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Help! My HDTV set hates my classic video game console!

By: 9 May 2010 3 Comments

Just ask any fan of classic video game consoles out there — getting those vintage systems to communicate with new HDTV sets can be a chore.

Oddly, that Atari 2600 looks OK on those snazzy, new sets but a lot of other systems look, well, bad.

Dave Mrozek, a computer programmer, established the Video Game Critic about 10 years ago and has written about 3,500 video game reviews on that site over the past decade. He’s a self proclaimed fan of systems from the Atari 2600 all the way through the Nintendo Wii and has spent a good deal of free time dealing with both classic and modern consoles.

If anyone knows how to get those old consoles to look good on new television sets, it would be Mrozek, right? However, he says that there are at least two problems to deal with when dealing with hooking up an old console to a new HDTV set — screen resolution and lag.

First of all, what systems are modern enough to look good on a new television set? Mrozek said the Microsoft Xbox and Xbox 360; Nintendo Gamecube and Wii; and Sony PlayStation 3 all look fine on newer sets. However, the Sony Playstation 2 and systems older than that one tend to have problems.

Mrozek said one of the primary reasons those systems struggle on newer sets has to do with screen resolution. For one thing, older consoles were made to work with cathode ray tube (CRT) television sets that displayed 480 vertical lines in an image. Running a signal meant for one of those CRT sets to a high definition set that displays, say, 1,080 vertical lines can result in pixelation as the consoles display is expanded to work on the new set.

In other words, that new television can truly emphasize the limited display resolution inherent in an old console.

To make matters worse, most high definition sets are designed to display progressive scan images rather than older, interlaced ones. CRT sets are designed to display interlaced signals, meaning each image is essentially shown on on two frames — 240 lines alternating on even rows and 240 lines alternating on odd ones.

A progressive display is a different breed of cat. There is no alternation and the lines are displayed one after another. In order for an HDTV set to display an interlaced signal, it must be deinterlaced and interpreted for the progressive display.

In other words, moving from a 480i (the “i” is for interlaced) to a 1,080p (the “p” is for progressive) requires the signal to be both expanded and interpreted. Dragging a signal from an older consoles through those two levels of conversion can result in a display that’s passable, but not great.

Even if you don’t mind fuzzy, pixelated images, Mrozek said there’s another problem — screen lag. For one reason or another, there’s a delay between the time you input that command on your controller and when the resulting action shows up on the screen. He said some people might not notice a lag, but some have found the lag makes those vintage games very difficult to play.

It’s not that the lag magically disappears with new consoles — programmers of modern systems are aware of that lag and generally compensate for it when there’s a problem. Want proof? When a happy gamer sets up that new Guitar Hero or Rock Band game, one of the first things he is required to do is go to a configuration screen and make sure the guitar controllers are in sync with the television set.

Furthermore, there’s a reason that Wii owners are required to configure their controllers regularly.

Because there was no lag problem with older consoles running through CRT sets, programmers didn’t have to bother with such considerations. Also, remember all of the talk of converting from interlaced to progressive scan TVs? That takes some time, thus increasing the amount of lag one experiences with classic consoles. If lag is a problem with a cherished Sega Genesis game on a new set, then, the chances are good you’re stuck with it.

So, what can be done?

Mrozek said that depends on the system. Some systems (the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, for example) are particularly problematic while others are not. The Atari 2600, as I mentioned earlier, looks pretty good while the Nintendo Entertainment System has more than a few issues.

Some systems have capabilities built in that will bring them in line with the requirements of modern television sets. Want that Sega Dreamcast to look great on a new set? You’re in luck if that new set has a VGA adapter built in as you can drop a few bucks for a VGA Box and that Dreamcast will look just fine.

Mrozek pointed out there are some converters out there that will convert that interlaced display to a progressive one, but those are generally expensive and most don’t work all that well. Meanwhile, there are some homemade solutions out there (such as one that requires a bunch of cables and adapters to convert the signal from a Genesis to an SCART signal and then to component one for use on HDTV sets), but those do tend to cost quite a bit and might not work terribly well.

Mrozek said the best solution to those wanting to enjoy their classic consoles is to simply keep a CRT set around to connect to those old consoles. Sure, there are a lot of methods floating around on the Internet that claim to give classic gamers the solution they need to use old consoles on new television sets, but those may or may not work. The only way to know for sure, Mrozek said, is to use those consoles on the CRT sets for which they were designed.

Besides, Mrozek said that tube sets aren’t exactly in vogue these days. If you don’t have a good one around your house, the chances are good you can pick one up for very little money or for free from someone just wanting to get rid of the thing to make room for that shiny, new high definition set.

There’s another solution for fans of old video games — collections of classic titles made for new games. Some are worse than others, but one in need of a Sega Genesis fix might just find that the over 40 titles featured in the Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 is just what the doctor ordered.

As an aside, here’s something I’ve learned from person experience — if you think the classic titles you can get on a Nintendo Wii through the famed WiiWare service will solve that screen resolution problem, guess again. The titles designed for the Super Nintendo I’ve bought through the WiiWare service look horrible, and even the Nintendo 64 titles are a bit sketchy. Proceed with caution, then.

Of course, some people may find that their old systems look just fine to them on an HDTV set and some newer televisions have “game modes” and other tricks built in that might render those 480i signals well enough. Besides, plugging that old system into your television won’t hurt anything, will it?

Don’t think for a second I’m done with this topic. I’ll visit with some more classic gaming experts in the weeks to come, and I’d love to hear from anyone that claims they’ve found a way to make those classic games look great on modern television sets. Just click here to send me an email and let’s talk.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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