If you own retro consoles — say, a Super Nintendo or a Sega Genesis — you have access to some of gaming’s greatest roots. However, you might find plugging these awesome consoles into your current TV doesn’t result in the experience you remember from years past. Games look fuzzy and distorted, and it can be tempting to think your memory is playing tricks on you. It’s not your memory, though; it’s your TV.
For retro gamers, the CRT is the display of choice. Those giant, boxy television sets that nearly everyone threw out or gave away in favour of modern flat panels are actually coveted for their ability to properly display games from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even part of the aughts. Let’s explore why.
Retro games are not designed for modern, pixel-dense TVs
The main reason retro games don’t look great on modern TVs comes down to pixels; for the uninitiated, modern screens are made up of pixels — individual “dots” that, when combined together, form the images you see on your TV.
1080p refers to displays that are 1,920 pixels across, and 1,080 pixels down. 4K, on the other hand, refers to 3,840 across by 2,160 down. While there are way more pixels in a 4K screen than a 1080p one (8,294,400 vs 2,073,600), these displays both have way more pixels than retro games were designed to fill.
Let’s take a look at the good ol’ NES. If you fire up a game of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, or Metroid, aside from delightful 8-bit artwork and classic gameplay, what you’re seeing is 256 horizontal pixels by 240 vertical pixels, or a 480i signal. That resolution looks great on older TVs; these CRTs don’t actually have pixels, but “lines.” The TV takes the signal from the game console and displays it one line at a time (more on that later).
But when you take a 256 x 240 signal and connect it to a 1080p or 4K TV, things get a bit…blurry. Because the console is outputting fewer pixels than the display it’s connected to, your TV needs to upscale that image in order to properly display it. That involves taking the pixels from the retro game console’s signal and blowing them up to fit in the much more expanded pixel grid of your TV. This upscaling results in a blurry, less defined look than intended, and can be a bit off-putting, especially if you’re playing games you remember looking great years ago.
Scanlines give retro games a distinctive look
It’s not just the pixels themselves that make things look great, however; scanlines are another factor, and are a natural byproduct of displaying a 256 x 240 signal on a CRT.
Remember, the images you see on screen are actually broken down into a bunch of horizontal lines. As it happens, 240 horizontal lines is, in actuality, only half of the real estate these TVs provide. So, instead of squashing the image down, the TV skips every other line, placing a line of blank space between each line of your game, also known as interlacing (which is the “i” in the 480i signal). That results in “scanlines,” and plays a big part in giving retro games their distinctive look.
Keep an eye on the connections
Not all CRTs are the same, by the way. There are a variety of different connection options out there, and they matter for how your TV displays the signal from your console. Component video is the most sought-after, which uses three plugs for video and two for audio. Composite cables work fine (two for video, one for audio), but they don’t have the clarity of component.
If you find a TV that doesn’t have component hookups, check if it at least has S-Video, which offers a middle ground quality between the other two connection types.
It’s not just about the look
While we’re focusing on the appearance of retro games, there’s another big advantage to using a CRT for these titles; input lag, or — to clarify — the lack thereof. Modern TVs, by their nature, have some input lag. That means, when you press a button on your controller, there’s a slight delay before the action is performed on screen.
With CRTs, there is no input lag, because the screen technology is simple enough to instantaneously react to your inputs. While this lack of lag is essential for professional gamers or speedrunners who rely on precise timing, all of us can appreciate the tighter control that a CRT offers.
There are alternatives to CRTs for retro gaming
The CRT might be the ideal way for most retro gamers to play these titles, but there are other solutions to improve your experience without one. For example, the titles included on consoles like the NES Classic and the SNES Classic are upgraded to natively run on HD TVs. Mario is going to look a lot better on your flatscreen from an NES Classic than an actual NES, because he’s designed to match the pixels on your newer TV.
If digital emulation is your avenue to retro gaming, many emulators include options to “fake” the look of CRTs; you’ll find options to add scanlines to your games, and while they won’t look quite as good as the real deal, they can better replicate the experience many enjoy CRTs for.
At the end of the day, you don’t need anything special to enjoy retro games. It’s still the same game, after all, whether you hook it up to the ideal display, or play it on the hardware you already have. If you’re looking to maximise that experience, however, it’s good to know both how and why.
Like any hobby, creating the ideal retro gaming experience can be a bit of a rabbit hole. You’ll find modded game consoles, different types of CRTs, and European connection types, among other improvements. I highly recommend My Life in Gaming’s awesome explainer on CRT gaming if you’re interested in learning more.