(So let’s make this obvious right off the bat – for as nerdy as this shit gets sometimes, I freely admit that this particular article is gonna get a little out there, so apologies in advance if this isn’t a subject any of you find particularly appealing. I still felt like it was information worth getting out there.)
Thanks to a recent Retronauts episode dealing with the pains of playing old video games on modern-day TVs, I found myself confronting a problem that I’d tried so hard to run from so many times before: I didn’t have a good way to play retro games on my TV.
That isn’t to say I’m for want of systems, by any means – at this point I own god knows how many Famiclones for various purposes and needs, and I’ve recently started investing heavily in Everdrives and flash carts to make sure I’ve always got whatever games I need right at hand.
But…they just never looked that great. My current (and probable future) living situation is fairly prohibitive of me owning a CRT television, or at least one worth any kind of shit. Plugging a non-HD system directly into an HDTV will never not look like pure ass, and while there are a few clone systems out there that offer HDMI output they come with their own unique problems.
So I researched my options and finally did the thing I tried to stop myself doing so many times before: I bought a video upscaler.
Now I’m gonna let the video do most of the heavy lifting on this one, but there’s a lot that should be explained about what I bought and why I bought it.
Video upscalers, sometimes also called “line doublers” (although my brief, meager research says those might not be interchangeable terms) exist to take SD video signals, process them, and display them on an HDTV. The effect is achieved by the upscaler doubling the amount of lines drawn by the video signal (as SDTV was created by drawing horizontal lines of pixels, as opposed to the digital images an HDTV displays) until it matches the target resolution of the TV itself.
This is far preferable to just plugging an SD video signal (old games, VCRs, whatever) straight into your TV as basically every HDTV isn’t going to know how to handle the signal and will inflate it to fit the whole size of the TV without actually increasing the amount of lines, leading to shitty picture quality and frequent lag in the case of 2D games.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m just enough of a fussy baby to want to avoid that, and frankly with the amount of VHS tapes and old games I own I’d be kind of silly to NOT look into an upscaler. So I did some research, and while I found most of the really well-known ones are hilariously expensive – everyone tells you to buy a Framemeister but nobody warns you that those things are $400+ – I settled on the DVDO iScan VP30!
Originally released sometime around 2006, probably, the iScan is part of a wide range of video upscalers produced by DVDO and ABT, two home theater companies that might or might not be around anymore. While the VP30 isn’t expressly designed for video games like some upscalers are – there IS an extremely rare add-on board for the VP30 that adds game-specific functionality but I’ve already resigned myself to never owning one – I found it does the job basically as well as I can ask!
Designed for a variety of inputs like S-Video, component, and those weird scary European analog inputs (seriously what the fuck are those they all just look like coax plugs), the VP30 takes whatever your signal is, adds its ~video magic~ and outputs a much better looking HD signal, although its only output option is HDMI unless you go back to messing with those goofy analog outputs. You can set the input AND output resolution, which is handy for switching between systems that had occasionally weird resolutions like the Genesis (even if I tended to just leave it set to one resolution and go about my day).
The output resolution was kind of an interesting series of experiments, though. The iScan supports a huge number of output formats depending on what it’s plugged into, all the way up to giant-ass PC monitor resolutions, but I mostly stuck with 720 and 1080 both in (I)nterlaced and (P)rogressive Scan varieties. There wasn’t much of a change in picture quality between the actual sizes of resolutions, but oddly enough changing between P and I would tend to affect the picture in really subtle ways. To spare the details, P tended to work better for 2D pixel-based systems, whereas I seemed to work a little better for 3D polygonal images – running interlaced on a 2D game seemed to add a weird sort of ‘softness’ to the image, almost like a filter on an emulator, whereas running progressive scan on a 3D game produced the same effect while subtracting some of the detail and color information. My sub-basic understanding of these matters leads me to believe that it has something to do with the input resolution – 280p systems like the NES and Genesis won’t take as well to interlacing, and the higher resolution 480i systems would, naturally, look better with an interlaced image as opposed to their older progressive scan brethren. But I could be way off here.
Look, none of this is gonna be much helpful without comparison footage, so I’m gonna cut myself off here. I will wholeheartedly recommend the iScan series to anyone who wants a cheap way to make their NES games not look like trash on an HDTV, and I will DAMN SURE suggest this over the little $40 cheapy guys you can get on Amazon that you don’t need to bother with.
My next post probably won’t be so limited in topic, probably! I mean, unless I finally give in to the part of my brain that’s still a Media Production student and I fall down some terrible home theater rabbit hole.