Few role-playing experiences are as beloved as the original Final Fantasy games, which is why Square Enix announcing a new brand it's calling Pixel Remasters for the first six games was greeted with equal parts shock and horror. For every brilliant reinvention, like last year's Final Fantasy 7 Remake, you have these nightmarish updates to classics like Final Fantasy 6 that are so abjectly awful to look at that fans created mods to try and replace the visuals.
"That 2D-HD remake of Dragon Quest III is probably the smartest retro update they could've conceived!" said games writer and RPG podcast Axe of the Blood God co-host Nadia Oxford. "Why do they keep flubbing Final Fantasy? It boggles the mind. Square Enix works in mysterious, and infuriating, ways."
It's not really clear what Square Enix wants to accomplish with these Pixel Remasters, but what's abundantly clear is that Square Enix intends to revisit the visuals across each 2D game. The new sprites aren't massive departures from the originals, but they're different, and it's led to speculation about whether the company is going to address a longstanding issue with older games being released on fancy new televisions and computer monitors.
"I really do think the redesigned sprites for the Pixel Remasters are trying to get the images closer to what the original sprites looked like on a CRT," said Digital Eclipse editorial director, former games journalist, and retro gaming enthusiast Chris Kohler on Twitter recently.
I've always loved the way video games looked—fuzzy and crunchy—on those humorously heavy and bulky older cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs that used to populate family rooms. What I didn't know until earlier this year, however, was the science behind it all. It's not just that high-definition displays provide a crisper look at art made in earlier eras of video games, but that art was specifically drawn knowing it would ultimately pipe through a CRT, and when that art is viewed on a modern, non-CRT display, you're actually losing some intended detail.
Here's the tweet that broke my brain, introducing me to the concept:
I am, at least, not alone in such ignorance. Evelyn Rose Hall, tile artist and writer on the very pretty throwback RPG Ara Fell, confessed they were unaware until I'd asked over email.
"Embarrassing!" said Hall. "I had no idea! I mean, it makes sense, but I never thought about it before. Of course they'd be making art with the display device in mind. I remember when I first got into SNES emulation with ZSNES, years ago, and fiddling with the settings. They had scanlines you could turn on, but I never understood why. I figured it was just so you could get that nostalgic experience of playing on a CRT, but no, that's how the graphics were supposed to look."
The CRT Pixels account is run by writer and designer Jordan Starkweather, who's been collecting CRT TVs for more than 20 years now and has remained fascinated by the technology in the era of high-definition and 4K. Starkweather shared a few examples of the way old video game art looks in pure and CRT forms on his private account, which generated such a response Starkweather felt compelled to share it with a wider audience.
"It made me a bit sad just how much this aspect of game design was being lost, overlooked, or misunderstood as time moved on," said Starkweather. "The art of video games was intrinsically tied to this technology. I want younger people to understand this and I want to create demand for developers and publishers to work to preserve it."
Starkweather's work pokes a hole in a commonly held belief that access to cleaner and crisper displays is a way to play cleaner, crisper, and ultimately purer versions of older games. But the reality is these games weren't designed to be played on these displays.
It's why the only way to understand what's going on is to place a screen shot, typically taken from an emulator, side-by-side with a photograph of a television screen. There's no way to capture what's happening without snapping a photo of the game coming through the TV.
Starkweather captures many of the CRT comparison photos himself, constantly fiddling with things like focus, shutter speed, and color balance to capture it accurately. It mostly works.
"Even with all that work, it'll never be perfect," he said. "These screens will always look so much better in person than even I can demonstrate."
The problem is many people will never experience it in real-life, and so filters and similar technologies are essentially forms of emulation for television tech. More than 705 million CRT TVs have been sold in the United States since 1980, and the vast majority of these environmentally unfriendly devices are in the process of being broken down and recycled. That process will take years. But more practically, nobody is making CRT TVs anymore, and as the existing supply naturally breaks down, it falls to hobbyists to keep them ticking.
No great shock to learn that Starkweather isn't a huge fan of Square Enix's approach for the Pixel Remasters, partially because it risks erasing the work of the original artists. One solution that Starkweather proposes is Square Enix spending time on a refined CRT filter.
CRT filters, a way of modifying the look of a modern display to try and capture those old CRTs, isn't new. Nintendo even included a feature like this with their NES and SNES "classic" re-release. It's common, even though I frequently turn them on for 30 seconds, bathe in the nostalgia cloud for a few moments, and return to the cleaner, if inaccurate, look.
"Emulators like Stella make it possible to play Atari games on modern computers, serving the function of archival tool, development platform, and player for these original games," wrote author and academic Ian Bogost more than a decade ago. "But unfortunately, they also give an inaccurate impression of what Atari games looked like on a television."
Bogost's work is an example of early CRT filtering, though other emulators had been engaging in the practice even earlier with various approaches. Bogost collaborated with a group of computer science engineers to add some CRT behaviors to the Stella emulator.
Experiments like this helped inspire designer and programmer J. Kyle Pittman, co-founder of the developer Minor Key Games. The studio has played with all sorts of retro aesthetics and design styles, including a CRT layer for the popular retro platformer You Have to Win the Game from 2012. Ironically, one of the first requests from fans was a way to turn that off.
"It feels obvious in retrospect, but not everyone likes the look of fuzzy pixels!" said Pittman. "That in turn led me to put more time and effort into allowing players to fine-tune the look of the simulator in future games. But I still saw most players turning it off completely."
In Pittman's most recent games, like the retro action game Gunmetal Arcade, the CRT filter is off by default. It's still there, mind you, but the fans have been clear on their preference.
"I don't feel it's an inferior experience or a betrayal of the developers' vision or anything like that," he added. "I'm usually a stickler for preserving the correct aspect ratio of media, but the difference between raw pixels and their appearance on old CRTs is small enough that I really don't notice it unless I'm comparing images side by side."
Pittman later released his CRT filtering techniques as its own piece of software, SuperCRT, allowing people to turn anything on their computer desktop into something akin to an old TV.
"Filters are simply filters and they change visuals without having any artistic intention behind," said renowned pixel artist Thomas Feichtmeir. "I have not yet seen any CRT filter implemented in a game which truly simulated a realistic CRT experience."
Feichtmeir has pixels in two upcoming games, as art director for the Metroidvania Gestalt: Steam & Cinder, and artist on the strategy game Songs of Conquest. His DeviantArt page is filled with jaw dropping pixel work. Shocking, then, that he has strong thoughts on pixels.
While naive folks like myself learned about CRT through a Twitter account, Feichtmeir had a similar realization years ago. At home, Feichtmeir had a CRT monitor next to an LCD laptop, and as he transferred his dawn pixels from one to the other, it dawned upon him that they looked different. He noticed a similar issue playing games re-released on modern displays.
"If you make a piece of pixel art on a LCD and you put it on a CRT," he said, "it‘s the equivalent of taking one of your articles, putting it through Google Translate and to expect that the other language it comes out [with] will have perfect meaning and grammar. A whole field of 'localization' exists for writing and in the game industry to address those issues."
Feichtmeir has some sympathy for a company like Square Enix, calling any artistic update "a very difficult undertaking" and pointing out the good work done on previous updates, like the graphical updates applied to the original Final Fantasy games for 2004's Dawn of Souls. (It's also worth reading his analysis of how the simple technology of adding backlighting to the Game Boy Advance resulted in changes in how Nintendo approached art for Fire Emblem.)
Though Feichtmeir has no specific insight into what Square Enix is or isn't planning for its Pixel Remasters series, watching what's been released gave him pause on the CRT theory.
"Considering the couple of screenshots and snippets we saw in the presentation, I would not say any of it really accounts for the gap between CRT and LCDs," he said. "We still can see a lot of techniques which theoretically should stay on a CRT—like overly dithered textures or just color optimized battle backgrounds. The biggest change are the characters, where they basically removed the volumetric shading in exchange for a dark outlined flat style. In my eyes this just changes the style to something which does not feel close to the original. And I think what a remaster should deliver on is to recreate the feeling how the original game felt."
In some ways, that's the heart of what we're talking about there: how the original game felt and what it means to honor that feeling decades removed from that moment in time. At play are the intentions of the artists, the technology they were working on at the time, and what the audience felt when they brought the cartridge home and started playing it on their TVs.
"There is definitely a divide when it comes to 'pixel nostalgia,' for lack of a better term," said Axe of the Blood God co-host Nadia Oxford. "Old people such as myself love pixels because they're what we grew up with. Younger people have also seemingly adopted pixels because, let's face it, pixel art is timeless."
Oxford pointed towards the incredible popularity of games like Roblox and Minecraft, games with seemingly simplistic graphics that nonetheless gripped an entire generation's attention.
"I think younger gamers also don't discriminate about graphics like we did at their age," she said.
Which might very well be what Square Enix is picking up on here. The old school fans might complain, but one could reasonably assume they'd complain regardless—it's in their nature.
"When I see CRT-compliant Terra, I see a masterpiece," said Oxford. "When someone who's, say, 20, sees CRT-compliant Terra, they're probably just going to see a puddle of puked-up Froot Loops. I think Square understandably wants to meet everyone in the middle."