I’d like to briefly discuss lag and how it affects us retrogamers.
You may notice a lot of your (maybe) serious/hardcore retrogamers talking about using corded controllers instead of wireless (especially with the “hard” games like Contra, shmups, etc). You may also see a lot of new wireless controllers coming out on the market as retrogaming continues to be a big thing overall.
It’s important to understand how your gameplay will be affected by these different options. I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but I do know enough to cover the basics. The reason this matters for retrogamers especially is that often the games were very challenging and were created to be played with little to no lag. One hit and your ship dies, it’s game over, and you have to start from scratch. Today’s modern games often give you more chances and there’s just less severity for missing your timing. Some modern indie games (like “Crypt of the Necrodancer” – which has a strong beat/rhythm component) let you even calibrate for your setup to compensate for the lag.
So what is “lag” and why does this matter? Lag – specifically for gamers – is the time delay between when you visually see a chance to press a button (i.e. Mario is running toward a hole and you need to jump) and the time the action from that button is pressed (to have Mario jump before tumbling to his death). There are three or more sources of input lag these days when playing retro consoles. These include console to TV-input, TV-input to TV-renderer (internal scaling/filtering), player reaction time, and controller to console.
A normal human can typically notice/feel lag if it’s at or over 30ms. That means only 30/1000 of a second will be noticeable to a normal human if they’re trying to actively control a game.
Keep in mind that 8ms here and 6ms here can easily add up to that. So while you might feel that some people are overly sensitive it really doesn’t take much for anyone to notice the effects of lag. And when you’re playing a demanding split-second game, you need all the time you can get to overcome the challenge and have fun.
Most of those transitions can be collapsed simply into the time it takes for a video signal to make it to your TV and be visually seen. And don’t forget that your brain compensates by retraining itself to the time delay. However, you might be used to there not being lag or the lag can be too much to compensate for.
When you’re playing on a CRT through an analog signal there’s really not much delay (the analog signal is simultaneously controlling one or more small electron guns that’s spraying over a phosphorescent screen – which glows in the area by response). Your eyes perceive the light, your brain interprets it, and that’s that. That’s why you might see serious Smash Bros players dragging in their old CRT with an analog GameCube cable into a hotel.
Most of us like to play our games these days on convenient and more-modern larger screens – most of which are now also in high definition. The cool pixel art the artists might have seen originally when developing on their PVM (expensive high definition CRT) wouldn’t be visible (or be blurred) on your little tube TV.
When you’re playing (say modern consoles) on a new LCD TV or Monitor with a digital signal (like HDMI), there’s also not really a delay (although there could be a delay already if the TV reinterprets the signal before drawing it on the screen.
Where you get into trouble is when you add electronic circuitry that converts analog to digital using a frame-buffer or some other pipeline with an added delay. This is also why modern TVs have a “game” mode – which is supposed to reduce or turn off any sort of time-consuming filtering that the TV circuitry is doing.
And this is why you see people paying hundreds of dollars for an OSSC or a Framemeister – which not only takes the cleaner RGB signals from consoles (some natively and some which require modding) but also adds very-minimal lag while allowing analog signals to be sent to a digital-signal-only TV/monitor. Instead of using a framebuffer (or inexpensive chip), these use a more-expensive FPGA option to convert the signal to HDMI. FPGA is a very powerful solution for converting signals on the fly.
To summarize, you want your video to have a little lag as possible so that you can hit that button in plenty of time for Mario to jump over the hole.
While reducing video lag is certainly important, I’d like to focus more on the controller side of the house. So let’s go over the historic controller options.
Corded controllers are probably the most common thing on old retro consoles that we know about. In the old days a wireless controller was a true luxury (maybe not even a possibility). In general corded controllers add no lag. The signal (again.. in general) is being carried straight to the console’s circuitry by electricity (the speed of light) and is only limited by the console (outside of buffering costs, how fast it can poll or react to the input signal).
Most of our retro game consoles have physical ports for controllers.
The early systems (mimicking arcades or home computers while trying to keep things simple) even had them built in (like the early pong machines and even the Odyssey 2 and Famicom). That’s right.. you couldn’t unplug or easily replace a controller without taking the console apart.
Other early consoles had ports added (early on with standard DB9 connector – like with the Atari 2600). This quickly became popular – as it allowed manufacturers to create custom controllers (like keypads, wheels for driving games, etc).
Even cabled controllers with input ports started out really simple. Some of the early controllers didn’t even multiplex the signals. That means there’s a common ground wire and a wire for each button or direction you press. You press the button and it completes the electrical circuit (connecting a signal wire to ground). The electrical impulse generated notifies the console that the button was pressed (or is being held down).
This is true of the Atari 2600 and the Odyssey 2 (and they’re quite easy to build arcade sticks for). Later systems like the Atari 7800 (which needed an extra button) were very similar but used a different resistance on the buttons to set them apart (see below – reference link). Heavily-multiplexed systems like the Intellivision (due to the number pad) are much more complicated.
Compare the same DB9 connector on an Atari 2600 to the later Sega Genesis – with most of the button signals implemented differently using multiplexing.
(Above is the “Vader” 2600 with the two controller ports. The heavy-sixer actually had 4 ports.)
Pretty cool fact though; a Sega Genesis controller can still be used with an Atari 2600 – as the digital portions and the C-button are still the same common-ground circuitry as before. Later controllers would be nearly completely multiplexed into a digital signal.
Speaking of that.. what exactly is ‘multiplexed’?
Multiplexed input (or multiplexing) means that inputs are going over the same/often-reduced communication lines instead of each having their own channel (their own wires). This is also similar to how we talked over landlines back in olden times (when these consoles were still new).
Because the game consoles are set up for this (either with a buffer, an interrupt, or active polling), there is little or no lag in this setup.
Speaking of ports: four-port input became the defacto standard and as time went on and sports games became popular we had more ports added (like with the N64 and the Dreamcast).
Again there is little or no lag here (or rather it was designed in).
That doesn’t mean there will never be lag on a corded controller. In fact, the common source of lag is when using a controller converter – say a PS2 to Dreamcast box.
These were popular for a time for Dreamcast because the original controller (mainly the digital pad) wasn’t really comfortable (and tore into your thumb over time). While these converter boxes add minimal lag really, they do contribute. After all, the PS2 multiplexed input is being demuxed (reversed), then muxed again to fit the Dreamcast input with internal circuitry.
(The fight pad on the right is great, but these days’s it’s rare and expensive compared to the PS2 controller adapter for Dreamcast. But that solution does add some lag.)
While most of the PS2 to Dreamcast controllers I’ve had have been fine, I’ve bought Wii controller adapters (that plugged straight into the GameCube controller ports on the console) that were just horrible. So just be aware of lag when buying these boxes – as they will vary between manufacturers.
Corded controllers are still almost always the most lag-free option – even with modern systems (such as using a USB cable over wireless).
As I’m sure you remember from your high-school or college physics class, both electricity and light are both forms of electromagnetic radiation. You’ll notice that Infrared is right beside visible light.
Back in the 80’s we used infrared remote controls – probably because the LEDs involved were a cheap solution compared to radio signals. These used different pulses to communicate the intent (using the one LED channel). Needless to say, with these being so inexpensive and common, soon we had controllers that used them.
One example of this sort of solution is the NES Satellite. You plug in the receiving end (right below) into the console (it’s molded so it doesn’t look weird) and then you can plug up to 4 controllers into the battery-powered adapter (see the left end).
Needless to say, this will obviously add some input lag – as the button press on the controller must be transformed into an infrared signal, make its way across to the receiver, and then be trans-coded back into the already-muxed input signal that the console expects.
Of course the very-well-known issue with this technology is that it’s also line of sight. Both pieces need to be able to see each other at all time for signals to be transferred. This means that when someone walks in front of the TV right as you press jump, the signal is lost and Mario falls in the hole (assuming there’s still some forward momentum).
Between the old-school 80’s tech, and the mechanism itself, I just couldn’t recommend anyone use infrared technology (unless you just really want to break out the old-school tech). And while you might think Wii uses infrared, it’s just for positioning on the wands. It’s actually using Bluetooth (which I’ll get to in a second).
Radio Signals (Bluetooth)
You’ll notice on the chart above that radio frequencies (or RF) are on the very left of the spectrum. The longer waveform is able to penetrate solid matter (based on density, material, and distance). So thus the main advantage that radio signals have over Infrared is that they don’t require line of sight.
Now of course radio is certainly old technology. I mean even the Atari 2600 had a radio controller (the great monstrosity shown below).
The problem with RF signals (really the same with Infrared) was that each vendor would come out with their own proprietary signal format. No set standard meant some poor implementations and therefore inferior products. This situation later lead to agreements of standards that all vendors would follow – such as Bluetooth from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). But, in the end, the PS4 controller you use daily is actually using the same medium of communication that your old Atari 2600 controllers used.
The only difference really is the signal format and complexity. Bluetooth is low-energy standard and has lower duty cycles (meaning when the devices come on to communicate). There’s also the fact that home devices like those with Bluetooth are controlled by the FCC in the 2.4ghz range (see the frequency in the diagram above). Simply put, the US commission (FCC) controls manufacturer standards to prevent devices from interfering with devices on other bandwidths. But this means that all of these devices must all vie for the same bandwidth space and there’s often interference involved. Such other devices include 802.11b/g routers, other Bluetooth devices, Wireless USB, cordless phones, and even microwave ovens.
The low power of Bluetooth means that while those cordless controller batteries will last quite some while, if there is interference the message might not be re-transmitted instantaneously (due to lower duty cycles). A lot of the success of a controller press being registered also has to do with how the system handles the signal as well. So some cheap third-party controller/receiver pair might be a lot more laggy than an official product (due to internal circuitry). Again, because of the circuitry, this may be due to the internal handling of the signal as it transforms it into Bluetooth.
You probably have heard about the retro receivers for your NES from 8Bitdo – which run off the power from the NES port conveniently enough (the controller has an internal lithium battery). While I’ve seen forum posters complain about the lag from these I’ve also seen plenty that say they’re just fine. I do personally own this product and use it often with my Analogue Nt mini (which outputs HDMI natively – already reducing lag).
I actually just barely notice any lag with the games I’m very familiar with (but this is also me sitting in close proximity). My guess is that the people that feel the delay the least are those without any video equipment (or TV software) adding to the lag as a whole. So there’s just that gap in timing before the player can notice any lag and maybe it’s small enough to never notice. Likewise, those that really feel it may not have their TV in “game” mode or may have strong signal interference.
In summary, you want to reduce or eliminate as much lag as you can to make sure you can play demanding games to the best of your ability. However, you shouldn’t necessarily count out all wireless solutions. Nor should you necessarily only game on old CRT TVs/monitors. Really this problem is about how much lag you can tolerate from the entire chain – and that’s obviously based on the person playing. Certainly less people are affected by lag on Tetris than are with Contra – even less so with RPGs and the like. But you do want to keep down any lag you can in the chain if you can. This may mean reducing the chain on your video (by using analog input or straight HDMI with your TV in “game” mode). Or it may mean sticking with a corded controller instead of a wireless solution.