Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Case for Composite

The SNES and Genesis lead the pack of the 4th generation of video game consoles.  The common versions of these consoles can support RGB without any more effort than acquiring a cable and a monitor.  The Turbo Grafx 16 can be modded to support RGB.  But in this article I will demonstrate that RGB is not always the best choice for 4th generation graphics, at least when dealing NTSC composite video

1.  Sega Genesis

The Sega Genesis usually uses a 320x224 graphics mode.  Some games use a 256x224 mode.  The 320x224 mode's horizontal resolution is so great that not all the pixels can be fully resolved in a composite video signal on a standard TV.  There is frequent color fringing in thin-font text through the composite signal.  Additionally, with alternating colors,  you can obtain color artifacts to give graphics a transparent or blending effect.  This effect was used fairly often and works best with long alternating vertical lines.

Unfortunately, this effect is lost with an RGB monitor.  Compare the Genesis screenshots on this page for examples :

Here are some examples from several Sega Genesis games.  For these screenshots I am using Kega Fusion v3.64, with the normal RGB output and a video capture of a real Sega Genesis Model 1 for composite video.  In each pair of Genesis screenshots, you will see the RGB first, then the composite.

Earthworm Jim is particularly ugly looking with RGB :

Note the edges of the mountains in the background :

The waterfalls of the Sonic series just don't look as convincing in RGB, composite video gives them a transparency effect :

Also, compare the fronds of the palm trees in Sonic 2 :

Some games use a checkerboard pattern that allows for dithering to give a transparency effect.  It is not quite as seamless on a composite monitor as the vertical stripes method, but gives a more acceptable picture on an RGB monitor.  Streets of Rage 2 uses the effect to simulate the characteristics of a studio spotlight during the nightclub stage :

The effect looks obvious with RGB, as do the color limitations in this title screen for Echo the Dolphin :

You can even see dithering being used in Street Fighter II, which uses a 256x224 mode, to smooth out the color gradient's in the carpet in this stage :

However, sometimes composite video can produce some very unsightly artifacts, as shown in the empty life bars of Castlevania Bloodlines :

2.  Super Nintendo

The Super Nintendo almost always uses a 256x224 graphics mode.  The Turbo Grafx 16 and CD typically used a similar mode but unlike the SNES could do a 320x224 mode.  Thus for games using these resolutions, artifact graphics are not typically available.  Even in these systems, shadows and smoke/fog do make some us of the less-than fine resolution of composite video :

However, late in the SNES's lifespan, Nintendo sought to improve the graphics quality of some of its games by creating 3D models of sprites and background tiles on advanced Silicon Graphics computers and then storing what was needed in a pre-rendered form on the cartridge.  Pictures of these graphics looked awesome on boxes and manuals and magazines.

Games with this look, like the Donkey Kong Country series, Killer Instinct, Super Mario RPG were very popular and helped extend the life of the SNES without a silly and expensive CD add-on.  When playing the game, they looked amazing back in the day.  However, when played through and emulator or to a lesser extent through RGB, the flaws cannot be denied.  The graphics have been so reduced in resolution from their SGI originals that they tend to look fuzzy, even with the perfection an emulator like higan 0.94 can provide :

Composite video can help hide the sharp edges from the down-conversion.  It is kind of like free anti-aliasing.

The SNES could do true transparency, but even so, dithering was sometimes used to provide something akin to free transparency.  The first screenshot, from Chrono Trigger, shows natural transparency by the light streaming in from the window :

The second screenshot, from Secret of Mana, shows true transparency with the water covering the rocks, and dithered transparency in the text box :

The final screenshot, from Mortal Kombat 3, shows a transparent effect with the life bars :

To give a flavor of more accurate dithering I used a composite capture device and real hardware (an early 2-chip PPU model revision).

Occasionally, Genesis-like artifacting does appear on the SNES.  Consider Kirby's Dream Land 3, which uses a 512x224 resolution.  The increased bandwidth of an RGB monitor can essentially resolve 512 pixels, but a composite monitor cannot, and the result is free transparency on the lower quality device.  Compare the following :

The first screenshot shows artifact graphics in the object partially covering Kirby, but you can see the gaps in between the lines.  The second screenshot shows the transparency effect you would see on a composite monitor.

The original model of the SNES is capable of S-Video output without modification, but you really begin to lose the transparent effects and forgiving qualities of composite video output.  In light of the successful development of HD Retrovision's component video cables for the SNES and Genesis, giving North American gamers the equivalent of RGB video out, this is a timely topic.

3.  Atari 5200 and 7800

Unlike the Atari 2600, the 5200 and 7800 support 320-pixel wide graphics modes.  The Atari 5200 uses the same hardware chips as the Atari 8-bit home computers.  Choplifter for the Atari 5200 was ported from the Atari 8-bit home computers, which was in turn ported from the Apple II.  All three versions use composite artifact color.  The Atari 5200 only has an RF connection, so unless you mod your system for S-Video (the Atari 800 has Separate Luma/Chroma on its video connector port), you will always see artifact color.  When Atari later released Choplifter for the XEGS, another Atari 8-bit home computer games console, it redid the graphics for a 160-pixel wide mode, eliminating artifact composite color.  Look here for more information :

The Atari 7800 also had a 320-pixel wide mode that supported artifact color, but relatively few games supported it.  Its 160-pixel mode was much easier to use and supported more colors on the screen.  One of the few games that do support artifact colors on the 7800 is Tower Toppler, a.k.a. Nebulus a.k.a. Castelian.  This might have been because the game was being ported to the Atari 8-bit and XEGS and the Atari 7800 at the same time by the same programmer.  As explained here, the Atari 8-bit version was canceled :  The Atari 7800 only has RF output, so you will always see composite artifact colors when playing the game on a real, unmodded NTSC system.  Playing it on a PAL system will result in very stripey, sometimes monochrome graphics.  This video will show you what the graphics should look like :

4.  Sega Master System

The Sega Master System does support composite artifact color after a fashion.  It uses a 256-pixel wide mode but unlike the NES, it does not use a fractional color pixels that give a 3-line staircase effect.  It also does not vary each frame by one pixel.  This has the effect of making artifact colors rather stable and vertical on the SMS but diagonal and shimmery on the NES.  Sometimes you can see this in games.  See here for more information :


Dinis said...

Can anyone make a filter that looks good?

Alex Greentown said...

Anonymous said...

GH, have you seen this shader ( which produces clear image, but also tries to preserve these composite effects such as transparency and color blending?