Retro Gaming vs Modern Televisions

Finally, to the consoles!

Now I think we've got the basics down. We can discuss the individual consoles. I'm only going to cover mine and others that I know about. I'm also going to cover solutions I've ended up using and others that I'm aware of.

I have yet to go as far back as the Atari 2600, mainly because I haven't got one yet (I'll update this when I do as that'll be fun...). I also missed out on the whole Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System because I'd switched to computer gaming during that period (Commodore Amiga and Atari ST). So my earliest console currently is the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Super Nintendo

The SNES comes with an RF modulator and a Composite lead as standard. They're straight out of the window. The ruthlessness of a 1080p panel when fed with a 240p image over those formats is just painful. We want the best, and thankfully in the UK we got as good as it gets with RGB over SCART.

Now I've got two leads for mine. One has sync on composite and works on my TV. I've got a totally usable picture out of the console with this, but I do get some artifacts. The other is sync on luma which looks lovely, but results in the picture half off the screen. Annoying because TV's I've had in the past (predominantly Sonys) have been fine with this. Thankfully, if I plug it into my cheap Chinese SCART-HDMI scaler, it works fine and looks great.

That's where it would have stayed had I not scored a SLG in a Box, which I'll cover on the next page.

PC-Engine Duo

A late arrival to the party is the PC-Engine. I always wanted one of these back in the day, but they were never released in the UK, just the US and Japan. Mine is an Japanese Duo model that I bought from Vimtoman on eBay, who I highly recommend buying pre-modded PC-Engines from. Top, top chap who was massively helpful.

Mine has been modded with RGB out on a SCART, de-jailbarred as they can get lines down the screen that show up when RGB modded, and fully re-capped as Duos were known for their caps dying.

All done this just plugs in and works with my kit, so goes through a SCART switcher into my SLG box.

Sega MegaDrive

I picked myself up an 'Asian' (Sega treat anything west of Japan and east of western Europe as Asia) MegaDrive that had been pre-modded with a 50Hz UK / 60Hz US / 60Hz Japan switch. It's an easy mod to be fair, but I mainly got it for it's condition and it being a made in Japan MegaDrive1.

The only real idiosyncrasy with this one is that a straight RGB SCART lead will be in mono. You can get a lead made by RetroGamingCables that has a fly-off lead to the headphone jack which will give you stereo. Which I've done.

They're also prone to jailbars like the PC-Engine, but mine's so subtle I'm not going to bother trying to fix that one. Another console I run into the SLG Box.

Nintendo 64

The N64 is a strange case. Nintendo bizarrely removed RGB support from the console. It can be modded back in, but it can still have issues, mainly down to something else they did.

In an attempt to make the console look better on CRT TVs over the Composite and S-Video (as good as it gets unmodified), Nintendo implemented a form of anti-aliasing. Which when viewed on a modern, much more ruthless TV, looks awful.

My headache, and indeed most of my problems come down to my Panasonic TV not supporting S-Video. So I ran it into my amplifier, which can transcode all it's analogue inputs into component (which the TV does have). Which works fine for PAL games, but when you put an NTSC game in there it all goes to hell. I suspect because the amplifier can't handle PAL-60, which is what my PAL N64 is actually outputting at that point. For what it's worth, the S-Video connection looks fine on a friends older Sony panel, but goes completely to hell on his more modern Toshiba...

Which left me with no option really other than to get the soldering iron out and install an RGB mod. On an NTSC (Jap or US) or early French console it's actually quite straight forward. But for most PAL consoles you need to either use the RGB for All or the eTim N64RGB kits. I went for the former. It's not actually that hard an install if you're proficient with a soldering iron, but it's not really for an amateur.

So now we have RGB out on a SCART, YAY! But we've also got the dot crawl that the SNES originally suffered from. Oddly it looks ok on the old Toshiba panel and utterly flawless on an even older Sony (I may have to try and part him from that...). But on my Panasonic it's surprisingly bad. I tried adding a Sync in SCART board, but it didn't make things any better in this instance. Also when kicking it into 4:3 it crops the image for some reason. Again, not on any other panel, just my Panasonic. Grrr!

I picked up a sync on luma cable for it and where it's solved the cropping problem, the dot crawl is still there. Which has finally been traced to my Panasonic TV just not supporting PAL-60 properly. PAL games don't have any issues whatsoever and the picture is pin-sharp. So where I can play NTSC stuff on it, I just need to accept I'll have these issues on this TV.

Finally I found a solution that works! I've bought and RGB modded a Japanese NTSC N64. Not only is the RGB mod much easier, the dot crawl is totally eliminated. The picture shift is gone and it looks superb. Not a problem at all on both NTSC and PAL carts. SUCCESS!

This icing on the cake is that I've finally got it working with the SLG Box also. The picture from this is now awesome.

Sega Dreamcast

On to the DC. I'd originally planned to use my OE Sega RGB SCART, but it suffered from the same problem as the SNES cable, where the TV can't handle sync on luma. Now in the past I'd had an OE Sega VGA box because I had a later higher res CRT TV that supported VGA in. My problem with that is that there are a significant amount of games that don't support the VGA box.

VGA on the DC is the dogs bollocks. 480p output (640x480 progressive 4:3) which looks spectacular. So an alternative to the standard box is a device called a Hanzo box. This is a VGA box with knobs on. Well a knob and a switch.

Some games have a simple line in the boot up that says 'does not support VGA', when the game actually works perfectly fine in VGA if that line didn't exist. One way around this is to download a copy of the game where that line has been edited to say 'gimmie VGA baby!'. Another way around it if you don't want to go down that route is to flick the switch. Which tells the DC it's running RGB. Power it up (you get a black screen), wait for the bong (which is after the check) and switch it back to VGA. Which works most of the time. For the most stubborn games though you just have to either download a hacked version or accept that you can't play them. FWIW I've only ever come across two games that I couldn't get around that one way or another. The Last Blade, a bloody brilliant beat-em-up, and Bangai-O, a bizzare-o shoot-em-up. It's a bit gutting, but everything else is ok, so I just take it on the chin.

The knob on the Hanzo box is where things get interesting. For games that run full 480p, you don't really use it. However there are some low resolution games that scaled up to 480p. These have a tendency to look blocky on a modern display. This is where the Scan Line Generator (SLG) part of the Hanzo comes into it's own. This replaces every other line with a black line, creating visually the same effect you used to get on old CRT TVs of scan lines. Because 240p games were designed with/on CRTs with scan lines, this creates the illusion to the eye of a much more detailed image. It's particularly cool with older 2D beat-em-ups.

The final problem with that VGA connector is that my TV doesn't have one (by now I'm sure you're noticing a theme...). To get around this I've employed a Neet VGA-HDMI box. This doesn't do any scaling so what comes out of the back of it is HDMI 480p. Actually DVI I expect, given that it's doing it at a VESA resolution of 640x480, which isn't part of the HDMI standard, but I digress, Thankfully my TV handles that even though it then gets confused and tells me it's connected via VGA, which it doesn't even have ;)

PlayStation 2

By far the easiest of the analogue era consoles to get a good picture from. The PS2 supported everything up to and including component video. You've got all bases covered really and the cables not only easy to find, they're cheap as chips too. I got a PS2/PS3 component lead of indeterminate origin (well, it's going to be China) for £4 delivered. Go into the System Options, turn it from RGB to Y Cb/Pb Cr/Pr, and you're done. Great picture, no bullshit.

Nintendo GameCube

Next we come to the NGC. Most models have a direct digital out for the video feed. Which is both awesome and a bit of a faff at the same time. As it only covers video, you'll also need a separate cable to cover the audio side of things. Also because the digital out is just that, there is no digital to analogue conversion on-board for it, so it's contained within the cables themselves. Added to that, they were only available from Japan or via only one outlet in the US. Which makes them rare and therefore terrifyingly expensive to buy these days. Really, insanely expensive.

You could fall back on RGB (yay, it's back), but there's an additional advantage to component on the NGC. Some NTSC games support 480p over component (hold down B on start and some will give you the option). Which is great if you have an NTSC US/Jap console or a modified UK one. In the UK we sadly only got the option to run at 50/60hz as the component cable was never officially sold here.

There is looking to be a final option on the horizon in the form of HDMI for the GC. Again because of that awesome Digital Out port. It's expensive, but shockingly it's cheaper than I've seen component cables go for. Thankfully I got my component cable and modified the Cube to be fully region free back in the day, which is handy as I have loads of US games and a couple of Japanese ones.

Both my TV and amp still support component. Boxes that convert component to HDMI are available reasonably cheaply if yours don't. I can't comment on quality for those, but I've been using the Neet brand for this sort of conversion stuff and it's really worked rather well, certainly for the VGA-HDMI. I'm also using their HDMI auto switches in the back of my amp to make the two on board HDMI inputs into six, which is handy.

Microsoft Xbox

Like the PS2, console manufacturers were starting to get their acts together here. Go component if you can. The only thing to note really is that if you want a digital audio out, it's actually part of the cable, so make sure you get one with that capability if you want that.

Sega Saturn

The Saturn supports RGB over SCART, nice! However this one started to seem like it was going to be as frustrating as the N64 was...

I think half of the problem here is trying to juggle multiple 'standards' that all like to do things differently, with modern kit that has woeful analogue circuitry. For example, my PAL Saturn, plays nice with my plasma, but screen judders and gets what looks like cross-talk interference. My NTSC Saturn, same TV; no interference, just occasional screen judder as it loses sync and gets it back again.

Same NTSC Saturn on one of Cleggy's panels (Toshiba), spazzes big time on power up (really not happy), really struggles to hold sync and has what manifests as jailbar-like interference. PAL has no interference and other than being a little offset, is pretty stable. His properly old Sony panel however just doesn't care what you plug into it, the picture is awesome. That goes for ANY console... Interestingly that TV has crappy digital circuitry, but is from the time when analogue was dominant.

The problem as I see it is sync a lot of the time. PAL SCART RGB is a thing and sync on that is usually on the composite video line (not ideal). Most TVs will work with this and, interference aside, generally behave. Then you have NTSC SCART RGB, which isn't a thing... Because NTSC regions don't have SCART, the kit used Composite Sync (pure sync if you like). Which is awesome, but I think throws a lot of modern panels to pot for some reason (as does sync on luma on mine particularly).

Thankfully my SLG has a sync fixer built into it and the NTSC Saturn quite likes being plugged into it (the PAL one, less so). The only downside is that it can't handle the odd games that run high res (two pinball games and the menu for Radiant Silvergun so far. The menu isn't a problem however, as you just start and it pops back). I can live with that and it looks spectacular through the SLG.

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