Integer Scaling Explored: Sharper Pixels For Retro And Modern Games

Integer Scaling Explored: Welcome to the Retro Future

We've experienced something of a Throwback Renaissance these past few years. Thanks to sky-high development costs, even when graphics engines like Unreal or Unity are completely free, that stem from having to make tons of art. Instead, many small development studios have elected to paint their pixels with retro colors and styling. We'll look at how a couple of popular indie-retro games, FTL: Faster than Light and Stardew Valley, look with integer scaling. 

FTL: Faster than Light

One of the best-reviewed retro style games on Steam and GOG is FTL: Faster Than Light, where you run a space ship and try to save the galaxy. This one has been in the Steam library completely unplayed for far too long and it's one of those games that I've always wanted to get around to. There's no time like the present, right? To test out integer scaling we played through the game's tutorial. Thanks to its native 720p resolution FTL is also a great candidate for integer scaling on high-resolution displays, since it fits a 1440p monitor with 2x scaling, a 2160p 4K display scaled 3x, and a mammoth 5K display with a scale factor of 4x. It's not such a great way to experience a 1080p display, though, and when we captured the game it was bordered on all four sides. For integer scaling, the best solution is to choose the Full Screen Native setting in the Options menu, since that will set the render resolution to match the game's 720p assets. Choosing the regular Full Screen option would normally be your best bet on 1080p since it upscales better in the engine than it does after the fact. 

FTL doesn't look great at 1080p with integer scaling, but high-resolution displays make it shine.

As we mentioned, capturing at 1080p isn't exactly ideal since integer scaling wraps the game in a big black border. Higher-resolution captures or playing on a 1440p or higher display will really do this game justice, and in fact after capturing was complete, that's exactly what we did. On our 1440p monitor, the game is incredibly crisp, but screenshots have a resolution of just 1280x720. This is one we have to do less showing and more explaining, but you can do this for yourself if you have a high-resolution display. However, we can simulate the effect by using nearest-neighbor scaling to double the resolution both horizontally and vertically. 

ftl normal scaling
FTL with GPU assisted aspect-correct scaling

ftl integer simulation
FTL with simulated integer scaling (nearest neighbor, click to see full size)

With these full-resolution crops of FTL, you can see that the default scaling method adds the same kind of fuzz to the image that it has all throughout our testing. There are no surprises here at all. The simulated nearest-neighbor scaling should give you an idea how much sharper the image would be on a 1440p display with its 2x scale in both directions. The game is a little high-resolution to be full-on retro, but the sharper graphics still do it justice.

Stardew Valley

Farming simulator Stardew Valley is a love letter to the Harvest Moon series, right down to the premise in which you're an inexperienced farmer who inherited property from your grandfather. This chilled-out time sink will have you whiling away the days by planting and cultivating crops, pulling weeds, and selling your harvest. It's also built for high-resolution displays in a way that FTL isn't. Because you can set any resolution you want in the game's menu, Stardew Valley always looks crisp and sharp on any display, but higher resolution displays just resize the assets. The benefit to a higher resolution is that you can see a larger area of the screen, but the downside is that everything gets really tiny. We feel like 720p is the resolution where Stardew Valley looks the best, and integer scaling can help. 

Just like FTL, we had to simulate integer scaling since filling a 1440p display is more than our budget-level capture card could handle. Still this will give you an idea of how Stardew Valley looks on a 1440p monitor with integer scaling enabled. In contrast, we've also included the full native resolution of our 1440p display, where the controls and other art assets are a quarter of the size. The result is we see more, but it feels more distant, and it's harder to appreciate those chunky pixels if they've been slimmed down too far. We skipped the video capture this time so we could focus on playing on a high-resolution monitor. Let's start off with our display's native 2560x1440 resolution.

stardew valley 1440p
The native 1440p image shrinks down all those low-res art assets

You can see a ton of my farm, but it's harder to make out details. It'd be great if we could zoom in using the full-screen video mode to see all of our character and land's details, wouldn't it? Let's set the resolution to 1280x720 and see what changes. 

stardew valley 720p integer
Simulated integer scaling using nearest neighbor scaling

Hey, that's much better. We can see and appreciate all of the pixel art throughout the game. Stardew Valley is a charming game, and it's a shame to lose so much of that charm by running it at a high resolution. On a 4K monitor it'd be downright unplayable at the native resolution for all but the most eagle-eyed among us without straining. With integer scaling, we can make Stardew Valley's retro-modern art assets look much more retro.

Modern gaming

Integrated graphics are faster than they've ever been. At the same time, Nvidia's latest RTX effects don't run particularly well at high resolutions if you crank them to the max. In both cases, you might have a high-resolution display that your system can't fully drive at playable refresh rates. As we discovered in Remedy's masterpiece Control, even the $300 GeForce RTX 2060 can't run the game with all the effects turned up at 4K. However, 1080p was no problem for the smallest RTX-enabled Turing GPU, so it might make sense to get a sharp image by turning on integer scaling. That's exactly what we did. 

This is a 100% crop. Click to see a larger section of the image

As you can see above with our simulated upscaling, this makes the game a little blocky, but we think it's preferable to the blur that would be applied otherwise. Using integer scaling keeps the HUD's text and icons looking sharp. Since those elements remain static while the rest of the game moves as protagonist Jesse Faden makes her way through the Oldest House, we think this compromise is a good choice. It may not work perfectly in every game, but having the option is preferable to having no choice. 

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