Signal Boost: Preserving Classic Video Games with RetroRGB

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Have you ever thought about how we experience media?
 
A book is a book is a book, surely. Reading is reading, no matter what device or medium you do it on. And yet, you'll still hear people say the experience of reading on a computer, phone or e-reader isn't the same as holding a physical book forged from dead tress in their hands. Many people still prefer the sound of vinyl records to digital music. Watching a play live is a manifestly different experience than watching a recording of the performance or reading a script (just ask Jack about Shakespeare sometime). And once you move into more thoroughly modern forms of creative expression, movies, television and video games, medium becomes even more important to consider.
 
Ever since the dawn of television, movie studios have played with unconventional and experimental aspect rations (or 3D film) to provide an experience than can only be had in theatres. For one TV example that should be familiar to many of you, I have previously, somewhat infamously, raised cane about what I consider the “proper” way to experience and judge Star Trek: The Next Generation. To briefly summarise that old chestnut, Star Trek: The Next Generation was *recorded* on film, but *composited* on VHS, meaning the show was edited and all the special effects shots were added in on magnetic tape after the fact, so the final episode lost a startling amount of visual detail, clarity and information between filming and being sent out to TV stations. This was fine in 1987 when consumer CRTs at the time couldn't process that information anyway and the show could play to the strengths of that technology, but this provides a problem for anyone trying to enjoy the show any way other than broadcast TV in 1987.
 
Star Trek: The Next Generation did not handle the transition to digital video easily or cleanly, and from the first DVD releases in the early 2000s there has been scepticism about the show's art direction, lighting, cinematography and general aesthetics. But this was because the DVD “transfer” was an Nth generation lossy VHS composite copied over to DVD and run through some editing software to artificially “clean it up” post facto. That transfer was then used in online streaming and cable reruns, and was all we had until 2012 when the Blu-ray “remaster” (a hopelessly inaccurate term I wish PR people would stop using) went back to the original film negatives and recomposited the entire show in high definition, offering digital natives and immigrants a glimpse at what the show was really meant to look like for the first time. Happily, this new transfer can be seen not only on the Blu-rays, but on all digital streaming services today.
 
With video games, this sort of problem becomes even more pronounced. If you think about a game console, it's essentially a custom, specialized hardware configuration specifically tailored for playing video games. Games were created with these specific hardware configurations in mind, and were designed especially to take advantage of their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. But video game consoles are also in a sense time-locked, created for a variety of factors like chipset developments, display monitors and even things like consumer purchasing and playing habits that, while they may have been current at the time of release, can just as easily go out of vogue. And there's a real danger that when this happens, certain games and certain experiences will be lost to time if care isn't taken to preserve them somehow. Probably the example most common to us is the shift from the norm in consumer televisions being analog cathode ray tube (CRT) technology to it being fixed-pixel, flat-panel digital displays. And while that messed up Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least CBS could easily (though labour-intensively) go back to a definitive film print and translate the show to digital video. With historical video games, this becomes far more of an issue.
 
Perhaps you have a favourite video game console from decades passed. Maybe a Nintendo Entertainment System? An Atari 2600? A SEGA Mega Drive? An original PlayStation? And perhaps you've experienced the strange disappointment that happens when you hook one of those older machines up to a modern HD TV and the resulting image looked...bad. Perhaps you wondered why it couldn't look as nice as it does in emulation...Or even perhaps as you remember it looking. I know I did: Now I'm no collector, but I do have a fairly robust library of video games and consoles accumulated simply through decades of playing and enjoying video games. But after each console had its day and fades into history as the generational hardware cycle turns once again, I slowly lost the ability to recapture some of my past experiences. It's not the the games stopped being fun or became outdated, it's that I lost the ability to play the games altogether as my TV got upgraded. I wondered why hooking up my NES to an HD TV looked so ugly, and why I seemed to have gotten way worse at these games in the ensuing years.
 
It turns out it wasn't just me, and it's not just you either. And that all changed four or five years ago, thanks to a website called RetroRGB.
 
RetroRGB is a Herculean effort maintained and curated by one person that seeks to be your one-stop destination for any and all information on video game consoles and how to get the best experience out of them in today's day and age. The “RGB” in the name refers to the Red/Green/Blue video standard, which is the highest quality analog video signal available. If you've never seen it before, you might be surprised at how vibrant, detailed and beautiful RGB video can look on a CRT display designed to take it: It's why arcade games in the 80s and 90s looked so amazing, for example. Retro home game consoles use analog video and they're all capable of outputting this signal too: Almost all of the big ones are capable of natively outputting RGB and the rest can output it after being modified. The trick is you need specific cables and displays to take advantage of an RGB signal, and those aren't always so easily available.
 
Perusing RetroRGB though you'll find all of the information you'd ever need (including a bunch you never knew you needed) on how to get the best quality experience out of your video game hardware that best fits whatever setup you have. My favourite solution, and one I'd love to install and show off on my YouTube channel someday, is RGB video coming from all my consoles going into a high-end professional video monitor, devices which for the longest time remained built around CRT technology, were designed to take an RGB signal and can be found relatively easily if you know where to look and what you're looking for. Most consumer TVs in North America were never designed for RGB (though many in Europe and Japan were), but progress is being made on modifying them to accept it, and many later models were advertised as supporting “component video”, which generally refers to the YpBpR standard, which is functionally equivalent in quality to RGB (indeed RGB itself is a type of component video, and consoles like the Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Wii can natively output YpBpR).
 
Alternatively, if you're dead set on using your existing HD TV setup, you can use an external frame scaler to translate your consoles' analog signals into a digital output your TV can understand. This is the big problem with playing analog video games on digital displays, it turns out: You have to convert the video signal somehow, and when you do that problems arise. Your TV can do this natively, but it's not very good at it, gets confused with the oddball resolution most older video game consoles run at (240p) and it takes a long time to process, resulting in input lag. This means there's a delay between pressing a button and the corresponding action appearing on screen, and that's the real reason I seemed to be so “bad” at my NES games when I hooked them up to an HD TV. An external frame scaler alleviates most of these issues, however: Input lag can't be removed completely, as you're still converting a video signal and that takes a nonzero amount of time, but specialized devices can reduce it to the point it's not so noticeable anymore. That's personally one of the reasons why I would ideally like to play on a CRT (apart from that being the display these games were designed around), but there are plenty of options available to suit whatever your needs may be!
 
So, why should we care about playing games on original hardware when emulation is so good, cheap and accessible? Well for one thing no matter how good it is, emulation will always introduce inaccurate quirks simply by virtue of being what it is. If you care about the way old games interacted with the hardware they were originally designed for, that might bother you. Some people, for example, make the argument (an argument I'm somewhat sympathetic towards) that developers would take advantage of the low pixel response time of the original Game Boy screen (known as “ghosting”), something modern displays can't recreate, ironically because they're *too good* (and recall once more what Gunpei Yokoi said about “withered technology”). There's the aforementioned fact consoles that output analog video look terrible on digital displays without special considerations, and even then will look very different than they would on the CRT displays most people at the time would have played them on. If that's part of an “authentic experience” for you, preservation of original hardware is important. And some people just flat-out prefer the experience of playing on on video game console with a controller and a ROM cartridge.
 
Or maybe you're like me, and just happen to have a lot of video games and consoles lying around that mean a lot to you, but are currently collecting dust because you have no good way of accessing them!
 
But maybe none of that matters to you. Maybe you don't have a big game library, and maybe you consider this type of worry a concern of the elite and born from retrofetishism of a particular medium's aesthetic, and that digital distribution and emulation is plainly the way of the future. You probably think I'm at best eccentric and at worst irresponsible for caring about this, and you wouldn't be alone. A great many people these days feel an all-digital system for manufacture and distribution of not just video games, but all pop culture media, is the only sustainable way forward. But consider this angle, one that is perhaps more likely to gain traction on the kind of site Eruditorum Press is: When you buy something digitally, like from iTunes, Amazon Video or any digital distributor of video games that isn't GOG.com, you don't own your purchases.
 
Thanks to our benevolent corporate overlords, legally, we cannot own digital goods. Strictly speaking, what you're doing when you buy something from Amazon Video/Music/iTunes/comiXology/XBOX Live/The PlayStation Store/Steam/the Nintendo eShop is you are renting a lease to have a digital copy of that product on your machine for an unspecified indefinite period of time. This is why they can afford to sell those things for so cheap (and yes, this also means when you go to Amazon Video or iTunes and see a full season of a TV show on sale for the same price as the home video release, or a digital game for the same price as a physical release, you are being gouged, even taking into consideration the statistically irrelevant cost of optical media and packaging due to the capitalist crisis of overproduction). Media companies can also prevent you from taking something apart, reverse engineering it or making transformative works off it this way because, again, you don't own it. And while they probably wouldn't do it, legally, those companies have every right to revoke that lease any time they damn well feel like it. There have, in fact, been instances of Amazon and Apple getting in trouble for doing just that, but they were fully within their rights (and obligations) to do so.
 
This to me is the bigger issue then simply having a bunch of old games, or even a passion for the hardware itself (which I freely admit I have both of). It's the one argument for physical media and preservation I never see brought out, but to me, it's of paramount importance: The idea of not owning something I paid real, actual money for repulses me, and is why I only buy movies and TV on home video and why, while I'll use Steam, I'll rebuy a game I've already bought and like if it comes to GOG or I can get a physical copy for a console I have (preferably on a ROM cartridge or flash card because disc rot, but that's a whole other rant). It's not a matter of my personal feelings of nostalgia for the medium of distribution one way or the other, or even my previously stated preference for console design standards over PC design ones, it's me getting righteously indignant at the way usage rights have been eroded in the past decade and trying to exercise the one simulacrum of choice this corporate-owned hellhole of a dystopia we call modern society affords me.
 
So, if I'm going to archive my video games on console media, I need to keep my consoles alive and running. And that's where RetroRGB comes in.
 
Though the site as it exists today is a comprehensive repository for the basics on video game consoles and the video signals and displays that are best suited to helping them realise their full potential, new discoveries and new developments are happening every day, and it's a big enough task for one person just to keep a site up and running, let alone updated 24/7. That's why Bob, the man behind RetroRGB, has just recently started an Indiegogo campaign to fund a new website venture, a community-run wiki dedicated to preserving any and all information related to video game consoles and video technology, that will hopefully be the one-stop shop for anyone, like me, who might be interested in dipping a toe into this ocean but who might not know where to start. It would also be a place for all the talented hobbyists and engineers doing those mods and experiments to share and compile information on their latest projects and products. As it is now, most of this information is lost on forum threads where nobody except the people directly involved will see it, and that makes it hard for the developers to reach an audience, for the people who want to learn to be educated, and for people working on similar projects to get in touch. Bob wants all this information easily available in one place for everyone from all walks of life to enjoy and benefit from.
 
This new website would be community owned and operated, and Bob has pledged to donate the entirety of the existing RetroRGB to the new venture. If the campaign makes enough money, he'd actually be interested in taking it as far as starting a non-profit company and museum solely dedicated to video game hardware and preservation that could also work with other such institutions to share information, such as the National Video Game Museum and the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong Museum of Play. If any of that sounds like a worthy cause to you, Bob's Indiegogo campaign is running for two months and you can check out his page here. If you have any questions, he's said he'd love to answer them and he's already posted the first of what he promises will be a series of Q&A transparency videos here.
 
As for myself, there's not really anything I can offer financially, but I thought the least I could do was use this space and my platform to bring some attention to a cause that's important to me as well, both in my own line of work and my personal life. I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the site if you haven't, and to help spread the word and contribute if you can!

Comments

Lambda 2 months, 1 week ago

Being repulsed at not owning something you've payed money for, without qualifications, does mean being repulsed by the concept of rent. Which is kind of reasonable in many cases because that's capitalism at it's most pure "rich people constantly taking from workers", but it's a generally accepted concept. The specific problem here is that it isn't being called rental. So for me, claiming to be selling something which you don't actually transfer full ownership and control of is just simply fraud.

I don't think, according to the law as written, it is actually legal for DRM companies to interfere with things which were advertised as sold, at least I very much doubt it's legal in every jurisdiction where it happens. I think this is an illusion created by the combination of the police and criminal justice systems being unwilling to investigate large scale crime by corporations, and the writing of things like terms and conditions and EULAs in places which give everything a figleaf of respectability, giving the police etc. an excuse not to enforce the law.

I am certainly very confident that crimes get committed around this area and left unpunished. Take the case where Sony distributed music CDs which secretly installed software on Windows computers they were inserted into through autoplay, which made those computers less functional as an anti-"piracy" measure, sometimes breaking their CD drives entirely. In the UK, that's quite clearly in violation of both the Criminal Damage Act and the Computer Misuse Act. But when huge conspiracies commit crimes against millions of people whilst acting as a corporation, "class action" is the remedy, for some reason, instead of arresting all the conspirators and charging them with the crimes they've committed.

If you sell something with a shrinkwrap EULA, you are knowingly selling something which doesn't work (if the EULA has any force at all), since you have to enter a separate agreement to get a working thing. This isn't going to be legal everywhere. Don't just accept the word of society on matters like this.

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Przemek 2 months, 1 week ago

That was very interesting. Thank you.

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John Hoare 2 months ago

ST:TNG wasn't edited on VHS, nor was the DVD master sourced from a "lossy VHS composite".

ST:TNG *was* edited on tape, but you're confusing domestic consumer formats and professional broadcast standards.

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