Interview: EON Gaming Talks Nintendo Switch Online, Official Emulation Woes and HD Retro Gaming - Prima Games

Interview: EON Gaming Talks Nintendo Switch Online, Official Emulation Woes and HD Retro Gaming

by Lucas White

Back in November, Nintendo broke the internet a little (or at least the retro gaming community) with the launch of its Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pass. This new, premium feature added games from the Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis libraries. While many potential players were fairly excited to conveniently revisit games like Starfox 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, that buzz didn’t last for long. Nintendo’s official N64 emulator ended up being pretty flawed, with games showing varying degrees of input latency, visual issues, so on and so forth. A recent update seemed to address some of those problems, which you’ll see in a video embedded towards the end here. But it’s still not “perfect” yet. 

Around this time, the folks over at EON Gaming reached out offering to have a chat about this situation. EON Gaming is all about retro gaming in modern contexts, and produce the Super 64 and GCHD adapters. These devices can be used with original hardware to run N64 or GameCube games on contemporary displays without the frustrating compromises. Obviously, running Ocarina of Time on an actual Nintendo 64 will be better than any emulator, and EON’s whole deal is making that more accessible. That said, I wasn’t exactly sure what the angle was here, considering the vast difference in technology here. 

So I did the smart thing and took them up on the offer, to see what they had to say. Turns out, there was a lot! Obviously they wanted to present their adapters as totally awesome products you should buy, but Justin Scerbo and Justin Chou came not just to sell stuff, but to present their knowledge on both subjects, the hows and whys for how everything works, and a general desire to keep retro gaming afloat and appealing for as long as possible. We all agreed there’s no perfect (easy, accurate and cheap) way to play retro games today. But aside from presenting EON’s mission and products, Scerbo and Chou also provided tons of insight on why emulation has the benefits and problems it has, what game preservation means in differet spaces, and why anyone would want to bother with all this stuff in the first place.

EON Gaming Interview

Lucas White, Prima Games:

High level, if you don’t mind starting off talking about what you guys do?

Justin Scerbo, EON Gaming: Yeah, absolutely. So hey, I’m Justin Scerbo from EON Gaming. I’m here with my business partner, Justin Chou. We are the developers of HD adapters like the Super 64, and the GCHD. Basically taking retro consoles, and modernizing them for HD TVs, making your games look and play better than they ever have before. All using original hardware.

Justin Chou, EON Gaming: The main philosophy behind EON Gaming is essentially just the original consoles, unmodified. We’re all about preservation of not just the hardware and the software, but also memories and childhood. We were both born in 1988 and our first consoles were, hilariously, N64. And the GameCube, which we bought with our own money. So our collections were pretty prolific at that time. We wanted to play them again, in our 30s now. Finding out that there’s no easy solutions, we kind of invented our way out more or less.

Can you tell us a little about how your adapters work?

Scerbo: Absolutely. Every original console handles video a little bit differently. Typically, if you try to hook up a retro console to a modern TV, you’d be using the red, white yellow cables; composite input. The trouble with that is those inputs are designed for analog TVs, so old CRT TVs, analog to analog. But most people, in their modern day setups, have a HDTV. It requires a level of conversion to take that analog signal and convert it to HD. Typically, if you just plug those cords right into the TV, it’s going to introduce all kinds of lag. It’s going to make your image look compressed and muddy, it’s just a very non-optimal experience. 

But what our adapter does is all of the post-processing necessary to convert that analog signal into digital, totally laglessly, then send it out to your HDTV. So you get the most crisp and clear picture you possibly can all with zero lag. It really is kind of the best, most optimal way to play these consoles, still using original hardware. We’ve had people like speedrunners and streamers, competitive Super Smash Brothers players, all using our technology. We’ve run tournaments on them, and universally had them accepted. 

Chou: Lucas, have you tried to play any games recently on any of your old retro, like consoles at all? Whether it be N64 Or even Sega Genesis? Tell me about your experience.

[metaphorically sweating, profusely] I… have a CRT on my desk. 

Chou: [laughing] Yeah. I mean, it is necessary if you want to play those.

Honestly, I’ve been really interested lately in the CRT “experience.” I’m sure you guys know CRT pixels, the Twitter user who’s been building an audience lately. Seeing that and feeling a disconnect like, “I don’t remember this working this way in my mind.”

Scerbo: When you’re a kid, you’re just plugged in and you’re not really thinking about what’s happening. You’re just like, “RF switch. Sure. Whatever that means.”

When you play [retro] games now it’s like, “pixel perfect.” Sounds good right? And then you look back and see the difference between literal pixels in my face and the CRT blending them to make it look like an actual cartoon.

Scerbo: It’s really fascinating to pick these things apart and kind of see under the hood and understand a little bit more about how everything works. 

Related: Interview: CRT Pixels’ Jordan Starkweather Tells Us Why Retro Games Need Retro Screens

I’m wondering if you see yourselves sort of the way I’m interpreting, almost an in-between of perfect textbook emulation versus like, replicating the accuracy.

Scerbo: Absolutely. So our intention, the type of market that we’re trying to hit is, you know, individuals who remember playing these games back in the day. But they might have a more modern setup that doesn’t accommodate for a CRT. When they revisit these games, we want them to experience the memories they had, but in a totally fresh and optimized way. Our little slogan is, “like always like never before.” And we really mean that. It allows players to experience these games and have them look and play better than they ever have now on their modern TVs in a regular setup. So you can put an N64 or GameCube alongside a PS5 or a Xbox Series X and have it all create one cohesive gaming environment.

Chou: Not everybody has a CRT available. They don’t make them anymore. So it’s difficult to get. Not to mention, in modern living room spaces, especially if you’re in a small apartment, everything is on display, right? So you want to make sure that whatever you have seems clean enough, that it doesn’t feel like a mess of wires. But that’s getting better as we slowly start to create more adapters and stuff so that we don’t have to rely on the composite cables or additional AC outs and it’s all clutter. 

Scerbo: One of the primary focuses that we had was creating the most authentic, optimized experience for those games, because we’ve had the experience of going back and playing something and just having it not feel right or not look right. The shame associated with that is, if you reintroduce yourself to a game and it doesn’t feel or look correct, you might just bounce off and not be interested in playing it again. Because like, “oh, this isn’t as good as I thought it was.” But if you play it as it was intended, in the most crispy visuals possible, feeling perfect, it allows access to, you know our legacy of gamers; it opens that door wide open.

Chou: Maybe this is a good segue to talking about emulation. And Lucas, I definitely want to know your point of view on this. What has your experience been with the new Nintendo 64 emulation with the Switch Online Expansion Pass?

Mostly sticker shock? [laughing]

Chou: Have you had a chance to dive in and play a little bit of Ocarina or Starfox 64?

I haven’t played personally, but when all that drama happened the first night? I was really paying attention to that. Speaking of that segue, I’m curious what has you guys jumping into this conversation. Because it’s a really different sort of approach to playing these games. What’s your interest in stepping into this conversation about emulation?

Scerbo: Certainly. When the Online Expansion Pass was announced, we were definitely intrigued because anything that opens the door for more people to experience retro games is a good thing. We’re all about that. We were unfortunately a little shocked to find out how, I guess mishandled, some of the emulation was. Obviously, they look incredible; the advantage emulation has is they can render resolutions that are literally impossible on original hardware. Because you’re working with all core assets. The challenge there is getting it to work harmoniously with all the other elements of the game, you know, syncing audio with gameplay and making sure the visuals all match. There’s a lot of pieces that have to work together, you know, and not get broken along the way. 

Unfortunately, what we saw is that while there are some great strides Nintendo made in its emulation for N64, it really is not reflective of what a real experience with these games would be. I’ll use Ocarina of Time as an example because I’m sure most people who dove into the Expansion Pass were probably excited to play OoT again. That’s the game that’s gonna draw most people in. Right off the bat, you can feel almost immediately that there’s a pretty heavy-handed sense of input lag. This is more than a few frames and that creates this disjointedness in the gameplay. It was “like, this looks great. But something’s wrong here. 

So it was really unfortunate to see that happen. And I think, while it is cool, opening the door for a new audience, the detriment this could cause is people might play this and be like, “This is not good. This feels antiquated or not right.” And that might cause them to not participate in more retro games, because N64 is just too old. There’s too many problems. They might not even realize what the problem is, you know what I mean?

One of the things I think that’s coming up, people like Frank Cifaldi are talking about how it’s impossible for official emulation to get it right. Compared to what you guys do, or a community of people working on it for like, 20 years.

Yeah, certainly. That’s definitely one of the disappointing elements of this. Because while there’s a lot of opportunities presented with emulation, it’s an imperfect art a lot of the time. And it usually requires many, many dozens of people, and plenty of time to figure out how to get it as right as they can. We see projects like, what everyone’s doing with the MiSTer I’m not sure if you’ve heard of that, but it’s essentially like a full emulation suite that works with arcade cabinets, and all this kind of stuff. And really, that that was the effort of many, many different developers really kind of honing specific experiences, like down to the game, because they all work so differently. Specifically with the N64, notoriously, across time it’s been very difficult to emulate that console. 

The system architecture for it was very different: essentially, there was this interesting handhold happening between the graphics processing and the actual processing power of the console. They worked in tandem, like the CPU and GPU were working basically simultaneously. This is a very difficult thing to replicate. Another example that I can give in a more modern context is why people said it was very hard to develop for the PlayStation 3, because it uses core architecture, right? So it just presents a lot of challenges, and really presents a lot of nuance, especially on a game to game basis,  how that emulation is handled. And what’s funny is, we can even see that happening in real time on Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pass. 

Games like Ocarina of Time have this really weird input latency. And it’s doing some odd graphical things with fog. Everyone’s been talking about this on Twitter recently, but then you go to something like Starfox and your experience is significantly better. And it’s because each individual game has such nuance to it, it’s very challenging to hone one emulator. It’s not a one size fits all sort of thing. That presents a lot of challenges and makes it difficult. And that’s where, from our perspective, with what we do on the N64, really nothing that we’re doing is emulation.

We are just post-processing the video out, right? So we’re holding steady all of the original design elements of these games. And that’s why the experience that you’re going to have with something like a GCHD or Super 64 is going to be the authentic experience because nothing’s being created. We’re just handling the video in the cleanest, fastest, most seamless way possible.

One thing that comes to mind is hardware deterioration. I think we’re gonna probably start running up against that sooner or later. Also things like the secondhand market really blowing up in the past year or two.

Chou: That’s primarily why we also got into the industry when we did, because the fact that there’s only so many GameCubes, there’s only so many N64s in the world, right? We modify and either fail modifications or botch jobs or whatever, cutting into systems and boards that can no longer be replaced. So what are the chances there’s a way to get the best audio and video quality that you can onto whatever system, whatever set up you want on HDTV up to 4k. Or even a CRT, which the GCHD Mark-II allows for. But at the end of the day, it’s all preservation, right? We want to make sure that we can at least slow down that degradation of units so that hopefully, in the next 20-30 years, these consoles aren’t out of reach from people who want to experience them. Like thousands and thousands of dollars, because they no longer exist and you can’t find them.

Scerbo: That’s absolutely right. And emulation has its place, from a long term perspective it kind of is the solution for, you know, keeping games forever. Like literally archiving them. But again, the type of individual we’re trying to reach is the one who wants to experience that authentic, original experience without having to worry about modifying their original system in some way that could be detrimental. Really just kind of giving somebody the most seamless path of entry into this world.

What kind of stuff are you sort of thinking about now that you have your existing adapters? Are there still certain problems you’re trying to get around, or looking forward to a different approach or anything like that?

Our primary focus is to maintain our high level of standards in regards to carrying video from original consoles, to HDTV in the best way possible. Our name, EON is actually an acronym for Everything or Nothing. The goal really is to derive the best experience possible out of these consoles. So while we plan on supporting the GCHD and the Super 64, for as long as we possibly can, we are certainly looking at other consoles to replicate this optimized experience across, hopefully, every generation of games.

Chou: As we go further into the future, we are getting additional new technologies that are hitting our desks and our labs. It really comes down to what’s available at the time, what makes sense, what’s not astronomically expensive, so that it wouldn’t be out of reach for any normal consumer. At the end of the day, making sure that whatever we can create is bar none the absolute best experience that you can get with an unmodified console on whatever TV we’re trying to put it onto. Whether it be 4K, or I’m sure in the next couple of years 8K will be in the picture. 

It really just comes down to what technologies are available, and how can we make it look and feel as authentic as possible. That is always the key. So right now, for instance, a lot of our adapters take the 240 or 480i signal and we try to line double it and upscale it so that it works better and it’s translatable to modern TVs. But what are the chances that new technology rolls around and it’s available enough that we can make new products that go up to say, I don’t know, from 480p to maybe like 1080p, 4k line triple, quadruple, quintuple? Who knows?

Scerbo: So it’s really, you know, making the most of what technology is available to us. In an effort to keep retro gaming open and available for anybody who wants to dive into it. There can be a lot of hurdles in experiencing some of the best games of our past right? And we’re just trying to lower as many of those hurdles as possible. 

Chou: That’s what makes it so exciting too. It’s a weird puzzle game; how do you match up specific components and materials and build to specific setups and TV arrangements and entertainment consoles? On top of that, how does that make it look? And how can we add more to it? Like, for instance, the Super 64. When we built that we were like, wow, this is great. 

But the lines of the polygons seem a little jagged; what are the chances we can smooth those out? We found a way to do it and called it slick mode, just for fun. And it was a hit. So more or less, what other additives can you add to really boost the visual quality, but also get people excited about retro games again?

Do things like different types of displays or random devices like an Everdrive or something, make things any more complicated?

Scerbo: That’s a good question! Not so much. So Everdrives, you can use them on the N64. Anything like that is typically compatible with the products that we make. I know, for the N64, they have the  X7 now. They work pretty seamlessly and honestly, those open the door really nicely to access games some people might not have available to them. Even with that, you’re still running on original hardware. So you’re getting that authentic experience too. So it’s really awesome that stuff like that exists. 

And as far as working with different screens, this is something that we try to plan for with each of our releases. With our GameCube adapter, the original GCHD was only intended to be used with a digital input, like HDMI. But, we actually revised that product to also accommodate component out. So if you wanted to hook it up to, a PVM, or CRT or any sort of component signal, even just to like split it, we wanted to create that opportunity. So anybody can access the best visual quality possible on whatever TV they have. So it’s something that we constantly have in mind and try to implement into all of our products.

Chou: In addition to that, it’s not just the TVs or the consoles, or the games, but we think about streamers, as well. Anybody who’s trying to get these consoles onto any type of setup, whether it be for capture purposes, or playing purposes. So a lot of the things that we’ve added into it, like the mini toslink in the back, allows you to pull out audio. Long story short, we’re trying to make it as flexible and accommodating as possible to any setup. 

But it really comes down to the community asking us for more things and what they want out of the new adapters, or what they want out of different iterations. And I mean, it’s just me, Justin, and one other guy named Alan doing all the work trying to figure it out. But, the strong community outreach is very loud. And we we hear what they want, and we want to make it for them. So that’s where it comes down to.

Sure. Is there anything that’s getting a lot of attention? Or asking?

I will tell you, no new iteration questions on the consoles. It’s always all about new consoles that they want. So the hottest stuff we keep hearing about is things like the Wii, surprisingly. I guess not so surprisingly, because there’s millions and millions of Wiis out there. So I can only assume. People want PS1 and PS2 really, really badly. They asked for SNES as well. And of course, Dreamcast, which is a big one too. Some people on the Xbox front, but not nearly as loud as the Dreamcast guys. They’re very loud. 

Scerbo: Yeah, it’s typically the consoles that don’t have existing options for this, or the options are not the best. PS2, you can find these adapters on Amazon that actually hurt the experience more than helping. It might convert the signal, but it actually introduces more latency or further compresses the image. They’re just not designed with the console in mind. They’re just converting video, which is not ideal. So we hope to look at all of these consoles and really create tailored solutions for each individual one. So you’re getting the best experience possible with that platform.

What is the path to getting a new console on board look like?

Chou: Ooo, Interesting.

Scerbo: Yeah [laughs]. So it’s a kind of a combination of elements. For one, it’s understanding what video options are available. When you look at the GameCube, it uses composite out. But there is actually the possibility for a true digital to digital signal. There were these old component cables that are phenomenally expensive at this point in time, but that signal is very valuable, because it’s a true digital to digital 480p image. So understanding what the best possible quality you can get out of a system and then finding the best way we can manipulate that signal, without losing any sort of quality or introducing any latency. 

For the N64, typically people would hook that up via RF or composite. But really the best video signal that you can get out of a stock N64 is S-Video, which is really weird format from the late 90s not many people use. If you saw the plug, you’d probably recognize it. That signal is inherently much higher quality than what you’re going to get out of composite. So we took that signal, and then, with what was available to us, we were able to line double that up to 480p. So it’s double the inherent resolution, then we pass that over digitally, totally laglessly. So we’re doubling the best video quality you possibly can, and passing it over HD so you get the best image possible on your flat screen. 

Now, what’s also nice about this, as we try to keep in mind how this is going to work within your setup, some solutions that are out there for video capture stuff require a number of cables, and power and USB and all this kind of stuff. And to us, it creates a lot of clutter, it’s a less elegant solution. So we try to tailor our products to specific consoles and make them as easy as possible – a true plug and play experience. So all you have to do is plug the adapter in and set it to your TV, and you’re good to go. Almost like it was intended to be made with the console when it originally came out.

Chou: The process starts with us looking up blueprints for the actual board and console, understanding where all the signals are going out to specifically and what’s available on the outside of the console. So for instance, N64, we were doing research on not just the cartridge reader, not just the multi out, but also on the bottom of the system. They have additional throughways into the board in some way. What is that outputting? What does it do? 

Then after figuring out what is the quote unquote, best and reachable signal that we can get it comes down to well, what microchips can we throw this signal into to get a specific output? Whether it be sound, video, colors, X Y and Z? And then after we figure that out, how much power is the console putting out? Is that enough to do whatever? And if it’s not, how can we? Then it becomes mixing and matching purposes and whatnot. 

The final stages are simply just, okay, now we have a working prototype, let’s put it into a cool box. Let’s see if we could design the shape of the plug, let’s see how this can work with the style of the console itself. And then once we prototype enough, and we like it enough, we start going into the boxes, and we start going into the peripherals like the other pieces to the whole product. And then Bob’s your uncle, we have a new product.

Do these draw power from the console? Or do they have their own?

Scerbo: There’s no external power necessary for our products. They do draw power from the console on certain pinouts. So for example, the N64 uses that standard AV pinout that most Nintendo consoles from the time used: Wii and 64, Super Nintendo, they’ll use the same thing. There’s a pin on it that’s five volts, which is enough to power the adapter and send video over seamlessly. So again, a true plug and play experience.

Chou: There’s been prototypes that we had using specific chipsets that required more than five volts. And we were like, okay, if we want an elegant solution, this isn’t the right chip to go with. There’s a prototype we made, which was tapping into the actual AC brick on the side. Not elegant, very ugly, didn’t want that. Seemed like a weird solder job. It just didn’t look good. So we were trying to figure out ways around it until eventually we found the perfect combination of chips with the perfect layout on the board. And that’s where it all began.

Would you consider [N64 and GameCube] solved at the moment? Or is there more stuff you would like to do if possible?

Scerbo: I would say right now we’ve developed the most optimized version of what we can do in the plug and play format. You will see other things that are able to be done, but require a certain level of modification. For example, there’s a new project that’s out there called N64 Digital, which actually requires you to solder a new ribbon cable to a board, run specific power, and there’s “no cut” versions, but it requires you to hard modify the console, which to us is outside the skill set of most people trying to do this sort of thing. So from the perspective of, what can I plug into this console to make the best signal come out and create the most authentic and rich experience for the user? I would say, right now we are on par with the technology that’s available to us.

Anything coming, any near future plans you can talk about?

Scerbo: We are working on future projects; we are being affected by the current socio political climate, especially concerning our factory’s ability to locate chips and stuff. We are still in production but we don’t have anything “super hard” to discuss just yet.


Thanks to EON Gaming for approaching us and offering their time! And thanks to their PR rep who made this interview happen and was extremely patient with some delays. Check out EON Gaming on its official website here, and let us know what you think of these devices, emulation, how cool the Dreamcast is, whatever!

 

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