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Back When Screenshots Really Were Screen Shots

Old Man Rignall spins one of his yarns from the olden days of gaming.

Image by Jaz Rignall, .

The other day while I was taking some screenshots of a new PS4 game, I found myself cursing under my breath at the inconvenience of having to transfer my files from my console to a USB drive, trudge over to my Mac, and then upload them to USgamer's content management system so that they could be incorporated into an article.

Oh, the humanity.

Here's an oldschool screenshot of Paperboy. Notice the rounded edges of the CRT monitor in each corner of the picture.

Okay. In all fairness, I was rushing to hit a deadline, and having to fiddle about for a few minutes just exacerbated my anxiety. Fact of the matter is that taking screenshots – especially on PS4 – is about as easy and convenient as it could possibly be. Just boot up your machine, play a game, and press the share button when you want to take a pretty picture. Sure, it can sometimes be challenging capturing an action shot – the console can lag when you're trying to shoot something that's particularly demanding of the CPU, resulting in the actual picture being taken a second or so after pressing the share button – but for the most part, snapping screenshots is a breeze.

Indeed, that's what struck me later on that night after I'd finished my work. As I unplugged my USB from my Mac, I started thinking back to my early days working on games magazines in the 80s and 90s, and what an utter palaver taking screenshots used to be. There was no easy solution back then. Games systems were primitive beasts that didn't have share buttons, or indeed any means at all to snag an image of the screen. Capture boards that you could plug into a PC and make screen dumps while you played the game hadn't yet been invented. These were analogue times, and when it came to taking pictures of video games, you had to use an old-fashioned film camera.

Yep. Those screenshots you used to look at in old games magazines were indeed shots taken of the screen itself.

While this mightn't exactly be a revelation to most, what might be are the conditions that we had to create to capture crisp, print-quality images of your favorite games. Screen glare was the number one enemy of the screenshot: Even the slimmest shaft of light could reflect off a CRT or TV set, ruining a picture, so screenshots had to be taken in the dark. That meant having a dedicated room – preferably with no windows – that was completely blacked out in which the games systems, and TV sets and monitors were located.

These rooms were often not ventilated, and would get very hot - especially in the summer. Because of that, they developed their own peculiar aroma that would assail your olfactory organs until you mercifully developed "nose blindness."

Whoever took this picture of Impossible Mission didn't clean the screen - you can clearly see fingerprints and smudges. Hopeless!

Screens had to be kept pristine, since fingerprints and smudges would show up on a photograph, so they were religiously cleaned before every screenshot-taking session. And the camera was always put on a tripod so that it could be placed directly in front of a monitor and kept steady, because screenshots had to be taken at very slow speed. With oldschool British PAL CRTs refreshing at 24 times a second, you had to take your shots at a shutter speed slower than 1/25th of a second; otherwise you'd end up with a big black refresh line across your picture.

This caused logistical problems when taking pictures of certain games. Because of the slow camera shutter speed, it meant that you couldn't shoot a game while it was moving, because the resultant shot would have motion blur. So you had to pray that the game had a pause mode that simply froze the action, and didn't bring up a menu screen, or the word "PAUSED." If they did, you'd have to play the game very carefully and shoot pictures only at junctures where the action slowed down completely.

This shot of Revenge of Shinobi on Genesis is spot-on. Notice the way the pixels blur together, creating relatively smooth edges to the sprites and backdrops. You can also clearly see the curvature of the TV screen at the top of the picture.

Shooting screenshots at shows and conventions was even more challenging. With the bright overhead show hall lights causing massive glare, and the glass screen reflecting everything that was in front of it, capturing screenshots when I visited CES conventions seemed out of the question. Or was it? What I'd do is take a very large, thick blanket with me, which I'd put over the screen and camera, creating an impromptu darkroom that would mostly minimize the light bouncing off the screen. When I first started doing this, I'd get PR people rushing up to me asking me what the hell I was doing, but once they realized I was simply taking screenshots, they'd let me do my thing. And before you ask, almost no publishers took their own screenshots at the time – it was just too difficult, and the expectation was that magazines would always take their own.

Double Dragon II on NES looks pretty good in this screenshot. Modern captures show off every individual pixel as a square, but here, the phosphorescent glow of the screen helps them merge together nicely to create a unique aesthetic.

Needless to say, wherever you had to do it, taking screenshots was right royal pain in the ass. And that's only half the story. The film had to be taken to a local photography studio to be developed, which would take several hours, even at the fastest possible, that'll-cost-you-extra turnaround rate. The picture selection process involved using an under-lit light table and magnifying loupe to choose the best screenshots, and then they had to be cut out of the negative strip and labeled properly so that the page designers wouldn't get them mixed up. Good times, good times.

While I don’t miss anything about taking screenshots the old way, one thing that I do still appreciate about a well-shot picture of a video game taken from a CRT screen is its aesthetic qualities. The way the pixels blur together on the phosphorescent screen is unique to the period, and you can often see the individual scan lines. It's a cool effect that I think gives those old screenshots real character: A far cry from today's pixel-perfect captures that can be swiftly snapped and shared with the world with just a few deft presses of a button.

Header/Thumbnail photo credit: Flickr user Artemiourbina via creative commons.

Other screenshots taken from Mean Machine magazine, circa 1990.

The Day I Melted An Asteroids Machine

Old Man Rignall spins one of his ludicrous yarns from the olden days of gaming.

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Jaz Rignall

Comments 27

  • Avatar for Compeau #1 Compeau 26 days ago
    How I view Jaz writing this article:

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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #2 Jaz_Rignall 26 days ago
    @Compeau Awesome! That made me properly laugh out loud. Thanks for posting. =)
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #3 Monkey-Tamer 26 days ago
    I remember Nintendo Power having a little guide on how to take a proper screen shot to prove a high score or other achievement.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #4 chaoticBeat 26 days ago
    I was just reflecting on those high quality screenshots they use to publish in the back of egm. It was usually Japanese companies with 2 or 3 pages of game listings for sale. They made games like Bloody Roar, Strider and Einhander look so great.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #5 riderkicker 26 days ago
    What was your output of choice, RGB or Composite or even... RF? All we Americans know is that SCART RGB is the best way of playing retro video games, and when we look up the prices of the cables online, they're about $20 a cable compared to the Yellow Red and White cable we can get at a Dollar store. It was definitely pretty expensive back then, but was it really a standard connector, way more than the component ports we got here in the 2000s? Did it help things somewhat or it was still the same challenge or more?
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #6 cldmstrsn 26 days ago
    Man this really makes me miss the old days. When Nintendo Power came or another gaming magazine it was literally like Christmas. I would run to get the mail and then run back drop everything and just run to my room and read for hours! I really miss that.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #7 riderkicker 26 days ago
    @cldmstrsn Yeah, it was the graphics in these magazines that colored our nostalgia, not the games we actually played in our tv. I enjoyed how the pictures came out, and they seemed more cartoony than computer-like.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #8 Jaz_Rignall 26 days ago
    @riderkicker In the early days of computing, we used composite cables, but once the 16-bit generation rolled around, we connected the likes of the SNES and Genesis to a monitor with a SCART cable. That delivered pin-sharp graphics with very little pixel-crawl or color wash. That was pretty much the pro standard, back then. Most consumers were still using RF or composite at the time, though.

    A few years later capture boards were invented, which enabled you to connect a games console and PC with composite (and then later, component) with good results - because the picture was being captured digitally.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 26 days ago
    Ah, the answer to why so many old magazine articles had some misassigned screenshots. Makes sense.
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  • Avatar for I-m-not-Daredevil #10 I-m-not-Daredevil 26 days ago
    Great read. I love that the screenshots can only have come from a Brit (or Aussie/NZer). Ah, Impossible Mission - that brings back memories :)

    I always wondered why some publications (or even boxart) had such boring screenshots ('why didn't they show off this awesome effect?') and this explains why.Edited 4 weeks ago by I-m-not-Daredevil
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  • Avatar for PlatypusPlatoon #11 PlatypusPlatoon 26 days ago
    Jaz, this article was fantastic! As an old-timer myself, but not quite up in years as someone of your generation, I love hearing about historical nuggets like this that I would never even think of, if someone who didn't go through that era didn't write about it. More articles like this, please! :)
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #12 ericspratling56 26 days ago
    Fantastic look at how the sausage used to be made. I did occasionally wonder about it back when I was a kid. Gives me a whole new respect for game journalists I grew up reading.

    As far as getting an "action" shot without pausing the game: was it feasible to tape record your play session (i.e., hit Record on an actual VCR plugged into the same TV the console was running on) and then take a photograph of the video playback (perhaps even paused just right) later, or did the crummy VHS quality just end up degrading the picture even further?
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #13 WiIIyTheAntelope 26 days ago
    Anyone remember the little blurb in Nintendo Power about taking screenshots of your high scores to send in? I feel awful for whoever it was that had to sort through thousands of photographs of their TV taken by 7 year olds and attempting to decipher what it said.

    Also, now that I think of it. I distinctly remember that Double Dragon 2 screenshot being from an issue of Nintendo Power.Edited 4 weeks ago by WiIIyTheAntelope
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #14 LBD_Nytetrayn 26 days ago
    The CES story sounds familiar -- I think either you talked about it before, or something similar was described in Console Wars. If the latter, then I'm wondering if it was you they were describing!
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #15 Roto13 26 days ago
    Tell us another one, Grandpa Jaz
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  • Avatar for geireivindmork79 #16 geireivindmork79 25 days ago
    For the PS4 I have a usb switch with an usb pen connected. so after moving several screenshots to the usb stick, i switch to the mac and can access them from there. the best would be that they were available on a shared network drive, but at least that's a convenient way.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #17 VotesForCows 25 days ago
    Cool article - lovely to hear about how this was done!

    I used to do a lot of photography in the 90s, and usually developed my own pictures. It was so different then - allowed more room for creativity after the picture itself had been taken. Anyway, turned out that the development was what I really liked - once I went digital, I gradually stopped taking pictures.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #18 Nuclear-Vomit 25 days ago
    I remember taking photos of Secret of Mana with my disposable camera. Mom got them developed and handed them to me. There was a look of shame in her eyes.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #19 Kadrom 25 days ago
    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing, Jaz. Knowing the troubles you had to go through makes me more impressed at outfits like Nintendo Power who would do this several times over to piece together maps to print.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #20 yuberus 25 days ago
    This makes those screenshot maps of classic games sound even more horrifying to actually capture.
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  • Avatar for DaveLong #21 DaveLong 25 days ago
    There truly is a magnificence to how screenshots looked in magazines. Even today with the way captures work, a game looks fantastic on a printed page. It's just so satisfying to me to see videogames on paper that way. I suppose that's because I grew up with them (and took shots for mags I wrote for myself....) but I can't ever get enough of games in print.
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  • Avatar for Vaporeon #22 Vaporeon 25 days ago
    This article is the epitome of why I love USGamer - and why it's the only gaming site I ever visit. Such thoughtful features and retrospectives! Great work, Jaz.

    This also reminded me of the time in junior high when I had my mom snap a photo of me standing proudly next to our old TV, having just earned all the coins in Big Boo's Haunt in Super Mario 64. I planned to send it to Nintendo Power to finally make their "leader board" page, but I guess I never got around to it! All the better, though, since that awkward photo of me brings back more memories than my name in NP ever would have, haha.
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  • Avatar for internisus #23 internisus 25 days ago
    A friend of mine, whom I would describe as a video game architecture connoisseur, has been creating collections of Dark Souls screenshots off a CRT because he, too, appreciates the aesthetics advocated by this article. Check out the most recent one here. (There are links from there to the previous collections.)
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #24 Vonlenska 25 days ago
    This was a wonderful read. It's fascinating how different things will look on different displays, too; I miss the old dithery pixel blur smoothness.

    Thanks for letting us have a picnic on your lawn, Old Man Rignall! You're the best!
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  • Avatar for docexe #25 docexe 25 days ago
    @WiIIyTheAntelope Yep, Club Nintendo (the Mexican equivalent of Nintendo Power, more or less) also had a section like that.

    I remember how impressed I was by the quality of the screenshots in those magazines back in the day, as every time I tried to take a screenshot of a game from my TV, it always ended looking like a blurry mess.

    Finally learning how laborious was the process to get that quality just makes me respect the craft of those old print magazines even more.
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  • Avatar for TheDarkKnight9113 #26 TheDarkKnight9113 24 days ago
    @Compeau That's how I felt when I was explaining VHS and that when I was a kid there was no youtube. My nephews were in shock, they said I had a hard childhood lol
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  • Avatar for Daikon #27 Daikon 23 days ago
    Ha! I loved seeing the screenshots in CVG and Mean Machines back in the 90s.
    And the "unique aesthetic" actually often indeed made the games look better in the screenshots than they actually were ^_^
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