ago. So they look similar, but different.
And you know it’s bad when legendary Amiga artist Jim Sachs even laments about how everyone presents his games incorrectly online these days.
I became convinced of a few things early on:
- To invest in CRTs. This ensured not only the correct aspect ratio for games and other software, but it also guaranteed the natural pixel dithering and color blending that can only be reliably created on a CRT monitor. Plus - everything looks perfect in-person. No harsh jaggies, no completely flat lifeless colors.
- To take actual pictures of my screens with a camera for all game reviews, and not use screen-capture tools if possible. This is an extremely time intensive way to capture computer game visuals, and the results are not always pretty. But this dedication to the process does have many more pros than cons in my view. Most importantly it nearly guarantees that the game images presented are how they were viewed from a historical perspective, too - by those creating as well as consuming the content.
That being said…
Back in the day there were also needs by content creators to take images of their screens and put them into magazines and other print media. Imagine it is 1986. You don't have a digital camera - only film. You don't even have a way to preview a shot before taking a picture. If you do happen to have a camera and know how to use it with a CRT screen without capturing distortion, you then have to find a way to get that screen into print, which means you need (an Amiga) to digitize it.
It would have all been a very lengthy and costly process indeed.
Today, these kind of issues are barely an afterthought. Both Windows and Mac OSX have had built-in ways to capture entire screens, active screens or custom cropped screens right from the OS.
On Windows, one can press the Windows Key + Print Screen to capture an entire screen and automatically save the image in the Pictures > Screenshots folder. It’s not super fancy but it works, and there are free apps out there that give Windows users more creative control.
On Mac OSX there are really fantastic built-in screenshot tools which save captures to the desktop. One can either do entire screens by pressing Command + Shift + 3, or specific user-drawn regions by pressing Command + Shift + 4.
What about the Amiga?
The Amiga has no built-in screen capture software.
Back in 1986, a small software company called Discovery Software International (yes, the same people who brought us Arkanoid!) created a handy piece of software called GRABBiT. This utility comes on a single floppy disk and, supposedly when launched, only uses 10K of RAM. That’s pretty fantastic. GRABBiT can be easily installed to hard drives if you have one or used from a floppy drive. It requires that you use an Assign program, or command, so you can tell it where you want the screen grabs to go. You’re given the option to print the screens (literally, print to paper), or save them to a second floppy drive or any other kind of drive you have attached. Since my machine has plenty of hard drive space I actually put the Assign statements in my S:Startup-Sequence file so they get loaded when I boot-up my machine. Then, I just launch GRABBiT whenever I want to use it.
So - what does GRABBiT do - and who cares!?
It allows you to "print or save any screen, from any program anytime!"
To be completely honest, it creates screen capture files that look exactly like what one might pull from an emulator - an exact 320x200 image for NTSC screens. It does have the ability to grab higher resolutions, too. ￼The files here are automatically named by GRABBiT. GI (grabbit) 4L (large resolution) and the numbers are added sequentially.
How to use GRABBiT:
Assign where the files should go. Either use the program on the floppy that will do this for you every time you want to capture some screen grabs, or edit your startup sequence.
To save your images to your main floppy drive:
Assign GRAB: DF0:
To save your images to your secondary floppy drive, in a folder you’ve created:
Assign GRAB: DF1:Pictures
To save your images to your RAM drive:
Assign GRAB: RAM:
To save to a folder on one of your hard drives:
Assign GRAM: DH1:Pictures
And so on.
After launching the program (if you aren’t executing it from your startup sequence) you invoke GRABBiT at any time using a series of keyboard commands, just like a modern OS.
Press all three of these at the same time:
CTRL ALT P (P)rint the front screen. Unless you’ve got a printer, this is useless.
CTRL ALT S (S) the front screen to disk <— what I do.
CTRL ALT N Brings the (N)ext screen to the front.
CTRL ALT C (C)ancel the GRABBiT Print operation. Good to know, just in case.
CTRL ALT Q (Q)uit GRABBiT
That’s it. Super simple.
The files it creates will be IFF files - an ancient file format created by Electronic Arts along with Commodore/Amiga back in 1985 - which amazingly Photoshop still supports.
I used GRABBiT to capture the intro screen of Starflight 2. Here is what that looks like verbatim without any editing. You can see right off the bat that this image looks pretty good, but in reality it is being squashed vertically. The colors are deep and vibrant, but the CRT scaliness are missing as is the pixel dithering and, frankly, it is lacking in natural color glows. Still looks cool, though, I think we'll all agree.
But no one, not even the original designers, ever saw the artwork this way back in the day.
The circles are a bit chubby, but the truth is focusing on circles as proof is a fallacy. These designers used tools like Deluxe Paint, and what they saw on screen looked much more like the photo below. Look at the light bouncing off the crest of the blue planet the shiny reflections in the insect-like alien’s eyes… Now, you’ll also notice that the blue outline of the image does not go to the very edge of the monitor’s screen. There is about a 1.5 cm border of black - that is a natural fact of life for CRT monitors. Sometimes you could stretch them to fit, but the border is consistent all of the way around so the aspect ratio is correct and proportional to the monitor’s viewing pane. It's 4:3.
Here is the "1:1 pixel perfect" GRABBit capture and the photo, side by side. ￼
One of the advantages of the screen capture is that you don’t get the glass curvature distortions. But again, this is exactly how the images were seen when they were created, so screen curvatures aren't a bad thing.
However, back in the day, print publications nine times out of ten would have preferred the straight, flat screen grabs when placed inside their print layouts. It would have given them straight lines, solid color fills and true blacks without any editing. The only thing some might want to have done was stretch the screens vertically to fit a 4:3 box.
I’ve almost always tried to make my images fit to 640x480 or somewhere very close to that. That is perfect 4:3. The truth is, mine usually have black borders around them, too, inside that rectangle and aren't always 100% perfect, but they are historically accurate representations to the best of my ability.
There are times when I simply can’t get a good picture of game. Either it’s too action packed and I get a ton of motion blur, or the colors on-screen are simply too high-contrast and too difficult to capture. For example, I had a heck of a time with Desert Strike’s color palette. Everything shifted in hue where yellows would become greens, etc.
GRABBiT is a good fall-back choice for me in cases like that now. If I can’t get a good shot, I’ll load GRABBiT and use its simple keyboard commands to save some pictures to my hard drive.
But I won’t stop there.
I’ll take the files into Photoshop and stretch them to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s just something that needs to happen. I’m not going to put some goofy scanline effect over the image, but I will ensure it isn’t presented in widescreen format.
So, the original 320x200 will get transformed into something like this in something like Photoshop: How to convert GRABBiT's image files - and how to fix screen-grabs for any platforms that output 300x200
You need to move the file from your Amiga (or whatever) to your PC or Mac. I use Amiga Explorer and a null modem cable.
Before we go any further, I need to point out that it's simply fantastic that Adobe still supports Amiga's native IFF image format. Every now and then a big corp deserves a bit of praise for the things they get right.
Once you import your IFF image into Photoshop, when you change the image size you also then change the Resample algorithm to “Nearest neighbor (hard edges)”. This virtually guarantees you won’t get any pixel dithering when you resize things. To have the most flexibility, one should scale an 320x200 image to 1600x1200, then scale down to 640x480 or whatever size is desired. This is called the 5/6 method, which is explained beautifully here.
I can then create a Photoshop “Action” of my previous steps, which is an automated batch process I can run on an entire folder of images. This won’t be my go-to way to grab all images going forward, but it’ll be my solid second choice for games I can’t seem to capture accurately. It’ll at least allow me to get closer than simply pulling a file out of the hardware or emulator and leaving it as-is, which isn’t right. It still doesn’t look as good as a CRT image, but at least it's aspect ration will be technically accurate. And to folks like Jim Sachs, that's a really big deal. That's good enough for me.
I’ve pulled the ADF for GRABBiT off my original disk, and I’m providing it here for download in case any of you want to play around with it, too. Just promise me if you use it you’ll stretch your images afterwards if you can!