Old Doesn't Have To Mean Ugly: Squeezing Better Graphics From Classic Consoles

If you're a classic gamer, you've probably had the unhappy experience of firing up a beloved older title you haven't played in a decade or two, squinting at the screen, and thinking: "Wow. I didn't realize it looked this bad." The reasons why games can wind up looking dramatically worse than you remember isn't just the influence of rose-colored glasses -- everything from subtle differences in third-party hardware to poor ports to bad integrated TV upscalers can ruin the experience.

A new video from My Life In Gaming steps through some of the problems with the current crop of televisions and even Virtual Console ports. To summarize:

  • Component video is absolutely terrible. S-Video is better, but non-ideal.
  • Modern HDTVs often lack appropriate upscalers for old consoles (anything pre-Dreamcast) and will treat the output 240p signal as a kludgey interlaced muck. This results in a sharp loss of image quality.
  • Cheap third-party scalers and converters often introduce lag and do nothing for image fidelity.

The solution, according to the team, is an expensive upscaling unit (north of $300) called the Framemeister -- but while the cost may make you blanch, this sucker delivers.

Above, we've grabbed a shot from the video showing the original composite output from an NES, the Wii U's Virtual Console, and the RGB output from a Framemeister. Note that while the Wii U definitely cleans up some of the display artifacts in the background of the NES output, it's also muddier and less distinct. Not so the RGB output, which is both pixel-sharp and crystal clear. According to the team, this kind of difference is common with the output unit.

Unfortunately, taking full advantage of a Framemeister also may mean modding your console for RGB output -- and that's the second part of the upscaler equation. Most every old-school console could technically use RGB, which has one cable for the Red, Green, and Blue signals, but many of them weren't wired for it externally unless you used a SCART cable (SCART was more common in other parts of the world). Modding kits or consoles cost money, but if you're willing to pay it, you can experience classic games in a much better medium.

Why Didn't The Virtual Console Versions Fix These Problems?

This raises the interesting question of why the Wii U VC doesn't solve these problems for good. There's little doubt it's capable of doing so. I can think of two reasons -- one cynical (Nintendo didn't want to bother to fix the problem, since it didn't have to) and one a bit more complicated.

It's possible that Nintendo didn't fix the problem because nostalgia, for all its appeal, is also a tricky, tricky concept to harness properly. If you look at the video you'll see that many of these games look far better than anything we saw back in the day -- but that same improvement could sour gamers on them if they wanted to play the "classic" version. Since the amount of work required to completely re-do all the art and game levels isn't trivial.

Either way, the difference between RGB output and the classic flavors is amazing in some cases. Most of us won't be dropping $300+ to play classic titles, but if you're serious about experiencing original NES, SNES, and Genesis titles, it might be worth a look.