So you want to stream retro games…

It goes without saying that I’m not some sort of streaming legend.  I don’t do speed runs, I don’t play horror games (for viewer “lulz”) and there’s no chance of me playing CS:GO, DotA, or Overwatch any time soon.  No, my draw to start streaming games was more of a way to legitimise the hours I “waste” playing my retro consoles on a frequent basis, “I enjoy playing this obscure, 16bit title – maybe others will want to see it” kind of thing.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time and money over the years getting my gaming setup (in the back bedroom, lest I anger the missus) to match my exacting standards.  Here’s a relatively recent photo of my console setup:

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Retro glory, in HD

Us children of the 80s, and denizens of the Lord’s green and pleasant land (the UK) were used to analog gaming and video equipment being able to output RGB via SCART connections – those strange, rectangular ports that started to become mainstream in the 90s and then fizzled out once 480p, component, and HDMI started gaining popularity.  Trying to find a TV that even has a SCART port nowadays will be a fruitless task, and of the ones that do (surprisingly) include a SCART port and/or adaptor you’ll probably find that the TVs inbuilt analog scaler does a horrible job of representing what we remember these games looking like.

See – I’m already getting far more technical than I wanted to with this article, and that seems to be a running theme with me…  Fuck it, here’s a brief explanation:

Modern TVs and Consoles.

Digital signals passed, losslessly to a TV that usually maps pixel output on a 1:1 basis.  For example – PS4 sends digital image with a resolution of 1920×1080 to a digital panel (that has 1920×1080 pixels) 60 times a second (matching the 60Hz refresh rate of the panel).

Everything works together, they’re friends, they fuck each other’s wives at the weekend then laugh about it down the pub…  Good times.  1080p (at 60Hz), and HDMI (1.2 at least) is a universal standard.  Hell, even a 4K TV accepts a 1080p signal simply by turning one pixel of information into four pixels – this is upscaling in its purest form (the same is true of 720p, where a 4K panel will turn one pixel into 9 pixels – a perfect integer upscale).

558_3642_0_2800_three_la-bar-patrons-laughing-pints-beer-devon0813
She wanted me to fuck her “in 4K”

Old consoles and analog (CRT) TVs.

This is where shit gets annoying.  Old consoles did render their video digitally, but that digital image was routed through a chip on the board called a DAC (Digital to Analog converter) and then output to a TV as an analog signal.  Analog signals don’t really have pixels… Instead they have horizontal lines of resolution, and it was the signal driving the cathode ray tube (via the mainboard) to produce an image – rather than some sort of processor in the TV interpreting/displaying the image.  To keep it brief, modern TVs don’t play well with these analog signals because they were rarely exact and/or truly standardised.  Think of a modern TV like the exacting head of a German engineering firm, and an analog signal as some sort of diva, new-age artist who has been contracted for a job.

hippy-artist-anjuna-flea-market-anjuna-goa-india-EAN7W5
Do some fucking work, Tabetha

I won’t go into more detail here.  If you really want to delve deeper into the world of analog signals then you can catch up on a couple of articles that I wrote last year:

Retro Gaming 101
Retro Gaming 102

Overcoming the odds.

To get around these inherent problems/incompatibilities I originally opted to buy something called the OSSC – Open Source Scan Converter.  It’s a marvellous bit of kit that accepts a 240p RGB signal and (through a mixture of magic and science) line doubles/triples it to form a 480p or 720p “HD” digital signal that’s more suited to a modern TV (providing your TV isn’t too picky when it comes to refresh rates).

IMAG0123
Open Source Scan Converter

Unfortunately capture cards are more picky than TVs/Monitors.  They don’t like the non-standard timings from the OSSC, and so getting an image was nigh-on impossible.  On top of that I like using scanlines on the TV for that “authentic” look – but they don’t translate well to streamed footage.  I needed a way to capture the raw, RGB output from a console before it hit the OSSC.  Luckily I route all my consoles through an automatic, 8-way SCART switch called the GSCARTSW, and that has a second VGA-style output.

GSCARTSW
GSCARTSW

Finding a capture card that can accurately accept/display 240p RGB is a fucking nightmare.  I eventually opted for the Startech USB3HDCAP because a lot of retro forums recommended it (another option was a more expensive device called the Micomsoft XCAPTURE-1 which essentially uses the same internals as the UDB3HDCAP).

IMAG0531
Startech USB3HDCAP

After much frustration with routing cables, installing drivers, and buying a new USB 3.0 PCIe card (because mine was incompatible) I’ve finally got a way to capture/stream the old games (and new games via HDMI) that I love to play, at the quality I’m so fucking anal about.  So what was the cost in total?  Ignoring the price of the consoles, everdrives etc:

GSCARTSW 8-way, auto SCART Switch – approx £200
OSSC – approx £170
Startech USB3HDCAP – approx £170
High quality HDMI splitter/repeater – £40
Sound system that could accept Optical (toslink) from the TV and RCA from consoles – £100

Add another £50 worth of cabling and you’re well over £700 – Sorry Kate (if you’re reading this!)

If there’s a point to this article it’s probably this…  If you’re looking for a way to play old consoles on modern TVs with the best picture quality, and there’s even the slightest possibility of you wanting to capture/stream those games in the future DON’T BUY THE OSSC.  BUY A FRAMEMEISTER, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.  If I had spent more initially on the Framemeister XRGB Mini, then any cheap HDMI capture card would have taken the image without a problem.  Oh well, see what you think of the results:

IMAG0490
Glorious Scanlines on a modern TV

** SHAMELESS PLUG **

I stream a few times a week, usually around 8pm BST/GMT. If you’re at all interested in retro games, or just watching an uncouth swine like myself drink/vape/curse drop me a follow (GameJon on Twitch) to see when I go live.

-Jon

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