Scanlines, CRTs, Faux Retro games and whatever

So I was browsing 4chan, as I often do (because I make bad decisions) and decided to drop into /vr/. Without fail there will be a thread about scanlines and NTSC/CRT/RF shaders. I actually find this interesting, because despite not caring about the aesthetic, I do want to have some sort of filter for Brave Earth that isn’t just “lazy scanline overlay”. So I ran into this and found it hilarious.

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Personally, the appeal there for me, is baffling and I’m no sure it’s going t make people wish indie devs were “more accurate” with retro stuff. My first memories as a child involve me playing on my mom’s Atari 2600 and my uncles NES after that. All on crappy old CRT sets over RF. Hell we had one of those hilarious furniture looking console TVs. Maybe it was building sprites in Mario paint, or the better pixel quality of computer monitors and making games in ZZT and megazeux, but the whole “retro means blurry and with scanlines” thing never quite clicked for me. I see thing as pixels. When I play games on the CRT I still use for console games because I’m cheap more than anything, I don’t “see” blurry phosphors. Since our brains fill in a lot of details for us, in my head I’m seeing pixels. So games emulated on LCDs are a plus to me. I like big clunky sharp pixels. Other friends I have look for stuff like framemeisters or buy line doubles and scanline generators to get something closer to what they see in their heads when they play retro games. That’s all cool. It’s awesome to try and recreate things in the past to preserve it for the future. IT’s why stuff like Higan (a super accurate and CPU intensive multi console emulator) are important, even if I will never bother using it.

Still there is a growing number of purists I see getting mad about this stuff. It won’t be a big deal if it was just crazy people /vr/ or those crazy shmup forms or whatever, but I’ve seen even people I know say shit like “this game couldn’t run on the original hardware” or “this isn’t what retro games look like”! I even had one person I know complain that Jamestown had too many bullets for a Neo-Geo game, which is absurd since Jamestown doesn’t claim to be anything. So here are some thoughts on all this, because it’ll probably only get worse once BEP is out (in 50 years).

But old games were designed to be viewed on CRTs!

This is mostly bologna and the thing you need to ask your self is, for any technique, would the art designer NOT have done that if their art was on a LCD or better quality display? Things like dithering come up a lot. Something like say the contra logo… on a CRT the colors blur together more, making the gradient smoother. But the technique of dithering has been used quite often on LCD screens (Just look at Jim’s portrait in this EWJ gameboy port) or in PC Games forever. Acting like LCDs and CRTs is silly — they obviously have visual differences, but there are really very few techniques you’d use exclusively on a CRT. Besides, this is basically any unfalsifiable anyways since we can’t know what the artists were intending or not intending. I would imagine you’d see both artists glad to see their art viewed crisply, and ones who are disappointed by it.

with modern indie stuff where this stuff is thrown around (like with the picture at the beginning of the post)… well, I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now I just wanna say… Play the games on a CRT. Why is it the game’s responsibility to pretend it’s something else? If you plug an NES into an LCD it doesn’t give you scanlines and blur. Internally, for the purposes of this discussion, “retro” indie games and old video games are sending the same thing — an array of pixels. How the device they’re connected to displays them is the displays business.

Besides, this all doesn’t matter anyways. Many greek statuses were intended to be painted, but we prefer clean white marble. Modern statues and modern pixel art reflects that change. Even if it’s not accurate, it’s what most people enjoy and prefer now.

This game claims to be like a (insert console) game but it does this that and the other thing wrong!

If we wanted to make a perfectly accurate game, we’d probably all do what Battle Kid did or what Retro City Rampage tried to do. Most of us don’t. What we want varies. Some of us are just using lo-fi aesthetics as they’re one of the faster style to make while still being a style people respond to well (and remember, making games is hard, especially by yourself. Try it sometimes, it’s fun!). Some care a little bit more about the whole package. When this discussion comes up with people I know, oftne they’re like “Oh but you’re using colors and stuff in a mostly authentic way, you’re okay”… Like, am I? I modified the NES palettes to give me new colors I didn’t have, I don’t obey rules regarding sensible sprite sizes. I have far to many objects on screen at once and like megaman, these already large sprites would need to use MORE sprites just to get the density of color of some sprites.

In fact, adding those extra colors on Naomi was a big thing to me. When I made a mockup and asked people if I should give her more colors (technically possible, but not in the overall picture of the game), people pretty much universally said “Yes. Do it. Why wouldn’t you do it?”. For most people, they want the style up until the point where it interferes with the game. That’s why BEP has a third button. Oh sure I can say it’s start or whatever, but that’s an excuse.

This is the thing with art and fashion. When someone takes stuff from the 80s and 90s, no one (sane) ever goes “OH YEAH WELL IN THE 80S NO ONE WOULD WEAR THEIR HAIR LIKE THAT” because that’s not how fashion works. We take aspects we like forward. We take things that are familiar and transform them. I personally feel that if everyone who made “retro” games tried to, collectively, be more accurate about this stuff we’d be WORSE off. We’d just be wanking nostalgically to things that have already been done, instead of using the past as a spring board into the future… and that’s someone who loves when people maintain history. Making games for old hardware is some awesome digital SCA type stuff. But it’s historical more than anything.

Brave Earth started relatively more accurate earlier on and has gotten progressively more ridiculous in some of the things I put on the screen. But I don’t regret this — when I started this was supposed to be a small free project that didn’t have to move things forward. Now it’s something far more ambitious and better offfor it. It has an identity beyond being “Castlevania but with a sword”. Retro City Rampage also moved on once the shell of the NES got too hard for it to be contained inside and while some may bemoan that all that’s left is a prototype rom, most people are happier for the change. If all retro graphics mean to you is reliving your childhood and everything that comes with it, well… I don’t think much retro indie games are even meant to appeal to you.

We need to understand, lo-fi and pixel art and all that is a STYLE. Do you think the superbrother games are trying to be like a “retro game” and that they would look better if their games seemed more ‘authentically 8/16 bit’? No, and that’d be completely missing the point. People will point to Ridiculous Fishing as being “retro” when the art in the game is composed almost entirely of triangles. There is a huge gradient hereof how these styles can manifest and anyone is free not to like them…but to act like a certain kind of style is somehow more noble is ridiculous. You can still criticize how a style is executed but we have to realize that most of this is a matter of taste and priorities. We all have different desires and developers have different goals. I get driven crazy when games that MOSTLY get it right do things like transparency and sprite rotations, personally. I’m sure Brave Earth will set off people on different issues. But then people will complain that IWBTG doesn’t maintain a consistent pixel density and uses rotating sprites and stuff and it’s like… seriously? Did you miss the point that hard?

The past is a tool and we should not be slaves to it… and that said, I’m still going to try and get construct to do some amount of CRTish effects as a toggle option because I hate my self.

16 thoughts on “Scanlines, CRTs, Faux Retro games and whatever

  1. Hell, playing an NES on a CRT (admittedly not a shitty one, and over composite rather than RF) I was able to accurately copy Mega Man’s sprites. I’d bet many of the people who claim that the NES’s video is blurry and indistinct are the same ones who insist the system is capable of producing pure reds and yellows (which it isn’t).

    As an aside, I’m one of those people who prefers my “retro gaming” with a simple bilinear filter…

    That said, I can see a point to taking account the quirks of the NTSC video signal when emulating the 2600 and NES, since their video chips natively output NTSC composite video. But for the other consoles, which all output RGB natively, it generally doesn’t make sense, especially without also emulating those systems’ RGB->composite encoders, which nobody does. (And if one DOES go that route, where does the madness end? Emulating the blurriness of the Gameboy screen?)

    From an aesthetic standpoint, there are basically no general techniques that work only on CRT, but there are several techniques that absolutely do not work on CRTs, and these restrictions arise from the nature of the video signal.

    For a little bit of technical background, the composite video signal consists of a low-frequency signal representing luminance, and a high-frequency (3.58 MHz) chroma signal, where the amplitude is the color’s saturation and the phase is the color’s hue. However, on all consoles, 1 pixel is actually shorter than a single cycle of the chroma signal – so a single pixel can’t actually put enough data into the chroma signal to fully represent that pixel’s color. (On consoles with a 256-pixel horizontal resolution like the NES, each pixel is only 2/3 of a chroma cycle. On other consoles, this varies from as much as 8/9 cycles per pixel at 192 pixels across to as little as 4/15 cycles per pixel at 640 pixels across.)

    So for example, 1-pixel-wide colored vertical lines must be used carefully, most often used as buffers between other colors, because the displayed color of the pixels will be affected by the colors of their neighbors. Alternating between grays from pixel to pixel should be avoided, because the short duration of each pixel in the signal will cause some of the luminance signal to bleed into the chroma, causing phantom hues to arise.

    So on the NES, a lot of the best-looking games use black as a general background color (since other colors against black won’t have their hues shifted much – at worst they’re a bit darker), and most good-looking games that used colored backgrounds will use black backgrounds to isolate the sprite’s colors from the background. Like I mentioned on Twitter, some NES games, particularly from Sunsoft, at least look like their art design was influenced by how it looks on a CRT. (Though many games’ artwork was not – photos that Nintendo Power ran back in the day about the development of SMB3 show the art being drawn out on graph paper.)

    On the Genesis, in 320-pixel-across mode, there are almost exactly 2 pixels per chroma cycle (each pixel is exactly 8/15 of a chroma cycle, so dithering is used a lot – over a composite video cable, the individual pixels in a dither won’t be distinct from one another horizontally but will instead blend into a new color. Some games even use this to simulate transparencies. However, since the pixels aren’t exactly half a chroma cycle, this can result in rainbow coloring artifacts (these artifacts get stronger and more noticeable the more the colors involved differ), as seen in the waterfalls in Sonic’s Green Hill zone or the tubes in Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone. However, even though the Genesis’ resolution made dithering really awesome in composite, there are also games that have detailed artwork that isn’t as effective in composite.

    (It’s also worth noting that at 256 pixels across, the individual pixels in a dither pattern are still distinct from one another, so the fact dithering is used in games that run at that resolution anyway is also proof that dithering isn’t about creating intermediate colors on blurry screens.)

    As for the SNES, I’d just like to point out that a several later Japan-only Square games (like Seiken Densetsu 3) use the SNES’ high-resolution mode (512 pixels across, 1/3 chroma cycle per pixel) for their text windows, meaning that their text was borderline illegible if you weren’t using RGB or S-Video cables.

    This is a handy reference. It’s a guy who’s into modding consoles for RGB output, and that page is filled with comparisons of consoles’ composite output with their RGB output (or in the case of the NES, compared with the Famicom Titler) – the Genesis gets its own page. It’s also handy for getting a feel for just how much each console’s RGB->composite encoder affects the colors.

    Of course, all of that text above is really only relevant on the emulation front – it’s totally meaningless (except for insight into why certain choices were made) for retro styles that are trying to echo the feel of the older consoles, not slavishly ape their every little detail.

    Point being, dithering works. Black outlines work. Black backdrops work. Small palettes work. And just because they worked well on CRTs fed with composite video signals (or RF), doesn’t mean they work any less well in other contexts. “Shitty video” purists can suck it.

  2. Hot damn that is an info filled comment! I’m sorry I can barely respond to anything. I’m just reading the post over and over to gleam more knowledge out of it. I’m super interested in how the type of connector used can change not only the quality of the image, but the the power of certain effects. Also unrelated (well kinda, due to the SD3 comment), I’m still shocked S-Video isn’t something anyone ever used back in the day over here in the US with most people.

  3. IT’s why stuff like Higan (a super accurate and CPU intensive multi console emulator) are important, even if I will never bother using it.

    Well, as for Higan, there is much more important reason. Most games (especially those more popular) work fine on other (quicker) emulators, but there are some exceptions. I recently discovered that Super Punch Out almost always crashes during Mad Clown fight (halfway through the game) I had to switch to bsnes for that reason (thankfully, save file are compatible).

    So what i am tring to say it is not about preserving some quirks or specific behaviour – it is about whether you can enjoy the game at all.
    Byuu had an article on his site that showed some more errors like that, i dont know why he took it down. It’s here:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20130508120513/http://byuu.org/bsnes/accuracy

  4. Yeah, the type of connection used can make a huge difference in video quality. Without getting too technical, RGB is the best (none of the artifacts mentioned above), followed by S-video (some, but not all artifacts), composite (all those artifacts), and finally RF (all those artifacts and worse).

    Also, these video artifacts are not as apparent on PAL systems, because PAL uses a higher frequency chroma subcarrier (4.43 MHz instead of 3.58 MHz), while a console’s pixel frequency is the same on both PAL and NTSC.

    It’s interesting to contrast the “shitty video” purists, who insist that retro gaming look like it did on the crappy CRTs they grew up with, with the hardcore RGB modders, who will go to great lengths to get the best possible picture out of their consoles, including hand-crafting their own AV cables, soldering new wires to the video chips, or in the case of the NES, replacing the PPU with one from a PlayChoice-10 or using a Famicom Titler (both devices output RGB instead of the composite signal the NES produces, though the colors they produce are somewhat different).

    Incidentally, I’m pretty sure Nintendo Power actually used a Famicom Titler for their NES screenshots.

  5. The first time I played a game on a SNES emulator it was Seiken Densetsu 3, a loooong time ago. The emulator I used back then had by default a filter enabled, which I did not notice. Later I played the same game on a different PC, downloaded the “same” emulator again and suddenly it was all blocky. In that version of the emulator, the filter wasn’t activated by default and I didn’t like how it looked. Since I didn’t know back then, that it was a filter on my other emulator, I had no idea how to “correct” that blockiness and so I stuck with it, playing various other games on it.

    I am no purist, I simply like certain styles over others and it happens that I kind of like some of the filters over the pixel games. It’s not even the ones that “look like actual CRTs”. From my laymans perspective I’d say – it’s simply a matter of preference and an artistic choice by the game designer(s). I know how much easier using the 8-bit style actually is for small indie companies or developers themselves, which also makes it an even more valid reason to go for that look.

    Including such filters like the SNES emulators for those 8/16-bit-style games could actually result in interesting looks..

  6. Well that definitely makes me feel a lot better about my decision with Moon Serpent here to just declare that the theoretical console being emulated had a special vector output mode and that’s why the diagonal lines in dungeons break the fake resolution like they do.

    Seriously though, anyone who thinks this is a problem and doesn’t fix it by just hooking up to a CRT is crazy.

  7. This has been a particular sticking point of mine lately, and I want to compliment you on presenting an excellent counterargument to me.

    I agree with you that modern pixel art games don’t need scanlines.

    I disagree with you and think that older games (NES, SNES, PS1, etc), look measurably better with scanlines, but I also understand that’s a preference. This usually sticks out to me most clearly when playing games like Super Metroid, which I recently had the pleasure of playing on the WiiU Virtual Console on an LCD, and the game just didn’t look very good, especially compared to when I play it on my CRT. The colors were too simply too bright and bold. This issue is, to some extent, more obvious when it comes to Gameboy Brick games, which, while not “suffering” from scanlines like console games, had a muted greenish tint, and often look garishly painful to look at when shown in true grayscale 2-bit color, some games worse than others (namely any game with a heavy white palette). It’s similar to the reasons you don’t use true black or true white in webpage design (Hi I like your website’s colors). By contrast, despite being moderately similar graphically, while SNES games tend to look better with scanlines, GBA games usually don’t.

    There’s a bigger sticking point I have, and that’s that retro game and pixel art aren’t synonymous. Pixel art is a graphic style, like cel shading. Retro gaming is a design philosophy and to some extent a genre. I’ve played some awesome retro games which used more modern graphical design. I’ve played some awesome pixel games which have little in common with retro games (No offense intended, but I put IWBTG in this category) But it’s definitely starting to become a massive pet peeve of mine seeing developers use “retro” as a buzzword for their games, when they only thing retro about it is they used pixel art.

    Point being, “cheating” as you call it, in Brave Earth, doesn’t really detract from the retro feel of the game, and even if you weren’t using pixel art, It’d still be a retro game. The fact that you are using pixel art, and really really good pixel art at that, is just icing on the cake.

    Feel free to disagree with me, you are always very eloquent, and it’s always a pleasure to have an eloquent person stating counterpoints to me.

  8. Well one important thing here is realizing that we all saw “different” games. Variations between tint and color settings, the model of the TV, the prominence of the scanlines, ETC, all contribute to different experiences with the same game. Even now the CRT I do most of my gaming on — a standard, but “late” year sony set — doesn’t have very prominent scanlines for exmaple, while I’m sure my childhood TV did. Also you got other things like NES emulators, where their is no ‘canonical’ palette and many emulators choose less garish colors that would better match what you’d see on a CRT screen. So while you’re absolutely right, a lot of us have seen game so many different ways that the differences aren’t so crazy and color reproduction across any set of screens of different makes is a huge pain. I mean the difference between a game with scanlines and a game without, color wise (as opposed to the general aesthetic) is about as big (or maybe smaller) as having an actually well calibrated screen.

    Bottom line: Color sucks and relying on colors looking the same everywhere sucks and if you also have to print something, you might as well just shoot yourself (freelance graphic designer problems T_T)

    But yeah I also agree on the rest. There is a big difference between an aesthetic and a recreation. A good IWBTG comparison too would be La Mulana. But games, I feel, are making commentary on old game design, but IWBTG uses a more modern lens while La Mulana is, awesomely, adoringly authentic. La Mulana is retro, while IWBTG is ABOUT retro. One thing I love about the opening quite on the IWBTG page is it never uses the world retro but instead talks on how it’s more of a spiritual throwback.

    Not that I really mind people throwing “retro” around. I mean it communicates an idea people get and I think it’s being used sincerely in most cases (besides maybe in mobile? But mobile is shady about everything)… but it does kill me that it’s somewhat lead to a lot of backlash at the term. “OH ANOTHER RETRO PLATFORMER”. Siiiigh. But thank you for your kind words about the look of BEP. While I cheat a lot, I think just sorta needling my self and torturing my self over visual design choices ultimately helps. Cheating is fine, but shouldn’t come easy. But yes the fact that gameplay wise it is very retro also helps a lot. :)

    But yeah not that much to disagree on, just little quibbling details. Either way, thank you for a nice long thoughtful comment!

  9. The real standard for “retro” games is set by arcade games using pure RGB signals on high-end CRT monitors. The scanlines to actually mean a lot, but don’t go out of your way to get them. The blurryness, though? No games really wanted that, especially not the artist :)

    Aaaaanyway, how’s Brave Earth coming along? I’d really love to hear some news soon.

  10. I literally just made a scanline option. That’s how it’s going. :P

    No real pixel blending because that’s a paaaaain and like you said, what artist actually wants that?

  11. Kayin,

    I agree with everything you said, and thus I have very little to add but my own opinion.

    When I play old-school games (recent examples include Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, and Shining Force II), I often find myself impressed not by how the games looked (on a CRT or otherwise), but by what the developers managed to accomplish in terms of gameplay, story, and visual design, when they had to little to work with.

    For example: quoting from the Donkey Kong Country wikipedia article, “a new compression technique [Rare] developed in house allowed them to incorporate more detail and animation for each sprite for a given memory footprint than previously achieved on the SNES, which better captured the pre-rendered graphics.”

    Another example: in Super Metroid, not only did the entire world of Zebes fit together properly (as you demonstrated on this very website, Kayin), but Samus actually had sprites and animations for each direction she was facing — if she faced screen left, her arm cannon appeared behind her forearm; if she faced screen right, her arm cannon appeared in front of her forearm. Given the detail and beautifully fluid animation with which Samus was brought to life in this game, this level of detail probably represented a significant commitment of game cartridge resources — and yet they did it.

    As you indicated in a previous article on nostalgia, Kayin, classics are often classics for reasons that are NOT restricted to nostalgia.

    To me, success within limited constraints often requires creativity, and many of the classics are such because of the creativity that allowed them to succeed within the constraints imposed upon them by home consoles.

    Consequently, I feel that the best way for a game developer to achieve a “retro” aesthetic is not by aping the texture of CRTs, but by arbitrarily imposing limitations on what they can and cannot do, to see what they can accomplish within those constraints — rather like a self-imposed challenge, but for game developers. Self-imposed limitations need not mimic those of the early consoles — any limitation will do. And though some limitations are doubtless more meaningful than others, ultimately it is the act of working within limited constraints and making do with what one has that matters.

    Examples:
    “I’m going to code this game to take advantage of multithreading and 64-bit addressing… WITHOUT using more than 16MB of RAM and 166 MHz of processor power at a time”

    “I’m going to write this game so it can operate on every version of Windows since Windows 95.”

    “I’m going to write a game with beautiful graphics that ONLY uses web-safe colors.”

    What do you think?

  12. Sorry a little slow on this one, but yes, that’s basically it. The restrictions can be as broad or as narrow as you like, as long as they encourage creativity and the type of results you desire. I mean that is the model of everything we do creativity — we’re binding down creativity to give it form. When a game has a genre, we’re limiting it. When a painting has a model, we’re limiting it. Hell, when art is on a canvas, we’re limiting it. But that limiting is awesome and powerful and when applied like this, can force some more lateral thinking in design.

    So yeah, basically agree 100%

  13. I will just point out why I prefer the CRT image more than the LCD one.

    a) The outline isn’t as deep. Look at how Link’s thighs looks in the CRT image (you might have to zoom out to see what I am talking about) compared to the image on the LCD. In the CRT, you can barely see the outline while LCD takes up a lot of the image. This is due to the nature of CRT. Because each pixel glows, and each color has a different size and takes up more or less space, the darker color gets “invaded” by the brighter colors around it. This makes the CRT image look more “natural.” This is by far my biggest annoyance with playing on a LCD. I pointed to the thighs, but it’s the same with the ears, the face, the arms, etc.

    b) Link is fatter and more proportionate on the CRT image. This might be due to superior scaling ability of the CRT, but the LCD image looks wrong to me. He looks too narrow and small.

    c) The glow effect makes things look a bit more three dimensional as the outline becomes more about adding a shadow effect to the character. The hat looks like it has a three dimensional nature in the CRT and the bracelet on his arm looks like a bracelet. Whereas the LCD one I barely notice the bracelet and the outline around the hat looks ugly.

    d) Also, notice the boots have a green tint to them in the CRT? I don’t know how it works but those two green pixels on the LCD do not have the same effect. It looks ridiculous by comparison.

    Anyway, just some thoughts because I want to point out why I spend so much time focusing on CRT vs. LCD or whatever.

  14. The one that gets me is when people do the “what it looked like” and show a pixelated 8-bit game and “what it looked like to me” and showed a beautifully drawn realistic fantasy image.
    No, that’s NOT what I saw. I saw the pixels. And you know what? Those pixels were effing BEAUTIFUL. I saw the blockiness. I saw the hard edges. And I saw the mastery of artwork they produced under such hard limitations.

    I agree with a lot of what you have said here; the pixels look great as pixels.
    Whenever I see a game have an option to use a TV filter, I get excited, and I turn it on for a few minutes, but then I just get disappointed. First of all, most of them exaggerate the features too much, and don’t seem to have any understanding of what a scanline is. If they used a filter that looked like that picture at the top of this post, where I can even see the vertical red green and blue stripes, then maybe I would be willing to play it that way. But as they are, all I see is them ruining the beautiful artwork created for the game.

    I’m currently developing a retro-styled game, and I want to be as faithful as I can. But I am having trouble finding the right balance of emulating a CRT look. Or at least, being able to emulate it real-time.
    I’m glad you posed this article. I’m going to re-evaluate some of my design choices to figure out what I really want the game to look like.

  15. I know I’m not the only one who tried to see all the pixels when I got Mario paint. “Gotta make all these sprites!” Also had an atari where all the blocks were undeniable.

    Anyways the simple thing here is that the balance you strike should be the one that excites you. I remember seeing one guy’s game that had like the ugliest filters possible on them and while I’d say that’s bad, if that’s what motivated him, it probably paid off in the end. So don’t feel guilty if you end up somewhere in the middle feeling like you’re not doing enough or are half assing it.

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