In search of the perfect display

We should all feel very lucky to live in an era where the entire libraries of a dozen or more formats old and new can be displayed on just about anything from gigantic OLED TVs to specialist monitors with attractive curved screens boasting a laundry list of high-end features, streamed wirelessly to phones, played on tiny screens within miniature hardware or bright LCDs bundled with modern reproductions of old arcade cabinets. Older consoles can now be tweaked and soldered to output signals that either already lay dormant and disconnected within the hardware itself or they were never natively capable of displaying at all, connecting them to broadcast-grade monitors or state-of-the-art entertainment centres. Even handhelds are part of this visual revolution with backlit mods, all-new TV-out ports, and full screen replacements readily available for everything from the ubiquitous Game Boy to the more esoteric WonderSwan Color. Sega’s Game Gear was recently revived and transformed into a fully functional yet keychain-sized device, Nintendo have brought back their timeless Game & Watch design just so they could give portable Super Mario Bros./Super Mario Bros. 2 (“The Lost Levels” Mario 2, not… the other Mario 2) to the masses, and both the 3DS and Vita host a wide range of officially offered emulated classics.

So we’ve got a lot of choice and happily much of it broadly falls within what most would consider to be an affordable price range (relative to the average cost associated with the product – I’m not saying a new TV’s cheap) – but what’s the best option for each era? For each system? For each game? As someone with more hardware than underwear (well, that’s not… actually – that might be true…) I thought it’d make sense to try and find the definitive answer to this ever-worsening problem, even if only for my own sake.

We’ll start with old-fashioned CRT TVs. A good CRT – which is any half-decent set intended for home use – will offer rich colours enhanced by the special sort of glow that only comes from this sort of display, bright highlights giving off a beautiful bloom effect and dark tones almost sucking you into their inky depths. Slot masks, shadow masks, and scanlines give chunky pixels the clear separation they need to really shine and all of your treasured old light guns will work as intended (so long as you’re not using a later 100Hz TV, that is), opening or reopening an entire genre for your gaming pleasure. One up from these hefty pieces of kit (or a step sideways, depending on what you want to do with them) are VGA CRT monitors, AKA “The really old monitor that came with your/your parent’s first PC (delete as appropriate for your age group)”. These have all the visual benefits of the above, produce an image so sharp you’ll fall to your knees and weep for your casual lack of appreciation for their true beauty the first time around, and work with more or less nothing outside of really old PCs, a Dreamcast with the correct cables, a few slightly awkward arcade motherboards, and dusty laptops. Oh and you can forget using light guns with just about all of them too.

From there we’ll move on towards what I’ve unhelpfully lumped into the “Flat PC monitor” category, which covers everything from those pleasantly “soft” old LCDs that allowed you to trace a brief rainbow coloured snake across the screen with your finger to generic “It came with my computer” shrugs of technology and wallet-destroying rectangles of beauty. Any half-decent PC monitor is going to produce at least a serviceable image when sat directly in front of it (do watch those viewing angles on older examples though) and in the very best cases a premium experience showcasing voidlike blacks and zinging colours on a monitor so wide you have to turn your head to see the edges of the screen. For sheer size though nothing’s bigger than the latest model HDTV you can afford, with even ordinary mid-range sets these days more than likely to push aside everything else on an entire living room wall and give your games a welcome dose of cinematic oomph. The major downside is the lack of inputs – if you’re very lucky they might have a solitary component port somewhere on the back (very handy for fans of Sony’s PlayStation 2), but realistically your options are HDMI and… that’s it. They’re also big. Did I mention they were big? HDTVs are really big. Sometimes things can be too big, even if they look really impressive.

Last of all are dedicated handhelds, which includes anything from the smeary unlit greens of the original Game Boy to the blazing brightness and pin-sharp touch-capable displays of modern tablets and smartphones; older games designed with their built-in screens quirks in mind, newer games silently adapting to any display ratio and resolution thrown at them, and outside of warranty-destroying DIY you pretty much have to accept what you’re given or buy something else.

You have probably noticed by now that I haven’t actually given any rankings or recommendations at all – and there’s a very good reason for that. Twenty or more years ago, back when home display options were an easy non-choice between CRTs, CRTs, and CRTs (we’ll continue to ignore that one guy who swore by projectors) the answer to all of this was simple – you bought the best quality cable the system you were playing supported whether that was composite, S-Video, RGB SCART, or very rarely VGA/component, you plugged that into the biggest compatible TV set in the house, and for most people, most of the time, that was the end of it. The trouble is these days it’s all far more complicated; a 4K (or higher) HDR-enabled TV with a triple-digit refresh rate isn’t going to do you much good if your computer or console hasn’t got the power to back it up – and that’s assuming the game in question supports those advanced features in the first place. Miniaturised retro consoles will easily plug in to the same but whether they end up looking wonderful, an unintelligible fifty-plus inch mosaic of square pixels, or a grim “smoothed” mush all depends on your current TV settings and how they handle content intended to be sharp-edged and distinct rather than blended and natural. That bright and crisp handheld screen mod may reduce an already small screen size even further or be mostly, but not entirely, accurate to the original, making the end result not all that different from playing the game through an emulator on your phone – but on the other hand it could also end up being the best thing you ever did for the neglected Game Boy Pocket you’ve had rattling around a forgotten drawer for the entirety of the 21st century, breathing convenient new life into ageing hardware. CRT sets are heavy, bulky, and viewed as specialist retro equipment these days, pushing the prices of these thirty year old boxes of glass and plastic up to almost comedic levels for anyone not lucky enough to have a dusty attic to raid or able to pick up an unwanted and possibly untested set from someone nearby. Display-emulating shaders, attachable upscalers, and official HD enhancements all muddy the waters even further.

And so the only honest conclusion I can come to is this: In 2021, the best display is whatever you have that can be comfortably and easily used with the hardware you want to use with it. Think about it: Between backwards compatibility, mid-cycle hardware upgrades (that’ll be the slightly befuddling selection of Pros and Xs), and the Switch’s portable/docked differences not even console exclusives are designed with one specific piece of hardware or display in mind, so why spend any time worrying about it, when nobody else cares so long as you’re playing the game? In fact why should you worry about any of it? A Saturn played through RF cable on a flat screen TV is still a better experience than playing no Saturn at all, a SNES run through your Gran’s slightly temperamental and uncalibrated old CRT is still a SNES in use, and snatching ten minutes of stream-played Final Fantasy VII Remake through an iPad propped up in the kitchen is infinitely preferable to waiting for a perfect slice of free time that may not come for a week, a month – or at all. So play whatever you want on whatever you want to play it on – play Planescape: Torment on a Switch Lite under a blanket, Symphony of the Night on your phone at the bus stop, Ridge Racer on a PS one screen in bed, Game Gear games using the original backlight on the sofa, a favourite N64 title in window in a corner of your laptop’s screen, and arcade games on original PCBs or emulated on a Vita’s screen – just please keep on playing. Those fancy PVMs really are lovely – and they’re also not worth the cost or the hassle it takes to acquire one for most people either. Playing PC games with every graphical slider pushed up to the far end and at what feels like an almost ridiculous 240FPS is a lot of fun (makes for some great screenshots too) but outside of professional level competitive gaming a definite luxury rather than an absolute requirement. Game Boy mods can be nothing short of works of art, but Tetris has forever been just as much fun without them. Your gaming preferences, your living space, your circumstances, your current mood, your love for a particular format or genre, that decides what’s best today.

Me? I’m off to play XCOM 2 on roughly the equivalent of low PC settings on a 4:3 iPad screen. Using nothing but touch controls. In the garden. Because today, that’s what’s best for me.

[Ko-fi supporters read this a whole week early!]

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