How to make retro games look incredible on your HDTV

I had me some hot Booty action this weekend. I am talking, of course, about the pirate-dodging, treasure-collecting game on ZX Spectrum. But that's not unusual. I love my retro games, and I already showed you my ZX Spectrum +2. What is unusual is that I was playing it on my modern, full HD, Samsung TV. In 1080p. It isn't witchcraft, honestly. It's actually the perfect solution to playing retro consoles. And it looks like this:

What you're looking at there is an 'upscaler'. It can accept a signal from either HDMI or SCART, then outputs through HDMI to your HD TV at one of several selectable resolutions, from 480p through 720p all the way to 1080p. Heck, it even does 768p, which is native resolution for HD Ready TV sets. Amazing, huh? The purchase was made so that we could record video from retro machines but, having played about with it for a week, I am in awe of the quality it provides just for playing old games on a modern TV.

You may not think it necessary, but it really is. For starters, this particular TV set wouldn't even display my ZX Spectrum, even with an RF booster attached to the Spectrum's output. It just won't accept the signal. I had to go back to an older, smaller Samsung TV, which did. But compare the blurry mess of the RF connection to the 1080p upscaled SCART image (both taken off-screen with the same camera):

Naturally, the SCART cable certainly makes a big difference in its own right. I remember when SCART was as big a deal for gaming as HDMI cables were in 2007. And I am frankly amazed that a ZX Spectrum can connect to a TV via SCART. It may not be a true RGB signal, but the quality (and stability) of the picture is superb, not to mention the sound.

But that's a crazy-old home computer (from 1987 in the case of my +2A). What about consoles? Well, the same is true of those machines. The Mega Drive/Genesis looks so vibrant through the upscaler, Ayrton Senna's Super Monaco GP II has the feel of a new release. It's so clean. Sure, it's graphically archaic, but something about the LCD's refresh rate and solid, assured nature of the colours makes it feel like the signal's being emulated on an HD machine, such as Wii U's Virtual Console. But it's a real Mega Drive finally being displayed properly on an HD TV.

You can see every pixel. Which, admittedly, can get a bit much for the eyes when you're playing a game that relies on pixel meshes to provide shading, like Virtua Racing. But, crucially, with this fast upscaling taking a load off the TV's processors, you can even turn off 'Game Mode' and let the filters do their magic.

What's Game Mode? Well, have you ever found that games running at 720p have input lag when you play them on your full HD TV? You press a button and there's a visible delay before your gun fires or your character jumps. That's because your TV is applying post-processing to the image. De-interlacing algorithms, noise filters, MotionPlus/TrueMotion intelligent frame creation and, of course, that essential upscaling to fill all 1080 lines of vertical resolution: they all take time to complete. Game Mode switches the majority of that lot off. But it's the upscaling takes the most time to process in most TVs.

This can make games like Uncharted 3 surprisingly laggy. This upscaler box doesn't solve the problem through an HDMI input completely (Game Mode is still your friend), but it's fast enough that you can play a SCART input with Game Mode off and it's still responsive enough to be playable.

Slight disclaimer incoming: We're not talking about 100% perfect images. My Spectrum does seem to have a slight ghosting issue (always has), which the upscaler does exaggerate, but keep in mind we are talking about essentially 30-years-old technology. The Mega Drive image is crystal clear but has some artifacts near the bottom of the screen, as it always has on a big enough display. But I can't emphasise enough what a revelation it is seeing any of these classic games upscaled to 1080p so cleanly. Literally a revelation when you can see details that were previously lost.

Obviously, you have to be serious about your retro games to go to the trouble of buying SCART cables and an upscaler box just to play them properly on a modern TV. We're talking about the serious retro fan, here--one who doesn't like emulators because they're too synthetic. But at least the HDMI connection means you can capture video footage from them too if you have a capture card in your PC. Yes, we're getting into serious enthusiast territory now, but that's why we're all here, right?

Note: Modern TVs reflect the room to show us how geek... I mean how cool we are.

I'm a firm believer in playing retro games on real machines, not an emulator, just like some music collectors swear vinyl is better than CDs. But even if you just often find yourself moaning about how crappy your old games look on your new HD TV, I highly recommend you try out one of these babies. As a cheap way to improve your picture, SCART is good. But upscaled SCART through HDMI is better.


  • gotomorrow - April 3, 2014 4:01 a.m.

    I went ahead and picked up the upscaler featured in the article and so far so good, though I have noticed a smoothing effect on motion. Everything looks a little smoothed when moving but nice and 'pixelly' when paused. Any ideas why this happening?
  • lalilulelost - September 3, 2014 9:03 a.m.

    Turn off your True Motion, anti-juddering, or whatever it might be called. These effects make your TV try to emulate fluid 60 FPS motion in 24 FPS movies, which may create input lag in your games (move your camera very fast and you'll see pixelation in the HUD, leave it static and objects that move will seem to have fluid motion in the screen, but will have that badly compressed video pixelation around them) . As an alternative, you can turn on your "Game Mode", which turns off these "frame guessing" features.
  • joshx - March 31, 2014 12:37 p.m.

    So if i have the snes to scart cable or n64 to scart cable and the upscaler here mentioned would it work in my sony hdtv in the US or does this work only in EU.
  • GR_JustinTowell - August 31, 2014 12:49 a.m.

    Should work in the US, as it does both PAL and NTSC inputs and outputs.
  • NuAngel - March 20, 2014 7:05 a.m.

    I can appreciate upscaling the image to 1080p, but wouldn't you want to adjust the screen to not show 16:9? Even with all of the upscaling happening and extra pixels being rendered, etc... don't you want to maintain the original aspect ratio? With the exception of a select few (Goldeneye 007 on N64 comes to mind), most older games (and all 4th-gen and earlier consoles) do not support any form of 16:9 output. You don't want to stretch your 4:3 image just so you can "say" it's 1080p.
  • kerframil - March 20, 2014 5:12 p.m.

    Good point. I had considered saying the same thing in my previous post. During the sixth console generation, a minority of games had support for anamorphic widescreen, in which case stretching horizontally is fine, provided that the widescreen option is enabled in the game. Otherwise, it's clearly wrong. A proper scaler would render NTSC at 640x480 and PAL at 768x576. Outside of the niche hardcore that insist upon accuracy and authenticity, I suspect most people are incapable of recognising a contorted image and wouldn't necessarily care if they could. All the modern TVs that I've owned do the same thing to programmes broadcast at 4:3 (by default). If the default settings were sane, I wonder how many people would end up complaining to the manufacturer about there being "black bars" on their screen? For living room usage, I would say it's good to have a TV with at least a 42" panel. That way, a correctly rendered 4:3 signal still covers a decent area. I used to have a 32" TV and found it a bit on the small side.
  • kerframil - March 19, 2014 4:40 p.m.

    A 15kHz video signal must always be upscaled on a 1080p TV, whether one runs it through an external box or not. A typical issue is that virtually all LCD TVs, along with many external scalers, assume that a 15kHz signal is 480i and needlessly apply motion-adaptive de-interlacing, increasing lag and harming image quality. Without a shadow of a doubt, the best video processor for retro gaming is the Micomsoft XRGB-mini Framemeister. It has pixel-perfect 240p processing, and outstanding 480i de-interlacing for consoles such as the PS2. Anyone truly interested in this sort of thing really owes it to themselves to visit before electing to purchase an external scaler. As well as featuring very detailed reviews, there's a useful list of the top five video processors for 240p processing, some of which are far cheaper than the Framemeister. Anything given the nod by Fudoh is bound to deliver the goods (he's a real expert in the field).
  • brickman409 - March 18, 2014 11:24 p.m.

    Look up ReviewTechUSA on YouTube, he's modding retro consoles to have the SCART to HDMI built in. So basically he's making Sega Genesis/Mega Drives with HDMI ports. It's pretty neat
  • GOD - March 18, 2014 1:30 a.m.

    Your TV is amazingly reflective.... it looks like a mirror with a magic display inside. You're a wizard aren't you Justin? My poor grasp of foreign concepts doesn't stop me from realizing that you're a train ride away from Hogwarts. You clearly have a pet squirrel that you've tried time and again to turn into a blue hedgehog as well. That last parts not relevant, but I'm certain it's true.
  • GR_JustinTowell - March 18, 2014 3:39 a.m.

    I can only assume you can somehow see through said magic mirror. Alas, it always remains a squirrel.
  • Shigeruken - March 17, 2014 10:57 p.m.

    Bookmarked for future reference :D
  • ShezadK - March 17, 2014 9:47 p.m.

    Does something like this exist for the N64? I'd be ecstatic.
  • GR_JustinTowell - March 18, 2014 1:14 a.m.

    Sure thing - if you have a SCART cable for your N64, this will work a treat.
  • n00b - March 17, 2014 6:42 p.m.

    Hows it work for ps2 and wii games? Maybe I'd give it a shot if the results were favorable
  • GR_JustinTowell - March 18, 2014 1:15 a.m.

    I'm afraid I don't have a SCART cable for my PS2 so haven't been able to test it yet. Sorry about that!
  • brickman409 - March 18, 2014 11:20 p.m.

    you'd probably just be better off buying a component cable for PS2 or Wii. There are even 3rd party HDMI adapters for the Wii.
  • GR_JustinTowell - August 31, 2014 12:53 a.m.

    I managed to get a PS2 cable and the results are pretty spectacular. Games like Downforce that were previously a mess of aliasing now look superb on my TV. The Wii is also wonderful. F-Zero GX looks almost good enough to be a modern release. And House of the Dead Overkill was always slightly blurry, but it's a quality effect through this.
  • LordZarlon - March 17, 2014 4:36 p.m.

    Fantastic information. I'll be getting one of these.
  • JimbobSonOfRiber - March 17, 2014 2:54 p.m.

    I don't know why this is cool... but it is.
  • DirkSteele1 - March 17, 2014 11:18 a.m.

    Justin, you have just moved up to a new level of awesome! I have been keeping an old 36" CRT around just to play my Megadrive and SNES games. As a dedicated retrogamer, this is a must buy.

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