Worst color palette: ZX Spectrum or CGA?

The two ugliest color palettes in computer history... but which burns your eyes the most?

CGA (“Color Graphics Adapter”) appeared on IBM compatible PCs in 1981.

Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum computer one year later.

Apart from being released during the greatest decade the world has ever known (the 80’s ruled)… the two share another noteworthy distinction:

Both CGA and the ZX Spectrum have the worst looking color palettes in computer history.

Seriously. Just look at this:

That, right there, is “Skool Daze”. Considered to be one of the best games ever released for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer — it makes most (if not every) top 10 list.

And it is, I kid you not, one of the most “easy on the eyes” of all of the ZX Spectrum games.

But… what about CGA?


That right there is Commander Keen 4 running on an IBM PC with CGA graphics.

One of the most legendary gaming franchises and one of the better looking CGA titles.

Both of those screenshots are horrific, right?

But which is the worst? Which color palette — CGA or ZX Spectrum — is the absolute ugliest? Let’s settle this once and for all!

The CGA Palette

CGA had multiple graphics modes. And one of those modes (160 x 100 pixels) actually had a rather nice color palette! Seriously! Look at this:

That, right there, is a simple Pac-Man clone using the CGA’s 160x100 mode. Which allows a nice, pleasing, 16 color palette.

Here’s the crazy thing… this wasn’t really a 160x100 mode. At least it wasn’t intended that way. This was designed as a 40x25 character (text) mode. But through some creativity of how the built in CGA fonts are used, a clever developer can pull off some rather attractive results (like what you see above)!

Unfortunately… nobody used that mode.

Everyone used CGA’s 320x200 resolution mode.

Almost exclusively using what was known as “Palette 1”.

Black, White, Cyan, and Magenta.

Cyan. And Magenta.

Whoever decided those colors should be paired together needs to get the Old Yeller treatment.

It resulted in such abominations as this opening screen from Prince of Persia, one of the most beautiful, well designed games of the late 1980s.

Yeah. That’s… a look. To give a good comparison… here’s the exact same screen (at the exact same resolution) using the VGA color palette instead of CGA Palette 1.


And then here’s that same screen… in pure Black and White. Not even any shades of grey. Just Black and White.

The VGA and B&W versions are, objectively, beautiful. Whereas the CGA Color version is, objectively, the worst thing to ever happen to humanity.

Cyan and Magenta.


The color palette of CGA is so bad… it should not have ever been used. Sticking to just Black and White would have improved every single game title ever produced for CGA powered PCs.

The ZX Spectrum Color Palette

Which brings us to the ZX Spectrum. Here’s the basic palette.

8 colors.

Not beautiful colors, mind you, but 8 of them. On screen. At once. Which is better than CGA.

Again, though, we see Cyan and Magenta. Two colors which, I am convinced, exist purely to make computer games in the 1980s look terrible.

But, hey. There’s also Green and Red and Blue. Add in a little Yellow and a creative computer artist can accomplish quite a bit.

Right here we have one of the best looking games for the ZX Spectrum, from late in the platforms life — Cybernoid.

Are the colors garish and off-putting? You bet they are. But not quite as atrocious as the Cyan and Magenta hellscape of CGA.

If we were to stop right here, and make our decision of which color palette is the absolute worst… well… obviously. CGA is the worst. It’s just terrible.

But that only tells part of the story.

Because almost no ZX Spectrum games looked as good as Cybernoid.

Here are a two more screenshots of ZX Spectrum games considered to be among the best produced for the computer.

Again. These are the high water marks. Games on the ZX Spectrum are, objectively, among the ugliest ever created for any platform.

So ugly. Disturbingly, dream-hauntingly ugly.

Did they have to be that ugly? No. No, they did not. Their available color palette, while not good (the only palette more horrific being CGA), was at least somewhat serviceable.

Programmers and designers of ZX Spectrum games made a conscious decision to burn our eyeballs.

By comparison, here are some more CGA games. Heavy on the Cyan and Magenta.

Not attractive. To say the least.

Those are Magenta trees. Magenta.

Again. They should have simply used Black and White for the CGA version.

At this point I think we can make three, definitive, declarations:

1: CGA Palette 1 is the worst ever created.

2: Cyan and Magenta need to be banned from ever being used in any computer. Ever. No exceptions.

3: ZX Spectrum game developers were either color blind (or using only black and white TVs) or purposefully chose the worst looking colors possible when developing games. Because they hate you.

I highly suggest sharing this with all of your ZX Spectrum and CGA-loving friends. It’ll make them grumpy. And that’ll be entertaining.