The Internet Archive’s Retro Game Collection Now Emulates Terrible CRT Monitors

It’s more technically challenging to make an old game look bad than it is to make it look good.
June 30, 2016, 4:51pm
Screengrab: Internet Archive

Internet historians, crackers, and archivists have done a great job saving important computer games and programs from the early days: You can play thousands of games from the 70s and 80s on the Internet Archive right within your browser. But something is always just a little bit off: The games look too good.

Finally, someone has figured out how to make old games look bad again by creating an in-browser emulator that recreates the effects of CRT monitors, televisions, and arcade cabinets.

The first game to be emulated using this method is Crazy Kong, a game that to a layperson is indecipherable from Donkey Kong (they're not the same, and Crazy Kong isn't a knockoff—long story), but the plan is to eventually port other games over as well. The game is the work of Ryan Holtz of the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator development team, which has has been preserving arcade games since 1997.

Here's a gif comparison from the original emulation of Crazy Kong:

And one from the CRT emulation:

These gifs don't really do the effect justice—playing it on your browser in full-screen mode and comparing it to the original emulation will make make the effect much clearer.

The emulator "allows a wide variety of presentation parameters to be added to the 'straight' rendering of an emulation in MAME," Holtz explained on the Internet Archive. "Aspects like warp, motion blur, edge softening, scan lines and color shifting give more 'realistic' aspects to the emulation experience, bringing games more into line with memories and portrayals of how these machines looked on their monitors in history."

CRT emulators have been made before, but they required you to download new software. Holtz's can run in-browser on any computer, which is increasingly important as the Internet Archive becomes the go-to for driveby spins through old games.

If you don't think people actually care about these subtle differences, consider that retro gamers are often a hard-to-please bunch and often believe the entire experience is ruined if things aren't just so.

"Between 50 and 80 milliseconds after an emulation is working, people come out to say 'it's not the same, it doesn't have _____' where _____ is an ever-more-picky set of attributes that makes the experience of the game 'real' to them and which they think ruins the entire emulation if the attribute is not right there," Jason Scott, a computer historian for the Internet Archive, wrote in a blog post.

How to best present older games and programs on new systems has long been a challenge for internet historians. The goal is usually to get as close to the real experience as possible, which is why we've seen things like USB controllers for older game systems. There are some purists who hang on to Apple II computers from the 1980s and refuse to play emulated games, preferring the more authentic experience of playing them on their original hardware. Meanwhile, there's been any number of attempts to scale up the resolution of older game console outputs to look better on HDTVs, and there's still a thriving market for high-quality CRT televisions from the 1980s and 1990s.

That old hardware won't last forever, though, and so emulating the hardware itself may be our best shot at preserving old pieces of technology long-term. There's a reason it's taken until 2016 for this to be done in a method that's playable on any browser, however: Emulating a bad monitor is hard. Scott called the quest for an accurate CRT emulation a "years-long effort."

"You're not just emulating the pixels themselves, but the actions and effects around those pixels," Scott wrote. "It's a living demonstration of the hurdles and considerations of 'emulating' older technological experiences."