Blast From the Past: How to Play Classic Consoles on Modern Televisions

July 15, 2020

This may be the year of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, but there is still a lot of love for retro gaming. You can mostly blame Nintendo for this: between the popularity of the NES and SNES Classic consoles and classic games on Switch, a whole new generation is discovering the power of pixels.

A few players take it to the next level by grabbing an old school gaming console. Only then do they discover the bad news: it won’t play on their TV. Or it plays, but it looks much worse than they remember.

Fortunately, there are easy solutions to these problems. If you’re ready for a “blast from the past,” here is a guide to playing classic consoles on modern TVs. 

Why play on classic consoles?

Before I go any further, it’s worth addressing a very honest question. Why, exactly, should you play on classic consoles in the first place?

There are plenty of easier ways to play classic games. These range from gaming compilations to “Classic” retro-style console systems all the way to making your own RetroPie system. Why, then, would you want to use classic tech?

It all comes down to authenticity and versatility. Game compilations and systems like the NES Classic share the same issue: they only come with so many games. You could always hack the Classic or build a RetroPie to play whatever games you want. But at the end of the day, you’re just playing with emulated ROMs instead of real cartridges.

With real hardware, you can play any cartridge you want, all while enjoying its different controllers and accessories. You can even enjoy the best of both worlds by getting an Everdrive, which is a cart that lets you load up as many ROMs as you want.

After a bit of work, you can hook up an old system and play every game authentically from a single cartridge. But first, you need to get it working on your television.

The connection problem

So, why is it so hard to play classic consoles on modern TVs? It all starts with the connections your TV supports.

Many modern TVs only accept HDMI. So if you have an old console system that relies on composite cables (the red, white, and yellow cables), you won’t be able to hook it up at all.

Some modern TVs may accept both HDMI and component cables (the red, green, and blue cables). While that gives you more options, it still won’t let you connect really old game systems because they didn’t come with component support.

There is more bad news as well. Even if you can connect the console, it’s probably going to look really bad. 

The quality problem

On certain consoles, you may be able to hook them to your TV via coaxial cable. As long as you plug into the analogue tuner instead of the digital one, you should be able to get a picture.

Unfortunately, that picture is likely to look really bad. I’ll put it this way: coaxial provided the worst picture even when these consoles were new. On your fancy big-screen TV, it will look worse than ever.

Additionally, these games were designed for 4:3 ratio screens. Your TV is going to try to automatically stretch the image into a 16:9 ratio. You can undo this if your television allows you to switch ratios.

Finally, you may experience input lag when you play. Because your TV is converting a 240p signal to 1080p, it may cause a lag between the time you press a button and the time the game reacts. On games that require precision timing, this can be infuriating.

Now that I have the bad news out of the way, let’s talk about how you can get everything looking and playing just as beautifully as you remember.

VCRs and DVD Players

Sometimes, the old tricks still work just fine. In this case, you may be able to hook an old system to a new TV by using a VCR or DVD player.

As long as the VCR or DVD player has the right input on the back, you can hook a game system to the player and the player to the TV. This is something many players did back in the day to play their games, and it still works fine with the right combination of cables and equipment.

Gaming with converter

It’s possible to do some tricky (and pricy) modifications to your old system to give it modern outputs. But it’s far easier to buy yourself a converter.

Converters are available in a variety of different options and price points. With an RCA converter, for example, you plug your composite cables into the converter and the converter into your TV. And many of these converters are very cheap (I’m talking $20 or less).

So, what’s the bad news? In some cases, you get what you pay for. I experimented with a very cheap converter to play my Nintendo 64 on a modern TV. The results looked so bad I simply bought an old CRT TV to play it on.

Additionally, there is a “garbage in, garbage out” component to conversion. To get the best quality conversion, you need the best quality output from your console. You should try to get S-video cables for your console (so long as it supports them) because this will offer a better picture.

The power of upscalers

If you “get what you pay for” with converters, then it’s possible to pay for better quality. And that means investing in an external upscaler.

Things like the old XRGB Mini-Framemeister, the Open Source Scan Converter, and the RetroTINK are designed to make old consoles look good on new TVs. They require a bit of adjustment, but some of these fancier converters can also eliminate lag and add those old-school scanlines that you remember.

As with converters, you’ll get the most out of an external upscaler if you have high-quality video output.

Specialty cables

Not wanting to fiddle with converters or upscalers? In some cases, you may be able to use specialty cables to assume a similar result.

Some companies have taken to manufacturing single-use cables to let you enjoy classic games on newer televisions. For example, the EON Super 64 is a “plug and play” solution for playing your N64 on an HDMI television. The picture looks good (much better than my converter misadventures) and it plays without lag.

The only problem is that the Super 64 retails for $150 and only works on a single system. By that time, you’re better off investing in an external upscaler that will work with multiple retro consoles.

Now you’re ready to start playing your classic consoles on modern TVs. Share your classic console adventures in the comments below!

Category: Guides

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