Modern displays can’t represent the reality of old

I’m not sure where the notion of CRT screen being worse than flat screen came about, initially. I can surmise that this is the case of usual old-tech being outed by new and shiny one, and marketers always want to push the newflanged thing as the best thing ever all while putting down the old stuff. Y’know, like the articles about Star Trek: Picard are calling The Next Generation old and outdated. Looking at the modern screens we have nowadays, even the ones I’m looking at right now, we’re still lacking in many ways that a good ol’ tube isn’t. It’s all about those colours, refresh rate and sheer quality of image.

I can’t really say that a CRTs got the proper end of the stick, tech-wise. All they had at the time was comparatively low-quality image to showcase. A VHS tape didn’t exactly push CRT’s image quality all that much. People talking about the fuzzy look on those screens was always more about the lacking quality of the medium rather than the quality of the screen itself. I have to admit that I only realised this after the fact, after putting a movie spinning from a Laserdisc in a showcase to some people via CRT. The image quality was, not to overstate, a shocker to some. The image wasn’t fuzzy and there was definition they didn’t remember. This wasn’t just some connection via RF or RC cables, but from BNC to RGB SCART via build-in adapter. The technology itself holds up, but what’s lacking is the standards for connectivity. No CRT screen I know of has, for example, HDMI ports or the like. Even if there were, it’d require some kind of adapter or decoder change the signal something the screen would understand, as we’re again speaking two different technological ways of transferring images. An analogue end rarely accepts digital source without some form of adaption, and vise versa. Often there’s some confusion how things should really look like, which is why so many times an old output device looks wrong on a modern screen. Correct aspect ratio is a thing so many people still just don’t get. It’d be neat to see a CRT designed around modern day standards. Completely doable, but also far more expensive than flat screens.

The latency between a CRT and modern flat screens is touchable. When it comes to gaming, old consoles expect the screen to respond to input actions as fast as the console can send its signals. Modern screen latency that isn’t present with CRTs, and often you end up seeing an image that’s notably late compared to what’s actually happening inside the machine. Modern games are actively working around the latency by delaying inputs and actions, and this adds up with games like Tekken 7 actively simulating network environment lag as well with input delays. Effectively, modern games expect the player to react to something that’s already happened in the game’s logic rather than what’s happening at that precise moment. This is why so many people who emulate NES titles like Battletoads find themselves in trouble, when fast-paced stages like Turbo Tunnel requires much faster reaction time than they would if played via CRT. Arino of Game Center CX would probably see his gaming performance getting better, if he would use a CTR instead a cheap LCD screen. Then again, scripted shows and all that.

GCCX fans of course know that they originally did have a CRT and have gone through numerous flat screen through the years

Outside the whole refresh rate/response time dick waggling competition, the one thing CRTs still have over any modern screen tech is the existence of true blacks and whites, as well as true colours. Why do you remember the colours being terrible on your CRT way back when? Probably because of NTSC format, which sucked when it came to chroma and colour. NTSC format gained the nickname Never The Same Colour for a reason, and this is the reason. A lot of shows originally encoded in NTSC have high saturation colours, because they’d get whacked during output and would produce whatever the device decided. Despite NTSC running in 60Hz, that’s not exactly a saving grace when PAL had both superior screen resolution and colour. This colours the mental image people have about how well CRTs showcase colour. When you output something modern with better colour coding to a CRT (like PAL60), the results are rather high quality. Not even modern HDR can do the same justice. When properly calibrated, blacks on a decent CRT are true blacks; the lack of light or colour. The same can be said about whites. I admit that most of my life was spent with low-quality CRTs that had glow to them, where certain kind of definition was lost. I could assume this was somewhat common, as later in life with higher-end, more expensive CRTs this glow was absent. Blacks were truly as dark as they were supposed to and colours were as intended. Screen and colour calibration are still important nowadays, but rarely anyone has time for them. Most people just go with the standard factory preset, which sometimes is all you need. In some lower tier screens, not to much. That’s the difference between low-tier flats and CRTs; even a mediocre CRT has better screen response time and colours to a mediocre flat screen. Some modern flat screens, even HDR and OLED ones, can’t replicate colours accurately. Sometimes they lack the brightness, sometimes they just lack the needed cells for the colour reproduction. Film buffs can bitch about film vs video all day long, but in the end their film will be seen via digital means nowadays and that will screw them up in the end.

The disparity of old media on modern screens has split some of the userbases with film and games. While most film and TV-series enthusiasts have easy time what should be the correct image format for their media, games are not as lucky. Most computers and consoles run on different line resolutions, which don’t really fit any screen format readily. However, considering the 4:3 screen ratio was universal standard across the globe during pre-widescreen television and digital standards, it is safe to say this was the intended screen ratio despite what the consoles internal resolution may have been. For example the SNES uses 8:7 as its internal ratio, which meant the developers would need to take the difference in account when making assets for their games. Hence why certain games look a bit squished when seen in their then-intended end ratio of 4:3. This is also an issue of technological gap, as all modern screens are effectively fixed-pixel screens; all pixels are the same size no matter what. CRT tech doesn’t use pixels, and in comparison are non-fixed. A ‘pixel’ could be of different size from another. When using the peculiarities of the screen, you could get things like rainbow effects to waterfalls or have raster lines and dithering meld together into proper, smooth colour. Effectively, the use of lower quality video signal was used for a greater effect in the final product. Displaced Gamers has an excellent video regarding dithering on the Mega Drive with Composite Video. If we use Shiny Entertainment as an example of people working with machines that would end up using a CRT as its main display, we can assume that developers not only were aware of the systems’ limitations, but also the possibilities effects like dithering would have. This is also the reason why so many NEC PC-98 titles are dithering heaven, as the CRT screens the PCs would use would blend the dithering into colours that didn’t really exist in the graphics. This was used to add, for example, extra shading. Nowadays dithering doesn’t work the same way, and is mostly an aesthetics matter.

While perhaps not the best example, Giga’s Harlem Blade from 1996 (should probably be Harem, but Engrish is a thing) gives us an access to Kimura Takahiro’s original work and the CG used in the game. What we don’t see is how the CGs should be seen. Modern display screens simply don’t draw the graphics the same way. By 1996, most PC98 titles were seeing ports to Windows platforms, which already changed how graphics were designed and drawn. You see this kind clear, far better defined graphics in the latter part of the 1990’s compared to titles in the earlier years of the decade, but evolution of PC98 graphics is not the topic here. That would also count the note of style of dithering changing, as many early PC98 titles were upgraded ports of PC88 titles, which more limited colour palette to work with, resulting in different kind of dithering, but the same end; creating new colours on the screen, melding shading together etc.

So much brighter. Source is Fairytale’s Strawberry Daisenryaku Novu from 1990, PC98

Here’s a hacky method I can remotely simulate how things might’ve looked like in real; a hi-res scan from a magazine from 1994 that has a photo taken for a CRT screen, then fit it into the same size as the original CG.

While this CG from Giga’s Variable Geo is clean and doesn’t showcase much effects with the dithering, the photo taken has lots of stuff going on with it. Sure, it’s a bit crooked, the lighting settings probably were slightly off, but those are beside the point. The dithering gives off a far smoother look to shading and colours overall, especially on skin and on that yellow shirt. You could fix the colours to represent the in-game CG better, but that’d be removing the point of the scan; it aims to convey how the game’s graphics were seen in real life. Hell, perhaps the colours really were more saturated on a CRT due to the output and screen itself. The way you see the CG on the left on your modern screen right now is, ultimately, wrong. Even with the scan you’re watching a picture of digitised print. I’m not even sure if this is the best way to represent old CGs like this on modern screens, or there already exists some kind of super add-on plugin that would allow natural CRT look. Ignore the darker left on the scan, it wasn’t a clean scan. I’m not to unbind a relatively rare magazine when I only have one copy of it.

If you want to see the uncropped CG and that 1200dpi scan, you click here and here.

Despite our modern screen tech considered superior to whatever tech CRT was used, it still fails to replicate the intended results of older media. The discussion of quality of the media, be it shows, movies or games, should always remind itself that technology has changed. Ignoring the originally intended mode of viewing is common to the point most simply forget something like SNES or PlayStation was never intended to be viewed with completely clean output on a flat screen. Adding scansline effects or whatnot is not a true answer how to get closer to the originally intended image, but we’re getting there. Maybe at some point we might get plugins, addons or maybe even screen modes that would be able to emulate the way CRT screen drew images now that the pixel resolution is high enough to handle non-fixed pixels. I doubt that’s going to be a common thing anyway, as the priorities and goals have changed. Now modding old tech or increasing internal resolutions during emulation is seen as an answer to what are considered deficiencies, when in reality users are forcing an analogue format into modern digital form. It’d be like trying to make a modern car run on whale grease. Can probably be done, but needs some stuff in-between to work properly.

Some of the issues are raised by the kind of new mindset, where power users are trying to get better quality image our from their machines than what was intended. As mentioned, number of games rely on the level of image output that was available at the time and no better. With upscalers and modern tools we’re not only losing the intended viewing display, but also the intended way of seeing the image. The clarity of the image has become so omnipresent and oppressive presence that users are disregarding the reality and the environment of the time when CRTs existed. That above discussion about SNES’ internal resolution and the end output is exactly the issue we’re having here; we have a method to circumvent the whole display issue and use then raw internal output, but at the same time that’s not the output that was ultimately intended. We can’t even showcase the issue properly on the Internet, becasue taking footage of a CRT is rather troublesome and digitised footage does not represent reality in this case. Digital video crunches down the footage into pixels it can understand. Effectively, we’re upscaling something that can, but we never ask if we should. Clearly something like a VHS footage or LD doesn’t look good when it’s blown up from its original size, which is why we have digital remasters. With games the issue is a bit foggier, because these are digital products and in practice can be blown up into size as long as the aspect ratio is kept right. The principle of upscaling the resolution often produces very blur marred image. Of course, emulation is its own thing and some emulators allow increasing emulated machine’s internal resolution, but that’s again trying to fix something that isn’t broken rather than finding the solution to the actual problem; what we see on modern displays do not represent the intended end-product from CRT era.

Maybe microLED might be the answer and key for flat screens surpassing CRTs in every aspect. If not those, then maybe we need to wait whatever will obsolete microLED.