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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What a long, strained trip it's been

As with everyone who falls into the dark path that is seeking retro game perfection, I didn't come into this overnight. The process happened gradually, over time, and began as a matter-of-fact attempt to improve my gaming experience as technology improved.

My earliest console experiences were about as rudimentary as they get: My NES and Super NES as a kid were plugged into a small (9-10") color television whose only connection was an RF port. The NES RF adapter served as a passthrough cable, and it sat in between the television and a wired antenna in the wall. Television images would occasionally bleed through into the NES, and there were a few times when my parents would take back the small color TV and leave me with our ancient 12" black-and-white television. Mega Man loses a little something when you can't tell what color he is at any given moment.

Now more than ever, Airman cannot be defeated. [Source: vgmuseum.com]

As the Super NES era waned, I became serious about graphic design and saved up for an all-in-one Macintosh system. My Mac was basically a computer monitor with a PC in its base, and it seemed like common sense that a game console should be able to plug into it — and it could, provided I shelled out extra for a TV card. Until I could save up for the add-on, though, I discovered the magic of emulation (thanks, of all things, to Bungie's website — truly, it was a different time) and realized I could play NES games on my computer without a console. They played a bit rough, and finding games to play involved an almost comical journey through a labyrinth of GeoCities home pages that each offered a handful of ROMs and were resultantly over their meager bandwidth limits, but swinging my way through Bionic Commando in a little System 7.5 window was incredible... albeit sputtery.

By this point, summer 1996, I had long since abandoned the NES in favor of the 16-bit era. But between the discovery of emulation and stumbling across a treasure trove of familiar and forgotten NES games at a pawn shop a few weeks later made me realize that the march of technology didn't make older games any less great. I bought a Nintendo 64 that fall the day it launched, and switched over to PlayStation the following spring, but when I created my very first homepage around this same time I left ample room for writing about NES games alongside the likes of Wave Race 64 and Tomb Raider.

As it turned out, the games industry was coming around to the notion that old games still had value, too. The PlayStation proved to be rife with classic compilations, beginning with the exceptional Namco Museum series and covering an impressive gamut of titles. Williams, Midway, and Atari soon joined the party. Squaresoft reissued classic Final Fantasies, bringing games they had passed over for localization to the U.S. for the first time as well. Once I branched into import games and Saturn software, I discovered even more greats: Capcom arcade compilations, exquisite remakes of the NES Mega Man games packed with added features (some of which are only now reaching the U.S. in Mega Man Legacy Collection), dozens upon dozens of MSX games on a single disc that Babbage's couldn't sell in the U.S. to save their lives and ended up clearing out for a few dollars.

These compilations varied wildly in quality. Square's RPG were given dreadful ports ridden with slowdown and stretched, distorted graphics, while Capcom's anthologies were top-notch. It was around this time that I began to take notice of better display options; I acquired a TV with an S-video connector, and I marveled at its superiority over composite video. I began capturing screenshots of PlayStation games and learned about interlacing (and the importance of Photoshop's Deinterlace filter). And once I boarded the DVD train, I made the back-breaking decision to buy a massive CRT with component inputs — which, conveniently, coincided with the launch of the RGB-capable PlayStation 2. The PS2's backward compatibility breathed new life into my PlayStation 1 games, which looked sharp and vibrant through component video in a way I'd never imagined.

The quality and frequency of compilations only increased the following generation, thanks mainly to PlayStation 2's popularity and power — though Xbox and GameCube certainly saw their share of notable reissues as well. The most surprising came from Animal Crossing, a low-key slow-life, Nintendo's version of The Sims. Hidden within its depths were faithful ports of dozens of early NES games; while most people only cared about hacking their way to the gems (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!!), I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit classics I'd either missed or had only experienced through the fuzzy uncertainty of an RF connector.

A promising introduction to the world of emulation. [Source: vgmuseum.com]

An even greater "a ha!" moment came when Nintendo released classic NES games on Game Boy Advance's e-Reader. On the surface, the whole thing seemed bizarre — distributing old games on paper cards — but classics turned out to be well-suited for play on the handheld. And soon after that came the NES Classics series, standalone reissues of popular 8-bit games on GBA. This was clearly a time of discovery and experimentation for publishers to determine the real value of old games; NES Classics priced them too dearly, while sloppy compilations like Mega Man Anniversary Collection treated them too cheaply.

Having grown more interested in portable games, playing NES classics on GBA whetted my interest in handheld solutions to the retro game experience. When modders cracked the PSP and began publishing homebrew emulators for the handheld early in 2006, I loaded my system up with NES games and played them until the Square button wore out from too much shooting in The Guardian Legend. Wary of my replacement PSP's build quality and not wanting emulation to destroy a system I needed for reviews at work, I decided to hunt down a dedicated device for portable emulation and came up with Game Park's GP32X, a Korean-made gaming system friendly to homebrew and emulation.

Still, the GP32X — powerful and well-made as it was — didn't quite feel authentic, especially once the Wii launched and brought with it a sizable (and rapidly growing, at first) library of classic games across a wide array of systems, emulated with excellent quality and priced fairly reasonably. As much as I liked Virtual Console, though, I slowly came to realize that the platform would always be limited by licenses, by publisher interest, and by Nintendo's waning determination to keep Virtual Console vital.

Accepting the fact that I would need to supplement Nintendo's dribble of Virtual Console releases with actual carts of games destined to never appear on the service, I journeyed through a frustrating procession of portable clone and emulator consoles in search of one that would offer a faithful, satisfying NES experience. What I found was a seeming endless string of disappointments. The Famulator Lite, for example, let me use NES and Famicom cartridges on a Nintendo DS Lite... but it looked absolutely comical and also offered some of the worst NES emulation I've ever experienced.

More recent devices proved somewhat more satisfying, like the FC Mobile 88 (a portable NES clone with 88 terrible homebrew games built in) and the Poke Fami DX (a Super NES handheld with surprisingly good sound quality). To a one, however, they used off-the-shelf LCD screens in standard computer resolutions rather than screens custom-sized to the platforms being emulated, resulting in poor visual quality. Combined with the shoddy controller quality, the deficiencies of these systems finally helped me come to terms with the fact that my decade-long quest for a perfect portable classic game experience would never bear fruit, and that I should simply rely on real hardware.

The FC Mobile 88.

It's a shame I couldn't have bypassed the failures and frustrations of the hunt altogether; I've surely spent more money on lousy emulation and clone solutions over the past 10 years than I have on my current setup. And the first time I booted up an RGB-modded Super NES running through a Framemeister, scan lines enabled, I felt the comforting sense of wonder that the Super NES inspired at launch — a sensation I've been struggling to recapture ever since.

I suspect I haven't completed this particular journey quite yet. The idea of a PVM or even just a high-quality television with RGB inputs as a second screen appeals to me, if for no other reason than to be able to play and capture light gun games — something impossible even on an optimal upscaler/LED TV combo. My setup introduces about two frames of lag, but that's two too many for a Zapper or Justifier or GunCon to work. And then there are still all those other consoles I could have RGB modded; I don't have a single Sega console in the lot yet, after all...

Even in this, gaming's film envy bubbles forth

"Time is a valuable thing, and if we are gonna sit down and take the time to play a game, wouldn't you want to know you are experiencing it exactly right?" asks Taber. "I do. I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't think it's a stretch to say that video game history is analogous to film or music history. It has a rich diversity of artists, designers and developers. I want everyone to be able to experience this history as ideally as possible. Our goal is to develop products that elevate the respect of the medium."

For his part, Cifaldi agrees with the film metaphor. "When we started the new Digital Eclipse, we were trying to address what we saw as two problems," he says. "Namely, that classic games were often unavailable on modern platforms, and that they were being devalued by what we saw as cheap re-releases. Platforms like Virtual Console and big compilation packs (like the ones Digital Eclipse used to make) address point 1, but they don't address point 2.

A litmus test for game preservation?

"Maybe I'm overly ambitious, but I think if there's a market for releasing Casablanca in a deluxe collector's set some 60+ years after it was in theaters, then that market exists — if not now, then in the very near future — for The Legend of Zelda.

"So, in order to prove out the value of games, we felt our work had to hold itself to a higher standard than any other classic re-release that came before us. We want to prove that there's a market for paying a premium for an old game, if it's done right. So what we did is focus on authenticity above all — which isn't easy to do!! — and marketed that idea. The language I wrote for DigitalEclipse.com is snooty as hell, but that's on purpose — I don't just want to attract clients to let us rerelease their games, I want the players on our side too."

Of course, none of this answers the original question: "A 500-dollar NES!?"

It's definitely an extravagance, to be sure. Certainly not one for everyone. But after seeing games I love output in such high quality - emulator-like crispness yet with the fidelity that only comes from original hardware and software...

...I don't regret taking the plunge into the world of RGB. If I hadn't settled on an Analogue NT, it would have been some other NES modification; but the results would have been the same regardless.

Certainly this world of meticulously recreated retro games isn't an investment for everyone, the same way taking years to restore a classic Mustang isn't for everyone who buys a car to drive to work each morning and occasionally go on vacation. I didn't even know about upscalers until an episode of Retronauts a couple of years ago, and my initial reaction was a vehement, "Oh hell no." But I've come around. As someone who loves classic games and the artistry that went into them, how could I not?

Everyone has a hobby, and after seeing just how deep the rabbit hole can go when it comes to classic gaming, I'm just grateful my interests stop short at the brink of true madness.

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