CRT televisions are widely regarded as the best way to play old video games, and with good reason. Retro games look and play better on CRTs, since that’s the type of display they were designed for. But what if you don’t own a CRT, don’t have the space for one, or can’t find one?
Vintage games can look terrible on new TVs, which is bad, or suffer from lag issues that will render them nigh-unplayable, which is obviously worse. But there are several ways to get those Genesis or N64 games up and running on a modern HD or even UHD TV without them looking or playing like garbage.
In this guide, we’ll go over a couple different setups to help you find the one the works best for you and your collection. We’ll be focusing mostly on games played on their original hardware — we’re skipping PC emulation, MiSTeR FPGA mini computers, and RetroPi setups for now, and ignoring the recent boom of “mini” consoles like the NES and SNES Classic that work natively with modern TV hookups. Yes, these are all good retro gaming options that let you play old games on modern displays — which is the end goal — but we’re more concerned with the ways you can put your old consoles (or at least your old games — see the section on cloned consoles below) back to work on your existing TV, without sacrificing looks or performance.
Enhance your old console’s graphics with an external upscaler
If you plan to play your old games on their official hardware, you’ll need the help of an external device to scale up the video signals to the proper resolution. Otherwise, the picture will be a washed out, grainy mess.
Some people mod their old machines directly to support their desired video output, but that’s a difficult and potentially destructive process that we don’t recommend unless you’re already deep into the retro gaming scene. (That said, pre-modded consoles are often sold on eBay and other third-party sources, and often show up at trade shows or retro-gaming swap meets — though they’re rare and can be quite expensive.)
The better solution for most of us is an external video upscaler dongle that converts your console’s video signal to HDMI output. For example, the Rad2x HDMI converter cables are a common, simple solution that doesn’t equire a secondary upscaler device. There are also other console-specific converters and cables that work well, such as the Armour 3 NuView HD Adaptor for GameCube, the PS2 to HDMI adaptor, or the PS1 to HDMI adaptor.
Then there are upscaler boxes, which can accept inputs from multiple consoles or devices; the box does the work of sending everything to the TV in the proper HD format. There are many such devices out there, ranging in price from as little as $16 to up to $540 or more. However, we recommend buying converters specifically made to upscale old video games, since they’re designed to deliver crisp visuals with virtually no additional input lag. Retrotink’s line of upscalers are among the simplest to set up and use, and are relatively affordable.
Other worthwhile options include the Open Source Scan Converter, GBS Control, and the XRGB Framemeister. These options are more powerful and more flexible, but much harder to set up, and they can get very expensive. Some may also require additional cables so you can actually plug the consoles into the dongles.
Another decent upscaler is the mClassic, which can enhance a game’s resolution to 1440p or 4K. It only works on consoles that already support HDMI output, whether natively or through modding, but that means the mClassic also works on newer consoles like the Nintendo Switch or PlayStation 4. Keep in mind that the mClassic (and many other upscaler devices) may introduce minor tradeoffs in exchange for the higher resolution visuals, such as slight input lag or washed out colours. These aren’t likely to affect casual play, but purists should take note.
Play on “cloned” consoles with built-in HDMI support
Playing your old games on the consoles you’ve owned for years feels good, but getting them to work on your new TV can require an expensive tangle of extra cables and secondary devices. The simplest option is buying a “clone” console with native HDMI output. While it’s not as “pure” as playing on the old consoles in your collection, cloned consoles will play the game cartridges you already own, automatically upscaling the video signal so it looks good on your newer TV — no converters or special cables needed.
There are many clone consoles available from third-party companies, and some are better than others. The major difference between them is whether a given cloned console uses real hardware to run the games, or relies on software emulation. We could spend the entirety of this guide detailing the differences between both styles, but the bottom line is that hardware-based consoles are more accurate to the original experience, and should be your choice if you want the games to play as if they’re running on a vintage console. Unfortunately, hardware-based clones are expensive, and they are only built to support a single console.
Conversely, software emulation consoles aren’t as accurate, but they are cheaper and easier to produce, and allow manufacturers add extra features that were once only possible on PC emulators, such as save states that let you put down and pick up a game from any point. Some software emulation devices even support multiple cartridge formats, letting you play your SNES and Sega Genesis collections on a single machine.
While hardware and software-based clones each have their pros and cons (not to mention diehard fans and detractors), the upshot is both will let you play your existing games on modern TVs in high definition, which is ultimately our goal.
Here’s a quick list of both hardware and software emulation-based consoles that are worth considering. Note that price and availability can fluctuate.
Hardware-based console clones:
- NT Mini (NES, Famicom, Famicom Disc System)
- Super NT (SNES, Super Famicom)
- Mega SG (Sega Genesis/Mega Drive/Master System)
- Analogue Pocket (GameBoy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance; adapters for Game Gear, Atari Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket Colour sold separately).
- Analogue Duo (TurboGrafx-16, TurboGrafx CD, SuperGrafx, PC Engine, PC Engine CD-ROM, Super Arcade CD-ROM)
Software emulation-based console clones:
- Retro-Bit Super RetroTRIO (NES, SNES, Sega Genesis/Master System)
- Hyperkin RetroN 5 (Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance Game Boy, NES/Famicom, SNES/Super Famicom, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega Master System)
- Old Skool Classiq 2 (NES/SNES)
Choose the right TV settings
So, your console is plugged into your TV and your games are running well and looking good — now we need to make sure your TV’s settings are configured for the best possible gameplay experience.
Modern TVs and gaming monitors have more input lag compared to CRT displays, which can have a noticeable effect on gameplay. Video games — and old-school titles especially — rely on precise timing, but you’ll find it harder to overcome each stage if your button presses are a few milliseconds behind.
The easiest solve for this is to turn off your TV’s post-processing effects, like motion smoothing (which you should be doing anyway), to reduce input lag. An easy way to do this is to select the “Game Mode” preset in your TV’s picture settings menu if it has one; this option will have the lowest input latency possible for your display. This should help the controls feel closer to the original experience, but you’ll never truly get rid of input lag entirely — unless, of course, you’re playing on a CRT.
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