When playing classic consoles like the Super Nintendo or PlayStation 2, using an old CRT (cathode ray tube) TV rather than a modern flatscreen provides a more authentic experience. But why exactly are CRTs better suited to retro gaming? This guide explains the advantages CRT televisions offer for vintage gaming and why they help recreate nostalgic gaming memories.
Table of Contents
Today’s HDTVs continue improving year after year with new innovations like 4K resolution, HDR, and variable refresh rates. But these modern conveniences come at a cost for accurately displaying old game systems designed around CRT limitations.
Key differences make CRT TVs uniquely well-suited for retro gaming:
- Native low resolutions match game console outputs.
- Display geometry avoids aspect ratio distortion of pixel art.
- Visible scanlines maintain authentic visual styling.
- Smooth motion clarity for fast-paced 2D gaming.
- Instantaneous pixel response time.
- Natural image noise adds vintage character.
Later sections will explore these CRT strengths in detail. But first, let’s briefly recap how CRT and LCD screens differ at a technical level.
- CRTs natively match the 240p/480i outputs of retro game systems.
- Scanlines and phosphor effects recreate an authentic retro look.
- Superior motion clarity and lack of input lag make CRTs ideal for quick 2D games.
- The curved glass screen avoids aspect ratio distortion issues of flat LCDs.
- CRTs lack automatic digital image processing that creates input lag.
- The visible noise and imperfections create natural vintage character.
CRTs vs. LCDs – A Technical Comparison
CRTs dominated television technology for most of the 20th century until LCDs superseded them in the 2000s:
How CRTs work
- An electron gun shoots electrons onto phosphor-coated glass.
- As electrons strike phosphors, they light up to form images.
- Magnetic deflection steers the beam to “paint” the screen.
How LCDs work
- Liquid crystal pixels twist to vary passing backlight.
- Grid of stationary RGB subpixels create images.
- Digital driver circuits alter the crystal states.
Beyond these very different underlying display technologies, CRTs require specialized video signals unlike modern digital flat panels:
CRT video signals
- 480i/240p 15KHz low resolution
- Constant sync refreshed scanlines
- Varying refresh rates ~60Hz
LCD video signals
- High resolution progressive scan
- Consistent 60 Hz refresh rate
- Digital pixel data over HDMI
This brief comparison shows why retro consoles and CRTs make an ideal visual match while LCDs require significant processing.
Native 240p/480i Support
When early home consoles first launched in the 80s and 90s, CRT televisions were ubiquitous. Game hardware engineers could make assumptions for how consoles would connect and send video signals.
As a result, essentially all retro systems output:
- 240p – A low 320×240 progressive resolution for 2D games.
- 480i – A higher 640×480 interlaced resolution for 3D games.
This differed from the 480p/720p/1080p progressive scans LCD HDTVs use. Consequently, modern displays have to deinterlace 480i and upscale 240p signals to fill their millions of pixels.
But CRTs natively match these low resolutions that retro consoles are designed for. Without any processing, they cleanly display the native pixels in the intended format.<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/MGvBNCmd/240p-480i.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”CRT displaying 240p versus LCD”>
For purists aiming to reproduce an authentic retro gaming experience, the raw unprocessed CRT image best matches the creator’s intent.
Superior Motion Clarity
Gaming on a CRT provides buttery smooth movement, especially for fast-paced 2D titles. This comes down to differences in how CRTs redraw images compared to sample-and-hold LCDs:
- Electron beam scans top to bottom 60 times per second.
- Entire image redrawn every refresh.
- Persistence between scans creates illusion of motion.
- LCD displays sample fixed image at 60 Hz intervals.
- Pixels hold state between refreshes.
- LED backlight remains steady.
This difference has big implications for motion perception:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/DZShSDXT/motion-clarity.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”CRT motion clarity versus LCD”>
- CRTs – Constant full-screen flicker matches natural eye movement. Our eyes track objects smoothly across the scanning phosphors.
- LCDs – Holding each frame static creates strobing and ghosting artifacts in motion. Panning backgrounds often appear jagged.
For fast sidescrollers, shooters, and fighting games, CRT’s fluid motion keeps the gameplay feeling ultra-responsive. LCDs struggle to convey Motion smoothly, suffering from sample-and-hold blurring.
Avoiding Aspect Ratio Distortion
Pixel art games rely on the proportions of each sprite carefully designed by artists. When upscaling these to fit widescreen LCD displays, image distortion inevitably creeps in:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/dQ3GVC2J/aspect-ratio.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”Aspect ratio differences between CRT and LCD”>
- Mario’s face and more vertical objects get squashed horizontally.
- Circles warp into ovals rather than staying round.
- Right angles appear warped into trapezoids.
This distortion stems from differences in CRT versus LCD geometry:
CRTs – Nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio. Curved screen surface. Matches retro console outputs.
LCDs – Wide 16:9 aspect for HD media. Flat rectangular digital pixel grid.
To avoid image deformation on LCDs, careful integer scaling and cropping helps retain pixel fidelity. But CRTs effortlessly maintain geometry with no tweaking needed.
Another quintessential component of pixel art games are visible scanlines between rows of pixels. This highlights the low resolution while adding aesthetic character.
On LCDs, heavy pixel shaders are required to try approximating scanlines in the upscale process. But CRTs naturally produce visible scanlines as the electron gun sweeps down painting the image:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/K8PqXcdv/scanlines.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”CRT scanlines”>
Rather than a distraction, artists intentionally crafted sprites to leverage scanlines as part of the visual composition. For example, giving Mario eyes half inside each scan helps them stay visible when he jumps.
Without proper scanlines, sprite eyes can uncannily float between pixel rows as backgrounds shift on LCDs. The CRT neatly aligns pixels to scanlines by design.
Natural Display Noise
Even the best CRTs exhibit minor noise and distortion that gives retro games charm:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/vHxX27mn/image-noise.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”CRT image noise”>
- Visible dot crawl along sharp edges demonstrating the interlaced video signal.
- Subtle color bleeding where red seeps into blue areas.
- Geometric warping along the curved edges.
- Screen glows and blooms around bright objects.
This natural imperfection adds character and masks the simple graphics and limited color palettes. It feels reminiscent of gazing upon faded arcade cabinets in a pizza parlor years ago.
Meanwhile LCDs look clinically sharp and sterile in their picture perfection. While HD clarity helps newer titles, retro games benefit from CRT’s soft natural blend.
Instant Pixel Response
LCD screens suffer from ghosting artifacts due to slow pixel color transitions. This causes smearing and trails behind fast moving objects:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/hjmdPVwm/pixel-response.jpg” width=”500″ alt=”Slow LCD pixel response”>
Cathode rays excite phosphors instantly with no lag. Coupled with the low 480i resolution, CRTs offer perfectly crisp response for pixel art and 2D animation. Any ghosting derives from intentional motion blurring techniques, not display lag.
For 60 fps titles like shooters and fighters, LCD blurring and ghosting hurt reactability compared to CRT’s instantaneous fidelity. This keeps sprite-based games feeling ultra-responsive.
Avoiding Post-Processing Effects
Modern HDTVs carry extensive image processing to counter their technical limitations:
- Input lag – Image processing creates delay between controls and screen. Unnoticeable in films and TV but deadly for twitch gameplay.
- Upscaling artifacts – Errors and halos introduced by blowing up low-res sources to 4K screens.
- Motion smoothing – Interpolating and blending frames to approximate missing motion.
- Compression artifacts – Blocky bands and noise from video codecs.
By contrast, CRTs operate in the analog domain with no digital intervention getting in the way. The electron beam draws only what the console outputs without altering the image. This results in clean responsive gameplay.
Game mode settings on LCDs disable some processing but can’t perfectly replicate original hardware.
CRTs Complement Game Design
Beyond technical aspects, CRTs align with artistic intent in how games were designed:
- Sprites leverage visible scanlines for placement.
- Noise masks blocky graphics not meant to be seen enlarged.
- Minimal input lag ensures precise interactive feedback.
- Low resolution invites imaginative filling in of details.
- Phosphor bloom creates atmospheric glows around objects.
Modern conveniences like anti-aliasing and high resolutions clash with this retro aesthetic. CRTs embrace the limitations and imperfections that defined gaming’s early eras.
Acquiring a CRT
Finding an old CRT isn’t too challenging:
- Check Craigslist and Marketplace listings for free CRT TVs.
- Visit thrift stores for CRTs priced around $20-$50.
- Ask friends and family if they have old CRTs in storage from the 90s/2000s.
- Buy a new-old-stock CRT from specialty gaming retailers for $200+.
- Consider a PVM/BVM professional monitor for $300+ if aiming for RGB input.
When selecting a display, prioritize these characteristics:
- 20″+ screen size.
- Component video inputs.
- Stereo audio.
- Later model from late 90s – early 2000s for optimal image quality.
- Sony Trinitron tubes offer superb image quality.
With some searching, picking up a quality CRT gamer TV for free or cheap is very doable. Just be sure to bring a friend to carry it! 🏋️
CRT Gaming Setup
To connect retro consoles, you’ll want:
- Converters – Convert HDMI to component video for newer retro consoles.
- Switch – Route multiple inputs to the CRT.
- Cables – Component cables optimize video quality.
- Upscaler (optional) – Line double 240p to 480p for extra sharpness.
Proper cable choice avoids degradation composite causes. Using separate luma and chroma signals keeps pixels crisp. Connect audio separately for stereo sound.
Set your retro consoles to output their native 240p/480i resolutions for authentic mode. Toggle scanlines and shaders off. Then bathe in the glow of your CRT displaying retro games as originally intended!
Certain games truly shine on a nice CRT:
- Super Mario World – Yoshi’s Island’s pastel colors and subtle gradients pop on phosphor tubes.
- Street Fighter II – CRT’s instant pixel response keeps 2D fighting lightning fast.
- Donkey Kong Country – Scanlines enhance the rendered CGI sprites beautifully.
- Tony Hawk Pro Skater – Fluid low-res motion shines on CRTs.
- Pooyan – Older titles like this Konami shooter gain a vibrant charm on CRTs.
- Diablo II – Isometric RPGs benefit from the natural display bloom adding atmosphere.
Browse your retro library for titles with memorable CRT moments. You may uncover newfound appreciation through the eyes of nostalgia.
Emulation as an Alternative
If acquiring a CRT proves challenging, emulation provides a decent compromise:
- RetroArch shaders like crt-easymode simulate phosphor glows and scanlines.
- Match content aspect ratio to avoid stretching games.
- Increase rendering resolution to 1080p or 4K for extra sharpness to offset filtering.
- Enable image noise, curvature, and other display effects.
- Use runahead and rewind to help compensate for LCD input lag.
Of course, emulation still runs on fundamentally different display tech versus a real CRT’s electron beam. But the customization and post-processing options help approximate a vintage display. Combined with original controllers, it can hit much of the nostalgic feel.
Do professional PVMs and BVMs provide even better CRT images?
PVMs and BVMs offer unmatched image clarity and color representation for retro gaming via RGB inputs. However, their razor sharpness doesn’t always recreate the natural softness of consumer CRTs. For authenticity, pro monitors are overkill for most retro games.
Is the flickering and low resolution giving me a headache normal?
Some people accustomed to modern HDTVs can experience eyestrain watching CRTs. This typically adapts over time as your eyes get used to focusing on the stable but lower-resolution display. But take breaks as needed during long retro gaming marathons.
Why do SNES games look so much cleaner on CRT compared to NES?
The SNES outputs a clearer 240p signal using separate chroma and luma compared to the NES’s fuzzier composite output. This keeps 2D pixels crisp on CRTs despite both being 240p. So SNES retro gaming benefits greatly on CRTs.
How can I connect retro consoles via HDMI to my CRT?
Converters like the Portta allow converting HDMI to component RCA. This lets you hook up modern consoles like PlayStation Classic without dealing with laggy composite video inputs. Make sure to set retro consoles to output proper 480i/240p signals.
Is a PVM monitor worth the cost for 240p gaming?
For purists aiming for ultimate RGB clarity, a professional Sony PVM absolutely delivers. But require effort to find and heavy space commitment. On a basic consumer CRT from Craigslist, 240p content already achieves excellent results for most gamers.
Modern conveniences like 4K resolution and vibrant LCD colors make new games shine as never before. But CRTs remain uniquely well-suited for pixel-based retro gaming where image perfection was never the aim.
Their matched low resolutions, phosphor glows, thick scanlines, instant pixel response, and natural noise give vintage games an authentic look and tactile feel. This helps recapture gaming experiences as they existed decades ago before HD and internet multiplayer.
Recreating gaming’s past requires playing on displays created for that era. While hunting down an old CRT TV takes effort, doing so allows revisiting retro classics as they were designed to be seen. Their natural imperfections somehow make gaming history feel more…perfect.
So take a trip back in time – you may uncover a new appreciation for classic games through the lens of nostalgia and CRT scanlines!