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LONG BLOG

Two Great, Low-cost Gaming Upscalers

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When it comes to playing retro games, I typically tend to play them on my cheap CRT more than anything. This could just boil down to me being blinded by nostalgia, but I think that some games and consoles look and play nicer on these older displays than they do on anything modern. That, and I love to mess around with accessories that only work on CRTs, like light guns for example. 

Still, while I love these old school television sets, I'm not gonna pretend like they're gonna be around forever, either. They aren't making any more of them so what's out there is all that's left, and it's only a matter of time before they'll eventually die out and be left to rot at some local landfill. Good deals arent always easy to find either, so unless you're hoarding some CRTs already, you'll probably have to put your display preferences aside if you ever want to use your older consoles in the future.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as just getting used to a different display though, as most manufacturers have phased out older analog inputs entirely. This makes hooking up older consoles to a modern display more of a hassle than it needs to be, especially if you don't want to go down the more expensive route of getting HDMI-mods for every console you own. It might be tempting to hunt down some cheap LCD that has older analog inputs and just use those, but this isn't entirely recommended. Some folks out there have noted that they either won't display games with low resolutions like 240p at all, they'll upscale the image poorly and have them look blurrier than you remembered them being, or they'll do all the above while also introducing a ton of lag in the process.

The PS2 version of Viewtiful Joe, running on the GBS-Control at 1080p output

Thankfully, we're at a point now to where there's tons of great devices that'll let you use your older consoles on any HDMI-friendly display out there, all-the-while providing a higher quality image and adding barely, if any lag at all. You won't have to worry about investing a ton of money into a top-of-the line upscaler like an OSSC, a Framemeister, or a Retrotink 5X just to have a decent gaming experience either, as there's plenty of budget-friendly options out there that don't require you to break the bank.

So, whether you're looking to replace a dead CRT, or you can't make space for one and just want to use your older consoles on newer displays, either one of these two solutions should do just those looking for a decent upscaler while on a budget. 

#1 - The Retrotink 2X

A photo of a Retrotink 2X-Pro

If you're new to upscalers and you just want a simple plug and play solution that's guaranteed to work, I recommend looking into the Retrotink 2X line of products. What these devices do is take the 240p/480i input that comes from your game consoles, and then line doubles that to a resolution of 720 x 480. From there, it'll output the image via HDMI, and that's basically it. If you aren't happy with how it looks, just set your display mode to 4:3 or something. 

For 8-bit, 16-bit, or even early 3D consoles like the Playstation or the Sega Saturn, I think the 2X models will be more than enough for most people. It's about as plug-and-play as you can get, and all it takes to power it on is a single Micro USB cable. You can even use your TV's USB ports to power it that way. 

If you plan on using any upscaler though, you'll want to spring for either some quality S-video or component cables, as the composite cables included with most consoles tend to result in a blurrier overall image, especially on consoles like the PS2. Still, at least the option is here to use composite if you plan on upgrading to some better cables later down the road.

There's also an option to smooth out the image by pressing a button, and while the effect isn't exactly ideal for 2D sprite-based games, it's pretty good for early 3D games on consoles like the Nintendo 64. It gets rid of most of the jaggies, and though the effect is mostly to taste, it's a great inclusion. Also included is an artificial scanline filter, though I've never been the biggest fan of those as they dim the image a bit too much for my liking.

Mario 64 on the Retrotink 2X

Mario 64 on the Retrotink 2X, with the smoothing filter applied.
Top: Mario 64 on the Retrotink 2X. Default options.
Bottom: Mario 64 on the Retrotink 2X with the smoothing filter enabled. Note the smoothed over appearance of the HUD, floor, and even Mario himself. Which do you prefer?

Really, there's nothing bad to say about the 2X Pro, bar simple nitpicks like the fact that it doesn't have 480p passthrough support. While it supports component cables like those made by HD Retrovision, its mainly to provide a better image via RGB or YPbPr. It won't make use of any 480p progressive scan modes in games or consoles that support them, so keep that in mind.

There was once a model that allowed for passthrough support called the 2X-Pro Multiformat, but that model is currently discontinued thanks in part to the current chip shortage and the greater demand for the Retrotink 5X. Plus, there's any number of cheap analog-to-digital converters on Amazon that provide 480p/720p passthrough anyways.

The only other nitpick I have is that the 2X models make use of Bob-deinterlacing, which isn't my preferred method for deinterlacing 480i content as it can sometimes result in text and HUD elements looking flickery, sort like how 480i content normally looks on a CRT. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things as you'll only notice it if you really pay attention to it, and during the heat of the gameplay you more than likely won't. Plus, 240p games like those running on the SNES won't be impacted by this deinterlacing technique at all, since they're using a form of progressive scan anyways.

Beyond that I don't have anything else bad to say about the Retrotink 2X, they're great devices all around. The Pro models usually go for $130, and while that might be a bit steep for some people there's a cheaper model of the 2X available called the Mini. It lacks component inputs and artificial scanlines (not a big loss really), but it retails for $80 and it also includes an S-Video cable for use on the SNES/N64/GC. It also thankfully includes the option for image smoothing like in the 2X-Pro, and it comes in a wide assortment of colors if that's your thing. 

Ultimately if you're looking to dip your toes into upscalers and you just want an excuse to dust off your older consoles without keeping a CRT around, or if you also want to stream/record gameplay footage using real hardware, the Retrotink 2X products are far and away the best place you can start.

#2 - The GBS-Control

You might be wondering what this is you're looking at. 

Well, this is a heavily modified GBS-8200 board, running custom firmware worked on by Rama called GBS-Control. The boards themselves tend to go for dirt cheap on Aliexpress and Amazon, but that's because they're said to be lackluster in their original form. When modded though, well it becomes a different story, easily making them some of the most competitive options currently available.

Better yet is that due to GBS-Control's open source nature, anyone can make their own cheap upscaler right now, with no shortage of tutorial videos on how to make one either, making this a wonderful project for DIY enthusiasts. Of course if you're like me and you don't have the tools or skills to put a project like this together, you can always pay a modder for a prebuilt unit. This will definitely add to the cost though, taking this from a project that would probably cost 60-70USD into something on par with the Retrotink 2X-Pro in terms of pricing. 

Whether you're considering working on this project yourself or paying a modder for a customized board though, know that you'll get a good solution either way. These boards will upscale 240p/480i/480p content up to 1080p, all the while including a great form of de-interlacing known as "motion adaptive". What this means is that for any games running at 480i like on consoles like the PS2, the flickering typically present is all but eliminated, and it does so while not adding any noticable lag at all. 

You can also position the image however you'd like on the screen, and you can even stretch it out or shrink it. This is done via the GBS-Control's web interface, which from my experience can be a bit finicky since it doesn't always play nice with my phone, and on my laptop the only browser I've gotten it to work with is Firefox. Thankfully it's not a big hurdle to overcome and the interface is easy to mess around with. You also won't really have to go through this process every time you power on your console either, as you can save any configurations you're happy with in one of 10 preset slots. The GBS will then automatically choose the most appropriate saved preset, making it pretty stress free in that regard.

So far it sounds good, and the GBS-Control is by all accounts pretty good. But it also does have some limitations, mostly due to its original nature as a sub $30 board. Keep in mind that by default the device only outputs VGA, meaning that you might have to pick up a VGA to HDMI adapter off of Amazon to send an image to your TV or monitor via an HDMI cable. Even then you'll also have to get a 3.5mm to RCA female adapter if you want to get sound from it, so it's not entirely as plug and play as something like the Retrotink is.

The 1080p mode by default is cropped to a 4:3 window, which is great for retro games, and it's perfectly fine for most games on the PS2 or even Gamecube. Widescreen modes though will probably have to played in a resolution of 720p though, or you'll have to adjust your TV's settings to display the image at 16:9 for a quicker solution. 

Inputs are also limited to VGA or Component cables, or SCART if you can find a modder that can add the appropriate inputs to it. Composite and S-Video aren't supported, which is disappointing as some consoles will require RGB mods to use SCART or HD Retrovision component cables. 

You'll also want to ensure that a clock-gen mod is installed to your GBS-Control, otherwise screen-tearing will be present. Even then though I had one weird instance where the issue persisted, even though one was automatically installed, so I had to go mess around with some settings to fix it.

That's not the only case where you'll have to mess around with the GBS-Control's controls settings, as 480i content on the PS2 automatically applies this weird green-ish tint on everything. To fix that I had to go into the Advanced Settings and mess around with something called Oversampling, changing it from 4x to 1x/2x. Strangely enough this problem isn't present when using 480p content or 720p passthrough.

But that's kind of inherent with the GBS-Control, you might have to mess around with certain aspects and deal with certain quirks, and this is by no means a quick plug and play solution. Even with its more noticable faults though, I'd still recommend it because its so cheap, capable, and readily available. You really aren't going to get this feature set anywhere else right now, and it still remains to be seen how upcoming projects will perform in terms of pricing. 

At the end of the day, you can't really go wrong with any of the upscalers listed. You'll of course have to get used to the fact that your old games will never look how you remembered them being, but they aren't gonna be that bad either when played on a TV a few feet away either. We're slowly reaching a point to where regardless of upscaler, it's probably gonna be good regardless, with not much of a difference to the picture to the average joe. Whether you prefer emulating or playing games on real hardware, there's now tons of options that will properly preserve playing retro games for years to come.

And me personally, I couldn't be happier. 

- One game done, now onto the next.


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About humantofuone of us since 6:22 PM on 10.22.2020

NEET in mind and spirit.