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Intent of the Artist

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Retrogaming setup consisting of a CRT television, VCR, MiSTer FPGA build with peripherals, Schiit Modi+, HDFury 3, and game controllers
Retrogaming setup consisting of a CRT television, VCR, MiSTer FPGA build with peripherals, Schiit Modi+, HDFury 3, and game controllers | Source: William Breathitt Gray

๐Ÿ”—Experiencing the Past

The musical compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach are generally performed differently today than how they were at the time Bach composed them. For one, concert pitch was not yet standardized as it is today1 so the instruments of an ochestra were likely tuned to match the venue's organ which typically was of a lower pitch.2 Similarly, while equal temperament is ubiquitous today, Bach may have intended well tempered meantone for compositions such as his Das Wohltemperirte Clavier.

Of further note, modern performances of Bach's pieces may use modern instruments that had not yet been invented (such as the modern piano) whereas Bach would have likely had contemporary instruments in mind such as the harpsichord. This is true of not just Bach's but many historical compositions. For example, the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven make references to the technology provided by the fortepiano, such as the Mondschein bearing directions that the piece should be played without dampers.3 References such as these are clear indications of an artists intent.

Over time, the experiences of the past are adjusted for modern audiences. Sometimes the changes in interpretation are the result of differences that arise naturally, such as the plays of William Shakespeare performed in modern Received Pronunciation rather than the actual accent of Shakespeare's day. Other times, the differences are a result of technological changes, such as the modern piano producing a different sound than the fortepiano4. I believe the technological transition of consumer televisions from cathode-ray tube (CRT) to flat-panel display (FPD) has resulted in a similar change of experience for video games of the past.

๐Ÿ”—Playing the Past

Recently, I've felt a nostalgia for the video games I played as a child on consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Thanks to the popularity of video game console emulators nowadays, it is easy to play those games using my personal computer. However, I have noticed several differences compared to the experience I remember from my childhood.

For example, latency with modern emulators can make precision platforming on games like Super Mario Bros. difficult and feel much clunkier than on the original console. Furthermore, the visual appearance of the games on my modern flat-panel display seem different than how I remember them; e.g. the colors are more saturated and the pixel boundaries are sharp enough to give a sort of blocky appearance to sprites.5

The visual differences in particular bothered me enough to investigate why they were so. I discovered the primary reason was the technology I used to display the games: as a child I used a typical consumer CRT television with my NES console hooked up via an RF switch. The analog nature of the composite video signal, as well as inherent susceptibility to interference, and the display behavior of CRT technology results in an image that is difficult (if not impossible) to physically recreate with modern digital flat-panel displays.6

๐Ÿ”—Producing the Past

Video game designers of the time were aware of the display behavior of their television sets and would design their games around these quirks, sometimes exploiting them on purpose for desired effects. For example, a transparency effect in Sega Mega Drive games can be achieved on a composite display by leveraging a dither pattern that leans on the degraded image fidelity of a composite video signal. Games such as Gaiares and Sonic the Hedgehog7 are well-known for utilizing these composite video effects.8

As such, a video game graphic designer at the time may have had two screens at their work station: a computer monitor to run a graphic editor, and a CRT television to view the result of their work.9 The reason is that the image on a computer monitor would look different (typically with sharper and more square pixels) than a CRT television. As well, rendering on consumer televisions allowed graphics designers to see how their art would appear to the end-users; e.g. the colors on a CRT television may bleed into each other, and graphic artists may exploit that to achieve effects such as appearing to adjust pixels to sub-pixel positions.

๐Ÿ”—Recreating the Past

To reexperience video games as I did in the past, I came to the conclusion that I would need to use the same technology of that time period. Ideally, I would use the orginal video game console for a particular game in order to ensure the correct execution behavior, signal output, response latencies, etc.

However, vintage technology inevitably breaks down as all things do; I figured it would be cumbersome to acquire and maintain the various original consoles for each game I wish to play. As such, I settled on a solution of utilizing an FPGA to reproduce the digital behavior of the various game consoles with peripheral hardware to reproduce the analog signals of respective devices.

Specifically, I leveraged the MiSTer FPGA project to run the video games; I used a Terasic DE10-Nano Kit with a MiSTer FPGA Analog IO Board and MiSTer FPGA Serial Native Accessory Converter (SNAX). MiSTer features a method for outputting analog video called Direct Video, which allowed me to output a game core's video signal from the HDMI output of the DE10-Nano board that I fed to an HDFURY 3 digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to get a component video; I could then take that component video signal and connect it to a MiSTer FPGA YC Active Encoder Board to get a composite video signal if I desired. For audio, I fed the Mini-TOSLINK optical digital audio output to a Schiit Audio Modi+ DAC to get stereo analog output.

With analog video and audio signals, I could now connect to a CRT television to view the video games on the same display technology of their respective times. I chose to use Toshiba 14AF41 CRT television for the convenience of its size as well as support for a variety of input signals. In order to get a VHF RF television broadcasting signal, I connected the composite video signal and stereo audio signals to a Panasonic Omnivision PV-8450 videocassette recorder (VCR) I found in a thift store and leveraged the VCR's built-in RF modulator. The end result is an experience that closely recreates my childhood memories of playing the respective vintage video games.

๐Ÿ”—Reliving the Past

There are some inherent shortcomings in my solution. For one, the DACs I use to generate the analog signals are modern designs that do not exactly match the electrical properties of the original vintage circuits. In fact, even for a particular video game console there may be various hardware revisions with different circuits that would have produced respectively different output signals.10

CRT televisions as well can produce an image that is slightly different from each other.11 Likely, there was not a canonical RGB palette game designers used when creating art for a game, but rather programmed the colors to look acceptable on their particular test stations. Even when looking at a single company, there may not have been a standard reference test station.

For example, in a clip from the 1994 documentary film "Otaku", Nintendo of Japan employees can be seen developing and testing games with various different models of televisions and monitors; similar setups can be seen in B-roll footage of the Nintendo office in Kyoto. In another video, game testers for Nintendo of America can be seen running NES consoles with the yellow port composite video outputs to Mitsubishi MGA CRT televisions.12

This all assumes game designers intentionally accounted for CRT displays, but some games may have simply been developed on a computer monitor without much regard for their final appearance on CRT televisions. Developers of the time may have seen the varying appearances on CRT televisions as just mundane imperfections inherent in the medium: the game's appearance on consumer televisions was not specifically aimed for but rather merely an acceptable product which was considered good enough for the game's release.

On a more philsophical note, it might not be possible to truly experience vintage games as someone in the past would have because our modern context adulterates the experience.13 Realistically, I think to know the artist's intent requires the artist to divulge it rather than for others to try to infer it. An author of a novel is likely indifferent to the physical medium of their work, but rather more concerned that the story itself is effectively received. Perhaps similarly, game designers just want their games to be played.