It’s dark… Blindingly dark… It looks like the last star in the universe has gone out.
I’m in my bedroom, my mind is stuck on that level I’d been struggling…
What if I can’t beat it? What if I’ve lost? I toss and turn in my bed, until I eventually get up.
I turn on my TV; my old and trusty CRT warms up and pulls me in.
Suddenly the universe is filled with light. I fire up my game and now, I’m the lord of the light. My cat hates it…
I know it sounds a bit like Videodrome—the cult classic by David Cronenberg—but I was inspired by it. The film was built on a around old tube-TVs or a CRT in this case. Something is unique with these TVs. Consider The Ring; how Samara eerily crept out of old CRTs, the effect wouldn’t be same if she had crawled out of an OLED would it—and it certainly wasn’t in Rings. the graininess and lower resolution add a lot to the creepiness. The effect would totally get lost in translation.
Playing With Power
Every day I witness one of my favourite games being remastered, reimagined, or remade for modern consoles and modern screens. Some of the latest examples being Super Mario 3D All Stars; a seriously profitable nostalgia blast for Nintendo; Turrican, a solid but forgotten showcase of what could be achieved in 8 and 16-bit era. And while I’m skeptical about how Turrican might find its rightful place in today’s gaming world, I’m OK with it, because it gives people a chance to experience a classic. Is the industry going crazy with bringing the classics back from the dead, or am I so old and sensitive to it, since I don’t need to play them anymore because I’ve already got them out of my system?
It’s very clear that more and more gamers are getting into retro games, and I’ve got two theories as to why. Firstly, I think younger gamers are so bored with current gaming constraints such as microtransactions, expansion packs which might cost more than the original game itself, and endless updates; that they turn to old or hidden gems. Furthermore, there’s a kind of novelty with classic games—some of these gamers can’t believe that people used to play games with 512kb or even 64kb of RAM. Of course, time moves on, and even the PS2—considered a powerhouse in its time–is now a considered a retro console. So, they want to experience these “classic” games for themselves.
Nostalgia Bleeds Your Heart
My second theory is about gamers who are in their mid-30s or older (my so-called target audience). These people are not happy with today’s AAA games and they miss the blasts from their pasts mostly because of the nostalgia effect. They want to feel the same experiences and embrace the joy of their childhoods. As once the great salesman of the show Mad Men, Don Draper once said, “in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel; it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels–around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”
Where Do We Go Then?
The more agony we find ourselves in, the more opportunities arise for the companies hoping to cash in on our nostalgic longing. Therefore, in addition to the “remastered” games, we keep seeing new, “old” consoles released by big names like Nintendo or Sega, as well as no-name manufacturers—we’ve all seen those 64-in-one consoles at random mall kiosks. It’s the same reason why people spend time on emulators, or hacking their consoles to emulate a game belonging to a three-generations past. It’s one of the reasons why the Raspberry Pi is so popular; people can virtually turn the NES Classic it into something that felt more traditional to them. It looks like the retro gaming trend is going to remain with us for a long time. With that being the case, we need the right display option for this retro-revival.
The Master of Vision
You buy a PlayStation Classic, hook it up to your 4K TV and something isn’t right. You treat yourself with a NES Classic; you’re hyped to return to the Hyrule of old in The Legend of Zelda, but something is missing. You are likely to be disappointed by the result. It 8-bit pixels look dated on such a high-fidelity screen, and even funny in some ways. How did these people use to bear these simplistic graphics?
Well, the answer is simple: because people used to see them on CRT displays. For readers who were born after the mid-2000’s, CRT stands for “Cathode-Ray Tube,” and I know that sounds like the name of a weird Netflix show, but CRT technology defined the industry for a very long time. In 2003, 85% of TV sales were dominated by CRTs. Sony, a great pioneer, and arguably the master of this technology, continued producing CRTs until 2008, which may seem like forever-ago, but it’s really not as long as you’d think—at least not to me. In India, the CRT TV were being produced until as recently as 2014! Now, the tide has completely turned and they have relics—symbols of the common people. Just watch Cobra Kai and see how easily people throw stuff at old CRTs. I personally think it needs a restoration of its honour, at least from the aspect of retro-gaming; let me tell you why.
More than Meets the Eye
The very early days of gaming, beginning in late 70’s; the birth of Commodore in 80’s, and Amiga and PC gaming in 90’s, even into the early 2000’s relied, naturally, on CRT technology. It was available for a very long time, and as such, it was able to really refine itself. Formats like PAL, NTSC were international standards; and the coders, and graphic-designers knew how to handle CRTs and make the very most of it. The pixels were so dense, there were scanlines to fill the gaps, native resolutions which required no hassles like upscaling; and the refresh rate was considerably impressive for the time. All of which contribute to the fact that you can still see people Google searching things like, “CRT vs 4K OLED TV,” or “Why This 20-Year-Old CRT Monitor Is Better Than a 4K LCD?”
New TVs or monitors are excellent only if you feed them with what they require, namely HDMI. But they struggle if the resolution is low or the video signal is purely analogue. If you manage to get a real PS2, NES, or Amiga and hook it up to a capable CRT, you will see how the magic works. When Mario jumps there is no jitter, lag, or any other ghosting. The pixels are treated in the best manner, and they don’t look like they’re continuously being blown up by the processor. Try running Chaos Engine, preferably the Amiga version, and be amazed by the dithering and grading effects applied on the graphics. This is one of the genre-defining games and looks best on the screen that defined the era.
Not enough? I can’t imagine anybody who will not be impressed and inspired by 1989 title Shadow of the Beast—which you may recall was also remade in 2016. While it may seem dated now, the design and sprite-work were the early efforts of artists which paved the way for the digital arts, particularly in video games. All of these happened on CRTs, and once again, I reiterate that if you judge them by how they seem by looking at modern monitors, you are just missing the point. These are pieces of art, reflective of their time; they deserve to be evaluated on the platforms they were developed for, because it makes a great difference. Even Andy Warhol was looking at a Commodore Video Monitor while he was doing experiments and making some drawings on Amiga, so why shouldn’t you?
Eye of the Beholder
By now, I can’t imagine that some of you want don’t want to jump on the CRT train, and I don’t blame you—a train full of CRTs sounds so sexy. But how is one to find a CRT TV these days? There are couple of options. Firstly, and probably most simply, you can dig around any local flea markets or try to find one online. The second option, is to pay a visit to your old relatives and see what they are keeping in their attics. Is there any other way to potentially experience this historic technology? I’m afraid not, because not a single company is producing them anymore.
And I know you might be thinking, “if it’s so good, why not then?” The reality is, because they are bulky, hard to ship, less energy efficient and as technology advanced, many people turned their back on tube displays in exchange the lightweight frames, and enhanced picture quality of LCDs—objectively speaking, of course. You can be very happy playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on your 42” 4K TV; but you’ll never truly experience retro-gaming without playing them on a proper CRT TV. I for one, am very happy to own a Commodore 1084s video monitor and I can’t tell it to enough gamers who have never witnessed this technology. Apart from playing my regular Amiga games on this machine, I’ve also tried hooking up my Xbox 360 and played GTA 4. It was so unbelievably good that it doesn’t need a remaster, as Rockstar also supported 4:3 ratio for this game.
I truly believe that it’s high time companies started producing CRTs again, as the retro market continues to grow. Hopefully, a 4K screen with CRT capability—with a 16:9 screen ratio and a display port—would be an amazing combo! For now, we can only rely on games like Sonic Mania, or the NES and SNES Online services—which offer a CRT Filter in the video settings—to relive our nostalgic screens of old.