Pixels are not Square

Kevin G (@applesaucers) on Twitter pointed out this astutely argued article (AAA, truly), that explains why modern ideas of “pixel art” are so wrong-headed. http://alvyray.com/Memos/CG/Microsoft/6_pixel.pdf

In sum, what we’re seeing is not what we’re intended to see. Pixels aren’t square; they’re overlapping fuzzy points, that are fed into a display system. And the pixels designed for a CRT are designed for the artifacts and properties of a CRT display. For instance, the strawberries in Pac-Man:

There are no white dots in this sprite… or are there?

We’re not meant to see the raw pixel data any more than we’re meant to read raw code unless we’re researching how a thing was programmed, or listen to the raw takes of a band’s recording before they’re engineered into an album. I mean, you can – but if you do that you know what you’re getting into. And for older games, I don’t think many people do know.

To that end, post your favorite examples of things that look just fine or otherwise great on a CRT display, then then dissolve into bland puddles of color if you look at an array of the raw pixel data.

Samus Aran:

The green is meant to melt away and turn into cracks, accents, shading. The orange is supposed to bloom and become a highlight. Look at the texture and details in her helmet, in the cook of her knees. Look at the awesome shading on her gun arm. Look how you can actually distinguish her shoulder, and the parts of her gun arm. And then look at the undifferentiated mosaic that the purists will call perfect and clean. Missing so much of the intended signal.

Ninja Gaiden 1:

Just, the bricks. Man, look at the difference. How many colors, how much texture, are we missing out on?

Also, this illustrates how solid outlines are meant to work for NES games. In an emulator, Ryu looks like a Colorform being shifted around on the backdrop. On an actual NES, on an actual TV, he has shading and detail. the outline serves both to differentiate his anatomy and to blend him into the backdrop – as opposed to set him apart, as it does on your LCD monitor.



In before talk of CGA composite output.


The obvious question being - has anyone finally emulated this filtering well?

I’ve probably played many more old vidcons now on a pixel-accurate display than a crt so this is now exciting and exotic

There are some filters out there, of varying quality. There’s even a new DOSBox build that has a sorrrta okay version going on.

The Super Win the Game guy has put a bunch a work into a filter for his own purposes.

Also, anything Sunsoft:

Not my pictures. Neither is the CGA stuff. Just first post, so far.

That NES Samus comparison is very interesting, but the main difference is not so much that pixels aren’t square, but that the orange color is overwhelmingly stronger and brighter than the others on this particular CRT. That creates specular highlights through pure CRT artifacting. I think newer, higher-quality CRTs would look more like the Samus on the left (they kind of have to, or SNES-style artwork would look like crap).

The pacman strawberry example generates bright features “out of nothing” due to a particularly surprising artifacting behavior that wouldn’t be seen at all by blending using the method in the PDF you linked (even with different color strengths). Perhaps that type of artifact only happens on very old CRTs and wouldn’t be seen by the era of NES Metroid.

So there’s no one true CRT to emulate, it’s guesswork to imagine what CRT each dev was optimizing their artwork for, and players’ experience of the artwork likely varied based on their exact TV even at time of release. The principle you call for is probably a better fit for arcade machines which shipped with a particular known CRT.



We bought this and are planning on using it for Combat Jr. We’ve played around with it, but we haven’t implemented it fully. Part of our hesitance is because we don’t know how to tweak it just right to look like a CRT game but also 1) get in the way of gameplay (less and less important by the day) and 2) be regarded as “authentic” (troublingly more and more important by the day.)

Yuuup. Bloom’s not just for AAA shootmans anymore. It’s in some indie games now. But it’s definitely coming to more indie games in the future. CombatJr definitely has bloom in already and we definitely love it. I think I was hesitant to put this in for the reasons above, but IDC this one is easier to be like, “fuck it this is good for us”.


This also makes me wonder to what extent SMB3’s muted color scheme is supposed to be offset by old-CRT color bias brightening things up. Is the real reason SMW got brighter colors that Nintendo assumed SNESes would be plugged into TVs with a more accurate color space?

[quote=“Broco, post:5, topic:3212, full:true”]
That NES Samus comparison is very interesting, but the main difference is not so much that pixels aren’t square, but…[/quote]
No, squareness is not the primary factor in the effect here. There are lots of issues with the display. The non-squareness is just a conceptual entry point into the broader notion that a rasterized grid is a poor approximation of the actual physical effects intended by the original pixel data. A pixel isn’t a discrete thing, best represented by a square; it’s an abstract piece of information, that may be interpreted as a square… but, not ideally in many cases.

But, good point about changing targets for evolving technology. Something that Cifaldi has been doing, rather insanely, is researching the exact TV models used at various Japanese developers at different times, to understand the precise intent of their presentation.


I have a number of thoughts on this

however, I will go with the pedantic asshole answer of, well, we have plenty of ways of getting real hardware to give us an image on CRTs that look like raw output without additional equipment, so what the majority of us identify as the “look” of pixel art was a calculated decision by developers that most all of us would have inferior signal paths to our displays, a decision that worked up until we started getting modern TVs that can’t into 240p, a generation of people introduced to the games via emulation and modern devs wanting to replicate the look without having that fallback

Right. It’s a pragmatic thing that came about because of the eccentricities of a practical context. Removing it from that context not only is an affectation, which isn’t a sin in itself; it also changes the information conveyed by the original signals as designed – which is a bit more troublesome, if we start to mistake that for actual history or expressive intent.

Which also speaks to Broco’s concern about the specificity of some of that context.

What’s with some older arcade games looking particularly awful unfiltered?


You guys are finding the best examples.


It should be noted that dosbox accurately emulates cga composite mode if you set your machine to cga. It makes early king quest games look pretty decent, as the EGA colors are too garish imo.

This is a demo thats gone around showing off how much color fuckery was actually possible on composite cga


In the process of seeing where RetroArch is at with this I realised I really have played pretty much every game I’ve ever wanted to so it’s all kind of wasted on me

Retroarch has an extensive collection of shaders but I just use the gtu v050 shader. Its not too over the top.

In the magical future there will be a general purpose CRT emulation software intended to run on super-high-resolution/refresh/contrast LCD/OLED displays. It will analyze specifically-taken photography/video of old displays, like a visual convolution reverb, in order to accurately recreate their characteristics. TVL, phosphor spacing and bloom, color intensity, etc etc. It will be exceedingly accurate and derided by the nouveau riche rulling class of Silicon Valley heirs who have exchanged their fathers’ yachting clubs for the acquisition and trade of 20+" Sony BVMs.


A lot of this is funny to me because my modern LCD TV does a better job of “that look” than the 8 in CRT PVM I have


yeah you can just kinda tell from the thumbnail how much more subdued the colors are in cga composite


there is no truth, only flavors of sensory deceit



Blargg’s NTSC filters are probably the best out there, to my knowledge.

I kinda get frustrated with emulator filters being a choice between blocky pixels or really, really shitty upscaling filters like hq2x or whatever. 'cause I had a crappy little CRT I played games on as a kid and I remember what those games actually looked like