Retro Gaming Guide, Part 2: PAL vs. NTSC "Video Modes Matter"
A few months ago, I wrote an article about the basics of getting involved in retro gaming and outlined the simplest way for a casual player to get some old games running on original hardware. However, that was merely the tip of this particular iceberg, and now we're going to dive deeper and take a look at a subject that has been the reason for many a complaint and envious glance from European and Australian gamers towards our American and Japanese friends.
That's right, today we're going to talk about video standards and the differences between PAL and NTSC games, 50 and 60 Hz, all that fun stuff. We'll also look at progressive and interlaced video modes, as those are relevant to the main topic in many ways.
There are a lot of N64 screenshots in this article, mainly because I've got a lot of N64 game footage on hand. Original hardware, of course, both PAL and NTSC (Perfect Dark here is NTSC, by the way). Actually, every screenshot in this article was captured on original hardware.
When commercial electric power systems were being developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many different utility frequencies (also known as power line or mains frequencies) were used, and eventually certain parts of the world such as Europe and Australia settled on 50 Hz (with a voltage of 220-240 V) while others like America and parts of Asia used 60 Hz (100-127 V) instead. In the early days of TV technology, the screen's refresh rate had to be tied to the utility frequency of the power supply to avoid interference, which meant running American sets at 60 Hz and European ones at 50 Hz.
So what's the actual difference, then? Well, here's the deal. PAL TVs running at 50 Hz can only display content at 25 or 50 frames (or interlaced fields, which we'll get into in a bit) per second whereas NTSC sets are capable of 30 or 60 fps at 60 Hz, so the content will run visibly slower unless optimized for 50Hz.
The tradeoff is that the PAL (and the French SECAM, which has slight differences to PAL but nothing too dramatic) 50 Hz standard has improved color coding and higher resolution, being able to display content at 720x576, an improvement over the 60 Hz NTSC standard's 640x480 (or roughly 848x480 in 16:9 widescreen mode).
Video game consoles have traditionally been developed with 60 Hz as the intended refresh rate, and this is where things get a little crummy for PAL users. With modern HDTVs and even the 50/60 Hz sets made at the turn of the century, the refresh rates are no longer an issue and everything runs at 60 Hz nowadays.
However, we are talking about retro games here, and although it was entirely possible to optimize these old games for the PAL region and have them compare relatively well to their 60 Hz NTSC counterparts even though they'd still run at the lower PAL frame rate... well, the sad truth is that developers rarely bothered to do this while converting their games to the PAL standard.
In practice, PAL versions of far too many games until the the PS2 era ran approximately 17% slower than intended. Some particularly egregious offenders like Sonic the Hedgehog 1 even had slowed-down music (meanwhile, the original Super Mario Bros. had sped-up music because Nintendo apparently "optimized" the PAL release by just speeding up the entire game). Other games had massive black borders at the horizontal edges of the screen which, since they were there because of the resolution difference, had the side effect of squishing the original 4:3 image vertically. This gives many PAL games that slightly squat look.
In the worst case scenario such as Squaresoft releases on the PS1 and PS2 and basically every 8-bit and 16-bit game ever, both of those telltale signs of a low-effort conversion were present and accounted for! The games were still playable despite the lazy PAL conversion, of course, and for most of us PAL users back then this was just a fact of life we had to deal with... on top of waiting up to six months for the conversion, naturally, just to rub it in a bit more.
Those big black borders at the top and bottom? Yeah, those were a thing on many PAL games back then, and would be even bigger if I hadn't adjusted the image to crop out the overscan area with the Framemeister. Nintendo's early releases on the N64 were notorious for their poor PAL conversions.
You could technically import an NTSC console and games and use those with a step-down voltage transformer, but 60 Hz support was still rather uncommon on European TV sets in those days. It wouldn't really be until around 2001-2005 that most TVs would have support for both 50 and 60 Hz in the PAL region, and during that time you could also play certain games using a video mode known as PAL-60. This was a hybrid mode featuring the NTSC resolution and refresh rate along with PAL color, and it was kind of fantastic at the time.
The PAL version of PowerSlave, aka Exhumed, running at 60 Hz on a Japanese Saturn using an Action Replay cart. There are some minor audio glitches if you play the game like this, but the gameplay runs at 30 fps and nearly fills the screen. If you play a Saturn game that is actually optimized for PAL, portions of the screen get cut off on an NTSC console due to the resolution difference.
Sadly, not every game supported PAL-60, and those that did generally had the option to switch between 50 and 60 Hz at bootup. The Xbox had PAL-60 as a system option instead, and games that didn't support it were forced to run in 50 Hz mode instead. Many games that could run at progressive resolutions (480p and up) on NTSC systems only supported the interlaced 480i/576i resolutions in the PAL region, as the developers usually removed the progressive scan toggle altogether from PAL games.
The progressive resolutions were still technically supported by the system and could be unlocked by modding or cheat devices, but the option to activate them was simply removed. I don't know why this was done, but at least it's easy to restore them.
That guy's hoodie expresses my feelings on the lack of the progressive scan option quite concisely. Yakuza, by the way, runs at 480i as it doesn't support progressive scan in the first place, but at least there's a PAL-60 option.
Hold on, what's this "interlaced" and "progressive" stuff, you ask? It's not that complicated once you get the basic idea, really, so let's start off by explaining how interlaced video works. On CRT displays, the video signal consists of two rapidly flickering "fields" alternating between the odd and even lines of each frame. This technique was often used in video games to attain improved frame (or field) rates at the cost of image quality. Modern HDTVs combine the interlaced fields into one frame in a process called deinterlacing, which may cause some additional lag but generally works quite well.
As John Linneman of Digital Foundry pointed out in his DF Retro episode on Ridge Racer V and during his guest spot in My Life in Gaming's PlayStation 2 video, the infamous jaggies on PS2 games such as Ridge Racer V are in fact combing artifacts caused by low-quality field rendering, not a lack of anti-aliasing as is the common misconception. Some actual aliasing is of course present since the PS2 and other systems from that time rarely used proper AA, but the point is that the lack of AA was not the main reason for the dreaded jaggies.
Progressive scan, on the other hand, draws every line of each frame in sequence, delivering a sharper, more solid and less flickery image. 480p and 576p are considered "enhanced definition" resolutions, and can be used on 6th generation (PS2 era) consoles via component video on an EDTV or HDTV. Of course, HD resolutions aside from 1080i are progressive as well.
GameCube games don't support 480p natively in the PAL region because... err... look over there, a three-headed monkey! You can, however, use homebrew software to force progressive scan like I'm doing with Burnout 2 here. With the SD Media Launcher, you can even run GameCube homebrew on the Wii without any modifications, so you can get that 480p goodness without shelling out a small fortune for GameCube component cables.
There is also 240p, which was used until the 5th generation of consoles, but that is more of a programming trick than an actual resolution. Instead of sending out two interlaced fields, the console would only render a single field consisting of alternating lines and leave the rest of the lines blank. This is how the distinctive scanline effect with alternating bright and dark lines, beloved by NTSC region retro gamers in particular (the effect is less noticeable on a higher-res PAL screen), came to be. Unfortunately, modern HDTVs treat 240p as 480i which results in some rather unpleasant artifacts, if they even support the mode at all.
Phew! That was a lot of technical jargon to slog through, but hopefully you got the gist of it because now we're going to look at how this stuff relates to retro gaming in the year 2018. The focus in this part of the article is on the PAL and NTSC video standards as we'll be spending plenty of time with interlaced and progressive video resolutions once we get to video upscalers in a future writeup, but I figured I would at least explain the differences between interlaced and progressive video in this part since I knew I'd have to talk about those video modes at some point. But yes, we'll go back to PAL and NTSC for now.
I like Cruis'n USA, don't @ me. Yeah, it's awful, but still a lot of fun.
If you are fine with doing your retro gaming on a PAL system even after the horror stories I recounted earlier, that is completely fine and, frankly, the easiest route by far if you're a PAL gamer. You don't have to worry about refresh rates, voltages, overseas shipping costs or anything like that, and you get to play all those old games just the way they were back then! If you are satisfied with 50 Hz gaming, then absolutely go with that.
Persona 3 is another PS2 game that doesn't support progressive scan, but it can still look really nice and sharp with the right setup.
Personally, though, I am very much a 60 Hz retro gamer, and most of my consoles are either NTSC systems or region modded to support both PAL and NTSC. As a general rule, I do not want to deal with the black borders and slowdown caused by low-effort PAL conversions because I got quite enough of that back in the bad old days. I want to play these games the way they were intended to be experienced, and that means 60 Hz.
I do make certain exceptions to this rule when it makes sense, though. For example, if I have to choose between paying 12 euros for a PAL copy of Silent Hill 2 or 50 bucks to import the American version (may or may not include customs fees), I am most definitely picking the PAL release. I may be a 60 Hz snob most of the time, but if the 50 Hz PAL version is that much cheaper, I don't mind playing at 25 fps instead of 30.
Silent Hill 3 does have a PAL-60 option unlike its predecessor, and it looks great. Still no 480p, though.
So, how about all those power adapters, then? Obviously, you don't want to burn down your house just because you wanted to play some Final Fantasy VI, not that those Japanese and American plugs would fit in a wall socket on this side of the planet anyway. Well, there are a few solutions, depending on the system and the sort of power adapter it uses. I'm assuming you're in Europe for all of these, by the way, but the basic solutions work both ways.
In many cases, you can simply buy a PAL region power adapter designed for an NTSC console. I've bought several of these from a French online retailer called Retro Game Supply, and they have worked extremely well. Off the top of my head, I'm using RGS power supplies for my American SNES, AV Famicom + Famicom Disk System (it's a single adapter), and Neo Geo AES.
Other systems use an external power supply that can be used with any region's version of the console since everything's in the cable itself. The Nintendo 64 is one of these systems, and I've been using the same power brick on my PAL and US N64 consoles with great results. According to my research, the GameCube also uses a universal power brick, but I haven't needed to worry about that since I only have a PAL GameCube anyway.
Finally, there are the consoles using an internal power supply with a standard cord you see on many electronics, the one with the connector shaped like an 8 (or an 8 whose other half is rectangular). This cord doesn't convert the voltage in any way, so FOR THE LOVE OF BAHAMUT, NEVER CONNECT A GENERIC EUROPEAN POWER CABLE TO AN NTSC SYSTEM EVEN IF IT FITS IN THE SOCKET, YOU WILL WRECK YOUR CONSOLE AND POSSIBLY YOURSELF.
For these systems (original fat PlayStation, PS2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Xbox, 3DO, possibly others), you need a way to convert the voltage into something you can use, and in order to do that you need a step-down transformer. You can buy these hefty bricks at your local electronics store for about €25, and they'll do the trick nicely. Just remember to connect them directly to the mains, extension cords might work but I wouldn't risk it.
Naturally, you're also going to need a TV that supports 60 Hz, or you won't be playing a whole lot of 60 Hz games. Any modern HDTV with RGB-SCART and component inputs should work, although keep in mind these don't handle 240p correctly. If you're going to play a lot of 8-bit, 16-bit and 32-bit games on an HDTV, I highly recommend the XRGB-mini Framemeister or the Open Source Scan Converter as an upscaling solution.
Later on in the N64's life, Nintendo started putting some effort into the PAL conversions. Of course, PAL N64 games still suffer from the fact the system only outputs composite video at best in that region. Thanks, lads.
If you're shopping for CRTs, just about anything that says "50/60Hz" somewhere on the back will do the job and most likely has all the inputs you want, including S-video (which is long gone from TVs by now) for your NTSC Nintendo 64. Brand-wise, a Sony Trinitron is probably what you're looking for, although be warned that those weigh approximately a metric ton and may require a forklift or a team of Olympic weightlifters to transport.
You may want to avoid widescreen CRTs, because those big bastards are quite heavy as well and tend to have problems with screen geometry, but if you can find a decent one and have the means to move it... well, why the hell not. That said, you really should avoid Panasonic Quintrix sets, because those (at least mine) have some sort of a weird auto-adjusting feature for the geometry. It looks awful and, more importantly, can't be disabled.
This is actually the US version of Wave Race 64. You can see it also has the horizontal black borders, but in this case they are clearly used to reduce the rendering load on the system as Wave Race was a tremendously demanding game for the N64. If memory serves, the PAL version had even bigger borders. It definitely ran 17% slower, which was a slight problem since the game ran at 20 fps at best in the first place!
There are also professional video CRT monitors (PVM/BVM) and many of them feature RGB and component support, although these screens require their own sets of cables and can be expensive and difficult to track down. In return, they offer the best picture quality you're going to get from a CRT screen. Basically, if you manage to grab one of these things, I'm very jealous and you clearly don't need my help because you know what you're doing.
You now have the Big Blue theme stuck in your head. Don't even attempt to deny it.
Anyways, that's about it for this part of the 3VG retro gaming guide, and with this information you should be well on your way to building the most impressive retro game setup in your town. Next time we'll... uh, to be honest, I have no idea what we'll be looking at, but I'm sure I'll figure it out at some point.
I hope this article has been of some use to you, and if it hasn't I hope it's at least been an interesting or mildly amusing read. I would like to thank My Life in Gaming once more, because without their excellent RGB Masterclass series of videos this article would not exist, and John Linneman's Digital Foundry Retro series deserves another shoutout as well. Thanks to these guys and their great efforts, my passion for retro gaming has grown stronger than ever.