For most people, simply owning the latest console, a decent TV, and some zippy wi-fi is all they'll ever need to have a perfect video game experience. But for those who prefer to dig deep into history, and who want to make their aging systems work gracefully on those giant flatpanels crowding the entrance to Costco, it takes a little more effort.
While hardly comprehensive, this brief guide should help get you started on your quest for retro perfection — sorting out your needs and determining just what kind of investment you're in for.
Analog Vs. Digital: Understanding the Difference
Perhaps the biggest challenge in making old systems work with modern equipment comes from the fundamental incompatibility between analog and digital data. Present-day media systems all operate on digital signals, but up until the PlayStation 3 introduced HDMI ports to the console market in 2006, game systems transmitted analog signals.
It might seem strange that the most digital of entertainment formats — video games alone are built from the ground up as ones and zeroes! — might have such a difficult time with digital-only displays. But because standard definition consoles were designed for analog televisions, they were wired to convert their digital data into analog output. Furthermore, old consoles tend to output signals at a wide variety of resolutions, from the Atari 2600's 160x192 to the Sega Genesis' 320x240; because cathode ray tube televisions could adjust their output on the fly, consoles could be flexible. An HDTV, on the other hand, has a fixed resolution of 1280x720 or 1920x1080, which means those smaller resolutions have to be scaled up.
Of course, modern TVs are perfectly capable of converting standard definition analog signals into a format compatible with their digital innards, but the process isn't instantaneous; it takes a fraction of a second to process them, which can produce several frames of lag. For television and movies, this is all well and good, but video games live and die by their responsiveness. Pro-level fighting games often require reaction times as tight as a single frame — 1/60 of a second — and if your TV's upscaler is adding a dozen frames of delay, that copy of Street Fighter II becomes effectively unplayable.
This is the crux of the quest for optimal connections and setups: Finding the best possible output for an old console with a minimum of added defects or artifacts. Whether your old system is outputting via composite, RGB, or VGA, it's still sending an analog signal. Most serious retrogamers prefer to run their system through an external scaler (Micomsoft's XRGB Mini Framemeister being a popular choice); these dedicated units aren't perfect, but they produce a cleaner HD picture from old consoles with much less lag. They can output at a variety of resolutions, remember custom color and audio profiles, and even generate scanlines.
Still, for some, any lag is too much lag. Even a single frame of lag makes NES light gun games unplayable, as the Zapper gun used a very specific sequence of dark and light frames to determine hits and misses. For games like this, or for players who simply demand perfection, there is no viable HDTV solution for playing classic consoles. Instead, they turn to high-end cathode ray monitors, which can cost upwards of $500 and will only grow more expensive as the existing devices (which are no longer manufactured anywhere in the world) steadily break down with age.
"For an existing HD setup where you don't want to put a large CRT for aesthetic or space reasons, the XRGB Mini is the way to go," says baphomet. "Of all the upscalers on the market, it produces the best image quality for 240p/480i content. You get those razor sharp pixels much like an emulator, which a lot of people want. You also have a scanline option that gives a pretty good, and adjustable, effect.
"If you have the room, and your significant other won't kill you, then a CRT is the best option in my opinion. It's a softer picture compared to an upscaler, but its also lagless. Different colors will cause the phosphors to burn lighter or darker, which in turn will cause the scanlines to be thicker or thinner in certain areas. It reminds me of how arcade monitors looked growing up."
HDCP: Short for High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection, this encryption protocol is built into nearly any device that connects via HDMI. Its purpose is ostensibly to prevent piracy, but it can also shut down any digital connection that comes between a media device such as a console or Blu-ray player and a television. For instance, a video capture tool. Thankfully, current consoles will allow players to shut down HDCP at their discretion, but good luck streaming from a PlayStation 3 without investing in some sort of device that strips HDCP...
Upscaler: Classic consoles generally output at either 240p or 480i resolution — meaning they sent a signal considerably smaller than the standard 1080p resolution of modern televisions. An upscaler takes those 240 lines of data and multiplies them to fill a high-definition screen. Televisions come equipped with upscalers, but they tend to be slow and yield low video quality, which is why serious classic gamers who want to use an HDTV will invest in an external upscaler like the XRGB-mini Framemeister. They're pricey, but they yield excellent results and offer a huge array of options for fine-tuning.
CRT: A CRT (cathode-ray tube) television simply refers to the classic glass tube TV sets that were the standard before the proliferation of flatscreens. While CRTs come with many disadvantages, including their weight and relative fragility, they operate on analog signals that require no upscaling or conversions for old consoles — making for crisp, lag-free gameplay.
PVM/BVM: These acronyms refer to specific high-end models of Sony CRT televisions. Designed for professional broadcast use, a well-calibrated PVM offers reference-quality visuals. They tend to have flat-front screens that lack the curved distortion of standard CRTs. Monitors of this variety tend to offer a wealth of tuning options; BVMs even allow users to create custom profiles, with which you can swap quickly between settings for different consoles. They're expensive, heavy, and hard to find, but they make up for it with their durability — not to mention the fact that they offer the most faithful classic console viewing experience possible.
Scan lines: An artifact of the beams CRTs used to "paint" their images on television screens, scan lines are simply the slightly dim bands that separate lines of graphical resolution. Classic games were designed for devices that featured scan lines, and as such many classic enthusiasts feel that simulating scan lines on modern screens (which do not display them) is an essential element of recapturing the "true" look and feel of retro games. At the very least, scan lines help soften and mute the sharp, vivid look of bitmap graphics displayed on HDTV.
Filters: For those who prefer the emulation route, filters allow players to modify the appearance of game graphics. These can be as simple as adding fake scan lines (similar to an upscaler), but they can also blur and reshape graphics to create the illusion of higher resolution.
Filters also allow more "destructive" enhancements, such as reproducing raster glow, defective beam guns, and even Game Boy-style screen ghosting.