Nintendo Entertainment System :: RGB 202 / MY LIFE IN GAMING

– If you were born in the 80s, then there’s a pretty good chance that your first gaming memories were made with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Whether you call it the NES, “Original Nintendo,” or just “Nintendo,” there’s no denying that this 8-bit machine and it’s amazing library played one of the biggest roles in evolving video games into an enduring cultural cornerstone. For me, the NES remains perhaps my most-played retro console. But it’s certainly not without its flaws, chief among them that it can only output composite video at best, and that’s not pretty, especially on modern TVs. Nintendo loved to show giant pixelated sprites on the label art for its earlier NES titles, but sadly, the system just can’t produce that kind of quality? well, not normally, anyway. Let’s take a look at what the NES hardware is really capable of. Welcome to RGB202. (theme music) – Nintendo released the Family Computer, better-known as the Famicom, in Japan in 1983. A redesigned and rebranded version of the hardware was then released in North America in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System, famously bringing home video games back to popularity following the American video game industry crash of 1983. The NES was also distributed in Europe and other regions using the PAL video standard, where it faced much steeper competition from home computers like the Commodore 64. The NES and Famicom run on microprocessors developed by a Japanese company called Ricoh. The Picture Processing Unit, or “PPU,” provides the system with a palette of 54 colors, displaying up to 25 colors at once. Most notably, the NES lacks good options for yellow, but the corrections for this, through modification or emulation, don’t look all that great. The NES’s color limitations are both a weakness, as well as an accepted facet of each game’s intended “look.” As for the actual video output, Ricoh’s NES PPU is only capable of generating composite video? and as you know by now, that means sub par quality. And as if it needed to be any worse, the origina model of the Famicom has only one option for connecting to your TV? a single cable pumping both audio and composite video through an RF modulator. The NES on the other hand has an RCA composite video port and a mono RCA audio port on the right hand side of the system, which produces better quality than RF. However, every NES shipped with an RF modulator, and since televisions at the time commonly had no inputs other than for an RF signal, this is how most people played the NES. When Nintendo released the Model 2 or “Top-Loader” NES in 1993, they actually removed the composite video output, leaving RF as the only option… which is a real shame because the Top-Loader is known for being way more reliable at connecting with game cartridges than the old Front-Loader. The similarly-designed Famicom revision, released in Japan around the same time, actually did the reverse? it added the familiar AV multi-out port that’s used on the Super Nintendo, N64, and Gamecube, giving Japanese Famicom fans an option other than RF for the first time ever. This unit is commonly referred to as the “AV Famicom.” But don’t be fooled into thinking you can plug any connection beyond composite and a cleaner video signal. It just doesn’t work. S-video is sadly not an option. Still, if you’re interested in Famicom carts, this is absolutely the model to get. For the everyday NES fan, composite video using a standard RCA cable is absolutely the way to go. You can split the mono audio signal into two RCA cables using a Y-adapter like this. They cost around 5 bucks. Using this method, the image is certainly less noisy than RF, but the edges are still pretty rough? if you want something more, let’s take a look at how you can push the NES and Famicom’s video quality beyond their limits. – If you’ve watched our RGB101 video and the rest of the RGB Master Class series, then you already know about RGB video and how it’s so much cleaner and sharper than composite video. You’ll also know about the various cables and devices that can be used to receive the signal, like professional video monitors, or video scalers like the Framemeister. A lot of retro consoles that are traditionally hooked up with RF or composite video are actually generating an RGB signal that the composite video is derived from. But when it comes to the NES and Famicom, the on-board Ricoh PPU is generating composite video and that’s that. There’s a method around this limitation that modders have performed for some time. Nintendo used to make arcade machines called the PlayChoice-10. They feature interchangeable boards that play up to 10 NES games on one machine. And it just so happens that the PlayChoice-10 features an RGB picture processing unit, also manufactured by Ricoh. If you know what you’re doing, you can use it to replace Ricoh’s composite video PPU on the NES or Famicom motherboard. So that’s pretty neat, but there are some issues. The PlayChoice-10 uses a different color palette, so colors won’t look quite like they should. There’s also the matter of the mod ruining a legacy arcade machine, or consuming limited unused replacement parts, as well as being pretty expensive due to availability. Getting better video quality out of the NES has been a pretty tough nut for the modding community to crack. In fact, it’s only been in very recent years that a superior solution has been developed. The major breakthrough has been thanks to Australian modder named Tim Worthington, who developed and sells a custom board that’s called the NES RGB. Now, remember, we’re not modders, and don’t fully understand its operation. But the gist of it is that the NES RGB doesn’t replace the original PPU, but rather works alongside it. If you’re into learning how to do the installation yourself, Tim’s website has plenty of documentation. He also sells the NES RGB board on his website. Depending on your model of NES or Famicom, you may need to select a fairly cheap adapter board with your purchase. Tim has distributors in other regions around the world, so it’s possible you can hire their modding services like I did, or find another reliable modder to help you out. If you don’t already own the NES or Famicom that you’d like to have modified, a more convenient option might be to buy a pre-modded system on eBay by searching for NES RGB. The mod even adds S-video support to your console, which looks great on my CRT! You can access the RGB signal using a SCART or JP-21 cable that’s designed for Nintendo consoles. You can then convert to the proper connector for whatever RGB-capable device you use. If you’re unsure which cable to buy, the NES RGB mod does support CSYNC, which is a pure sync signal that generally provides cleaner picture results than other sync methods. A switch can be installed with the NES RGB mod that allows you to toggle between various color modes. We prefer the default, which is an attempt to accurately recreate the NES palette with RGB color values. If you’d prefer no switch, then you can ask your modder to lock output to a particular palette. So which system is the best candidate for modification? Well, it’s your choice, really. Coury bought a pre-modded NES Top-Loader, which is a great option for its reliability over the classic Front-Loader. I decided to go for a mod with my AV Famicom because I already had this NES to Famicom cartridge converter, which works perfectly with every North American cart that I’ve thrown at it aside from Castlevania III and Jackal. A modded Famicom also means that I can play Disk System games in RGB, which is pretty neat too! Now here’s Coury with a few more interesting considerations. – A partnership between Nintendo and Sharp resulted in three very unique systems? first, the very rare the Sharp Nintendo Television, which has a built-in NES cartridge slot, and is said to display a slightly higher quality image But the Japanese version, the Sharp C1, actually uses an RGB picture processing unit. Second, is the Twin Famicom, which supports both Famicom cartridges, and Famicom Disk System games in a single console? And finally, the Famicom Titler, which actually supports RGB and S-Video, in addition to allowing users to add custom text to the image for the purpose of creating videos. Unfortunately, it’s also super expensive these days, so it’s not really a viable RGB option except for the most dedicated of collectors. There’s also the matter of the French NES, which included a SCART cable and has a port labeled “RGB,” but we’re told that the end result is still just composite quality video. As hardware patents have expired in recent years, you’ve probably seen clone systems like the RetroDuo, which plays NES and Super Nintendo carts. These systems run on hardware similar to the originals, but slight differences can cause compatibility issues in various games. They may also have S-video ports, which work with Super Nintendo games, but unfortunately, none of these systems support NES through S-video. The RetroN 5 outputs cleaner video because it runs on emulators rather than a cloned hardware. The Analogue Nt is different from a cloned system, in that it’s built using processing chips from actual NES and Famicom console, then rebuilt into an aluminum case. It outputs RGB video, optionally scaled to HD over HDMI, using a custom solution developed by Analogue Interactive. Meanwhile, the Super 8-bit is a similar RGB-capable system, which also uses repurposed chips from the original hardware. There have also been other projects that attempt to work 1080p scaling and HDMI output directly into the console itself. Of course, one of the simplest official methods for playing NES games is through Nintendo’s own Virtual Console service, but unfortunately, Nintendo’s emulator for NES games fails to impress. On both the Wii and Wii U, the image is noticeably darkened, and pixels are excessively blurred. Check out how the Wii U Virtual Console compares to NES composite and NES RGB through the Framemeister. This treatment of NES games is even more bizarre due to how much brighter and sharper systems like Super Nintendo and GBA appear on Wii U. But much more interestingly, NES Virtual Console on the original Wii hardware, can actually output at an authentic 240p resolution over component, which is great for scalers and CRTs. It’s still not as good as what you can get out of the NES RGB, but think twice before you transfer all of your Virtual Console games to the Wii U. – So that’s the Nintendo Entertainment System. If you’re looking to play real carts on real hardware, it’s unfortunately not the easiest or cheapest console to get great video quality out of. And you know, I guess I can see the argument that fuzzy composite video is just how NES games are supposed to look. I mean, I dealt with it for most of my life, and I didn’t think any less of the system. But thanks to a creative modding community, if you want razor-sharp pixels generated by real NES hardware, that dream is now available for everyone. (theme music)

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