Your guide to the labyrinth of 8-bit terms

If you’re new to the world of 8-bit computers or you had one such a long time ago that you forgot some of the terms, you can look for help in our glossary. The answers you can find here are mostly in relation to 8-bit gaming and simplified. We just want to give you a quick explanation of a term you don’t know and maybe a bit funny description of the terms you almost certainly know. If you’re a techie interested in how stuff works, try the same entry on Wikipedia (e.g., if you want to read a doctoral thesis on a simple gaming term, look up “platform game” there). If you encounter an 8-bit specific term not covered in this glossary, let us know.

8-bit computer A computer that can work with one 8-bit number (0-255) at a time. In a narrower sense, used at, we mean the home computers most popular in the 1980s: the 8-bit Ataris, Commodores, CPCs, Spectrums, etc.

Action game A game whose completion requires rather good reflexes and well timed moves than solving puzzles or setting strategies.

Action adventure / Action adventure game A combination of an action game and an adventure game. Such games cannot be completed without solving a series of puzzles but still require the player to, e.g., avoid and/or shoot enemies, make well timed jumps, etc. See also Action game, Adventure game.

Adventure / Adventure game A game whose completion requires the player to solve a series of puzzles. Adventure games feature a story through which the player progresses by solving the puzzles (which distinguishes them from the so-called logical games). Good adventure games provide both a gripping story as well as interesting puzzles whose solving gives the player a feeling of achievement. See also Logical game.

Amstrad CPC The best 8-bit computer platform of all time (entry supplied by the Amstrad CPC editor of

Atari 8-bit The best 8-bit computer platform of all time (entry supplied by the Atari 8-bit editor of

Attribute clash / Color clash Many 8-bit computer platforms had their graphics limited by the number of colors available in an 8×8 dots area. Usually, the number of available colors was 2 or 4. Unless on-screen action was realized through hardware sprites where available, these limitations showed whenever a player/enemy was put next to or in front of a background object. Let’s take an example of a player character walking in front of a tree. Even if the player character was just one color, the tree also just one color, and the rest of the background (sky) also just one color, the programmer would have needed three colors in certain 8×8 dot areas while being limited to two. Therefore the player character often took the background color to be visible in front of the object (or vice versa). To avoid the attribute clash, many games (most famously on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers) adopted fully monochromatic approach to the graphics in “action part” of the screen. See also Sprite/PMG graphics.

AY-3-8910 (mostly shortened to just AY) The sound chip used in the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128/+2/+3, Amstrad CPC, MSX, and other 8-bit computers. Has 3 voices with separate outputs, thus allowing for stereo separation. Just like the the POKEY in the 8-bit Ataris and the SID in the 8-bit Commodores, it has an unmistakable unique sound. See also POKEY, SID.

BASIC A computer programming language used on the 8-bit computers based on an on-the-fly interpretation of the code. Several games were programmed in BASIC, but they’re not too fast.

Beeper/Buzzer/Speaker Some computers didn’t have dedicated sound chips for generating sound effects, such as SID on the C64, but were still able to produce a primitive sound trough a small speaker built-in. The most known example is Sinclair Spectrum with its 1-bit beeper producing awesome sounds in games. See also AY, POKEY, SID.

Bit The smallest unit of digital information. Has only two states that can represent if the information is present or not present. So yes, bits in fact are the famous zeros and ones.

Building simulator See Simulation game / Simulator.

Byte A unit of digital information that most commonly consists of 8 bits. A byte therefore contains a value from 0 to 255.

Cartridge A hardware based board with a ROM chip containing usually a game program, which had to be inserted into the corresponding computer/console slot. The cartridge based system had an advantage of fast, mostly immediate loading of the program into the computer and being not possible to be copied. Cartridges were used on 8-bit consoles like NES, Game Boy, Master System, Atari VCS, but some computer systems had also an option to use them, like the C=64 or Atari 800. Another type of cartridges popular on the home computers were the so-called freezer cartridges that allowed the user to interrupt the running of the program and then alter the contents of the memory or store them onto external media. These cartridges were therefore often used for removing copy protections or storing the game in the state in which it was immediately after loading, thus bypassing the copy protection of single-file games.

Cassette tape A storage medium on a magnetic base used to store sound information. Cassettes were widely used from the 1960s to the 1990s. With the home computer boom in the 1970s/80s they were used as a cheap and available storage media for home computer programs and games.

Cheat A change to the game’s program that makes the game easier for the player, typically giving the player unlimited lives, unlimited time to complete a level, etc. Also called a Trainer.

Color clash See Attribute clash.

Commodore 64 The best 8-bit computer platform of all time (entry supplied by the C=64 editor of

Compatibility A 6502 CPU based C=64 system can not run games for a Z80 CPU based Sinclair Spectrum system due to CPU and architecture incompatibility. They use different CPU instructions, the systems’ architecture is different. In the 80s, the 8-bit computers were incompatible with each other. If you had a C=64, you couldn’t play games for the Atari, unless someone had made a software conversion. For example, you can play Boulder Dash on the C=64 as well as on the Atari, but you cannot run the Atari version on the C=64 and vice versa.

Copy protection Protection against unauthorized copying. Basically, in the 8-bit times, there were two main schools of copy protection: data structure and requests for information. Protection through altered data structure included, for example, hard to reproduce artificial errors on original game disks; if the program didn’t encounter that error, it assumed it was running from an illegal copy (and sometimes formatted the disk right away to punish the user). Requests for information typically asked the user to look up a word or code in the game’s manual. Without being given the right answer (from hundreds or thousands of possible combinations), the game wouldn’t run.

CPU Central Processing Unit aka the microprocessor of the computer. Controls the computer’s behavior with a given program. 8-bit systems mostly used a variant of Z80 or a 6502 processors. These CPUs are not compatible with each other. See Compatibility.

Crack A game stripped of its copy protection.

Cracker Advanced user capable of stripping a game of its copy protection (cracking it). Minority of 8-bit crackers cracked games to sell them to other users; most crackers did it for the sport of it or to attain status in the community.

Cracktro Introduction to a cracked copy of a game. Usually included a logo of the cracking group and a short scrolling message concerning the game and/or relationship to other crackers (ranging from friendly greetings to declarations of war). Cracktros were often followed by an offer to use one or more cheats (see Cheat).

Custom chip Most computer systems of the 80s had a dedicated hardware to control the graphics and sound. The hardware was based around the custom chips. These were usually produced by the system’s manufacturer and contained a complex logic of a bigger circuit ecosystem. They had specific abilities that gave the systems their unique feelings, in a sense of number and use of colors, graphics resolution, hardware sprites, sound abilities, peripheral control of keyboards, joysticks, I/O ports, etc.

Demo (Game) A limited game program that demonstrates a full version of the game by letting user to play just one level or having some features of the full game locked/unimplemented. Its aim is to motivate the player to buy the full version of the game. See Game.

Demo (Scene) A non-profit computer program showcasing various programming techniques. See Scene, The.

Difficulty level See Game difficulty level.

Disk drive / Floppy disk drive A hardware device connected to the computer that could read and write data on floppy disks. Some late 80s systems had even built-in disk drives.

Emulator A computer program that can mimic an other (8-bit in our case) computer.

Emulator file A software file containing original software data for a vintage computer, originally usable only in an emulator. Nowadays, many 8-bit systems use modern peripherals to read emulator files directly from modern storage media such as SD cards, thus solving the problem of the relatively shorter life of hardware with moving mechanical parts (cassette players, disk drives) and magnetic media.

Fire / Fire button Most 8-bit computers used controllers — joysticks — that had only one button reserved for something else than direction controls. This one button was therefore used for shooting in action games, giving the button the “fire” nickname. Even joysticks that had more than one physical fire button had all the fires connected to the same pin, so pressing any of the buttons had the same effect.

Floppy disk A storage medium for computers used since 1970s. On some computer systems, floppy disks were the main media for game distribution. Floppy disks had different size and capacity, from 90 K to about 2 MB, depending on the system.

Game In the 8-bit times, a game was a piece of software that stood for having a good time (either alone or with one or more friends at the same place), enjoying some time off our world in a world created in part by the game’s authors and in part by the player’s imagination, and a challenge to master. Currently, the word “game” stands mostly for a series of scripted events interspersed with occasional input from the player. While in the past the wow effect came from interacting with the game, nowadays it’s based mostly on the graphics of the scripted parts. The freedom of having fun your way instead of having it just the one and only way the developers planned for the player is the reason why the staff stick to 8-bit games.

Game difficulty level Some 8-bit games and most of current 32-/64-bit games enable the player to set the amount of resistence the game will put to prevent the player from reaching the game’s end. In the 8-bit times, the challenge was considered an inherent part of the fun with the game. Approximate translation of current game difficulty levels to 8-bit terms:
PC — 8-bit
Easy/Casual — #N/A
Normal — Dead easy
Hard — Easy
Very hard — Normal
Hell — Hard

Game Over The unfavorable ending of a game, usually caused by the player running out of lives or time required for completing a level or the whole game. With the first commandment of current game development being, “Thou shalt not frustrate thy player!”, “game over” becomes a term that needs to be explained in a glossary.

Gfx A short for the word “graphics” often used in the home computer scene. See also Scene, The.

Graphician A term for the graphics artist often used in the home computer scene. See also Scene, The.

Inlay A piece of paper inserted in a cassette tape case or a floppy disk case of the original game with nicely designed graphics, screenshots from the game and instructions how to load it into the computer. Some of them contain a story around the game and instructions how to control it. Sometimes, there are codes required by the copy protection system in the game.

Intro A series of pictures or animations in the beginning of a game providing a lead-in for the situation in which the player starts the game. In a wider sense, anything preceding the game itself, e.g., a cracktro. See also Cracktro.

Joystick The most frequently used game controller for the 8-bitters, consisting of a vertical stick coming out of a flat base. On the top of the stick and/or on the base of the joystick, there was one or more buttons (see Fire / Fire button). The joysticks were digital controllers, mostly featuring 4 direction switches (up/down/left/right) and one button switch (even if the joystick had more buttons, they were usually still connected to one and the same pin, resulting in just one action). Diagonal directions were reached by pressing two switches simultaneously (e.g. left+up), allowing for up to 18 different inputs from the joystick (8 directions, 8 directions + button pressed, only button pressed, no input/default).

Jump and run A 2D action game where the main character has very limited to no means of self-defense against the enemies and therefore has to avoid them through jumping and running. According to Wikipedia, jump and runs are synonymous with platform games. According to us, they are not completely the same, but who are we to argue with the masses? See also Platform game.

Level (also Stage) A self-contained part of a computer game that marks the player’s progress through the game. If a game is divided into levels, the player usually can’t leave the level until (s)he has fulfilled the task there (solve a puzzle, kill all enemies, find the exit, etc.). Often, but not always, the loss of a life in a level means the players lose their progress and are put to the beginning of the level again.

Level-skipper A cheat installed by a cracker that mapped a key originally not used by the game to jumping directly to the code executed after successful completion of a level, thus allowing the player to skip levels.

Loader A part of a computer program that takes care of loading further parts of it from a storage medium. In a narrower sense a custom code different from the system’s default way of data loading. The two most frequent reasons for including a custom loader were speeding up the loading process and/or the loader’s code being a part of a copy protection scheme.

Loading error / Load error A common error message appearing when something went wrong while trying to load a program into the computer. With some game loading times exceeding five minutes, this message was a big source of frustration for many 8-bit gamers.

Loading stripes Many games that came on tape had a special way of loading differently from the system’s default way. The games had colourful title pictures, sometimes even a music, and the fancy loading stripes in the border area of the screen indicating the (mostly slow) loading process. Stripes were also used by several disk loaders on selected systems like the C=64.

Logical game A game whose completion requires solving a series of puzzles, usually set in inreasingly difficult levels. What differentiates logical games from adventure games is the lack of a progress through a story. While the goal of an adventure game is to bring the story to a happy ending, the goal of a logical game is to solve all the puzzles. Usually, each puzzle is self-contained, must be solved wihin a certain time limit, and the series of the puzzles is strictly linear. See also Adventure game.

Kilobyte 1024 bytes. Most 8-bit systems are based on a kilobyte style measured amount of data. 8-bit CPUs can address 64K of memory, which means 65536 bytes (1024 x 64).

Machine code A programming language of instructions executed directly by the CPU of the computer. Most of the games on 8-bit systems were programmed in this language.

MHz One thousandth (1/1000) of a GHz. The speed of an 8-bit CPU is typically between 1 and 3 MHz, i.e., an 8-bit CPU is 1000+ times slower than one core of a current PC. Therefore it remains an enigma why you often have much more fun with 8-bit games than with the current productions.

MSX Standing for “Machines with Software eXchangeability”. An 8-bit computer platform developed in Japan as a standard for the 8-bit computers line produced by several manufacturers. Except Japan, it reached popularity in the Netherlands, Spain and the southern America.

Msx / Muz Shorts for the word “music” often used in the home computer scene. See also Scene, The.

NTSC A color encoding (in a wider sense video broadcasting) system for analogue TV that was used mainly in North America and Japan. Different from the PAL system used mainly in Australia, most of Europe, and parts of South America.  Therefore 8-bit computers had to be manufactured separately for the NTSC and PAL region. NTSC TV had 60 frames per second (as opposed to PAL’s 50), but one frame had less video lines. On 8-bit systems with fixed screen size, this meant that an NTSC programmer had less time to calculate the next frame while the not visible part of the frame (the so-called border) was being rendered. As a result, NTSC games ported to PAL ran about 16.7% slower, while technically demanding games designed for PAL were in turn extremely difficult to port to NTSC.

Paddle A special controller device based on a potentiometer, where the player had to turn the wheel to initiate a move in the game.

PAL A color encoding (in a wider sense video broadcasting) system for analogue TV that was used mainly in Australia, most of Europe, and parts of South America. Different from the NTSC system used in North America and Japan. Therefore 8-bit computers had to be manufactured separately for the PAL and NTSC region. PAL TV had 50 frames per second (as opposed to NTSC’s 60), but one frame had more video lines. On 8-bit systems with fixed screen size, this meant that a PAL programmer had more time to calculate the next frame while the not visible part of the frame (the so-called border) was being rendered. As a result, NTSC games ported to PAL ran about 16.7% slower, while technically demanding games designed for PAL were in turn extremely difficult to port to NTSC.

Paragraphs Some of the bigger RPGs told parts of the game story through numbered chunks of text, usually called “Paragraphs”, that the player received with the game in printed form. At certain points, the game would tell the player, e.g., “Read Paragraph 42.” It enhanced the story, helped save space on storage media, and served as a form of copy protection. The 8-bit times were the pre-Internet times, and printers / copy machines were much less spread than today, so copying a 30-page booklet was much more difficult than copying the game itself. The mini stories in the Paragraphs then could contain information without which the player couldn’t complete the game (like a password for a gate).

Platform game / Platformer A 2D action game where the environment features elements set to different heights (platforms). A major part of the game mechanics then is precise and well timed jumping between the platforms to prevent falling to death and being hit by enemies or their shots, etc. According to Wikipedia, platform games are synonymous with jump and runs. According to us, they are not completely the same, but who are we to argue with the masses? See also Jump and run.

Point and click adventure / Point and click adventure game An adventure game where the vast majority or all the input from the player comes through moving a cursor around the screen (pointing) and pressing the fire button (clicking) to indicate the action they want to take. Most frequently, this is realized through choosing a verb from an on-screen menu and combining it with a graphics element on the screen, e.g., Examine dead alien, Open treasure chest, Push red button, etc. The on-screen graphics are then updated according to the results of the player’s actions. See also Text adventure game.

Poke A command in the BASIC language (see BASIC) directly altering a particular cell (address) in the computer’s memory. In 8-bit gaming, pokes had two main uses. One was to install cheats (e.g., a part of the code subtracting one life when the player died was changed to subtract zero lives, thus providing unlimited lives to the player). The other one was a rudimentary form of patching a faulty game. In the pre-Interent times, the player couldn’t just download a new version of the game, and it was too expensive to produce replacement storage media. As a consequence, games were thoroughly tested and contained no game-breaking bugs on release. If some were found later, the publisher then provided a set of pokes to fix the games. Both cheat pokes and patching pokes were published by contemporary game magazines. See also Cheat.

POKEY Pot Keyboard Integrated Circuit, a chip used in the Atari 8-bit computers. Apart from reading the keyboard and game paddles, it has the ability to generate sound and is therefore mostly known as “the Atari 8-bit sound chip.” Has 4 mono voices. Just like the AY in the Sinclairs and the SID in the 8-bit Commodores, it has an unmistakable unique sound. Musicians in the current Atari 8-bit community often add a second POKEY to their computer and create 8-voice stereo compositions. See also AY, SID.

RAM A memory in the computer which can read and store data (Random Access Memory). On the 8-bit systems, it’s measurable in Kilobytes. E.g., the Commodore 64 has 64K of RAM, the Spectrum has 48K of RAM.

Reset A way to reboot the computer to its initial state, usually a hardware button. The term Reset can be associated with resetting the counter on the tape recorder as well.

RPG Role-playing game. Originally a game in which the player controls one or more characters with unique abilities (plays roles). Usually, RPGs are characterized by a more elaborate narrative and background than other game genres, and the possibility to improve the characters’ abilities (“gaining levels”) as they progress through the game (“gain experience”). Nowadays, terms like “RPG elements” in PC gaming refer mainly to improving the statistics of the characters.

ROM A memory in the computer which can read data only (Read Only Memory). On 8-bit systems, this memory is used for operating system of the computer and the BASIC language interpreter.

Ruler simulator See Simulation game / Simulator.

Run ‘n’ Gun A shoot ’em up game where the main character travels afoot and uses a rifle to negotiate the levels.

Scene, The A vague term referring to people being active on a computer platform. Often reduced to people being creatively active on the platform. Yet even this does not define the community exactly. E.g., swappers, who exchanged software via mail before 8-bit distribution moved chiefly to e-mailing emulator files (that current 8-bit hardware is also capable of reading), were also considered a part of the scene. The term was often narrowed further. E.g., the cracking scene referred to cracking groups only, the demo scene to people creating non-profit programs showcasing various programming techniques, the PAL and NTSC scenes referred to the European+Australian vs. the American scene (determined by the video standard), etc. See also Cracker, PAL, NTSC.

Seeing the end sequence A cheat sometimes installed by crackers, especially on the Commodore 64, offering to skip the whole game and watch just the game’s ending (if it has one). Why anyone would want to do that beats us, but hey, this is just a glossary, not a psychology handbook. See also Cracker.

Shooter / Shoot ’em Up / SHMUP A game whose objective the player mostly reaches by shooting. The goal usually is either to shoot waves of enemies coming at the player or move through the level to its end while shooting enemies. After all the levels the game has are cleared, there usually is an ending screen—the player has won—or the game puts the player back into level 1 (sometimes with increased difficulty level), resulting in the player having to play until (s)he loses.

SID Sound Interface Device, the sound chip used in the Commodore 64 (and other Commodore 8-bit computers). Has 3 mono voices. Just like the AY in the Sinclairs and the POKEY in the 8-bit Ataris, it has an unmistakable unique sound. See also AY, POKEY.

Simulation game / Simulator A game focusing on portraying a certain activity in a great level of detail. They are mostly vehicle simulators (airplanes, helicopters, cars, trains, etc.), building/ruler simulators (where the players have to manage limited resources to ensure long term survival and development of a city, kingdom, etc.), and strategy games (most frequently war simulations).

Sinclair ZX Spectrum The best 8-bit computer platform of all time (entry supplied by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum editor of

Space shoot ’em up A shoot ’em up game set in space. Usually, the player controls a spacecraft.

Sprite/PMG graphics Hardware-supported graphics ability of some 8-bit computers (e.g., sprites on the C=64, PMG—Player-Missile Graphics—on the 8-bit Ataris), enabling the programmer to superimpose small objects on the rest of the graphics on the screen by just setting their shapes, colors, and screen coordinates. As moving sprites/PMGs wasn’t demanding on CPU power, they were mostly used for the moving objects in computer games (the player’s character and the enemies). The number of sprites/PMGs was limited, but advanced programming techniques allowed for using them more extensively than originally expected by the hardware’s developers. E.g., even though the Commodore 64 has 8 hardware sprites, they can be used to animate more than 8 objects on the screen. Systems that didn’t have hardware sprites (e.g., the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers) required more computing resources to program on-screen action. Another problem was the graphics—the programmers and graphics artists had to anticipate situations in which the players and enemies were put in front of the background, while many 8-bit platforms had a limited number of colors available in an 8×8 dots area. See also Attribute clash.

Stage See Level.

Strategy game See Simulation game / Simulator.

Tape counter A mechanical part of a cassette tape recorder usually displaying numbers from 000 to 999 and letting the user to orientate better in the program recordings on the cassette tape. See also Reset, Cassette tape, Tape recorder.

Tape recorder / Cassette tape recorder A hardware device connected to the computer being able to read and store data on standard audio cassette tapes. Some systems like Amstrad CPC 464 or Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 had these units built-in.

Text adventure / Text adventure game An adventure game where the input from the player comes in the form of text, usually in a verb-noun form (e.g., Go north, Open door, etc.). The game then describes the results of the player’s action, also in text form. See also Point and click adventure / Point and click adventure game.

Trainer See Cheat.

Turbo A method of speeding up loading and saving process on tape or disk.

Vehicle simulator See Simulation game / Simulator.