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.”
When Less Is More
“There’s something really 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.
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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.