Modern HDTVs can present challenges for getting the best picture out of older retro game systems. The HDMI inputs expect higher resolution signals than retro consoles output. Without proper upscaling, retro games often look blurry and pixelated on big screens.
Thankfully, there are solutions for transforming the native low resolution output of retro systems into a sharp, vibrant display on modern televisions. In this guide, we’ll examine the most effective options for faithfully upscaling retro graphics for your HDTV. Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
Standard definition retro game consoles – like the NES, SNES, N64, PlayStation, Saturn, and Dreamcast – output 240p, 480i, or 480p resolution signals. This works great on CRT televisions of past decades. But on a modern 1080p or 4K screen, the image becomes a pixelated mess without upscaling.
Getting retro games looking crisp and clean on an HDTV requires specialized upscaling solutions that intelligently transform the native low res source into higher output resolutions.
Key ways to achieve quality upscaled retro gaming on HDTVs include:
- HDMI upscaler devices
- Retro console HDMI mods
- Emulators and software upscalers
- CRT televisions and monitors
We’ll explore all of these options in detail and recommend the best methods at various price points. With the right upscaling gear, you can enjoy razor sharp pixel art and sprite-based games as they were meant to be seen.
- Retro consoles output low 240p/480i/480p resolutions that look pixelated on HDTVs without upscaling.
- HDMI upscalers that support 240p input are the best plug-and-play solution.
- Console HDMI mods let original systems output digital video over HDMI at higher resolutions.
- Emulation on PCs allows upscaling via shaders and filters.
- CRT TVs display a native 240p signal but are bulky.
- Multiple options can be combined for optimal flexibility and image quality.
- Proper upscaling breathes new life into retro games on modern displays.
Recommended HDMI Upscalers for Retro Gaming
To get those classic 240p retro games displayed crisply on your HDTV, an HDMI upscaler is the most convenient option. These devices take the native low resolution analog outputs from older consoles and transform them into higher resolution digital video. Here are some top choices:
RetroTINK 2X Mini
- Handles 240p, 480i, 576i, and 480p inputs
- Outputs 480p, 720p, and 1080p over HDMI
- Ultra low lag with pixel perfect image
- Affordable price under $100
- Small form factor
The RetroTINK 2X Mini is an excellent upscaler for the money. It supports all common retro resolutions and outputs upscaled digital video over HDMI with zero noticeable input lag. The image quality is superb with custom firmware options available. At a compact 4 inches square, it easily fits anywhere in your setup. For most retro gamers, the 2X Mini delivers everything you need for the price.
RetroTINK 5X Pro
- Handles 240p to 480p inputs
- Outputs 480p to 1440p HDMI
- Advanced processing options
- Low lag performance
- $300 price tag
At the high end, the RetroTINK 5X Pro is the ultimate upscaler for retro systems. It includes an OSSC Pro chip that enables advanced display processing options like 5x horizontal scaling for ultra sharp pixels. Extensive tweaking is possible to dial in the optimal image on a per console basis. The 5X Pro delivers reference level upscaling quality starting at $300.
RAD2X HDMI Cables
- Plug-and-play HDMI cables for specific consoles
- Built-in upscaler for crystal clear image
- Low lag performance
- No power required
- $50 each for major systems
For a super convenient option, the RAD2X cables provide a plug-and-play HDMI solution for original NES, SNES, Genesis, PS1, and more. Each cable contains a bespoke upscaler optimized for one retro system. With no configuration needed, the RAD2X cables make upscaling retro consoles to HDMI a breeze. They cost around $50 each.
Retro Console HDMI Mods
Another great option is installing HDMI mods directly into original retro systems. These mods replace the stock video encoder chips inside the console with new encoders that output pure digital video over HDMI at higher resolutions. Here are some top solutions:
N64Digital HDMI Mod
- HDMI output from original N64 consoles
- Upscales games to 960p/1080p
- Color correction and custom firmware
- Preserves original analog output
- $150 pre-assembled kit
This revolutionary mod taps into the N64’s video stream and outputs upscaled 960p/1080p digital video over HDMI. It produces an amazingly clean image that preserves pixel perfection. Adjustable color correction helps compensate for N64’s dark video output. A must have for diehard N64 fans.
PS1Digital HDMI Mod
- Replaces PS1 GPU with HDMI encoder
- Outputs 1080p/720p digital video
- Preserves native 480i output
- $85-150 pre-built depending on model
Several PS1 HDMI mods exist with PS1Digital being a top choice. They tap into the PlayStation’s GPU to output a sharp 1080p or 720p HDMI signal. Installation requires soldering and disassembly skills but produces an amazing HD image when done right. Breathes new life into PS1 on HDTVs.
GameCube HDMI Mod
- HDMI output for GameCube/Game Boy Player
- Plugs into digital port, no soldering
- Line doubling for 960p output
- Compatible with Swiss homebrew
- $150 plug-in solution
GameCube HDMI mods like the GCVIDEO plug into the digital port on the bottom of the console and tap into the stock video output to feed a line-doubled 960p HDMI signal. The install is easy – no soldering required. It works great with homebrew like Swiss. At $150, it’s a pricey but high quality plug-and-play HDMI solution.
If going the emulator route, certain retro gaming frontends like RetroArch give you software upscaling options to enhance old games on your PC display and HDTV. Popular filters include:
- Sharp bilinear filtering and edge smoothing
- Higher numbers indicate more aggressive scaling
- Light performance impact
- Advanced scaled filters tailored for pixel art
- Smooth edges while preserving hard pixels
- Heavier performance hit for quality
- Pixel-art aware hq2x-style scaling
- Sharpness and edge smoothing filters
- Performance intensive algorithm
CRT Royale/CRT Geom
- Simulates color and geometry of CRT displays
- Adds phosphor glow, scanlines, curvature, etc
- Many customization options
- Heavier performance impact
Experiment with filters like these in RetroArch to find your perfect balance of performance and upscaled 2D pixel art visuals.
Using Original CRT TVs and Monitors
Of course, original CRT televisions and monitors provide an authentic way to display SD retro games natively. Perks include:
- No upscaling or special hardware needed
- Instant zero lag input response
- Natural scanlines and phosphor glow
- Vintage arcade monitor experience
Downsides can include:
- Can’t exceed native 240p/480i resolution
- Required for light gun games on original hardware
- Bulky and heavy to transport
- RF, composite, s-video connections only
If you have the space and means to integrate a CRT display, they remain unrivaled for zero lag retro gaming. But HDMI upscalers and mods make enjoying retro games on LCDs possible as well.
Combining Multiple Display Options
Consider using a combination of the discussed options above for maximum flexibility:
- HDMI upscaler for convenience and plug-and-play use
- Console specific HDMI mods for certain systems
- CRT television for raw native input lag performance
- OSSC + PVM monitor for upscaled arcade thrills
Mixing retro gaming display devices gives you choices. Enjoy evolved HDMI convenience for casual couch play. Then switch to a CRT or PVM for serious score chasing gameplay. Combining upscalers, mods, and CRTs creates the ultimate retro gaming display setup.
Game Recommendations and Compatibility
To see your chosen upscaling solution at its best, seek out 2D games focused on pixel art and sprites:
- Super Nintendo: Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man X, Castlevania IV
- Sega Genesis: Sonic Series, Streets of Rage, Gunstar Heroes, Contra Hard Corps
- NES: Super Mario Bros. 3, Kirby, Final Fantasy, Punch-Out!! Mike Tyson’s
- N64: Super Mario 64, Kirby 64, Yoshi’s Story, Donkey Kong 64
- PlayStation: Castlevania SOTN, Mega Man Legends, Rayman, Metal Gear Solid
- Arcade/Neo Geo: Metal Slug Series, Street Fighter Series, Captain Commando
Later 3D games with textures won’t benefit as much from upscaling. Test your favorite retro titles to maximize quality!
Tweaking Your Upscaled Image
To optimize upscaled image results:
- Adjust source aspect ratio settings for proper geometry
- Enable hints like scanlines for a period correct look
- Use blur/smoothing filters judiciously
- Configure special firmware like N64Digital’s Anti-Alias patches
- Adjust brightness/contrast/saturation for ideal colors
- Compare different HDMI output resolutions
Take time to tweak your HDMI upscaler or software filters to find the right balance of sharpness and performance for your games and display. Dial it in for pixel perfect goodness!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I connect retro consoles to HDTV directly?
You can, but the native 240p/480i signal will look pixelated and blurry when not transformed to higher HDMI resolutions by an upscaler or mod. Direct composite/S-video connections are not recommended.
Which looks better on HDTV – original hardware or emulation?
With proper upscalers or mods, original hardware can look amazing in HD. But high end emulators like RetroArch with CRT shaders applied also look superb. Try both to compare!
Do scanlines and CRT effects make sense on an HDTV?
Yes, in moderation! Light scanline effects and phosphor bloom help recreate a period correct experience. But avoid heavy simulated CRT distortion that fights an HD panel’s clarity.
Will upscalers induce lag for retro gaming?
Quality upscalers like the RetroTINK 2X and 5X Pro introduce negligible lag – under 1ms. Gameplay remains just as responsive. Poor upscalers or TV processing can add lag though.
Can using an HDTV reduce input lag vs CRT?
Yes, some HDTVs actually have less input lag than CRTs when used with a quality upscaler like the RetroTINK. CRTs still can’t be beat for raw responsiveness however.
It’s wonderful being able to enjoy classic retro games on huge, beautiful modern TVs. With the proper upscaling gear, you can transform vintage 240p/480i consoles into pixel perfect HD experiences.
Options like HDMI upscalers, console mods, software filters, and CRT displays all help realize the full potential of retro graphics on HDTVs. Combined together, they provide the perfect hybrid setup for retro gaming in both original and evolved forms.
No longer do old school game systems need to be chained to ancient CRT televisions. With the right upscalers, your NES can sit proudly on an HD shelf. Rediscover and fall in love with classic gaming all over again thanks to modern display technology!