Friday 12 January 2018

Killing Pixels Part Deux: Saturn Games in HD

I was about to title this post “Saturn games in 4K”, which would’ve sounded much more impressive, but alas, I don’t own any 2160p monitor to record footage from and didn’t want to sound like a liar, so let’s settle for HD then.

Mind you, 1080p is still a much bigger number than 240p – the Saturn’s original resolution (yeah, some games run in 480i, let’s not go there for the sake of simplicity), and because resolutions are areas and not lines having a number that’s more than 4 times higher means an actual increase in the order of 16x.

What sorcery is this, you might ask? Only the wonders of a hardware renderer. You see, there are two ways to go about emulation. Without getting too technical, emulators can either be made to run exclusively on a PCs CPU for a more low-level, closer to 1:1 experience - also known as software mode, or they can unload some tasks on the GPU (graphics card). This has the drawback of potentially decreasing compatibility and introducing all kinds of glitches. The upside is running much faster, since the load is being distributed across two chips, and opening the way for all kinds of visual improvements, from increased resolution to fancy effects like texture and anisotropic filtering.

When it comes to the Saturn, the only current way to do that is with Yabause, or its fork uoYabause, more recently known as YabaSanshiro after some copyrights issues (all footage on this article has been recorded using YabaSanshiro version 1.2.2 for Windows, although I’ll be referring to it as simply Yabause). This emulator has long been the black sheep of the Saturn scene, with much lower compatibility than its longtime rival SSF, but it has managed to retain interest from the community by offering unique features. One of those is being the only Saturn emulator on Android devices (to the point that the Windows versions seem to be just an afterthought), and the other, of course, the ability to play games at arbitrary internal resolutions.

Is it worth it, though? This is a hotly debated question, not just specific to the Saturn but also other early 3D consoles like the PlayStation. Some people swear by the original look, arguing that the models and textures are so basic that increasing the resolution, far from improving the picture quality, actually worsens it by bringing all those flaws to light.

Others would argue the opposite, that these games have far more detail than we give them credit for and the lower resolution is nothing but an obstacle (ever noticed that in Burning Rangers our characters have an armband with RANGER written on it?).

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. Above all else, it’s a matter of taste and personal preference, but it’s also a case by case basis since not all games benefit equally. The more 3D elements a game has, the better it should look, since 2D sprites aren’t affected and may look out of place. Textures are a tricky business. Usually characters have enough detail that they scale well enough, but the actual levels can look painfully ugly with huge square pixels all over the place. Look at Virtua Fighter 2, a clear case of highly detailed characters and basic texture work on the arenas. Art style also plays a role, with aspects like color scheme and overall look affecting how well a game holds up with the increased clarity.

Another thing you are bound to notice, maybe for the first time since the original resolution goes a long way to mitigate it, is “polygon wobbliness”. The technical explanation involves the vertices of the 3D models being unable to describe a smooth motion between two points in space and instead jumping instantly from one to the other. In practice, it looks like everything is having a seizure.

Despite the Saturn’s infamy as a poor 3D system this is far from exclusive to it, being prevalent in PC games of the time and more notoriously the PlayStation which, having had emulators with hardware rendering for a long time, probably introduced many gamers to this technical quirk. This is not an emulating bug, it’s really how the actual hardware behaves. It’s simply much more noticeable at higher resolutions and goes a long way to spoil the HD look. In theory an emulator could actually try to fix that, the same way that innovations like PGXP have done for the PlayStation, and Yabause isn’t even a stranger to these kinds of improvements. The uoYabause fork introduced tessellation to fix other visual flaws, and it also switches the infamous checkerboard effect for actual transparencies, but so far it hasn’t addressed the maligned wobbliness. As you might be expecting by now, this is another thing that varies by game. It’s painfully obvious in Burning Rangers but barely noticeable in Daytona or Sega Rally.

On the plus side, and to fuel the fire of the console wars, I was pleasantly surprised to not notice any texture warping, another infamous quirk of the PlayStation hardware. Basically it couldn’t properly handle textures at steep angles, warping them this way and that, making floors and walls look like shit. I don’t know if the Saturn really does perspective correction, if it’s a feature of the emulator or I simply haven’t noticed it in the games I tried. If you know the answer to this riddle go ahead and leave a comment.

And that’s about it. Many Saturn fans think this whole business is ludicrous. That these games were designed around the resolution’s limitations and by increasing it we’re only creating an imbalance, improving one thing only to make others look worse (textures, 2D elements) and even make something barely noticeable on the original hardware incredibly annoying (polygon wobble). That it detracts from the experience by messing with these games in a way we weren’t supposed to. That it’s just a desperate attempt to modernize games that should instead be appreciated for what they were, big pixels and all.

I say it’s a fun experiment. You never know what you’re going to get, how a given game will look, what flaws or fine details will come through. You never know when a game will seem to gain a new life, a breath of fresh air that makes the old look new again. You never know when a game will feel so right, you can never go back and play it on original hardware again.

For the life of me, I can’t play Burning Rangers any other way.

1 comment:

fatherkrishna said...

Superb article. I find the whole subject fascinating but I have to be honest. Watching your video today was the first time I could really see a difference in picture quality. And it was easiest to see on the driving games. Now, for me the question is "Does it make enough difference for me to want to change my setup? And if I'm 100% honest, I don't know! Still I think the problem is my ability to notice subtle (as opposed to drastic) changes. I think what some people see as glaring or jarring visual glitches, I see as subtle or barely noticeable. I think I'm a lost cause! But I still love the article and the video. Plus all Saturn heads should be eternally grateful to your commitment to the task of improving their experiences. 😎