My old Pioneer plasma that now lives in a closet covered in a blanket had a lot of video inputs. Component and VGA inputs were casualties of my recent upgrade to OLED. Time marches on, unless you still want to play old game consoles or accidentally slip and fall and become frozen in a crevasse. Then, assuming you fall into the former and not the frozen category, you need to decide if composite video is sufficient for your fully-thawed, unconventional, yet not uncouth tastes.
For me, composite would not do, partly because I realized my new TV was capable of it only after I finished the project I will be explaining in excruciating detail. This fact aside, in order to get the best picture out of the old games I always plan to play but rarely do, I learned I would need to embark on a potentially never-ending-always-spending project. And now you can, too!
First, a quick technology primer written by a layman for other people who reworked their major’s required credits to not require college level electronics. People who actually know things may have problems with the following highly technical diagram, but roughly speaking it’s true enough to be useful:
RF -> Composite -> S-Video -> Component = VGA = SCART
- RF = Radio Frequency
- S-Video = Separate Video
- VGA = Very Good Attenuation
- SCART = Syndicat des Constructeurs d’Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Téléviseurs (no duh)
- -> = a little arrow thing showing the steps upward to video quality heaven
- = = an equals sign means two things are the same, equal if you will
RF you may remember from your 8-bit machine. It’s bad. Composite is the most familiar 3 wire setup, two combining to create stereo sound and the third for video. It’s not great. S-video, which was never very popular, improved composite by adding more sibilance. The next three are what you likely want to aim for if possible: Component breaks video into three separate wires, SCART is similar but didn’t exist in the North American market, and VGA, which you may remember from computer monitors, is basically reserved for the Dreamcast and maybe some Japanese computers people somehow even cooler than I play games on.
Enough quantum physics, back to the actual project. If I had been willing to just plug in using composite video, assuming I could find the weird three to one cable converter my TV requires and had understood what it was when I looked at it when unboxing the set, this would be too short to post. So in the name of content, I went back in time and began a long, expensive, research heavy project to make old games look good on my new TV.
The first step is figuring out what your consoles can output. Odds are, it’s graphics and sound. Many systems can deal in component or SCART, which are both excellent. For an abbreviated rundown, PS1, PS2, and Xbox have component capability; SNES, Saturn, and Genesis work with SCART; and the Dreamcast VGA. Then there are the weird or one-offs: the Gamecube component cable costs more than the HDMI adapter (though replacements for the 1st party component cable exist now); the N64’s best video is S video; NES, Master System, and PC Engine top out at composite.
Many or all of these consoles can output a nicer signal if you are willing to mod them. I had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere, so this was a good (and economical) spot. Also, admitting to myself that after buying a nice soldering iron, solder, flux remover, a magnifying glass that clips onto my desk, a variety of wires, and some other things I don’t understand, I still couldn’t solder was depressing and easier to ignore if I didn’t mail consoles cross country to be modded for me.
Component cables are easy enough to find, though it’s generally recommended you use the official 1st party versions which will be more expensive. Bad SCART cables are easy to get on eBay, but good ones are expensive and rarely available right when you’d like them. I had an alarm set months out to get a chance to buy $40-a-pop cables. There are a number of VGA cables for the Dreamcast; I went with a higher end one. There is also an HDMI adapter, which makes sense if you have no other plans for other old consoles. Besides maybe the Gamecube, which also has a high quality HDMI option for $100 or $150.
So you’re roughly half a grand in and you realize just having a cable plugged into a console won’t quite suffice. Now what? That signal needs to go somewhere, and if you have enough consoles, a switch is a likely destination. SCART switches are huge and expensive, but I had an old component switch sitting around from the PS2 days that proved useful for my setup. I just swap between SCART stuff manually. Switch or no, the signal still needs to hit something that can process it and send it out to your TV in HDMI.
For the higher end stuff (component, SCART, VGA) I bought an OSSC, or an Open Source Scan Converter. There are a few other devices that don’t do the exact same thing but will get your signal out to your TV via HDMI (I could tell you what they are but am trying to keep this short and keep eating up the word count with unnecessarily long parenthetical comments). The OSSC does not have composite or S-video input so I had to buy a separate device for the remaining loser systems – the RetroTINK. Finally, any old console I have could be played on my new TV in good to excellent quality.
Unfortunately, the OSSC is complicated and probably too much so for me. It allows you to save and then load profiles for different systems onto it via SD card. This is good because it saves you from having to hand tweak resolution and crap every time you use it and swap systems, but it’s also a pain in the ass. It holds 10 or so profiles and when you start considering the different resolutions some systems output, 10 simply isn’t enough. To compound things, if you only play old games every few months you will likely have to relearn how to use the thing each time. At least the remote they sell with it is generic and, after applying their customer sticker overlay, partly comprehensible.
The OSSC does allow resolution upscaling, which is cool and makes games look better, and it is effectively lag-free. There are downsides to playing consoles that change resolution mid-game like the PS1 or PS2 (resolution upscaling from the previous sentence is unrelated, I just confusingly put two sentences discussing different aspects of resolution back to back). Every time resolution changes, the OSSC has to figure out what’s going on and the screen turns black for a moment or five. From what I have read, OSSC competitors may handle resolution swaps less well. A final downside of my setup is the PS2’s use of 480i resolution, which needs to be deinterlaced in one way or another before it can be displayed on the screen (the ‘i’ stands for ‘interlaced’). Allowing the OSSC to do it is officially not recommended on OLEDs (image retention fears), so I set it to pass through the interlaced signal and then allow the TV to deal with it. Which is mostly fine, but you lose the upscaling feature of the OSSC if you go this route.
And there you have it, a simple primer with only 6 errors and 19 half truths on how to spend $1,500, buy a dozen wires, a few switches, and a few signal converters so you can play Pictionary on the NES without plugging directly into your TVs composite in.
Addendum: Chris came to me for advice on how to set up his SNES without composite video, I showed him this article in draft form, and it became apparent I am insane. If your primary goal is to play a single old console, you may want to just buy a 30 dollar mediocre HDMI cable. It doesn’t actually output in the SNES’s (or likely whichever console you’re looking at) highest quality, and still leaves it up to your TV to handle the upscaling from 240i or whatever, so your signal may be shitty, but it certainly gets the job done. I still think if you have multiple systems to connect and are coming from a high quality CRT setup, you should consider having the video processing done before it hits your TV.
Addendum 2: The perspective offered here tends to fall on the “better is always better” side of the retro picture quality debate. There is a good, often convincing argument to be made that many games were not designed to be displayed in excellent quality RGB, rather the developers knew people would be watching on average consumer televisions using composite video. The famous example of this is waterfalls in Sonic the Hedgehog – a composite signal blends the coloring and makes the water appear transparent, whereas the technically better SCART output separates the colors and ruins this graphical effect. If you’d like to use composite output for all your retro content that it makes sense for (older stuff), the RetroTINK is still a better option than plugging directly into your TV because your TV is stupid and will likely mess up the resolution and make it look extra bad.
This article hits home, in the sense that I’d love to do some of these things, but I can’t be arsed to spend the time or money to make it so.
For now, I have a bunch of old consoles plugged up into a CRT, and until it dies I’m just going to roll with that setup.
Until then, I’ll just hope that people get better at figuring out how to render old games on modern TV’s and consoles.
If anything, I think things will get worse. TVs are dropping compatibility with old resolutions no one save a few nerds care about and soon HDMI will be the only option for inputs. Emulation is probably the answer but that’s a huge pain in the ass, too. Anyone who says RetroArch is pleasant to use is lying to you.
I’ve felt that way about RetroArch for a long time too.
It’s funny that I make a living writing software, but all the supposedly tech savvy people in the homebrew and retro gaming community have a very different idea than me about what is or isn’t easy/safe/intuitive to use. Makes me wonder which one of us is out of our minds.
But I think you’re right that it will get worse. And it may be compounded by the fact that all these specialty devices are:
All of this leads me to a sort of crisis of conscience, so to speak. The fact that I’m not willing to spend the time and money on these things heavily implies that I don’t “want it” enough. That I’m a “casual” fan of retro gaming at best.
Now, I’m not necessarily ashamed of that title, if it is indeed applicable. But there’s a part of me that has to ask – is that really that I don’t want it enough, or is that the level of time/money/effort has been raised artificially high by some combination of gatekeeping and companies looking to make a buck?
my old panasonic plasma spent some time in a storage room before i got rid of it a month or so ago. we just redid our basement, which included a huge projection screen for me and some kind of HDMI input box (chosen by the AV guy) that allows me to hook up everything with composite or newer. i would have stored the plasma as a backup, but i had trouble convincing my wife i really needed it with the current set up and what we paid to get it working.
i know the drawbacks of doing the easy, available thing, but at some point i had to face the tradeoff between driving myself crazy or settling for a good-enough solution. right now i am quite happy to have a working dreamcast and n64 on a 106 screen even if i am compromising on picture quality.
maybe next time jay comes to my house ill give him a budget to upgrade my input and processing boxes.
Thanks for the rundown, Jay! Probably because I just don’t have a huge backlog of older stuff I HAVE to play (ignorance is bliss), I’ve only gone a short way down the road of trying to make old games work. I’m definitely with all of you, though, that it seems to be a hassle no matter what level of commitment you are aiming for.
At this point, I’m just trying to figure out out how to experience specific old games I missed as close to how they were meant to be played, so I can take your advice about just finding a reasonable HDMI adapter for when I finally play PS2/PS1 stuff that’s been sitting on my shelf forever.
I’m still at an impasse for some stuff, though – what’s the ideal way to play light gun games? And how/who/where can I just pay someone to get me whatever I need to finally play the sequel to Trace Memory?
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