Disclaimer: I’m most certainly no expert on the subject of maximizing video quality and these are just my opinions (and maybe I’m just a cranky old weirdo). Sure I own a lot of games and a lot of hardware, but if you want information about the absolute best quality, I’d definitely suggest checking out the My Life In Gaming Youtube channel and, of course, the RetroRGB website.
Sorry that I tend to ramble on here, so I wanted to make sure it’s known that the point of this article is to talk about the point to gamers/collectors where video quality maxes out for the time/money spent. A lot of sites talk about how to get the best quality out of your consoles period. But, pragmatically, how much money do we want to spend on our hardware? (it can add up to hundreds of dollars) That’s where I want to step in and help people decide what they really want with their setup.
If you grew up playing games on a little CRT TV (which are still out there in thrift stores for $5 in my area), you might get more nostalgia and more fun out of playing (say the NES) in that way than even on a large HDTV. And that little CRT TV is a very cheap and easy solution. But if you want to be able to see all the little artistic touches the developers put into games, you’re going to want something more complicated (and more expensive).
I absolutely understand the thrill in pursuing the ultimate gaming experience for a particular console. It’s cool to see all the different options there are for enjoying retrogames: scanlines (generators), upscalers, color palette swaps, color spaces, etc.
And it can also certainly also be very annoying to suffer old systems with graphic glitches, bad aspect ratios (on HDTVs), video noise, audio buzzing, etc. We end up fixing this by upgrading hardware – either modding consoles for better video signals out or purchasing a modern equivalent. But in the pursuit of better audio/video (of a better experience rather), sooner or later there’s a point where you get diminishing returns (quality bought with either money or convenience). And maybe – as part of the improvement process – you (the consumer) end up making a sacrifice in one area too far (like with the cheaper products being produced these days).
Take any old console with a RF (radio frequency) signal – agreed upon to be the worst signal possible for the most part. Replacing this with a composite (RCA) connection is a drastic improvement (no matter what the system). And even though composite gets a lot of flack, on older CRT TVs it’s pretty decent (a lot of that depends on the video signal carried over to the TV instead of the format of that signal itself).
I will stick with saying that it’s always worth it to move off of RF to some other video output – always (well unless your CRT TV only supports RF).
If you have a 16-bit console (Genesis or SNES) and can go for S-Video over composite, you will also notice some quality improvement (simply because of separation in the signals if nothing else). A lot of the bigger CRT TVs have S-Video but might not have component so that might be the solution for you.
Moving on up in quality.. If they’re available for your system (mainly for SNES and Genesis at this point) one-and-done solutions like the HD Retrovision component cables are affordable and very convenient. With these you don’t need any sort of upscaler box as long as your TV (the higher-end CRTs for example) supports component cables. The electronics doing the converting are actually in the cable – a hidden circuit board – so it’s also a clean solution as well.
And for higher resolution signals (as in 480i and higher), you’re going to want Component, RGB/VGA, or even HDMI. Fortunately most of the more-modern systems like Dreamcast and PS2 already have those higher-quality signals (minus HDMI).
Aside: As a more-modern example of the trade-off of money for quality, there’s the classic GameCube with the official Nintendo component cables going for several hundred dollars right now. For people that don’t want to spend that, the white Nintendo WII can also play GameCube games and already outputs component. You can buy a WII system for usually under $25 (sure there are going to be differences when you get down to it, but that’s a huge difference in price). There’s also the WII U – which can play WII games through HDMI instead of the component output (there are WII HDMI dongles as well available for cheap – though, again, lesser quality).
All of these video outputs/solutions just mentioned are worth the time and money.
Like I hinted at earlier, there is a point where video improvements really just aren’t worth the money or effort. And that’s what I really want to discuss. That’s the point here. I want you to know the available options, but then I also want you to look at what you’re getting for what you’re spending. At what point are you just fiddling around and – honestly – wasting your money (again, depending on what you’re going for) instead of actually enjoying gaming time?
I know this isn’t going to be the most popular thing to say these days with all the fancy video options. Here goes.. Going from Composite to RGB on 8-bit consoles (we’re talking low-resolution 240p to begin with) without a PVM (professional video monitor) or upscaled-to-HDTV (where artifacts will definitely show up) just isn’t all that much of an improvement from what I’ve seen. I’m talking about a medium-sized CRT TV or something available commercially when the game came out. I mean improvement is there, but you need to be picky to notice (especially with an NES or Atari 2600 or something). Whew. I said it.
Furthermore, why are we even worrying about things at this point? Atari 2600 is 160 x 192 resolution anyways, right? Sure.. if you’re modding something anyways (say replacing a broken R/F), why not go for the best/most-pragmatic signal? If a composite mod is just $40 to install, sure.. why not do it? On the other hand, if it’s going to cost $200 to go to RGB or HDMI, then I’m not sure it’s worth it (I guess it comes down to how much NES you really play). But, even then, there can be trade-offs based on the type of mod.
Modding that Atari 2600 to Composite or higher settings can produce jail-bars (vertical lines between pixel columns) based on the mod. That means you need a better solution (meaning more time and money). Or you can just accept the jail-bars (which on a medium CRT aren’t really noticeable) and get on with your life.
And going above and beyond that (say to RGB) is just really kind of overkill for the older, very simple systems in my opinion. Sometimes it’s just not worth it – unless maybe your TV or setup can’t support the older video cables.
And if you’re just a casual player, there are already pre-built solutions for you (probably down at your local mom and pop video game store). If you haven’t played hours and hours of Super Mario, chances are you’re not going to see much to complain about if the blue on the first stage isn’t the same color it was on the original NES (or if the timing is a few milliseconds off). That’s why full-emulation boxes like the Retron 5 have done so well. But then again.. you could just emulate the games anyways on your android device or PC.
The latest trend is the modern HDMI-equipped clone systems. But are they really a good answer? These seem great as cheap alternatives to the old consoles until you realize they’re almost the same price (you can get a used NES for around $50 – though it only has composite).
And these new, budget-friendly HDMI consoles seem like more than systems-on-a-chip rather than true one-for-one hardware or FPGA (check this article if you want to learn more about those) – basically built down to a price for the masses. Potentially these can be some of the worst offenders quality-wise – scaling up video artifacts that shouldn’t even exist. On the lower-end of the scale (even with composite output), these cheap clone systems can present all sorts of problems with audio and video distortion (although the result is technically a high resolution image, it’s actually upscaled garbage).
Say your TV only accepts HDMI. The problem with using composite (say the $50 NES) with an HDMI-upscaler box (which are around $25 on amazon) is that the box will likely introduce a lot of input lag (and this will be noticeable and probably will result in some games being unplayable). So in that case, you’re better off with the HDMI clone and its noise.
That additional noise (screeching garbled sounds) is true with audio as well as video – like with the Sega Genesis Firecore models (cheap Sega Genesis clones with built-in games) that have been on the market for the last 5 years or so (and yeah you can mod them supposedly to fix the audio, but it shouldn’t exist in the first place). They just have a scratchy mono-channel sound that can be quite irritating in certain games.
There’s also the much-better-made Super Retro Trio – below – (certainly nothing wrong with those if you want to stop at Composite on the NES or S-Video on the SNES/GEN systems). But like the original systems, the Retro Trio still isn’t HDMI.
In fact, the question everyone had when these came out (and retailed for $70) was why it didn’t support component or HDMI. With it’s controller outputs and good (not perfect) compatibility, this could have dominated the clone console market (as in completely crushed competitors).
And then there’s the weird newer edge cases like the newer Retron 77 – an $80 Atari 2600 HDMI clone system. That’s right.. HDMI for one of the most low-resolution systems still popular.
I’m not sure who the audience is for this system (old Atari aficionados – who prefer to play on CRTs – probably don’t want this.. newer fans just play these on their Raspberry Pis), but it certainly has a nice aesthetic. No idea how the audio/video is either, but for this price, I’d assume they’re going to be just fine. I’d say pick it up as an alternate way to play your games, but for $80 it’s kind of a stretch.
At some point you need to figure out what you want to do with your retrogaming setup. If the timing on emulators (and some clone systems) really bothers you (like on platformers), you’re going to need real hardware (as the clock speed on the clone systems and video lag may contribute to a bad experience).
(Also worth noting that on the NES, part of the hardware is on the cartridge board as well. That’s where you start seeing talks about supported mappers, etc with emulators and clone systems.)
And you might actually be quite happy with a smaller CRT TV hooked up through composite (say to a NES) – lag free. For Atari 2600, you might even be happy with the original R/F signal (it’s certainly more authentic that way) – especially if you’re using a really-retro TV to begin with (like an old black and white set).
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying classic games they way they were originally presented. If you want more bells and whistles that’s fine (like playing the games on your living room HDTV), but at some point it’s all a wash.
When it comes to 32-bit systems and higher with HDTVs, quality really matters more. HDTVs with poor internal upscalers can make N64 games look horrible. That’s where getting video signal straight from the internal chips and outputting out as a higher-quality signal through an upscaler (that’s not the TV’s poor-quality one) really helps. With this system, now you can get RGB signal and upscale it or there’s even a drop-in HDMI solution. And the RGB signal through a Framemeister/OSSC is almost equivalent to that HDMI mod to the typical gamer.
At this point (with either solution) it’s more about how you want to do your setup over the quality you’ll experience. If you already have a Framemeister or OSSC then the RGB mod is actually cheaper than the HDMI mod. But if you don’t have one, then the HDMI-direct solution is far cheaper.
Of course, if you are just going to be playing N64 on a little CRT TV, that composite cable is doing to look just fine as well to be honest. And that solution is basically free, right?
(The Framemeister and OSSC are somewhat-pricey converter/upscalar boxes that typically don’t add lag when converting the input RGB signals to HDMI. They also offer nice effects – i.e. scanlines – along the way.)
My point here really is for people to pair down to the optimal solution for their personalized price or setup. If you’ve been rocking that HDMI-all-in-one Retron 5 (an emulation system which I know I’ve trashed it a lot, but others have had great success with it), that’s just fine. Keep doing it; keep playing the games and have fun. It’s honestly more important to enjoy these things and utilize your free time efficiently than the worry over every little aspect (or to keep up with the Jones’s). Some people don’t care about input lag or all of that and emulation is a good solution (especially for games like RPGs where these video/input-lag issues aren’t really noticeable).
(The Ouya failed as a platform, but it’s great as a little, cheap android emulator box.)
To be honest I’ve gotten just as much enjoyment out of my little Ouya (Android box originally with emulators via a marketplace) that I bought at a Goodwill for $20 than I have with my Nt Mini (FPGA NES clone) that I paid around $500 for (even on the same systems).
I use both personally – the Ouya up in my bedroom on a smaller LCD TV that I can play with in the morning when getting ready for work and the Nt Mini down in my den where I can game on a couch. I also have some CRTs set up in the basement for when I’m in the mood to play on them. Choice is great (and it’s amazing we have so many solutions), but sometimes it can also be burdensome and expensive. I think in the future (unless you’re a hardware purist) the trade offs won’t matter as much. Let me elaborate..
(The FPGA board on the RetroUSB AVS)
There will be even more advances in retrogaming technology (mostly clone systems and FPGA alternatives). Soon there will be a FPGA system in most houses (hardware accurate while being able to emulate multiple old consoles) – which will play NES, Super Nintendo, PC Engine, and even Neogeo – all through HDMI. Clone systems will also start adopting FPGA if it becomes cheaper (so maybe a completely-accurate system that just plays NES, but allows using carts you own). There will also be more advances with Emulation – like faster Android boxes or even a new Raspberry Pi that’s got more CPU and RAM to perform more accurate emulation. Just recently Atari Jaguar emulation has improved to the point where it’s a viable solution. More solutions are coming and they’re going to be great.
Until then, just stay cool and keep playing those video games.