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Chasing the perfect retro gaming look

Nintendo’s mini Super NES is a great way to bring the retro gaming revival into your lounge room, but how far will you go to capture that authentic retro look?

The mini Super NES delivers a hell of a lot of entertainment for $120, especially if it helps you recapture a misspent youth playing Super Mario World and Street Fighter II. It’s not just about nostalgia, most of the games have aged well and a new generation of gamers will find these classics from the 1990s surprisingly playable.

If you remember the 1990s fondly then you might notice that these old games look odd on your 21st century television. Classic games like Street Fighter II are usually remastered when they’re reissued for new consoles like the PlayStation 4 (like in the image above), but the mini SNES graphics remain true to the original (like in the image below).

This means the mini Super NES’ graphics were designed to be viewed on a hefty low-res Cathode Ray Tube television, whereas you probably have it plugged into a slender hi-res LCD screen.

For all the advances in television picture quality over the years, something is lost when you play old games on a new screen. Thankfully the mini Super NES allows for this by giving you a choice of three Display modes – CRT Filter, 4:3 and Pixel Perfect – and it’s worth experimenting with them to appreciate the difference. 

Pixel Perfect mode sharpens up the picture to look its best on a modern hi-res television, but it’s also the one most likely to offend old school gamers.

The biggest difference with Pixel Perfect model is that you lose the faint black “scan lines” which run across an old CRT television, they’re a byproduct of the CRT display technology. While losing them might sound like a step forward, the graphics were originally designed to allow for scan lines and if you remove them the picture can look flat, garish and overly crisp.

The effect is striking, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s changed. Remember, these games lack the resolution to add the detailed textures we’ve come to expect in modern games. Scan lines help compensate for this and without them the picture can look a bit bland.

Pixel Perfect model also squashes the picture slightly because it displays square pixels, whereas switching to 4:3 mode stretches the pixels slightly to mimic the look of a CRT screen. In theory purists might object to a slightly distortion, but in practice 4:3 mode looks more like the original gaming experience.

CRT Filter mode keeps the 4:3 aspect ratio but adds fake scan lines to simulate a CRT screen, plus this mode makes the image a little fuzzy. Together these changes help add a sense of depth to the picture, although the blur can be offputting at first – especially if you’re sitting up close to a large television.

Depending on your television, you’ll find that the CRT Filter doesn’t simply look like someone has drawn faint black lines through the picture. You might see some bleeding on an LCD television, which means the scan lines look less distinctive in the brightest areas of the screen as the surrounding colours bleed slightly into the black scan lines.

At first you might think that the mini SNES is emulating the image bloom of an old CRT monitor, but turn down the brightness on your LCD television and you’ll see those scan lines become clearer.

While you’re in your television’s settings, try switching to Game picture mode to reduce input lag. This can help with games which demand accuracy and precision timing, but the trade-off is that the action doesn’t look as smooth.

Of course your average backlit LCD television struggles to replicate the deep blacks of a CRT screen, which are a key element of overall picture quality. This is because old CRTs didn’t rely on a backlight, and neither do the new generation of amazing OLED televisions. 

Plug the mini SNES into an LG Ultra HD OLED television and it sings thanks to those really deep blacks, with the scan lines more clearly defined even in the brightest areas. Keep in mind that OLED’s lack of motion blur means that Game mode is even less forgiving when it comes to smoothing out the action.

From here aficionados can start to argue about interlacing, scaling and refresh rates but at the end of the day nothing you do will completely capture the look and feel of the original gaming experience. If you want to see how it really looked back in the old days, head over to the retro gaming section at PAX Australia next month in Melbourne to see the old time hardware in all its glory.

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