Old game consoles are great. Not just because there are plenty of old games that are still worth playing, but because the simpler electronic designs of cartridge-based systems tend to be much more resistant to wear and tear than modern disc-based consoles, plenty of them are still around and in great working condition.
So why does your old Super NES or Sega Genesis look like junk on your brand new HDTV? It’s a combination of factors, but it mostly boils down to this: older game consoles were designed to work with older televisions—specifically the big cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs we remember from before LCDs took over the world.
Resolutions Don’t Match Up
If you’re plugging in a classic cartridge-based system for the first time in years, you might be expecting its pixel-based graphics to look something like modern pixel-art games like Stardew Valley or Hotline Miami. And while it’s true that these titles are very much inspired by both the art and the limitations of games from the 80s and 90s, an old console on a new TV won’t look anywhere near as crisp and clean as a new pixel art game. That’s because the hardware of these consoles is limited in the amount of resolution it can put out, as are the video cable standards from that era.
For example, most of the games on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System use a display resolution of just 256×224. Compared to a standard 1080p television at 1920×1080, it’s practically a postage stamp.
Based on your experiences with modern “retro” games, you’d expect it to look something like this, with every square pixel faithfully reproduced in a sharp picture:
But in fact, because the television has to take the low-resolution image and upscale it to display at the full HD resolution, resampling it as it enlarges, it will look more like this:
It wasn’t until the generation of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 that consoles caught up with full HD resolution, and even then, most of the games didn’t actually display that high. So anything from the PlayStation 2 or earlier is going to have at least some of these effects, with older consoles having even more pronounced blurriness. The problem is exacerbated with the difference between analog and digital cables.
You can mitigate it somewhat with higher-quality cables—S-Video is better than RCA (composite), and RCA is better than a standard RF connector. Some older consoles even have basic digital output options, like the Dreamcast’s VGA box. But at some point the picture can’t be improved on the original hardware, no matter what companies like Monster Cable would like you to believe.
Of course, the graphics in these games were created with these limitations in mind. The designers of the games knew that they’d be displayed in a softer, “fuzzier” manner than they were programming for on computer monitors, thanks to the bloom phosphor effect and occasionally the use of effects like scanlines. Game designers never really intended the pixel-perfect grid patterns you see in modern “pixel art” games to be displayed, or at the very least, never imagined that people would be playing with that sharp visual style. So while it’s possible to create a pixel-perfect display for some older games (see below), it might be considered less than authentic by some players.
…And Sometimes Aren’t Even Supported
240p signals sometimes aren’t even supported on modern TVs, leaving some entirely incompatible with consoles from the PlayStation era and earlier. The low resolution didn’t affect CRT televisions, partly because modern “X pixels by Y pixels” resolution values don’t really apply to the way CRT TVs actually form their image, and partly because more or less everything displayed on those televisions was automatically sized and cropped to the analog display.
But modern HDTVs don’t “expect” to be fed anything below VCR levels of quality (approximately 480 lines wide in analog format). As a result, some simply won’t display the image coming in from composite or RGB connections at all. When they do, some of the methods of rendering graphical effects, like flashing sprites scrolling animations, don’t display correctly. Simply put, it’s a mess.
Aspect Ratio Problems
Anyone old enough to remember “square” TVs knows that they used a different aspect ratio than we do today. Those televisions were 4:3, while today’s HDTVs are 16:9 widescreen—a much longer “rectangle” shape. So if you try to display an older console on a new television and it stretches the image to “full screen,” it will be about 1.5 times as wide as it’s intended to be. Most newer televisions can account for this in the image settings; you can set the aspect ratio to 4:3 manual or original. Alternately, you can “zoom” the image, but this will cut off a good portion of the top and bottom, possibly hiding essential game information like remaining lives or ammunition.
Again, some slightly newer consoles can account for newer TVs. Some games on the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox included a widescreen display mode for HDTVs, and by the time of the Xbox 360/PS3/Wii generation, most new games could account for a standard 16:9 ratio.
CRT televisions have fantastically fast image processing thanks to their analog setups, generally lowers than 3-4 milliseconds—below the point where most players can even notice it. The all-digital setups on modern televisions and monitors are more complex, and even an expensive gaming monitor will have an input lag of around 8 milliseconds. More typically, televisions will have considerably higher display lag, especially when upscaling from analog video sources like old consoles.
This might not seem like a big deal, but it is if you’re serious about your game. Fighting games especially measure response times precisely, sometimes in just one or two frames of animation. If you plug your SEGA Genesis into your new HDTV for some Street Fighter II action, you might suddenly find that your character is missing combos and blocks much more often than you remember.
This kind of delay isn’t a big deal for most content; as long as the video and audio is in sync, watching a movie isn’t negatively affected by having the picture take a fraction of a second longer to display on screen. But it can be seriously distracting for some older video games.
How to Get a Better Image for Your Classic Games
That’s all mighty interesting, but what can you do about it? If you prefer the modern, pixel-perfect look, you have a few options.
If you happen to have a newer gaming system with access to old titles via digital download, the experience on HDTVs is pretty great. The Xbox 360/PS3/Wii machines and their newer incarnations handle upscaling on the game console, displaying the original aspect ratio and resolution in pixel-perfect clarity. Of course, these retro games generally have to be re-purchased on stores like Nintendo’s Virtual Console, often at surprisingly high prices.
Recently some game companies have also been re-releasing collections of classic games on updated, all-digital hardware, like the SNES Classic. These look fantastic on modern displays as well, thanks to careful tuning from the manufacturer.
Another option is emulation. A PC, custom-made Raspberry Pi, or a set-top box like the NVIDIA SHIELD will do basically the same thing that new consoles can with classic games, rendering the original titles full resolution with digital output for your TV. They use the original ROM files taken from cartridges and game discs. Older game systems are so low-power that even cheap devices like the Raspberry Pi can emulate their operating systems without breaking a sweat. Add a wireless controller or two, find some ROM files (don’t ask us how), and you’ll be able to see your classic games like never before.
But if you still have your original systems and games and you’d like to play them authentically, you’ll still need some sort of new hardware to get the best picture out of them. There are now specially-engineered converters that use a more precise and accurate version of your television’s very basic upscaling. They’ll take the original, sub-HD image, read it in its pixelated form, and send it to the television in a 1080p HDMI signal that preserves the sharpness and clarity of the original sprites and pixels. The gold standard for these devices is called the “Framemeister,” also called the XRGB-Mini. It’s a pricey little box—much more expensive than any of the consoles it’s designed for. But if you absolutely must play your games on the original console, it’s the best way to do so.
Alternately, you can buy newer reverse-engineered versions of classic consoles that are designed to play the original game cartridges with modern HDTV outputs (including the new very highly-regarded Super Nt from Analogue). These are unfortunately only available for the most popular classic systems, unfortunately, but it’s still something.