A Short History of Grabbing

In the beginning there was darkness.

No video games existed and therefore there were no grabs.

But then a brilliant light was emitted from a cathode ray tube in the late 1970s and suddenly there was a need for still images of video games.

Newspapers and magazines wanted to show the world what was out there. So photography did the trick. And pioneers like Cameron Pound (who created all the screenshots for Crash and Zzap!64 magazines) used regular 35mm film cameras and took photographs of games being played on television screens. The photographer was often shrouded in darkness, to avoid getting reflections on the screen. It was a labour-intensive way of doing things, but was the best technique, in terms of quality, throughout the 1980s.

ZX Spectrum Game by Mallo
The good old days of screen photography.

Then, in the 1990s, things changed with the advent of Macs and PCs and hardware and software grabbers.

A hardware grabber would receive a video signal from a games console or home computer, and take an RGB snapshot of the game being played. Usually to a Mac, but not always. One company I worked at used a modified Atari ST to get almost lossless quality screenshots from a Sega Megadrive. Hardware solutions were becoming available for the first time, and are still going strong to this day.

On the other side: software grabbers were tools that you could load, alongside a game, to take shots from within the game itself. Around the same time, games developers started adding in-built grabbers to their own games too, realising that it was to their own advantage to show the game in the best possible light. Built-in grabbers helped their marketing departments, magazines, advertisers – everyone. Why NOT have a built-in grabber?

In the early PC MS-DOS gaming days there was Screen Thief. A tiny TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) program that you loaded alongside your game. When you pressed the capture key it made a weird sound, like a farting duck being fed through a mangle, which let you know it was working. Screen Thief was a revelation back in the early days of the 1990s grabbing, and rescued many a games journalist from oblivion.

Screen Thief by Villa Software
PC MS-DOS intro for Screen Thief by Villa Software.

Fraps. Works wonders at recording both grabs, and video. When all else fails: try Fraps. Is the mantra these days. Don’t let anyone tell you that the art of video game grabbing is dead. Just point them to Fraps. Then laugh in their face.

If you’re having problems getting screenshots, Fraps often comes to the rescue.

Steam. Valve’s humongous games service has its own built-in grabber, and the Steam service has made grabbing truly mainstream. There is no doubting the fact that Steam has made the art of screenshotting popular globally. Just look in any community around any game. And if you look a bit deeper into the options you might notice that you can save a lossless copy of every screenshot you take, as well as your regular JPEGs. Works wonders on certain games!

Steam screenshot options
In the Steam In-Game options there is a tickbox that saves an uncompressed copy of screenshots into a folder for you.

And let me not forget the contribution that modern console manufacturers are making now, by adding in-built grabbers to PS4s and XBoxes, and also to emulator developers for making retro gaming so completely fun again. Emulators are just the shizzle, when it comes to grabbing. Well, some of them are. The best emulators are the ones that take grabbing seriously, in my opinion, and allow you some control over how to grab.

Just a suggestion
The developer of Spectaculator please take note… I really wish you’d improve the screen-capturing aspects of your great little emulator! 🙂

Your Master, The King of Grabs

Grabbing amazing video game screenshots one game at a time.

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