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You're Not Crazy: The Old Mario Games Really Did Look Better on Your Old CRT TV
You're not imagining it; vintage games really do look better on old CRT TVs.
Mario is one of the few characters so well known he can stand on his first name alone (or is it his last name? They are the Mario Bros. after all) alongside the likes of Sonic, Mickey, and Lizzo. He’s so iconic that it’s weird that he’s NEVER GOTTEN HIS OWN MOVIE BEFORE (wink). That error has now been rectified, with the feature-length animated film The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is streaming now on Peacock!
Having seen it, you might be inspired to revisit the classic video games of your youth. After tenderly retrieving your NES from the attic, you dust it off, slide in a cartridge, and punch the power key. Then you spend the next 20 minutes blowing into the console and the cartridge, trying to make it work. You tap the console, gently at first but more aggressively as time goes on. You’re almost ready to give up when the start up screen flickers into life. It’s part of the experience, but it’s worth it if you can get a few hours of koopa stomping out of it. Then you’re met with the undeniable reality that your video games look worse than you remember.
Your Retro Games Really Do Look Worse Than They Used To
Sure, part of what you’re experiencing is nostalgia goggles. It’s been so long, and your memory is fuzzy. You’re remembering the feeling of playing those games when you were a kid, and the contemporary reality can’t stack up. But that’s not the whole story.
Retro games really do look worse when you play them today and it’s your TV’s fault. Super Mario Bros. came out in 1983 and was designed to be played on TVs that existed in 1983. Those displays had a much lower resolution and some considerable technological limitations as compared with modern displays. The built-in chunkiness of CRT TVs did a lot of legwork to hide imperfections in character and asset design. Let’s look at the numbers.
The standard these days is 1080p or 4k (with a few outliers on either side) and they’ve got a staggering number of pixels. The term “1080p” is a reference to the TV’s resolution, it tells you the display has 1,080 pixels down, and 1,920 across, for a total of 2.07 million pixels. A 4k TV, has 3,840 pixels across and 2,160 down, for a total of nearly 8.3 million.
When you plug your NES into your modern TV, that’s what it’s working with, but it’s spitting out a much smaller signal. The signal from an NES comes in 256 horizontal and 240 vertical lines. Even when Super Mario Bros. dropped in ’83, CRT displays could handle twice as many lines. To account for this, your CRT would interlace a blank line between each line it displayed. That interlacing is a huge part of what gave vintage games their distinctive look.
When plugged into a modern display, all your television can do is upscale the image to take up the available space. Combined with the lack of interlacing, it makes character sprites and game assets appear washed out. All of the digital blemishes become more apparent and the hard edges which were hidden by interlacing become abundantly clear. All at once, you lose the details you want and gain details you don’t want.
That’s why CRT TVs are one of the most desirable retro gaming gadgets, commanding steep prices on the secondary market for a technology we all considered trash just a few years ago. It just goes to show, if you play well enough, even TVs can get a second life.
Catch The Super Mario Bros. Movie, streaming now on Peacock!