Old TVs still offer a great experience

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Bigger isn’t always better.

I remember getting my first flat screen TV. It was 2009-ish and we got a 48″ LCD from Walmart. It felt absolutely massive.

Old television

Crappy, yes, but more valuable now than you might think.

And it was, especially coming from an old 28″ CRT tube television. I bought that TV in college for $300 at Circuit City. It served me very well through the Playstation 2 years and into the first few years of my Xbox 360. You wouldn’t think it would be a difficult choice to purchase a big screen TV, but it was simply for economical reasons.

The Walmart TV was about $1000 and that was a lot of dough, especially for a television. Even though back then I was a daily gamer riding high on Call of Duty and others, I could always justify not spending that money. Of course, the games themselves had other plans. They packed more graphics into a game along with text and, well, reading on a 28″ television was less than ideal. My gaming experience was starting to suffer and that helped sway me.

I got rid of that 28″ CRT television without much ceremony. It had lived a good life and owed me nothing…but I wish I had kept it because now I find myself buying old CRT televisions at the thrift store.

Why? Simple: Retro gaming

I’ve been running game emulators since high school when I found an NES emulator for my PC. Of course, back then, even the computer monitors were 15″ at best and that was perfect to play Zelda one more time. But as monitors and televisions increased in size, the emulators didn’t and that resulted in less-than-quality emulation. I mean, Super Mario was never intended to be played on a 48″ digital television.

Emulator software has improved to help and the market has also addressed the issue with things like the NES Classic Mini and other machines that convert those old games into something that looks beautiful on a 60″ flatscreen TV.

But should we do that?

Thanks to my investment into making games with the PICO-8 fantasy console, I recently bought an old TV at the thrift store and hooked it up to my Raspberry Pi so I can play those games and other old retro emulators. It works well…looks crappy…plays wonderfully.

Alien Harvest

My own game, Alien Harvest, playing on an old TV. Beautiful.

The television is 24″ or so, if that. It was someone’s old TV so it’s far from great picture quality. And if you were hoping for HDMI, you’re out of luck…just good ol’ fashioned RCA AV cables on this one, folks.

But playing the PICO-8 games and even my old NES games (on a hardware deck) on that television has been an absolutely wonderful experience. Sure, some of that is nostalgia talking…thinking back to childhood when my friends and I would crowd around tiny TVs watching each other try to beat Mega Man or playing Tecmo Bowl. Those memories were there even without my new little setup, but as I played PICO-8 games, it hit me that the CRT experience is more than just me longing for a 4th grade summer again.

The PICO-8 console was only “invented” a couple years ago. All the games available to it are brand new and original. There are no memories of these games because they didn’t exist. PICO-8 games look great on a modern computer monitor…crisp, clean, bright…and on the CRT TV they are fuzzy, flickering and most certainly off color. But even with all those low-tech artifacts, the experience of playing feels great.

I think a good comparison would be listening to music on vinyl records. Way back when, music only came on vinyl records. Then came tape and CDs and now it’s just in the ether getting jammed into our phones. Most of us (myself included) have ridden this wave of music evolution, leaving those older formats behind. But there are still a good lot of folks that listen to vinyl records…and it’s not just because they’re looking for a trip down memory lane. Listening to the same album on a turntable just feels different than listening to the album on Spotify or even a CD. It just does. It’s hard to explain or describe…it’s something you just have to feel.

Gaming on old CRT televisions is the same thing. I don’t like that old crappy TV or the fact that the picture kind of twitches every now and then. The technology is for the shits but the overall experience still feels better than trying to play on something modern and fancy.

Playing PICO-8 games on the CRT has been wonderful and really turned that piece of software into something special. It’s resulted in me playing more retro games across the board than ever before. Even the emulators feel better (which is most certainly nostalgia) but I’m still playing/trying more games that I ever had. It’s like discovering them all over again.

So I will encourage you to go to your local thrift store and find the least crappy old television you can find and buy it…it’ll set you back about $15. Then take that TV back home and hook up whatever old gaming devices you can and just play. Hook up your SNES, your Genesis or build your own Raspberry Pi and have every system at your fingertips. What you play doesn’t matter but how you play certainly does.

Sure, nostalgia is strong and it was definitely my motivation to go down this path in the first place, but I feel that I can honestly tell you that some things just feel better when played on older technology, just like Led Zeppelin 4 will always sound better on a turntable. That’s not just nostalgia. That’s in-the-moment emotion and experience.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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