If you are interested in retro gaming as a hobby or just looking to satisfy a nostalgic craving to play some of your old Nintendo cartridges and have just connected an old console directly to a modern display, you have probably come to realize that your old games don't look as good as you remember. I am not talking about the graphical style by any means because to my eyes, that has aged perfectly. What I am referring to is the video quality itself. Loads of people have pulled out their SNES or N64 and connected them to their modern televisions only to find that the picture displayed looks like complete garbage, or perhaps does not display at all. The source of the problem here is twofold and it is these two root causes I will cover.
RGB gaming is an extremely deep and technical topic that I have spent countless hours researching, testing and implementing. I am going to do my best to outline the basics of what you need to understand on this topic in order to begin to get the best video quality possible for your old consoles but much deeper resources are available. If you are looking for more in depth information on all the topics discussed here, head over to RetroRGB.com or check out the RGB Master Class series of videos by one of my all time favourite YouTube channels, My Life in Gaming. It should be said up front that RGB gaming can be a very expensive rabbit hole, but it doesn't have to be. Also, everything discussed here applies to the NTSC regions of the world only, ie; North America and Japan. With all that said, let's dive right in and find out what we need to know to get from point A to B.
THE TWO-HEADED MONSTER
The problem of poor video quality when it comes to retro gaming has two causes. The first issue is that these old consoles output a 240p video signal which modern displays are not equipped to handle properly. The second is how the video signal is actually sent to the display. All these old consoles output analog video signals and there is no shortage of different ways to pass analog video from a device to a display. This is where RGB comes into play. Combining a good video signal with a way to properly handle the signal is what we need to achieve the high quality image we desire but to do this we must understand both causes of the two-headed problem in the first place. Lets start by looking at the 240p issue first.
WHAT IS 240P?
240p is simply a name for a standard definition video resolution. You are likely familiar with 1080p which has been the standard resolution for HD video for the last few years. The number in the resolution name refers to the vertical resolution of the image in pixels. For example, 1080p is 1080 pixels high and 1920 pixels wide. 240p on the other hand is generally 240 pixels high and 320 pixels wide. Another important standard video resolution is 480i. 480i resolution is 640 x 480 pixels but notice the "i" following the shorthand name for this resolution instead of the "p" following the others.
PROGRESSIVE SCAN VS INTERLACED SCAN
The "p" or "i" found at the end of a video resolution shorthand denotes what scan method the video signal is implementing. The scan method is simply how the display draws the image on the screen and there are two basic standards for this, "p" for progressive scan and "i" for interlaced scan. The difference between these two methods is that progressive scan signals are displayed by drawing one complete frame of the video at a time on the screen. Interlaced scan signals draw two frames at once on alternating horizontal lines of resolution of the display. This leads to flickering and a host of other issues that progressive scan video does not suffer from making progressive scan the superior method.
240P IN MODERN DAY
As you can see illustrated in the image to the right, 240p video is much smaller than 1080p, which most of us are using today. This means that when we plug an old console into our current televisions, the image has to be upscaled by the display to fit the screen. Modern televisions are not designed to do this very well as it is not something manufacturers are expecting most people to do. Some modern televisions can't handle 240p at all and simply won't display anything when an old console is connected and almost all modern displays misinterpret 240p signals as 480i. This is half of the reason why the image looks so poor. The other half of the issue is how we transmit the signal to the display.
WHAT IS A VIDEO SIGNAL MADE OF
Output signals from a video game console contain picture information and audio information. Picture information is broken into 3 colour signals; red, green, and blue, and a sync signal which tells the display where all the pixels are supposed to go. Audio information is separated into left and right signals which correspond to the left and right speakers on the display. As I have already stated, there are many different ways to pass all of these signals from the console to your television, some of which are better than others.
ANALOG VIDEO SIGNALS
Generally speaking, the fewer the cables used for the analog video signal the worse the picture will be on the display. This goes for modern televisions as well as old televisions, like the heavy "obsolete" CRT televisions you have likely gotten rid of by now. Fewer cables mean more information has to be passed to the display on each single cable. This leads to colour bleeding and interference in the picture. Here are all the analog video signals you could use if available, arranged from worst to best.
You are probably at least somewhat familiar with RF, composite and component as these have been widely used in North America for many years. S-video was only around for a few years before being phased out so many people have never seen this type of connection before. As for RGB you are probably scratching your head, wondering what that connector is and why you have never seen it before. That connector is called SCART and the reason you have never seen it before is that it was never used in North America, but it was widely used in Europe. This 21 pin connector can carry a myriad of signals, one of which is RGB. This is the most common connector of choice for RGB gaming and these cables are readily available for purchase on the internet.
UPSCALERS AND CONVERTERS
Now that we know what RGB is, how can we use it in North America? Fortunately, there are a number of solutions, some of which come in the form of external conversion boxes and upscalers. These little boxes range in price and functionality. The cheapest solution would be this RGB SCART to HDMI converter from Amazon that does an acceptable job of getting RGB quality to your HD television. The pinnacle of upscalers would be the X-RGB Mini Framemeister shown to the right. This is the device I used to capture the "Point B" photo shown above. It is expensive but does an amazing job of upscaling RGB as well as component video and even composite video. It has an incredible amount of features that make it worth the price, in my opinion. There are other devices that fall between these two price points that offer good features and functionality as well, such as the OSSC and the GBS-8200 so you should be able to find a solution that falls within your budget.
CRT TVs AND RGB MONITORS
Many retro gamers would argue that the only way to play retro games is on a CRT television. CRTs are the big heavy displays that these games were designed to run on in the first place and they can offer fantastic quality for little or even no investment. Many CRTs have component and s-video inputs on them that will deliver an enormous boost in quality over composite and RF. If given the choice of plugging a retro console directly into a modern television or a CRT, I would choose the CRT every time because the picture will look much better, making these clunky beasts not so "obsolete" after all. You can even buy converter boxes that convert RGB SCART to component such as this one that can unlock the true potential of your SNES, for example. CRTs can easily be found for free on online classifieds Criag's List or Kijiji, or at yard sales. You may even have one in your basement you forgot about.
There also exists professional CRTs, such as the popular Sony PVM/BVM series, that take RGB natively and the picture quality is superb. It is something that really needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated but I tried my best to photograph my PVM-14M4U in action. These monitors were used by professionals at television stations, hospitals, production companies and quite possibly by video game developers. They have recently become very popular among gamers and have skyrocketed in price, especially on ebay, but if you are lucky they can still be had for a reasonable price.
The solution to the twofold problem is clear. Choose the best possible video signal for you console, and use a good upscaler before the signal gets to a modern television or get your hands on a good CRT television. This is only the beginning of your quest for the best possible retro gaming experience. Not all consoles support RGB natively but some do. For example the original SNES and first two revisions of the Sega Genesis output RGB right out of the box but the NES and N64 do not. However, these consoles and most other that don't offer RGB natively can be modified to do so. What is the best possible solution for every console goes well beyond the scope of this article, but now the ground work is there to help you decide what solution is best for you. Maybe all you want is a cheap way to play SNES on your HDTV or maybe you want to go all out and RGB mod every console you own. Whatever your needs might be, there is certainly a better way to play your original hardware than screwing an RF switch into your 4K television.