Does anyone miss standard definition?

Maybe I’ve gone mental. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to support that possibility. After all, the first two things I moved into my new flat last weekend were a toy squirrel and a doorstop that also looks like a squirrel. So keep this in mind when you read the following musings. These are the words of a squirrel-ferrier. Nonetheless, I have a point to make: I'm starting to miss standard definition.

There are loads of reasons for my pangs of remorse over the switch to HD. Firstly, there’s the technical point of view. It’s a fact that image resolution is one of the biggest factors affecting frame rates in video games. Any PC gamer will tell you that reducing the resolution immediately has a massive effect on gameplay fluidity. Console-wise, Xbox One is struggling to match PS4 in terms of full HD gaming on multiplatform releases, so some sectors of the community are getting very sad (or ecstatically happy) about that. Games would look amazing if we all still used standard definition. I've had developers tell me themselves, there's so much more they could do if they were still working at 640x480. I reckon a decent CRT running at 120hz would probably be able to replicate movie-like visuals by now.

Instead, we’re constantly asking for greater resolution and it’s crippling our games, scuppering the real potential of 2014’s amazing graphical technology. Sure, Battlefield and Tomb Raider may have different frame-rates now between the two new machines, but just wait until future games are scaled back to run the same on both machines. And wait some more until 4K becomes a consideration for all developers. Mark my words, it's not always going to be pretty. 4K gaming is not necessary, but I'm sure we'll be dipping our toes into it before the new generation is out.

The aesthetic appeal of standard definition has been forgotten, mostly because modern TVs display it so poorly. I'm sure you've probably hooked up a PS2 to a modern TV and baulked at the quality of the picture. No, it didn't always used to look that bad and no, you weren't just used to it. Modern TVs are stretching the pixels to fit a different resolution screen. And it honestly wouldn't surprise me if PS3's backwards compatibility was deliberately rendered in a basic fashion as possible just to make modern games look better.

Again, I appreciate this isn’t the most popular opinion to have, but I like pixels. I played through Streets of Rage 2 again this week and the graphics are gorgeous. Played through my HDTV, every pixel is beautiful. The artistry that goes into making standard-def sprites is not the same as that used for making HD spritework. When you have to convey expression and movement with only a few dozen lines of vertical res, you have to work miracles. And that’s exactly what SoRII does.

But I’m not only talking about 2D art. Standard Def also makes 3D games look… different. Firstly, it can be used to mask low-poly counts. Perhaps not something that’s needed so much these days, but any processing power saved through such primitive masking can be used for other things.

Then there’s the simple joy of seeing individual pixels. The twinkle of a pixel from a 3D model on a 32-bit console can be beautiful--especially when the 3D is often running at an even lower resolution than the SD TV it’s playing on.

I’m talking about games like NiGHTS, of course (big surprise there), where the edge of the character’s arm momentarily strays into the next line of visual display, lighting it up instantly because there’s no graphical frippery going on like anti-aliasing. Jaggies in HD are ugly. Standard def aliasing can be beautiful. Not always, but it has its moments. NiGHTS runs at half standard-def (320x240) which is pretty tiny. Sure, the shaky polygons of 1996 look awful when used for the scenery, but I love the way the character looks in the center of the screen. The modern XBLA re-release simply isn't as magical and it's all about those glistening areas of fine detail.

Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that HDTVs don’t work with some of my old gaming devices. My modern Samsung won’t even display my ZX Spectrum, even though older Sammys will. Also my Saturn and Dreamcast light guns just sit sadly in their boxes now because the technology that made them work isn’t the same as that in modern TVs. The flash from the screen is now too smooth, so it can’t recognise its position. Result? No more House of the Dead or Virtua Cop for me. That's really sad. The Wii Remote and Wii Blaster are good, but the original HotD and Virtua Cops aren't available on the system.

Worse still, modern consoles have pretty much abandoned Standard Def. Wii U comes with an HDMI cable only, Xbox One is HDMI only and PlayStation 4 is (you guessed it) HDMI only. All the new pixels have done is just make it harder to imagine anything beyond what you’re actually being shown. When there’s no need to imagine because everything is presented in perfect clarity, I firmly believe something is lost.

The lower resolution makes me want to connect with what the developer is trying to show me all the more. I want to be able to see through the mesh of squares and understand what I'm being shown. The feeling is fascinating: That someone on the other side of this technology is showing me something and that I can decipher the signals and reconstruct it in my mind to the same image. It pushes buttons in my head that modern games do not. Standard def forced developers to work harder to convey what they wanted us to see, and we could imagine that image as perfect, instead of seeing every single blemish.

Let me be clear here. I am definitely not saying I want modern games to look like they did in the late 1990s when console gaming was starting to run at true SD resolutions for the first time. The restricted colour palettes, texture quality, lack of Z buffering and what-have-you are not good things by anyone's standards. Sure, limited colours can make for superb stylised visuals, but we've moved past that. Visuals can now be stylised through artistic choice, not necessity.

Modern graphics can use every trick in the book and still run at crazy frame rates in standard def now. I believe the industry has forced itself into the HD era prematurely and we could be enjoying sensational gaming in standard def had we stuck on that slightly pixellated path. I'm certainly not still playing games on a standard def TV. My personal 1080p, 3D-capable setup is pretty damn sweet. But games are games no matter how they're displayed and every now and then I do yearn for an SD set again.

I'm not saying less is more. But I do sometimes feel like more is less.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The longest-serving GR+ staffer, I was here when all this was just fields. I'm currently Reviews Editor but still find time to speedrun Sonic levels and make daft Photoshop articles.
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