Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Figuring Out How Retro Game Videos Can Look So Good

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So recently I’ve been looking at the current YouTube videos we create for the site as well as some of the photos I capture from those videos.  You see due to authenticity of how it feels to play the game – not to mention my personal affinity towards doing too much within a computer for console gaming – it’s not very viable for me to emulate.  In truth there’s little concern for the legal aspect or even the technological aspect, it’s just that playing an emulated game on an HDTV comes with it compatibility issues, screen tearing, and lets not forget the overwhelming feeling that no matter what controller you use it doesn’t feel the same as plugging that actual controller into that actual console.  As a result, most of the gameplay videos I see out there focus on either how good it looks or how good it plays, but rarely does it look at both.  There’s quite a few reasons for that, I discovered, and for my weekend project I set out to figure out how one gets these razor sharp awesome videos when compared to my relatively blurry ones.

composite_cableThe reason for this is a few things, but they all have to deal with the fact that Standard Definition TVs (SDTV) are very different than High Definition TVs (HDTV) and none of that matters until you try to adapt retro consoles (SDTV) to YouTube (HDTV).  It may look fine on my screen but it looks like crap when you pull that video up on your TV.  How do you fix that?  Well it depends on the console and your ultimate goal.  Video game systems had an output in either 240p (320×240 progressive), 480i (640×480 interlaced), 480p (640×480 progressive), 720p (1320×1080 progressive), 1080i (1920×1080 interlaced), and 1080p (1920×1080 progressive).  For the most part, anything before the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was in 240p/480i (more on that in a sec), PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was mostly 480p (with some potential 720p for the Xbox and lack of 480p for Gamecube), and then the Wii was 480p with the 360/PS3 being either 720p/1080i/1080p.  In terms of a YouTube video or contemporary HDTVs, you want to immediately omit the interlaced resolutions because those only illuminate half of the image at once and blink back and forth, so they create scanlines (which HDTV signals and Youtube do not like or display) and make a choppy effect when things move.  While that’s no problem for the modern consoles because you can just omit 1080i and only use 720p or 1080p, you may notice that’s a big problem for retro consoles.  240p is available, but often not right out of the gate (you ever see a 240p/RGB output on a retro console?) and most of us (in the US) hooked our old school consoles up to our televisions with the lovely composite cable (yellow/red/white).  This made a 480i image out of a 240p image, which means it not only made the image look poor and blurry because it increased the resolution without increasing the pixel count, but it also removed the progressive scan and thus made scanlines and choppiness.  This is the key problem to 99 percent of the game capturing I do.

So how do you fix that?  There are a few options.  The first is emulation, which is cheapest and best because by nature emulation is free and the upscale can be done in the software and generate ideal pixel re-creation, however for me it’s out because I don’t like how it plays or feels.  The second is to try to capture in S-video or component over composite, but it does not solve the obvious issue of the fact that everything is still relatively blurry because the source is not 240p but rather 480i.  If you ever watch my videos, this is what I usually do and my current setup.  I capture the video in 480i and use the capture software to de-interlace it (ie: make it into progressive scan) and render it in 480p for YouTube (which is 720×480 due to 16:9 widescreen versus the common 4:3 full screen of these old consoles).  This is why you get some blur, some chop, and the black bars – it’s simply the best we can do for the money.  Well it turns out that’s not completely the case, which I discovered after watching this helpful video.  It told me that there is a fabulous world of improvement that comes from upscaling the image, however this always comes at a price, whether that be money or problem solving.

As always any game system that outputs to 240p will either be able to give you composite/s-vide0/component to view your systems (oh yeah and Dreamcast does VGA, but that’s not relevant right now) in 480i (and occasionally p) and you can purchase a cheaper upscaler that will do an okay job.  While it may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, your games will be greatly improved in visual quality – especially if you can extract s-video or component instead of composite.  There are setbacks, though, because these “other” scalers will always introduce lag and change the orientation or look of a game.  If you are like me and have a composite/s-vide0/component signal amplifier that can output one signal to two sources, this can be somewhat of a solution because the capture lag will be independent of the gameplay you are using for the source.  Basically it will only capture at a delay but since you’re not using that lagging delay it will look normal after your capture (just don’t use a mic on your capture solution because your comments will suffer being off sync due to the lag so you’ll want to record separate and sync in post-processing).  This is your under $100 solution for those that want better looking videos but aren’t going to make a business out of it (ie: me).

rgbFor the rest of you intense purists, budding venture capitalists, Patreon savvy marketers, and of course the tech junkies, the only game in town is the one and only XRGB Mini (aka Framemeister) by Micomsoft.  This is the topic of that aforementioned video I linked and just to open with the big financial investment, currently retails for about 39,000 yen or $500 for Americans, not to mention it’s completely in Japanese.  Once you obtain this bad boy, you can use composite/s-video/component to create widely improved lag-free versions of your favorite games, add scanlines back in, and impress your less wallet heavy friends.  That’s not all, though, because you can also extract true 240p via RGB!  See there are cheaper scalers that can do this feat, however because they introduce lag and I don’t know of an RGB amplifier (although it may very well exist and probably isn’t cheap if so), cheap solutions with lag are yet again a problem.  On the other hand, if you have a Framemeister you can have a lag-free way to play games via RGB!  This option, like the Framemeister, is not cheap.  Your initial consoles like the SNES, Genesis, and even Saturn can be purchased on eBay for a relatively low price with this user: retro_console_accessories.  The crazier ones, like NES/Famicom, N64, and even Jaguar or Turbografx-16 is going to require console mods and even more work.  I saw this as a $1000+ rabbit hole that required more technical knowledge than I cared to commit (I wanna game!) and not paying attention to those things could also damage a Framemeister (out $500!) so I decided that this little magical box that looks amazing just won’t be in my future.

As it stands I hope to improve my game capturing of newer consoles (my Twitch is only outputting to 480p for some reason from my PS4!) and even some of the older ones like Xbox and PS2 where the blur just doesn’t have to be that bad.  In addition I also hope to use one of these upscalers to improve the capture of my composite video stuff, but don’t expect something miraculous, just sharper and slightly improved.  I also upgraded to the full Sony Movie (formerly Vegas) 13 suite so I should have a lot more options for comparison videos, editing, and overall improvement of production values.  So while I won’t be able to create something as stellar as this, hopefully I will someday get up to this.  It’s a rabbit hole, but luckily I came out unscathed and with (most of) my money unspent.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm

One Response

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  1. Don’t know about capturing, but I played all my PS2 and PS1 (on PS2) games with component cables hooked up to an Ache Dee Tee Vee. Looked perfect.


    November 11, 2014 at 11:19 pm

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