Why Do Retro Games Look Better on Older TVs?
If you own retro consoles, say the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, you have access to some of the game’s greatest roots. However, you may find that connecting these awesome consoles to your current TV doesn’t give you the experience you remember from yesteryear. Games look fuzzy and garbled, and it might be tempting to think your memory is tricking you. But this is not your memory; this is your TV.
For retro gamers,CRT is the best choice . Those giant square TVs that have thrown away or given away almost everything in favor of modern flat panels are in fact prized for their ability to correctly display games from the 80s, 90s, and even somewhat zero. Let’s find out why.
Retro games are not meant for today’s high pixel density TVs.
The main reason retro games don’t look good on modern TVs is because of the pixels; for the uninitiated, modern screens are made up of pixels — individual “dots” that, when combined together, form the images you see on your television.
1080p refers to displays that are 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels down. 4K, on the other hand, means 3840 pixels horizontally and 2160 pixels horizontally. While there are more pixels in the 4K screen than one in 1080 (8,294,400 against 2,073,600), these displays both ways of more pixels than the retro – games have been developed for filling.
Let’s take a look at the good old NES. If you launch Super Mario Bros. , The Legend of Zelda or Metroid , in addition to amazing 8-bit graphics and classic gameplay, you will see 256 horizontal pixels by 240 vertical pixels or a 480i signal. This resolution looks great on older TVs; these CRTs don’t really have pixels, they have “lines”. The TV takes the signal from the game console and displays it one line at a time (more on this later).
But when you take a 256 x 240 signal and connect it to a 1080p or 4K TV, things get a little … blurry. Since the console outputs fewer pixels than the display it is connected to, your TV needs to scale this image in order to display it correctly. To do this, you need to take the pixels from your retro gaming console’s signal and magnify them to fit into your TV’s much wider pixel grid. This scaling results in a blurry, less defined look than intended and can be a little off-putting, especially if you’re playing games that you remember looked great years ago.
Scan lines give retro games a distinct look
However, it’s not just the pixels themselves that make the look great; Scan lines are another factor that is a natural byproduct of displaying a 256 x 240 signal on a CRT.
Remember that the images you see on the screen are actually broken down into a set of horizontal lines. In fact, 240 horizontal lines is only half the area these TVs provide. So instead of compressing the picture, the TV skips every other line, putting a line of white space between each line of your game, also known as interlaced (which is the “i” in the 480i signal). This results in “scan lines” and plays a large role in giving retro games their distinctive look.
Follow the connections
By the way, not all CRTs are the same. There are many different connection options and they matter for how your TV displays the signal from your console. Component video is by far the most popular and uses three connectors for video and two for audio. Composite cables work fine (two for video, one for audio), but they lack component clarity.
If you find a TV that doesn’t have component connections, check to see if it has at least S-Video, which offers average quality between the other two types of connections.
It’s not just about looks
While we’re focusing on the look and feel of retro games, there is another big advantage to using CRTs for these games; input lag or, to clarify, no input lag. Modern TVs, by their very nature, have some input lag. This means that when you press a button on your controller, there is a slight delay before the action takes place on the screen.
With CRTs, there is no input lag because the screen technology is simple enough to respond instantly to your input. While this lack of latency is important for professional gamers or speedrunners who rely on accurate timing, we can all appreciate the tighter control that CRT offers.
There are CRT alternatives for retro gaming
CRT may be the perfect way for most retro gamers to play these games, but there are other solutions to improve your experience without it. For example, titles included in consoles such as NES Classic and SNES Classic have been updated to work on HDTVs. Mario will look much better on your flat screen from the NES Classic than from the real NES because it’s engineered to match the pixels on your new TV.
If digital emulation is your go-to for retro gaming, many emulators include options to “simulate” the look of a CRT; you’ll find options for adding scan lines to your games, and while they won’t look as good as the real ones, they may better reproduce the experience many CRTs use.
After all, you don’t need anything special to enjoy retro games. At the end of the day, it’s still the same game, whether you’re hooking it up to the perfect display or playing on existing hardware. However, if you want to get the most out of it, it’s good to know how and why.
As with any hobby, creating the perfect retro gaming experience can be a bit like a rabbit hole. Other improvements include modified game consoles, various CRT types, and European connection types. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommendMy Life in Gaming’scool explanation of CRT games.