The Quest for the Perfect Retro Game Experience

The Quest for the Perfect Retro Game Experience

Jeremy looks back on a decade-long mission to relive the classics amidst changing technology, and explores what drives other like-minded enthusiasts.

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Seasoned to taste

But sometimes the hunt for video game perfection has nothing to do with work or competitions. Sometimes, it's simply more about the experience.

Some game enthusiasts, myself included, don't like the feel of emulation. [See this feature's companion piece Player's Choice for more info.] Some say the timing and controls never feel quite right; others dislike the inaccurate sound quality; and for some, the legality and ethics of relying on downloaded, unpaid software doesn't sit well.

"I get a ton of flack from friends about it, but I really just don't like emulating games," says NeoGAF user baphomet, who has become a local folk hero for his efforts to help his fellow forumgoers upgrade their old systems to display RGB video. "It's just something about sitting down with the actual hardware and playing it on a broadcast monitor in RGB that's enjoyable to me. It's more like an experience in that way than just playing a game. Sure, I could load up the ROM on my PC and play it, but that's not what I enjoy about it. The game is just a part of the whole."

Oliver agrees that context and setting play an essential part in enjoying the game experience.

"The most authentic experience I can imagine is simply sitting in front of a warm CRT with a good friend, playing games well into the night," she says. "The shared experience that way just can't be beat — that's why being at the arcade with friends and the logistics of my home setup have meant so much to me. I also spend my free time fixing up consoles to be in their original condition, often handhelds, just to preserve the original experience. But on that note, I'd probably still be happier playing an emulated game with a good friend than I would be playing it on the real hardware by myself. Luckily, having more than one option on the market means that the user themselves can define what makes an authentic experience for them — there's room for everyone."

Oliver takes her insistence for a proper experience to an even greater extreme when it comes to competition. "Personally, I don't even like the difference between having a personal machine in a private room for records instead of having it on an arcade floor. The atmosphere is part and parcel with arcade record-setting.

"I have no problem with emulation — it's a great way to experience games you otherwise might not have a chance to. It's also fantastic from a preservationist standpoint as well. But nothing beats playing the originals. That being said, I still don't practice Splatterhouse in MAME... it just doesn't feel right to me."

"A game running on anything that isn't the platform it was created for, in our eyes, will never be completely authentic," says Digital Eclipse's Frank Cifaldi, who currently is working on Capcom's Mega Man Legacy Collection. "You have to come up with compromises. A great example is the video filtering we use in Mega Man Legacy Collection — we can't always know the intent of the original artists behind these games, so we offer a compromise where players can choose to play with the razor sharp pixel art, or can use filters that simulate either a properly-tuned monitor (like mine!) or an off-the-shelf TV of the era. Which way is 'right'? I don't think there's an answer to that."

Authentication

The word that crops up perhaps more than any other in discussions of preserving classics and recapturing the true retro gaming experience is "authenticity." But what, precisely, does that term mean?

For Cifaldi, it's about trying to recreate the conditions a game's designers envisioned for it. He says that although the Digital Eclipse team has been tempted to smooth over quirks in the original NES Mega Man hexology, they've elected to maintain as many flaws, glitches, and display errors as possible — even when doing so has forced his team to bend over backwards to figure out how to preserve something that, by all appearances, is a mistake.

Mega Man Legacy Collection's developers aim to recreate the NES games as closely to their creators' original intent as possible.

"We threw away a few ideas early on that we felt were too 'us' and not 'vintage Capcom.," he explains. "All of the extras we put into the package — the Database, the Museum, the Challenge modes — come with very little tinkering from the source material. Even when we added new art for the portals in Challenge mode, we chose to recycle the star field from Mega Man 2, for example. And our UI is kept simple and clean, with art that is either taken directly from the old games, or is a riff on that style."

Oliver, on the other hand, says, "[Authenticity] is nowhere near as necessary to the experience, but it's something I love and strive for all the same. When I stream, it's often emulated just for ease of capture. Other times I'll load up an emulator just to see if I'm interested in picking up physical copies of things, but I unquestionably prefer playing on real hardware.

"One of the goals of my home setup hasn't been to hook everything up simultaneously, but instead has been to make it as easy as possible to swap out the console I'm playing. That being said, I still wouldn't mind having clone hardware — if for no other reason than to travel places with it, besides making capture a lot easier overall."

Christopher Taber of Analogue Interactive — makers of that infamous $500 NES — says the desire for authenticity has driven his company's entire product line. Despite its high sticker price and elaborate aluminum shell, the Analogue NT consists of actual NES and Famicom innards, with the end goal of providing the best possible NES experience on modern television hardware. [For a full review of whether or not the NT achieved these lofty goals, check back later this week.]

"Accurate retro gaming emulation is extremely difficult to achieve," Taber says. "As it turns out, emulating old gaming hardware is actually highly complex. Basic compatibility is readily available, but performance accuracy... that's another story. You end up with glitches, slowdown, inaccurate sound, and flat out incompatibility and errors. The reality is, the original hardware is the only option that works perfectly."

Calibrating a monitor. [Source: www.twitter.com/frankcifaldi]

It's this mindset that drives dedicated retro gamers to seek out and modify original hardware, to buy expensive upscalers, to learn to maintain aging CRT screens, and to learn the ins and outs of connector types and sync rates.

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