[Retro] Taking Off the Rose-Tinted Glasses

Retro gaming is a funny thing. Quite a lot of the joy of going back in time and playing old console and computer games is the sheer nostalgia value, and part is the joy of discovering games and systems that might have passed you by first time around. Odd thing is though, that unless you also invest in some period kit – a nice big nineties CRT TV for instance, you won’t be getting the same experience.

Take my recent purchase of a PlayStation 2, for instance. Ok so it’s not the most retro of retro consoles but coming, as it did, in the last generation before HD became de rigeur, Sony’s big black (or in my case silver) monolith was capable of outputting rock steady, pin sharp images to LCD and plamsa TVs via a component cable.

Back when I originally had a PS2 in the early 2000s, the best I could manage was an RGB SCART connection into a 28 inch widescreen CRT. That seemed fine at the time, and it wasn’t until my Xbox 360 arrived, along with a 40 inch HD LCD telly, that I realised just how good games could look. So going back now to the PS2 on my big, shiny Samsung panel, I was keen to sample to very best picture quality I could muster, and duly forked out for a component cable from eBay.

A PS2 component cable. Oddly, you'll be surprised how bad this came make some games look.

Don’t get me wrong the picture now looks great, technically speaking. Text is pin sharp, there’s no moire pattern and everything is crisp and well defined. The problem is the resolution, which on many PS2 games (stand up GTA III) is so low it rivals teletext for blockiness. Playing through early PS2 titles such as Gran Turismo 3 or Pro Evo 4 really showed just how blocky and pixelated those titles really were (later releases such as GT4 made better use of the PS2’s display capabilities, either outputting in higher resolution or using better texturing and antialiasing tricks to mask the issue).

While the games themselves were just as much fun (in the main – though the years haven’t been kind to earlier PES games) in themselves, the experience of staring at a massive screen full of jagged pixels rather took the shine off. Certainly screen size plays a part in this. Forty inches is great for playing 720p 360 games just a few feet from the screen, but anything older needs to be seen much further away. In fact, I’d argue that with a decent PS2 AV connection, up-close anything above 22 inches actually distracts from the playing experience. So, notwithstanding the money I’d just spent on a shiny new cable, I decided to whip out an old composite RGB PS2 lead I had lying around and see how that looked. It certainly masked some of the resolution issues, but in losing that much definition from the picture it made the experience just as distracting because of the blurriness. In fact it would have been just as easy to play via a component cable while wearing a pair of glasses smeared in vaseline.

GTA 3 - like an old girfriend, probably looks worse than you remember

So what’s going on? SCART was fine before, and now component only shows up the inadequacies of the system’s AV output on modern hardware. The simple truth is context and expectation. When we fire up a NES and play Super Mario Brothers 3 we’re not expecting a technical or visual tour de force. Sure, back in the day the NES’ graphics and sound capabilities were its big selling point, but most of us now think of 8 and even 16 bit titles in pure gameplay terms, so far removed are they aesthically from their younger siblings. More recent retro-fare though doesn’t have that luxury. Many of the PS2 (and Xbox) games we raved about ten years ago were exciting largely because of their visual appeal, sadly in the cold late of day, on modern hardware, even relatively recent, last gen titles just don’t look that good. GT4 is perhaps the exception, outputting in 1080i for single player races in NTSC mode. Almost everything else looks, well, a bit ropey.

GT4 - one of few last-gen titles that still looks good today

That’s fine though, just remember that when you delve into the black art of retro gaming, graphics are worth very little. You won’t be wowed by Black like you were on launch, and I promise games like Metal Gear Solid 2 will surprise you with just how primitive they look. In some cases it will wipe out a lot of that warm nostalgia glow that you feel from revisiting an old favourite, and you might be surprised that you end up spending more of your PS2 retro gaming time on titles like We Love Katamari and Marvel vs Capcom 2 that might not cut it in the great polygon pissing contests that seem to have dominated recent gaming, but have what it takes where it really takes. in the gameplay stakes.

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