The art of fuzzy

In the retrogaming community there’s always a certain amount of chatter about “authenticity”. Of course, people will say, all these old games have been preserved for posterity and can be played on just about any platform imagniable thanks to emulation but it’s not the same as it was back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There is nothing, so the cry goes out, quite like playing it on the original hardware.

Now, whilst in most cases this is completely true (just try playing the arcade Star Wars on the original cabinet controls – you can’t go back!) in some respects this is a case of nostalgia getting the better of people. Some of the older computers weren’t all that robust and had a tendency to overheat, and you couldn’t just save out quickly and easily to hard disk and instead had to fiddle around with floppy disk drives or, even worse, audio tapes if you wanted to keep your place in a game (that’s assuming they’d let you). And, rather than a nice crisp monitor picture, you’d have to watch everything happening on a blurry old television set.

Except, was that last one really a problem? The old RF ariel input and CRT television sets might have created a blurry picture and colour bleed but not only was that something that makes 30 and 40-something retrogamers all nostalgic, if you owned a C64 or ZX Spectrum or Sega Megadrive it was the way you were expected to see your games. This meant that the developers often drew graphics based on the assumption that they would be seen on a CRT television set. Because of this, pixel dithering which is obvious on a monitor was barely-noticable on a TV set and graphics which look blocky and chunky on the latter look smooth and “rounded” on the latter. As a result, when we play these old games on a monitor we rarely see anything like what we used to see when they were published and, consequently, future generations would have no idea what these games were really meant to look like.

But things might be changing. For a while now, many emulators have had a “scanline” setting which impersonates the lines seen on CRT TVs and monitors to give a more accurate rendition of the original picture but it’s still always looked too “crisp”.

(NB Click this pic to see full-size). Top shows 'Stormlord' in RF emulation mode, bottom in "clean" monitor pic. Note how the dithering works and how different the fairy looks.

Now, though, we seem to have the beginnings of proper “TV emulation” appearing thanks to the latest release of ZX Spectrum emulator Spectaculator. Long regarded as one of the best ways of emulating Sir Clive’s beast, the latest version (v7.5) comes with something that really makes it stand out – RF ariel emulation. And, for the first time I can remember, we can see Spectrum games as they ought to look on a modern monitor. For an example of what I mean, click on the picture on the right.

Hopefully this trend will extend to other emulators. Some C64 emulators already boast something close to a TV picture but emulation for other plug-into-the-TV machines still lags behind. Veering as close as possible to the original hardware experience isn’t just about fuzzy nostalgia, it’s about experiencing old games the way they were intended and the way the developers often saw them. A fuzzy picture and a bit of colour-bleed is, in fact, very often a tiny part of what made these games what they were.


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