Dealing with a limited palette

The color palette I’ve chosen for Cascade Quest consists of the combinations of the sixteen EGA colors (to simulate the palette used by those old games, which often dithered two colors together). Since color A combined with B is the same as B combined with A, there are only 136 actual colors instead of 256. Not only that, but several combinations result in the same color, so there are really only 126 distinct colors.

This fixed palette poses a number of creative issues when it comes to choosing colors. I’ve already gone into some detail as to how I support blending two colors, but in this post I’ll talk about choosing colors from an artistic perspective.

The sixteen colors on each axis (the original EGA colors show up on the top left to bottom right diagonal). This isn’t very useful for choosing colors.


This is an attempt to organize the colors in a more useful way: hue left to right, various saturation bands top to bottom, and brightness top to bottom in those bands.

Choosing colors by specifically specifying the two source EGA colors also isn’t very easy, since the resulting color the combinations would make isn’t always obvious.

Some of the questions I need to answer when choosing a palette are:

  • What other colors are similar to this one, but lighter or darker? (or less saturated, etc…)
  • What other colors are extremely similar to this one?
  • I need a dark area, what good color choices do I have?


Variations around a certain hue

For example, for a certain area I wanted to have an orange and greyscale palette. The greyscale colors are fairly well known, but I wanted a quick way to figure out my options for orange colors.

An orange metal tube, using colors chosen with my tool.

In the fast palette lookup post, I mentioned a quick tool I made to let me visualize my set of colors. I extended it to encompass different color spaces, and let me click on a color to get its palette index.


In addition to RGB, I have:

  • HSV
  • HSL
  • The most useful one, what I call “perceptual HSL”, where luminance is actually the perceived brightness. The human eye responds to green light the most, and blue light the least. Thus (0, 0.2, 0) is perceived to be much brighter than (0, 0, 0.2). More details can be found here.

Here’s a screenshot showing the colors I’ve used for orange objects in the “orange and greyscale” areas:

Five “orange-ish” colors of varying brightness.


Dark colors

The dark colors are pretty limited, and my color visualizers tell me that I should probably focus on blue or purple colors if I want variety in dark colors.

Similar colors

If I want to place some somewhat hidden messages in the game – like a color that’s only slightly different from another – this let’s me easily see that.


Color $78 is one of the greyscale colors (they are arranged along a column in the middle in this screenshot), but color $36 (a mix of teal and brown) is very close, and could be useful for a secret message written on a rock, say.


I have the ability to remap palette indices, so a secret message could be made very visible with a special light in game of course (that “remaps” the surrounding area). But it’s kind of a nice touch that when it’s “invisible”, it’s still actually just slightly visible (or completely invisible if I choose base color combinations that result in identical colors – Void Quest used this somewhere, for a hidden thing at night…).

Re-evaluating color choices

I can also look at palette choices I’ve made. I use five main colors for the “summit” scenes in the first act of the game.

Rock colors

I can visualize those five colors in my tool:


The summit rock colors

You’ll note that they are all completely identical hues, which maybe isn’t the best choice. Shadows should generally be a little bluer, and highlights a little more yellow. So I might be able to find a better option (although it looks like my choices are a little limited in this region of the color wheel).

As I become more conscious about palette choice, hopefully this tool will help me out in making good decisions.



2 Comments on “Dealing with a limited palette

  1. That’s a pretty neat system you’ve got for more intuitive/guided palette decision making. Thanks for sharing!

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