Warning: once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
If you are into the scene, it might not occur to you today that more than 75% of the screenshots you see posted by fans on fan-sites and Twitter are absolutely misrepresented. Many of the video-casts are, too.
“Back in the day” screens were either TVs or, starting in the mid-to-late 80’s, color cathode ray tube (CRT) based monitors. A perfect example would be the legendary 13-inch screen Commodore 1702 monitor, originally produced to be paired with the 8-bit Commodore 64 computer (C64).
For devices created to produce separated chrominance and luminance signals, the high quality performance of this monitor was unmatched on NTSC and PAL machines. In other words, this monitor was the ideal output for the games and programs designed for the C64 and similar devices. For example, an NES or SNES can produce “arcade quality” graphics on such a monitor to this day. While produced for the Commodore computers, it could also be paired with VCRs (and other media devices) for excellent picture quality. It was extremely versatile.
But it wasn’t the only monitor out there - there were several more to be sure. And they had one main thing in common with all CRT-based TVs of the time. They all were a very standard 4:3 aspect ratio. Even though color graphics were glorious on the 1702, the aspect ratio was exactly the same as on all TVs it competed with.
Literally every TV and monitor at the time was 4:3. All of the games were designed by artists with this key fact in their minds.
Here is an example of the dimensions of a 4:3 screen, to help illustrate this visually:
As you can see, the image is one part wider than it is tall.
Fast forward to today.
Modern monitors and screens have left the 4:3 world entirely. Add to the confusion the differences between PAL and NTSC, as the retro-gaming scene is just as strong in Europe as it is in North America.
For what it is worth, what I will begin to illustrate I do not believe to be an intentional mishandling of history. I think some of us have forgotten, and I think others simply assume that the emulators (or other screen capture software) take the original outputs into account of what is displayed.
They do not.
Moby Games has it wrong in many cases. Hall of Light has it wrong, too. Nearly everyone I follow on Twitter has it wrong.
In the Amiga’s case (although his happens to literally all consoles from the 80s and early 90s, too, since people are capturing via emulators), in North America the typical resolution was 320x200. In Europe, it was 320x256. But designers didn’t expect this output to simply display in the middle of your screen. No - using knobs on the back of your monitor when you first bought the machine, you were expected to adjust the “vertical size” of an image to fit nicely into that TV or monitor you owned.
In today’s world, many of the screens you see are being projected into widescreen, which wildly fattens everything horizontally. (Note: I am not singling anyone out here intentionally - these visual aids are purely for demonstration purposes to make a point. I know everyone in the scene loves these games, I merely hope to help get the screens right. There’s a lot of fixing to do!)
Here is a typical example of what a 16:9 (modern) monitor’s image would look like. Compare the height to the image to 4:3, which I've outlined in red.
OK, now for some real-life examples.
Let’s take a look at some games in the historical games database of Moby Games, a fabulous site. In this example, let’s take the visually ground-breaking game “Defender of the Crown”, art directed by James Sachs originally for the Amiga in 1986. These screens are stored on mobygames in the Amiga section.
Screenshots are being taken off widescreen monitors with no adjustments made, via hardware or software manipulation
It shouldn’t take anyone very long to immediately recognize this game is way too wide and looks vertically squashed. Look at that strapping young lad in green (who was actually Mr. Sachs in a staged photo which he used as an art reference). Do his shoulders look bizarrely wide to you? How about that body? This shot isn’t 100% 16:9, but it’s very close.
Now let’s take this same image and put it into a 4:3 aspect ratio, like the monitors and TVs (and game designers) of the day expected them to be viewed.
Note Robin Hood’s body shape now, and the nearly square scroll. Pretty dramatic, isn’t it? This is how Defender of the Crown is supposed to be viewed. But the historical bits and bytes all over the internet are being saved incorrectly for future generations.
Here’s another example. This time take a look at the human head in the screen and note how wide it is as well as the green isle of Britain:
This image, which is exactly the one pulled from MobyGames.com, is 640x376 (pure 16:9 would be 640x360). In any case, it is immediately obvious this was taken from a widescreen monitor, and the original art is being stretched horizontally. Here is that same art, pushed into a 4:3 ratio (640x480):
Pretty dramatic, isn’t it? If you're like me and you grew up in the 80s playing games off TVs and CRT monitors, this should shake some braincells loose and leave you a bit stunned. It did me.
Once your mind memorizes the basic box shape these screens should be shown in, you can’t un-see all of the incorrect art being shared, and saved, as historical documents everywhere you look.
This distortion of our gaming past is so pervasive, it even visibly distressed Jim Sachs in a recent video where he lamented over his art being stretched by today’s screens (and even by the interviewer during the interview!).
If you don't believe me, go to your favorite retro site and pull a few images down. Then compare that image's size using this simple tool. Is your favorite site sharing images in 4:3?
Oh, and if they are, but the images have huge black bars on them, that's a whole other issue. And its still wrong. Ninety nine times out of ten, the designers of games in the 80s and early 90s never intended their games to be letter-boxed. Those are coming from emulators taking the resolution of a machine (like 320x200) literally, and not vertically stretching the image into a 4:3 box.
And so now, perhaps, everywhere you look you'll see widescreen screenshots of games created for boxes from the 1980s, before anyone had even heard of widescreen except for some really fancy VHS movies. Now, you will "see dead people", too. Sorry about that.
I may post a short "How To' in the near future on how to create perfect 4:3 screenshots even if your view, or capture software, doesn't default to it (but you should try hard to make it 4:3 before you capture).
Big props to Amiga guru Shot97 on YouTube who brought this issue to my attention with his own two part series on the problem. (i ii)