When I first came back to retro games, it was well after flatpanel HDTVs had taken over the market. Hooking my Super Nintendo up to my HDTV with an RCA-to-coax adapter was easy, but gave me grungy results. So what’s the best way to play my retro game consoles?
What is the best TV setup for my retro game console? HD and 4K TVs are very nice, but depending on what you want to play, a CRT (tube TV, not flat-panel) may be the better way to run your favorite system. The key considerations are picture and control responsiveness (input & display lag).
Table of Contents
- What Is a Pixel?
- Analog vs Digital Video Signals
- Video Signal (and Screen) Aspect Ratios
- Interlaced vs Progressive Video Signals
- Screen Types: CRT & LCD/LED (or Similar)
- Video Connection Types
- Emulator Console Outputs HD Video: The RetroN 5
- Input Lag on Modern TVs
- Motion Smoothing is Not Smooth
- Don’t Stretch 4:3 Video Game Output to 16:9
- Bumping Low Resolution Up to High Resolution
- Just Buy Yourself a Dang CRT!
- CRT TV Buying Tips
- Consider a Broadcast Monitor
- Get Playing Games Already!
Oldschool video games were created during the era of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) televisions. You know - the big, boxy TVs we had back in the 20th century. Game consoles and games were engineered expecting that kind of screen, so the consoles output a signal (analog, low resolution) designed for those screens.
Additionally, the delay between the signal reaching a CRT TV, and displaying onscreen was so short, that it wasn’t even a consideration. But because of the difference in how modern TVs process input signals, there is a slight delay (it varies between TVs) that can interfere with your ability to coordinate precise moves in some games, making them more difficult or impossible to play.
This exploration requires us to get a bit techy, and look at some history, but I’m going to break it down into bite-sized chunks just so we’re comparing apples-to-apples.
What Is a Pixel?
You’ll hear pixels mentioned all the time in discussions about gaming and screens. Pixels are the small dots (often squares, sometimes upright rectangles) that make up a picture onscreen. While various elements on the screen (game characters, environments) are all made of pixels, it’s the total number of pixels that make up the height and width of the full onscreen image that are used to measure detail level - referred to as resolution.
The key here is to remember that old school game consoles output a video signal (the information that shows what’s onscreen) which has fewer pixels (is lower resolution) than what today’s TVs expect to get. More on this mismatch in a bit.
Analog vs Digital Video Signals
We live in a world so saturated with digital, that it’s easy to forget how TVs used to be analog. Today’s setups use HDMI cables to transmit digital video from a newer game console to a contemporary TV, older consoles all output an analog signal. The main difference is that the analog video was continuous waves representing the changing picture information, while the information in digital video is sliced up into chunks called “samples” saved as ones and zeros.
While we have become accustomed to the sharp precision of digital, real life is analog, and analog signals have a quality that is sometimes seen as more aesthetically pleasing than the “hard” or “sharp” way digital defines things. If you doubt this, just talk to an audiophile who loves listening to vinyl.
The main takeaway here is that old video game systems output lower resolution analog signals, and the games themselves were designed for that environment. This issue of “what they were originally designed for” comes into play later, and is often discussed in the the more philosophical portions of this overall debate about screens.
Video Signal (and Screen) Aspect Ratios
I spent most of my life during the era when TV screens were a nearly squarish shape. Today’s screens are much wider in their proportions, being nearly twice as wide as they are tall.
This relationship between width and height is referred to as aspect ratio. Standard HD TVs show a 1080p image. This means they are showing video at 1920 pixels wide, by 1080 pixels tall. Note that the resolution is always referred to by the height (1080 in this case), and the “p” in 1080p refers to “progressive” vs “interlaced” (see the next section). If you take the 1920 X 1080 rectangle and shrink it down while keeping the relative sizes of width-to-height in the same proportion (the aspect ratio), you’ll find that 1920:1080 reduces down to 16:9. So 16:9 is just the boiled down, lowest-common-denominator description of that relationship between width and height.
Interlaced vs Progressive Video Signals
The display of TV signals was historically interlaced, but these days, the norm is progressive. Interlaced video just meant that the screen would show every other vertical line of the picture, and then faster than you could really see, it would go back and show all of the in-between lines. It would do this twice for each frame (each interlaced “half” referred to as a “field”). With digital HD TV, the progressive (aka “non-interlaced”) method of frame drawing became the norm. This means that all the vertical lines are shown in one pass.
Video Signal Resolution (Number of Pixels) Oldschool video was a lot lower resolution than today’s video. This means it used fewer pixels to show things, and so created a less detailed, softer image overall. As display technology has advanced, we’ve become very used to having sharp, detailed images that would have completely blown people’s minds back in the day. In 1977, when the Atari 2600 was released, people just thought it was amazing that you could move things around and play an actual game on your TV. We were all used to normal broadcast TV having a certain (low, by today’s standards) level of detail, so our expectations were set accordingly.
By the early 2000s, the new HDTV standard (720 or 1080) became the norm, and people’s eyes and expectations reset to find that new look “normal.” Now it’s moving to 4K, and people are adjusting to the even higher resolution.
Some important milestones in video resolution:
- 320 X 240 (240i or 240p) - Many consoles prior to the Playstation 1
SD (Standard Definition):
- 720 X 480 (480i or 480p) - DVD resolution
HD (High Definition):
- 1280 X 720 (720i or 720p)
- 1920 X 1080 (1080i or 1080p) - Blu-ray resolution
- 3860 X 2160 (4K)
This is the relative (it will be scaled smaller on your screen, but at least scaled proportionately) size difference between the 240p signal coming out of your retro video game console vs resolution of an HDTV:
Screen Types: CRT & LCD/LED (or Similar)
Now that you understand the kind of video signal your Atari, NES, or SNES (or similar) console is putting out, what kind of screen are you using to display that signal, and how is it being interpreted?
A CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TV uses an electron gun to fire a beam of electrons at the inside of its screen, hitting a bunch of tiny red, green, and blue phosphors to make them light up. These can handle a range of different video signal resolutions (up to 480 vertical resolution), and they just fit the image to the screen (as long as it’s a 4:3 signal being shown). An old game console and a DVD had different numbers of pixels (levels of detail) in what they displayed, and your TV happily just scaled what it got to light up the right phosphors and give you your image.
An HD (or 4K) TV has a specific, fixed resolution they want to display everything in, and when they get a lower resolution signal, they upscale it. Upscaling stretches the image to fit the larger number of pixels required to match the vertical resolution of your screen. While it might be considered ideal to gamers for HDTVs to just upscale everything crisply, TV makers opted for upscaling designed more for the look of video, instead of pixel art. Also, the upscaling being used it not the best, due to cost savings, and the fact that non-HD signals are not expected to be that common.
If you want to do a quick test: run a video cable (male RCA connectors on both ends - see below) from your NES to a female-RCA-to-male-F-type connector (see on Amazon), connecting that to the coaxial jack on the back of your HDTV (assuming you have one). Whoa! Not at all the glorious wonder you may remember from back in the day.
Or, if this is your first exposure to retro gaming, you may think this looks so bad, you don’t understand why people like retro games.
Keep reading to learn how to get your games looking their best.
The originalist perspective: Many feel that since the consoles and games were designed to run on CRTs, that is the optimal way to play them. CRTs use illuminated phosphors, and the screens all have a certain degree of blending/softness in the way images look. This was taken into account when game art was created, and so the purest ideal of what looks “right” is what the developers were intending it to look like. That softer feel was the medium they were working in, not just an inferior version of our “perfect” crisp modern display look. Also, that phosphor glow has a special allure you have to get a look at (on a decent CRT, not junk) to appreciate. Phosphors have a glowing, scintillating warmth that is very appealing compared to the much flatter, matter-of-fact “perfect” look of flat panel TVs.
The pixelist perspective: A proper HD signal of a crisply upscaled low-resolution game can be a very inviting look as well. That pixel art look is boldly emphasized, with each onscreen element having a Lego-like chunkiness. It’s an unusual look to the person accustomed to games on CRTs, but it definitely does have its merits. There’s a clean precision that can be very attractive.
Video Connection Types
The exact sort of video signal you get out of your console, and send to your display (potentially through some kind of processor) is a deep and sometimes labyrinthine topic in itself. I will summarize here.
Some consoles give you whatever video signal they give you, and you just make the best of it. Others can be modified to provide a higher quality signal. This also relates to connection (cable) types. Use the highest quality signal output + connection you reasonably can. I say reasonably, because consoles can be modified, and some of these modifications can be expensive.
A quick rundown of common video game console video connection types (ordered by increasing picture quality)
RF: Video + Audio in a single RCA connector cable. This is OOOOOLD school. Pong, Atari, NES, all rock this kind of connection. It’s the thing we used to run into the little switcher box with the two horseshoe connectors that screwed onto the antenna connection on the back of ancient TVs. These days, you generally connect this up with a female-RCA-to-male-F-type connector (see on Amazon)
Composite: Video + left/right audio. The next step up. The Super Nintendo lets you do this out of the box. By separating audio and video, you get a higher quality signal. You need to make sure you have a TV that will take this connection type.
SVideo: Y/C or luminance/chrominance. This splits brightness and color signals into separate wires within the cable, increasing the picture quality a bit further. These are much less common these days than they were in the 90s, so it’s more likely to find them on a CRT.
Component: YPbPr, or 3 connector video. This breaks the signal 3 ways, increasing quality further. The breakdown is brightness and synchronization data (Y), the difference between the blue signal and luma (Pb) and the difference between the red signal and luma (Br). The green information, needed to complete the full RGB color, is calculated from the blue and red.
RGB: Red, Green, and Blue signals are broken out separately. These connections are not natively on most consoles, and North American TVs don’t usually have this connection. BUT this has become popular because many consoles can be modded to output RGB, and the RGB signal can be fed into various devices for outputting a very high quality (but still analog) signal.
HDMI: High-Definition and 4K digital. This is the connection that modern TVs use. Upscalers will convert analog output of one of the previous types into digital output coming from one of these.
Emulator Console Outputs HD Video: The RetroN 5
Of course, if you want to use a modern TV, you can always forget all of this, and just go with a modern reworking of the old consoles via console emulation using something like the RetroN 5. This is a cartridge-playing console that emulates the old game consoles in software, and outputs a razor-sharp HDMI signal.
Input Lag on Modern TVs
As discussed, the built-in upscaling on modern TVs is not optimal for video games. The output is grungy-looking. There are cheap options for upsizing to HD that can be found on Amazon, eBay, etc… but their performance is less than optimal. Images often look funky, with visual scaling artifacts, and weird color shifts being common. Also, lag can be a problem, which we now need to talk about.
Modern TVs have input lag, which is a delay between the time an image is received from a video signal, and when it is displayed onscreen. This is created by the signal processing going on inside, doing any necessary conversion of signal type (changing interlaced into progressive) or signal resolution (upscaling a lower resolution signal to the native display resolution), as well as any signal processing like motion interpolation (to be explained in bit).
So then theoretically, if you:
- Feed your TV a signal that’s already in its native resolution
- Make sure the signal is progressive, not interlaced
- Turn off motion interpolation
…You should be able to reduce it down to its absolute minimum input lag. (Keeping in mind that different TVs have different native input lag, and they don’t publish this spec)
Motion Smoothing is Not Smooth
Motion interpolation is the nasty “special sauce” (you can tell I have an opinion here) that TV manufacturers have added to their units which takes a perfectly good video signal and “smooths” it out to add extra in-between frames between the video frames so that motion looks more “fluid.” Basically, it takes movies shot on cinema cameras, and gives them a “video” look. Instead of looking epic, that blockbuster looks like a soap opera. It does this to your video games too, but the biggest issue you may notice is that it can add to the input lag as the chips in the TV chew on the signal to create those extra frames. Did I mention it makes movies look like crap as well? (I’m a real film lover, too).
Here, I’ll let Tom Cruise explain it to you:
Don’t Stretch 4:3 Video Game Output to 16:9
If you head down the road of using a modern TV, at the very minimum, don’t stretch that 4:3 aspect ratio output to span the full width of your 16:9 TV. It may feel strange to you to have black bars on the left and right of your game image, but that’s what happens when you put a squarish picture into a rectangular frame. Don’t stretch it, and make everything look distorted. Circles become ovals, squares become rectangles, characters become short and squat. It’s a sign of the apocalypse.
And don’t use the zoom feature either, since that chops portions of the image off in order to make everything fit. Just be OK with the smaller display image inside your larger screen. It really is the best way to see what was intended. Anything else is kind of just the cousin to the old pan-and-scan method of jamming widescreen movies onto 4:3 TVs so that there were no black bars.
I always figured that by now, people understood this, but in my research, it seems this continues to be a real problem among people playing old 4:3 games on new displays. It’s enough of an issue that it has come up in various places as a concern to gaming historians, who lament that screenshots (and video captures on YouTube channels) are showing stretched game images, and people are getting a weirdly distorted view of how these games are supposed to look. Imagine watching your favorite movie, but everything is just kind of squashed. Please don’t do it. Somewhere, a kitten dies each time you do.
Bumping Low Resolution Up to High Resolution
Instead of letting your modern TV do its grungy image upsizing (and maybe even adding input lag in the process), feed it a pre-upsized signal using a dedicated piece of hardware. While there are a lot of cheapie options on Amazon and eBay, they are fraught with sub-optimal results, including visual grunge, and color shifting (as well as bad lag in some cases). This being the case, the top two options people go for after studying this out are:
The OSSC: Around $200. The Open Source Scan Converter uses line doubling to scale your video signal up line-by-line, instead of dealing with entire video frames (a snapshot of the whole screen at that given moment). The result is that the process is crazy fast, introducing no lag to your process. The OSSC can however, require some fiddly setup to get it to do what you want. BONUS: If you RGB mod your game console, you can feed that RGB signal into the OSSC for top-notch results. An important downside is that there are certain configurations the OSSC isn’t compatible with.
The Framemeister: Around $400. This upscales whole frames, instead of line doubling, which means it does add a little lag (apparently 1 - 1.5 frames). People do like its easy setup, though, and it is extremely compatible with various setups. The Framemeister has been kind of the default “best you can get” answer for a while. Important downside, it’s twice the price of the OSSC, which is not cheap to begin with.
The RetroTINK 2X: Around $100. This little unit has gotten some great reviews.It does line doubling, like the OSSC, but is a bit more basic on some features. It really appears to be a great entry-level scaler that provides quality at a more affordable price.
If you are looking to wade in this deep, and get an upscaler, I recommend you do your research very carefully, making sure everything you read is up to date (the OSSC continues to go through revisions that improve it), as well as thinking through the whole process, and all gear you might need. I have not bought one of these yet.
BUT - You don’t actually need to do any of this. You can just nab yourself a CRT TV, plug in, and go!
Just Buy Yourself a Dang CRT!
Much of the above has been dedicated to the approach of getting your retro console to work on a modern TV, because they are different technologies from different eras, and are not natively made for one another. However, the CRT IS the display retro consoles were made for - from early Pong consoles, up through the PS2 and XBox. If you want to just plug and play, a CRT is the way to go. If you want to see the games looking like they were originally intended, use a CRT. If you want to ensure no lag… CRT. Another interesting benefit with CRTs, is that you can often pick one up very cheaply, or free. $10 or $20 for an decent 20-something inch screen is not uncommon. (You can easily pay more for nicer ones, but great bargains abound as people dump their “old TVs”)
This isn’t to say that CRTs are the Holy Grail, and you shouldn’t use a modern TV. I use both, and enjoy both. My current modern TV is set up with my RetroN 5. The HD signal the RetroN 5 puts out is crisp, and very good looking. Also, being a purist, or a hardcore player executing precision Mario moves isn’t the only reason to go CRT. The whole point of this writeup is to address a few common, but overlooked issues:
Modern TVs are the default, They’re what we all already have. Therefore, when it comes time to connect up your old school console, the natural default is to want to hook it up to your existing TV.
This inclination to hook it up to your existing TV yields ugly results, which can really turn people off.
Realizing you need a better solution, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of options, starting with cheap devices from Amazon/eBay, and getting the lag, color, and clarity problems those tools create.
It’s then easy to look at the list of higher end options, quickly realizing that the connoisseur approach involves an RGB console mod, plus a pricey outboard scaler.
Suddenly, that $40 NES you nabbed at a garage sale is leading you into a serious investment.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do the modern TV thing. I am still considering getting a scaler at some point in the future. BUT WE DON’T NEED TO.
After you inherit that Atari, or nab a sweet bargain NES, you can hit up the local thrift shop, nab a serviceable TV on the cheap, and be ready to roll.
CRT TV Buying Tips
CRT TVs can be gotten for a song, if you check the right sources. Since they aren’t being made anymore, you’re going to have to poke around and see what you can find. If your goal is to get something serviceable, that doesn’t have to be amazing, then I highly recommend regular visits to the local thrift shops. One of the nice things about dealing with a thrift shop is that they are likely to let you bring your console in and hook it up to do a test (which I highly recommend). This may may not work with a private seller, so keep that in mind. If you are up for the private seller route, and maybe not as concerned about testing before you buy (assuming the price is cheap), then Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace are good resources.
Not all CRTs are equal, and there are plenty of low-quality ones that you may want to skip, in pursuit of something a little bit nicer. But then again, if you’re just itching to play, a $10 set is very low risk, and you can easily keep your eye out for something better. I was more concerned about the picture quality (and sound) than getting a TV in pristine cosmetic shape, but I didn’t really want an ugly set either (obviously damaged housing). Your priorities may vary. Again, you can always start with something easy to get, then shop around.
When you test, look for sharpness, color, and any picture distortions like top/bottom or side edges on the image that bow in our out. Again, your tolerance of imperfections is up to you, but this is just a heads up on what to look for. Keep in mind that these are older devices now, and many may exhibit some imperfections in picture quality due to age. If you’re willing to shop more, you can start to get a good sense of what you care about, and buy accordingly.
Sonys, and Sony Trinitrons in particular are very popular in the retro gaming community. I have been a longtime Sony fan since the 80s, and they regularly put out pretty solid product. I picked up a Toshiba 20" recently which is pretty nice. I bought a decent Panasonic a little while back as well. Neither is flawless, but then again, neither was over $20, either. I’d stay away from the cheaper brands, but hey, if you find a bargain and like it, go for it. As long as you’re happy with it.
CRTs are both heavy, and awkwardly bulky. If you are going to look at anything 27" or over, there is a good chance you’ll need a second person to help you carry it. Keep that in mind. Also - If you are wanting to buy online and have something shipped, the shipping cost can be quite high due to the weight of these things. A good set at the local shop may be a better idea than a better one on eBay that you need to pay a fat shipping charge on. The best reason to buy something that requires shipping is when you are buying something premium, like a broadcast monitor (see below).
Look at the connections the set has. Composite (video + L/R audio)? S-Video? Component (YPbPr - 3 connectors). Many CRTs have connectors on the front, but the full set is in the back. PRO TIP: If you are looking at an online listing, get the model number, google up the manual with “[TV Model Number] + manual” and look up the connection types.
Does it have a remote? While you may not want a remote for general use (I don’t), many TVs may not let you access picture controls or switch inputs without the remote. It’s not a dealbreaker if there’s no remote, since you can google “[TV Model Number] + manual” and find the original model number for the remote, then eBay that baby. The remotes I have bought were between $10 and $20. Also keep in mind as you look at the picture, that some weirdness (such as over-saturated colors) can be a picture adjustment issue you can solve if you have the remote. I can’t speak to 3rd party aftermarket/universal remotes, but I’m unsure if they will let you access all the settings you may want. I always do the exact model number from the manual.
Avoid HD CRTs. I don’t have personal experience with this, but not all CRTs out there are standard def. There was a period in the early 2000s when manufacturers were creating HD CRTs. So, yes it’s a CRT, but the retro console signal is not what it really wants, since it’s HD. They’re odd birds. Best to avoid.
Consider a Broadcast Monitor
CRT TVs can make for a great gaming experience. But if you spend a little time marinating in the retro CRT sauce, you’ll pick up on discussion about professional broadcast monitors. Sonys come up again here, with the PVM models getting a lot of recommendations. They sport really high-end tubes that offer fantastically sharp pictures, great color, and were built to withstand constant use at television stations and video production houses.
These CRTs also give you a bunch of additional controls for picture refinement, and offer a profusion of high-end connection as well, including a true RGB signal on some. One caveat is that they usually sport BNC connectors, which are pro-grade, and heavier duty than RCA connectors. You can easily buy RCA-to-BNC adapters, and hook your setup straight in, though. Or alternatively, if you’re doing RGB, you’ll likely be running a SCART cable from a modded console. SCART-to-BNC adapters are also available.
The broadcast monitor thing is a deep rabbit hole, and pricey. I don’t currently own one, but mention it to get it on your conceptual map. They’re absolutely not necessary, and really kind of a special space for people who want to spend real coin and get something very fancy. You can enjoy the heck out of your games on a plain CRT TV. Anyone who tells you you NEED a broadcast monitor is a snob, or a poseur.
Get Playing Games Already!
Figuring out this whole screen thing is a JOB. That’s why I wrote this guide - to capture what I’ve learned along the way, and hopefully save you having to scour the net, sifting through zillions of posts, discussion threads, and videos. After all, our whole purpose here is to have fun playing games, not become gear nerds. Go have some fun!