I have to admit that I’m not a long-time collector of retro video games. Actually, it was just six years ago that I was cleaning up my storage area in my basement and came across a baby blue suitcase from the 80’s whose contents included my old NES and about 30 games. I knew my childhood was sealed away in this old dusty suitcase, but I rarely thought about digging it out and giving it a chance again. I had Grand Theft Auto 4 & Uncharted now and thoughts of Contra and Super Dodgeball had been long gone. I’m not sure what it was, but something told me to pop open the rusty latches and get a good whiff of that 80’s air. After coughing the dust out of my throat I went ahead and I hooked up the gray relic to my 50-inch LCD TV and I was instantly filled with the same joy and nostalgia that I’m sure many of you felt when firing up your childhood console after abandoning it for years. I did notice that something was a bit off, though. The games just didn’t look as good as I remembered them looking years ago. I thought it was just that I was so used to the amazing graphics of the PS3 and Xbox 360, and maybe 8-bit was this ugly all along. Well, I come to find out that that’s furthest from the truth, and it’s modern televisions that just can’t display our old consoles properly.
A large majority of consoles before the Sega Dreamcast and after the Atari output video in a 240p format. 240p looked good on old CRT televisions but most modern televisions are unable to accept this signal and see it as a 480i signal. This causes a very ugly display due to the TV processing the 240p signal up to 480i and filling in the gaps. This is what causes that fuzzy/muddy look that you’re guaranteed to get when hooking up your retro consoles to a modern television. Television manufactures today just don’t consider retro gaming when designing the latest sets and rightfully so. It wouldn’t be very cost effective to please the retro console fan base, even though it grows by the thousands each day. So you may ask yourself, “Do I just deal with the ugly look, or is there something I can do about it?”
I’m going to tell you how to get the best possible picture out of your NES console (and a few other retro consoles) to your modern television and even your old CRT TV (if you still use that), but first I want to go into why your NES can’t get you the best picture as it sits now. The NES front loader, or toaster, as it’s lovingly called, can output video in two different ways: RF and composite. The RF hook-up was the gray box that many of you probably hooked up the console with back in the day. Out of the gray box came a wire that would screw into an input on the back of most CRT televisions and even some modern televisions. The reason why this gave gamers the worst picture possible is because that one wire carries both the audio and video signals that the console outputs. That’s a whole lot of digital information running through one single wire. Composite, on the other hand, is located on the side of the NES console (red and yellow jacks) and can carry both audio and video signals separately to a TV. This will give you a much better picture than the RF signal. Again, you can hook up the NES via composite to a modern TV but the 240p signal will be upscaled to 480i and the TV will try to fill in the gaps creating a very blotchy picture. The NES 101 model, which is referred to as the top loader, doesn’t even have composite output and only outputs RF making it the worst choice when trying to get a good picture.
So, how do we get a better signal out of the NES? The best way to get the best picture out of retro consoles is to take the primary colors it can output (red, blue, & green) and send those individual signals separately to your television. So instead of running all these primary colors through one single cable, you want send them individually to get the purest, cleanest picture available.
Unfortunately, the NES is unable to do this with the onboard PPU (picture processing unit) chip so a RGB board needs to be installed to work alongside the PPU chip. Fortunately, an Australian modder named Tim Worthington created said board. With Tim Worthington’s NESRGB board, modders around the world are now able to make the NES’s picture look simply stunning and better than it’s ever looked before. As an added bonus, Tim has also included stereo output on the RGBNES board which is groundbreaking considering the NES only outputs mono. I personally had my top loader NES modded by an amazing modder and eBayer Kevin Smith, who offers his services here. Depending on you modder, you could get different output connections installed on your new modded console. My modder used an 8-pin mini din which was perfect for me, but some modders may install an AV socket that looks similar to the back of a Super Nintendo console. Be sure to ask your modder what he/she will be using so you know which cables to purchase in order to get the best picture out of your console (more on cables later). Once you get your console modded the dilemma now is how do we get these RGB colors out of the console and into your TV?
The folks over in Europe had it much better than us Americans when it came to video quality, especially when it came to retro video game consoles. RGB output was easily obtainable through a cable called SCART (from Syndicat des Constructeurs d’Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Téléviseurs – Radio and Television Receiver Manufacturers’ Association). These SCART cables are quite larger than what Americans are used to considering they’re about 10x the size of an HDMI cable. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo natively output RGB through SCART but here in the states we were stuck with the inferior composite output. When having your NES modded with Tim Worthington’s NESRGB board, you will have the option to output the NES’s video via SCART or s-video. S-video is something that many of you are probably familiar with and while the video will look much better than composite, it still doesn’t hold a candle to SCART, but it’s nice to at least have that option. So, the next question is, “where do you get a NES SCART cable?” Thankfully, these cables are being made in the US by eBay seller retro_console_accessories. These cables are of the highest quality and are recommended by modders nationwide. They also sell SCART cables for several other retro consoles and are pretty quick to message back if you have any questions regarding which cable to purchase. (At the time of this writing this seller is on vacation, but will begin selling the cables again very shortly).
The next question is how to hook up SCART cables to either your CRT TV or modern television. The cheapest option is going to be hooking up to a CRT television. Once you get your console modded and purchase your SCART cable all you will need to hook up to a CRT is a SCART to component adapter. This adapter will let you insert your SCART cable coming out of your console into the adapter and then component cable out of the adapter into your TV. As long as your CRT TV has component input, you will be able to get the best possible RGB signal to your television, but keep in mind that this adapter will not carry over an audio signal. It’s for video and video only. In order to get audio out you will have to purchase the proper cable from retro_console_accessories. The NES RGB cable that has an isolated audio plug will be needed in this situation.
Sadly, hooking up a RGB modded NES to a modern TV will still result in a muddy picture. This is because even though you are outputting RGB, you’re still sending a 240p signal to a TV that is trying to display 480i. It will look much better than composite considering the RGB upgrade, but since you’ve already spent all this money for the best picture, I’m sure you want the best possible outcome. Not to mention the SCART to component adapter also introduces a significant amount of lag when used on a modern TV. Enter the XRGB Mini, also known as the Framemeister. This magical device will take the 240p signal that your retro consoles output and upscale them up to 1080p while introducing virtually no lag (remember to set your TV to Game Mode). Yes, your NES will be displayed in glorious 1080p on your modern TV. As an added bonus the Framemeister can generate beautiful scanlines that will make your retro gaming experience just as you remembered it. You’re going to get a better picture out of your NES via RGB than your Wii U Virtual Console games via HDMI. The people at Japanese company Micomsoft (not Microsoft) have perfected this amazing piece of equipment and you won’t believe how good it looks until you see it in with your own eyes. It’s truly a sight to behold.
If you decided to take the plunge and enter the world of RGB, I’d like to list the consoles that already output RGB without any modification. Yes, all your life your console had the ability to look stunning, but you were stuck using composite. Sad, isn’t it? Just pick up a SCART cable that is compatible with any of these consoles and use the aforementioned SCART to Component adapter and you’re ready to go as long as your hooking up to a CRT! No modding needed!! There are caveats with certain consoles when outputting RGB though. Click on the console below for more information.
I hope I gave you a good idea as to why many gamers today are going the way of RGB. In a time when HDTV is commonplace we often want the best possible picture out of anything were hooking up to our televisions, even 30-year-old video game consoles! If you have any further questions please comment below and I’ll be sure to help you out.