For retro gamers, the CRT is the display of choice. Those giant, boxy television sets that nearly everyone threw out or gave away in favour of modern flat panels are actually loved for their ability to properly display games from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even part of the aughts. Let’s explore why.
The main reason retro games don’t look great on modern TVs comes down to pixels; for the uninitiated, modern screens are made up of pixels — individual “dots” that, when combined together, form the images you see on your TV.
1080p refers to displays that are 1,920 pixels across, and 1,080 pixels down. 4K, on the other hand, refers to 3,840 across by 2,160 down. While there are way more pixels in a 4K screen than a 1080p one (8,294,400 vs 2,073,600), these displays both have way more pixels than retro games were designed to fill.
Let’s take a look at the good ol’ NES. If you fire up a game of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, or Metroid, aside from delightful 8-bit artwork and classic gameplay, what you’re seeing is 256 horizontal pixels by 240 vertical pixels, or a 480i signal. That resolution looks great on older TVs; these CRTs don’t actually have pixels, but “lines.” The TV takes the signal from the game console and displays it one line at a time.
But when you take a 256 x 240 signal and connect it to a 1080p or 4K TV, things get a bit…blurry. Because the console is outputting fewer pixels than the display it’s connected to, your TV needs to upscale that image in order to properly display it. That involves taking the pixels from the retro game console’s signal and blowing them up to fit in the much more expanded pixel grid of your TV. This upscaling results in a blurry, less defined look than intended, and can be a bit off-putting, especially if you’re playing games your mum or dad remembers looking great years ago.