CRTs (which stands for
Cathode Ray Tube, the technology that gives the TVs their distinctive look and unique silhouette) quickly disappeared in the West after the popularization of LCD flatscreens in the mid- to late aughts. This meant gamers with older consoles had to either hang onto their old TVs or upgrade to the latest consoles. At the time, the SNES or N64 weren’t “retro” yet, so many were happy to leave them behind for an Xbox 360 or PS3.
Excitement for new tech was a big part of the shift toward LCDs, Jordan Starkweather told me when I spoke to him for this piece, but that wasn’t the whole answer. “If you’ve tried lifting a CRT in recent years,” Starkweather continued, “the answer becomes pretty obvious. Not only were CRTs expensive and dangerous to manufacture, they were incredibly bulky.”
Starkweather is a podcaster, designer, and creator of
@CRTpixels, a Twitter account that posts comparisons of retro video game visuals on modern displays and CRTs. Since launching in February 2021, Starkweather has built an audience of thousands of CRT believers.
While CRTs quickly disappeared from store shelves, they hung around in basements and grandparents’ living rooms, slowly dwindling in supply as owners hauled them to recycling depots or left them curbside. Even just five years ago, only the most ardent retro gamers were interested in gaming on CRTs, but the audience has grown tremendously over the past few years, and demand has risen accordingly. Started in 2016,
r/CRTGaming on Reddit has nearly doubled its subscriber base in the past year. In 2019, a coveted Sony GDM-FW900 sold for a dramatic $999 on eBay. A single listing for the same monitor on eBay at the time of this writing? An eye-blistering Buy-It-Now price of $3,900.
“There are subreddits,
Facebook groups, and YouTube channels that can be great resources,” said Starkweather, “but they can also overwhelm you with information and conflicting opinions. This is a dying technology, we should be doing our best to preserve it wherever we can.”
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“There really is something magical about a CRT,” Starkweather told me. “No doubt nostalgia has a lot to do with that, but the characteristics of a CRT also look completely different from the types of screens we’re so used to.” Old technology has a way of transporting you to a different era, he suggested. “I personally find immersing myself in something so detached from our modern reality to be a very therapeutic experience. Akin to putting on a record or opening a paperback, there’s a type of intention and ritual to it that I just don’t get from booting up Netflix or unlocking my phone.”
It’s difficult to articulate the allure without actually showing someone retro software running on a CRT, and even Starkweather’s popular image comparisons give only a glimpse at the whole picture. “The input lag that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern games is gone,” he said. “Movement looks fluid and more natural somehow.” This makes CRTs preferred hardware for competitive gamers playing older games—though there has been a lot of improvement in recent years in terms of getting flatscreen technology to a lag-free experience.
As we settle into
the 4K HDR era, TV manufacturers and game developers continue to push expectations with ultra-high resolutions, faster framerates, and lower latency, but sometimes—especially with retro games—less really is more. Gaming-focused upscaling devices that improve the look of retro games on your flat screen—like the OSSC and Framemeister, or Analogue’s FPGA consoles——provide options like scanlines in an attempt to replicate the feeling of playing on a CRT, but they can’t match the original experience.
“Vintage games weren’t designed to look as sharp as we are used to seeing them on HDTVs,” Starkweather said. “Moreso than even film or television, video games of the era were directly tied to CRT display technology. They utilized the unique characteristics of a CRT display in order to blend pixels and create details that don’t come across on an LCD screen.”
How Retro Games Were Designed for CRTs
“Many would argue that CRTs are the absolute best way—some would go so far as to say the
only way—to play retro video games the way the developers intended,” said Carlson’s colleague at My Life in Gaming, Marc Duddleson.
Most CRTs were designed to output 240 lines of horizontal resolution (called 240p) on the screen at a time. An electron gun blasts electrodes at the inside of the screen, hitting a “mask,” (a metal implement blocking parts of the screen), and lighting up the phosphors not covered by the mask. This is what gives CRTs their distinct brightness, rich colors, and ultra-deep blacks. This happens one pixel at a time, faster than the human eye can keep up with, so it appears as a solid image. Starting with the 32-bit era and becoming more standard during the PlayStation 2-era, games also incorporated 480i—the standard for NTSC video, a format used in North America, Japan, and many other countries at the time—in which the image utilizes a technique of rapidly alternating lines of resolution to produce a faux high-resolution effect at the expense of some flicker.
“In truth, 240p is more like a cool trick than a proper standard,” said Duddleson. “A method of getting a rock-solid progressive image out of video games that just so happened to work with the established 480i video standard of the day.”
Retro games leveraged this unique display method to push more game through the visual pipeline. By only having to draw 240ish lines of pixels across a much larger screen, their low-resolution sprites appear to have a lot more detail. Scanlines (the gaps between the 240 lines) help separate the raw pixels, and the phosphor glow gives the image punch, making the scanlines appear thinner in brighter areas of the screen. The player’s brain fills in the rest, creating an experience unique to the hardware, and is often the reason why you’ve ever been disappointed with the visuals in a retro game and wondered why it felt like it looked better in your head.
Some like the blended look provided by consumer sets, while others like the gaps between the scanlines so thick it feels like you’re playing your game through a set of blinds. The way scanlines appear on the screen are affected by the type of mask in the CRT: shadow masks use a series of horizontally offset dots, aperture grille uses continuous lines, and slot masks use vertically offset ovals.
Enthusiast communities tend to focus on sets that use an aperture grille—like Sony’s later Trinitron models, JVC’s D-Series, and professional video monitors, known in the gaming community as PVMs—because they tend to feature brighter colors and sharper images due to how much of the electron beam makes it past the mask—but slot mask sets like Toshiba’s AF series from the early aughts are popular among those looking to recapture the living room TV look.
Consumer vs. Pro
When you’re hunting for a CRT, you’ll have to decide whether you’ll be happy with a consumer model TV commonly listed on Facebook Marketplace for a few bucks, or whether you want to start chasing more expensive PVMs. Both offer a lot for retro gamers, but they come with different pros and cons, and the right fit comes down to a few different factors: budget (they can range from free to a few hundred dollars—or more), available space in your home, availability on the market, and, most importantly, preference.
Pro monitors come with various degrees of resolution—measured in Television Lines (TVLs)—ranging from the popular Commodore 1702 (~250-300 TVLs) to high-end PVMs (600 TVLs). The more TVLs, the sharper the image. Some people crave this experience, to others, it feels too similar to an LCD and too far removed from their childhood experience. In that case, a consumer set with lower TVLs is more likely to satisfy your memories. Their lower resolutions provide an image softening effect, creating a feel that’s unlike anything you’ll find on modern displays.
I grew up gaming through the PlayStation 2 era on a Commodore 1702 monitor, so I have a lot of nostalgia for the look of high-end monitors, but most kids in the 90s played on consumer CRTs that doubled as their family TV. There’s no “right way” when it comes to CRTs.
My personal setup straddles both worlds by including a Sony PVM-1354Q (that I bought for about $300CAD) and a Toshiba 20AF43 (that I got for free). I find my preference changes depending on the game—with pixel art stuff from the 8- and 16-bit eras looking particularly good on the aperture grille of the Sony pro monitor, while 3D PlayStation games benefit from the Toshiba’s softer image.
Once you’re ready to get a CRT, “check out your local recycling center, Facebook Marketplace, or even the curb on trash day,” said Starkweather. I’ve also had success politely emailing universities, broadcast studios, or medical organizations to see if they have any decommissioned professional monitors laying around.
Starkweather cautions people not to get lost in the details, though. “Don’t worry if you don’t have room (or back strength) for a 160lb 32″ set, a 13″ or 20″ works great. People will argue about which brands and inputs are best, but it’s mostly subjective. Start with what works for you, what you have access to, and what’s most affordable. You can always learn more and worry about the details down the road.”
Oh, and you’ll need a friend or two, depending on the size of the TV. Anything 27″ and up is ludicrously heavy and should not be moved alone. Please lift with your legs. Please.
Once you’ve got your tube, you’re gonna need the right cables to hook up your consoles. You’re probably familiar with composite cables—they’re the ubiquitous yellow, red, and white plugs that came with many game consoles—but s-video or component provides a better picture if your set and console support them. RGB is the
ultimate analog display method for retro consoles, but you’ll need a PVM or equivalent, and your game consoles may even need to be modded to support the format. The result is truly spectacular, though, with crisp pixels and bright colors and no analog noise.
Once you’ve got your consoles setup, you can
use a tool like Artemio Urbina’s 240p Test Suite to help calibrate your TV. They were built to last, but many CRTs are starting to see issues with their capacitors, leading to geometry and color issues. Most people won’t notice a lot of these issues, but once you do they can be difficult to ignore. CRTs are dangerous to work on without proper experience (even when unplugged, if not discharged properly), and it’s becoming harder to find professionals with the know-how (and willingness) to fix them. And when you do? It’s expensive and time-consuming. That free CRT from Facebook might not be so cheap if you want it running in pristine condition.
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Just remember, no CRT is perfect, and the wobbles and imperfections are part of what make the technology unique and beloved.
The reality is that the age of the CRT is coming to an end. They’re dying a slow death, and with the cost of manufacturing prohibitively expensive, there’s no path to recovery. In
“The Last Scan,” Paul Kermizian, CEO and co-founder of Barcade, a vintage arcade chain, told The Verge’s Adi Robertson he expects secondhand supply of CRTs to hold up for another decade or so. But he also admitted “the day maybe will come when we have to do an emulation of a CRT. We’ll be pretty sad.”
Back to the Future
Before you start thinking CRTs are all about video games old enough to be nostalgic for high school,
Digital Foundry has a series of videos exploring how modern games can benefit from CRT technology. “I think maybe we’ve missed something here,” said Richard Ledbetter in “DF Direct! Modern Games Look Amazing On CRT Monitors… Yes, Better than LCD!” In the video, Ledbetter describes the experience of playing 2019’s Control on his Sony FW900—a 24″ HD monitor from 2003. “We’ve kind of turned our back on what is an exceptional technology for gamers.”
Getting your hands on a “legendary” FW900 is impossible for most gamers based on the secondary market price tag alone, but you might be surprised by what you find if you get your hands on any high-end PC monitor from the turn of the century. Your games can look better and run smoother thanks to CRT technology’s innate ability to hide the imperfections of lower-resolution video.
“The picture quality you get with it is absolutely amazing,” Ledbetter continued. “We don’t need massively high resolutions to get an incredible picture, and that means we can actually run the game fully maxed on RTX technology, still use all of those features and phenomenal motion resolution quality that far exceeds even a 4K OLED.”
In the end, everyone’s gaming preference is theirs alone, and there’s no wrong choice for how you like your retro games. Whether you’re chasing PVMs, RGB, and the highest possible fidelity, or happy with the vintage experience of composite on a consumer set, CRTs continue to be one of the absolute best options for playing old video games.
CRT tech is like rose-colored glasses for the retro games we’ve become accustomed to playing on our flatscreens. Like those glasses, it smooths out the experience, hides the flaws, and fills us with all the warm fuzzies we crave when we boot up our favorites. Blu-ray and HDR might’ve done their best to make us forget CRTs, but, like your favorite boy band coming out of retirement, they’re back with your favorite hits. Unlike Brian, AJ, and the gang, they’re
better than you remember.
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