Why Do Old Game Consoles Look So Bad on Modern TVs?

Old game consoles are great. Not just because there are plenty of old games that are still worth playing, but because the simpler electronic designs of cartridge-based systems tend to be much more resistant to wear and tear than modern disc-based consoles, plenty of them are still around and in great working condition.

So why does your old Super NES or Sega Genesis look like junk on your brand new HDTV? It’s a combination of factors, but it mostly boils down to this: older game consoles were designed to work with older televisions—specifically the big cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs we remember from before LCDs took over the world.

Resolutions Don’t Match Up

If you’re plugging in a classic cartridge-based system for the first time in years, you might be expecting its pixel-based graphics to look something like modern pixel-art games like Stardew Valley or Hotline Miami. And while it’s true that these titles are very much inspired by both the art and the limitations of games from the 80s and 90s, an old console on a new TV won’t look anywhere near as crisp and clean as a new pixel art game. That’s because the hardware of these consoles is limited in the amount of resolution it can put out, as are the video cable standards from that era.

For example, most of the games on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System use a display resolution of just 256×224. Compared to a standard 1080p television at 1920×1080, it’s practically a postage stamp.

Based on your experiences with modern “retro” games, you’d expect it to look something like this, with every square pixel faithfully reproduced in a sharp picture:

A “perfect” SNES game display. Full screen on the left, 1-to-1 pixel enlargement on the right.

But in fact, because the television has to take the low-resolution image and upscale it to display at the full HD resolution, resampling it as it enlarges, it will look more like this:

If anything, this looks better than what you’ll see on your TV—Photoshop’s resampling is better than a television’s would be in real time.

It wasn’t until the generation of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 that consoles caught up with full HD resolution, and even then, most of the games didn’t actually display that high. So anything from the PlayStation 2 or earlier is going to have at least some of these effects, with older consoles having even more pronounced blurriness. The problem is exacerbated with the difference between analog and digital cables.

You can mitigate it somewhat with higher-quality cables—S-Video is better than RCA (composite), and RCA is better than a standard RF connector. Some older consoles even have basic digital output options, like the Dreamcast’s VGA box. But at some point the picture can’t be improved on the original hardware, no matter what companies like Monster Cable would like you to believe.

Of course, the graphics in these games were created with these limitations in mind. The designers of the games knew that they’d be displayed in a softer, “fuzzier” manner than they were programming for on computer monitors, thanks to the bloom phosphor effect and occasionally the use of effects like scanlines. Game designers never really intended the pixel-perfect grid patterns you see in modern “pixel art” games to be displayed, or at the very least, never imagined that people would be playing with that sharp visual style. So while it’s possible to create a pixel-perfect display for some older games (see below), it might be considered less than authentic by some players.

…And Sometimes Aren’t Even Supported

240p signals sometimes aren’t even supported on modern TVs, leaving some entirely incompatible with consoles from the PlayStation era and earlier….

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

I have a crazy passion for #music, #celebrity #news & #fashion! I'm always out and about on Twitter.
Sasha Harriet

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