Some people give scanlines a lot of hate (as some sort of false nostalgic weirdness from a bygone era), but I actually like them.  I believe the video purists also think scanlines distract from the great pixel art that was created for games originally.  And I can maybe see that in a way.. well except that back when these games were new this is how we saw them (I’ll get more into that in a bit).

I get people saying that we don’t need scanlines these days with HDTVs.  I truly do.  And I get that people don’t want to cover up over the hand-drawn pixels of the artists – and in fact highlight them for all to see.  But there are times where scanlines – in my opinion – really do enhance the experience (and in a way that doesn’t detract from the original vision).

 

(Strider from Marvel vs Capcom – PS2)

First of all, if you don’t know what scanlines are (or have some general confusion on the subject), let me explain.  Back in the old days of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs, images were drawn by an electron gun spraying (scanning) one line at a time on the phosphorescent screen inside a vacuum glass tube.  Because of the mechanism (being very accurate to a color triad of dots) there was some separation between the lines (even though sometimes they did bleed together because of the interlacing – drawing a line then shifting and drawing another).

On the better TVs (like a Sony Trinitron or RCA True-Flat) – when one was sitting close – you could see the lines and even the pixels to a certain degree (although it was blurry on most lesser-quality TVs).  Unlike modern LCDs, the pixels vibrated – especially on home TVs.

 

A lot of us – being children at the time – played games on small CRTs anyways and sat rather close to them.  Naturally we also have a lot of nostalgia for our childhood games (like Super Mario).  Combine that with our adult need for high-res and love of tech and you have a lot of modern solutions to replicating the look of older TVs but with a higher quality.

This is also true of how we experienced games in the arcade back in it’s hey-day – where we stood right in front of the arcade CRT (which was – when properly adjusted – better quality than our home TV).  But these arcade machines still had video displays based on the same CRT tech as our TVs and it would be years before we got the crystal clarity we desired (which is why older machines seem more like commercial TVs – not that it really mattered with the games being so much simpler).

Later on (with the PC revolution happening in homes during the 90’s) we experienced the pinnacle of CRT technology with our own personal machines – the big bulky monitors of yore (not so much the early monochrome monitors, but the later color CRTs used with Windows 95 and onward).  Usually these were still as small or smaller than our TVs (around 17 to 19 inches).  And these were even sharper than arcade monitors, but we also sat really close to them when playing.  Even today, people lug these behemoths to LAN parties because they have very little lag and are just great displays that really can’t be beat for the look they provide.

 

Of course these days we use the much-much-lighter LCD monitors/TVs or some other newer variant technology (resulting in drawing pixels on a surface) and because those are digital – with pixels being turned off or on without the need for scanning (so no three targets being hit with an electron gun for colors), we lose that line effect we used to have.  This is actually fine for the most part, but it isn’t quite the same.  And a lot of the time the original resolution was tiny compared to what our TVs display.

 

(Street Fighter II on SNES – notice how the scanlines actually crisp up or sharpen the view seemingly in this case)

Systems like the NES were only 240p output – displayed in just 256×240 pixels on our TVs (and either through RF or composite).  Most common HDTVs these days support upwards of 1080p (or 1920×1080 pixel resolution).  That’s over four NES resolutions wide and tall – meaning you could show 16 NES games at the same time using the original resolution.

The reason I mention this is to remind that, on our older TVs, these images didn’t look so pixelated (in fact they looked great) because of the way they were drawn on the CRT.  Our mind took the information displayed over the screen (with the inherent scanlines) and mentally generated detail where none existed.  That’s really part of what scanlines are all about.  When we can see the pixels distinctly without scanlines, our brain just accepts the picture at face value.  And that’s a lot of why games like those on the Atari 2600 (where imagination is definitely a must) seem worse (at least to me) these days on modern TVs than we remember them being back on old color CRTs.

 

(Super Mario Kart on SNES – in this case the scanlines aren’t doing the princess any favors)

But not all of these visual issues (or artifacts) are just how we perceive the drawn pixels.  There are other elements at work in the visual pipeline.  These days either our TV (via internal software) or an external upscaler (maybe even a console itself in the case of a Retron5, etc) will usually stretch and pixel-double to the point where we get a blown-up version of the original image.


(Above is a basic example of what artifacts are introduced from anti-aliasing.)

And that process (with whatever filtering and processing it entails) is – in the end – building pixels where none existed.  If that’s done right and the new resolution is an actual multiple of the original we don’t get any artifacts.  But still.. when we’re trying to get to a huge resolution (i.e. taking 256×240 original input and blowing it up to 1920×1080 for a TV) there’s going to be some unwanted artifacts.

I guess there’s a certain inherent charm when the pixels are actually there and we’re seeing all that cool original pixel art in its full glory.  But when instead it’s all blurry or the original pixels aren’t even being shown – just some monstrosity that’s an artifact of the video chain.. well that’s just unwanted noise.

 

(Nightmare from Soul Calibur III – PS2)

I’ll be first to admit that scanlines don’t resolve image issues (not on their own anyways).  But they’re indeed another tool in the toolbox and can definitely be used on the way to finding an optimal solution.  Say you take a 240p (256×240) or 480p (640×480) image from a console or PC and end up going to 720p (1280×720) instead of  straight to the 1080p (1920×1080) resolution of your TV.  You might then supplement that with scanlines and end up with a really nice visual look – that of course looks better than the pixel doubling or stretching you would otherwise do.

And I totally admit that adding scanlines doesn’t make my newer TV look exactly like the original CRT I grew up with, but it helps bring that feeling back somewhat for sure (plus there’s a little bit of the “this is how the game was meant to look” going on).

On top of what has been described, this scanline effect also dims the image and even blurs lines and curves (softening what might otherwise be seen as crude animation).  In effect this makes games like Tekken 3 and Super Mario feel like they’re higher quality than they are (obviously dependent on the art-style though).

(Phantasy Star via emulator)

I even find scanlines reduces my eye fatigue (although this might be due to the dimming effect of having the dark lines in there).  But that’s also a downside since you might need to increase the brightness or gamma on your TV when using them.  The original TVs and arcade monitors were super bright with high contrast.  You may want to go to the level, but I tend to leave it a little bit darker.

(Most scanline generators – hardware or software – offer a couple of basic video options: odd or even lines  – the lines that are skipped – and the width of the line – big or small.) 

I’m not sure I’ve convinced you that scanlines are the best thing ever, but hopefully you’ll give them a shot and see what you think.  Your mileage will vary per game and per resolution.  But shouldn’t be too hard to try out.  On my Dreamcast HDMI box it’s just a simple on-off switch.  On my Framemeister (which I use for my RGB consoles), it’s a simple button press on the remote.  Most android emulators (say Mame4Droid) have this in the settings.   The Analogue Nt Mini, Retron 5, and the Retrofreak offer it in a configuration menu as well.

Give it a shot and I think it may surprise you how much it really does add to the experience.