I've always had a strong interest in retro games, going back to when I was playing Super Nintendo and Game Boy games and learning about things like Atari and arcade cabinets. These days I've gathered up a modest collection of discs and cartridges, along with various devices to play them on.
But one aspect of retro gaming that has continued to elude me is display tech. I've typically been relying on whatever settings I can get the most out of my modern, HD screens with, even though that weird AV blurriness on a LCD never looks right.
And when it comes to getting a hold of an old TV or even knowing how to make the most of one, well, that's a whole conversation of its own.
CRT Pixels Retro Gaming Interview
I even thought for a while that using emulation services and devices to display classic games in full HD was the way to go. Using things like Hyperkin's Retron series or Nintendo's own NES and SNES Classic hardware seemed to make these games look amazing.
In terms of clarity, sure, but as it turns out that 1:1 pixel image doesn't necessarily reflect the intended look and feel. I really began to notice this when I came across a relatively young Twitter account, CRT Pixels.
Run by Jordan Starkweather of the Pocketoid Podcast, CRT Pixels puts screenshots of games running on emulators in perfect clarity, right next to equivalent screens captured from various CRT monitors. The difference is remarkable, and really makes you think twice about the developers' original vision and how the art was designed and in what context.
I reached out to Jordan, who was nice enough to answer a few questions. I was curious about the technical aspect of course, but was also curious about how this project, which has been gaining considerable attention in a short time, came to be. Check it out:
Lucas White, Prima Games: Easy stuff first: wanna tell the kids who you are and how you ended up running this feed?
Jordan Starkweather: So yeah! I'm Jordan Starkweather, podcaster, designer, and creator of @CRTpixels, a Twitter blog comparing retro video game visuals on modern displays to CRT TVs. A few months ago I made a tweet about how I was always looking for CRT comparison shots, along with a few examples.
It got a few thousand likes I think, but I got lots of reactions from people who had no idea the kind of difference a CRT TV can make to retro game visuals. I've been a collector and playing my retro games on a CRT for 20+ years so I kind of take this stuff for granted.
So, I decided to start an account with the purpose of sharing visual examples of the differences between the way we're used to seeing retro games on modern displays vs. the displays they were designed for. The response has been overwhelming to say the least.
Super Smash Bros. (1999, HAL Labratory) - N64— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) April 16, 2021
PC Emulator vs. N64 via Sony KV-13M51 Composite
Composite is absolutely the reason I remember the N64 looking better than it does today. pic.twitter.com/3ByS4bsudZ
What's behind all this content? Do you have a big, fancy retro dungeon in your home, or is it mostly submissions?
Starkweather: Haha! I do have a retro setup, but it's pretty compact, minimalist and not at all designed for this kind of work. It's made it a bit of a headache to drag multiple TV sets into our small TV room, with cords and controllers covering the entire floor, but that's the reality.
I am in the process of trying to create something more permanent and functional with space for more than one set at a time though.
Getsu Fūma Den (1987, Konami) - Famicom— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) April 14, 2021
RGBPi Raw Pixels vs. Sanyo DS13320 Composite
"We're getting a new Getsu Fuma Den." Is definitely not something I thought I'd be hearing in 2021! pic.twitter.com/nFbZseDI6v
What has the response to your work here been like so far?
Starkweather: Overwhelming. People have been so incredibly supportive and kind, but my favorite responses are those from younger folks who have never seen these games they love on the displays they were designed for. There are 20-somethings these days who never had a CRT in their house.
Hearing that someone is seeing a favorite game of theirs in a new way makes it all worth it for me. There has been a critical vocal minority, but that also just comes with the territory. Niche hobbies like this attract passionate people and I think some feel I'm attacking their preferred way to play.
This couldn't be further from the truth though as I personally love playing my games on my CRTs and my 4K HDTV. I always try to make it as clear as possible that you should play however [you feel] looks best to you.
Mega Man X (1993, Capcom) - SNES— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) March 27, 2021
Raw Pixels vs. PVM-20L2MD S-Video
Mega Man X is quickly becoming another one of my favorite CRT examples. pic.twitter.com/igUHPverLf
The idea here seems to be that pixel art for these consoles were designed specifically for the softening and stretching inherent to CRTs. How do you best explain that to people nowadays?
Starkweather: I think that's kind of the issue! For so long I and others in the CRT community have been trying to explain this in very technical terms, but I think it's best to show, not tell in this case. Even through a photo it is hard to capture just how much of a difference a CRT display makes for these games.
You have to remember that at the time there was no other option. Video games were designed for consumer CRT televisions and the specific inputs those TVs were limited to. The unique characteristics of CRTs were as important to displaying these games as the console hardware itself.
The Revenge of Shinobi (1989, Sega) - Genesis/Mega Drive— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) March 14, 2021
PC Emulator vs. PVM-20L2MD Composite
Notice how the details in the metal reflections of this boss' armor and sword blend so seemlessly. Or the fingers on his right hand. Incredible. pic.twitter.com/m0VQXDaEdB
Despite all that, Nintendo most notably offers 1:1 pixel mode for its more recent emulation efforts. Is there any merit in that or are we looking at the other extreme of those awful visual filters we see in some retro compilations?
Starkweather: I think there's value in 1:1 modes for a number of reasons. I use 1:1 screenshots for most of my comparisons for example to really get an idea of how developers planned (or didn't plan) for the 4:3 stretch.
This is especially interesting with the SNES' as it seems there are quite a few games that were actually designed for it's native 8:7 aspect ratio, heavy-hitters like Super Metroid and R-Type III among them. I am always a fan of more options so that people can play however they want.
What I really want is more accurate CRT filters to go along with those. Official offerings on that front have a long, long way to go and the demand doesn't seem to be there for them to improve. I hope my work can help change that.
Final Fantasy IV (1991, Squaresoft) - SNES— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) March 16, 2021
Raw Pixels vs. PVM-20L2MD RGB
I'm not sure anyone knew their way around a scanline quite like Squaresoft. pic.twitter.com/22lDjSo6RG
Is it possible and/or easy to replicate the CRT effect with emulators? Have any official releases tackled the issue?
Starkweather: It's certainly possible! How easy it is can vary. There are tons of CRT filter options out there, but they vastly range in quality and goals. It's also worth noting that CRTs can look vastly different from each other depending on brand, model, input and even screen shape, so what looks right to me may not look right to you.
I am always hoping to see more development on this front and ways to make these kinds of filters more accessible to the average person. Official offerings tend to be pretty bad to be honest. I just don't think most publishers or developers see the kind of work it takes to create an accurate CRT filter as financially viable.
Many recent indie games have been doing any excellent job creating their own however, but there is rarely any consistency between different games.
Super Smash Bros. (1999, HAL Labratory) - N64— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) April 19, 2021
PC Emulator vs. N64 via Sony KV-13M51 Composite
I know we love to dog on the N64's AA filter, but it sure does have a unique look that stirs some very strong nostalgic memories for me. pic.twitter.com/9yKgLLGMVf
Which consoles would you say benefit the most from CRT displays?
Starkweather: Personally I think 16-bit consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis benefit the most. Those games made heavy use of dithering in the design of their visuals to create more detail through the way a CRT blends the pixels together. Seeing Donkey Kong Country on a CRT vs. a modern display is staggering.
If someone is interested in getting into this space, what are some decent starting points? Goals?
Starkweather: Honestly, don't get lost in the details. There are subreddits, Facebook groups and YouTube channels that can be great resources, but they can also overwhelm you with information and conflicting opinions. This is a dying technology, we should be doing our best to preserve it wherever we can.
Check out your local recycling center, Facebook Marketplace, or even the curb on trash day. Don't worry if you don't have room (or back strength) for a 160lb 32" set, a 13" or 20" is perfect. People will argue about which brands and inputs are best, but it's mostly subjective.
Start with what works for you, what you have access to, and what's most affordable. You can always learn more and worry about the details down the road.
Contra (1988, Konami) - NES— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) April 19, 2021
RPi Emulator vs. NES via Mitsubishi CS-1304A RF
Loving the smoother appearance of details along this boss's head and body. pic.twitter.com/Sqwa68eCte
Eventually all this older tech is gonna stop working. What then?
Starkweather: Then I'll be free of this curse, haha. I believe we are still many years from that. Recapping (replacing a CRT's capacitors) today can assure that it continues to work for decades if nothing else in the set breaks. With PVMs it could be even longer, because they were built as durable, professional tools.
We can't even know what modern TVs will look like when it happens. Just think how much has changed in the last 30 years, what it could look like 30 years from now is anyone's guess. That said, there are some really exciting things on the horizon for the world of both upscalers and hardware emulation.
I think as long as people are interested in the intended look of these retro games, someone out there will be working on new and creative solutions for whatever our modern context looks like. I can't believe how far we've come already!
Hello friends!— CRT Pixels (@CRTpixels) March 30, 2021
This project runs with your help!
Your submissions assure that making these posts doesn't eat all of my free time. Submitting even one comparison can save me hours of work.
Either way, please enjoy and be kind to each other! pic.twitter.com/M9fqmp0XIV
Do you have plans or goals to do more with CRT Pixels?
Starkweather: Right now my goal is just to brighten people's day and do what I can to raise awareness of the importance of CRTs to retro gaming. However, there are still some gaps in our coverage. We're always taking donations to acquire more hardware and I'd personally love to get my hands on a PC Engine, because it has a really unique video output.
I'd also like to visit some arcades as soon as possible to start documenting arcade monitors! Honestly though, I'm really happy with what I'm doing right now. It's made me appreciate this hobby and my own love for it so much more. If I can help some kid out there find a new appreciation for Dragon Quest or Shinobi or Castlevania, that's enough for me.
It really is amazing to see some of those hard pixel lines, especially in the more anime-style games, look almost like drawings in some of those screenshots. The 4:3 "fuzz" also warping the pixels to more proportionate-looking shapes is wild too! I even had a CRT or two back in the day, but it's hard to remember this level of detail.
It makes me want to go out and spend too much money on an old TV. Unfortunately if you don't like in a good area for finding "junk" then you're gonna be beholden to shipping costs and those aren't friendly. Still, even if you have to rely on emulator filters to get close, personally I think the effort is worthwhile if you're interested in gaming history or preservation.
And if you can't do it yourself, the CRT Pixels feed is an excellent way to see just how drastic the differences can be.
If you enjoyed this content and want to see more like it, let us know over at Prima Games' Twitter and Facebook feeds! Also do check out @CRTpixels, and thanks again to Jordan for taking the time to talk to us!