Talking Point: The Virtual Console's PAL Problem
Posted by Michael Teasdale
60Hz and the confusing state of Virtual Console emulation
“Many people don’t know what the difference between 50Hz and 60Hz is, but since most modern TV models support 60Hz it’s definitely worth finding out.”
This interesting and illuminative statement, plucked readily from any number of Nintendo Wii game manuals, is fascinating in its transparency; boldly asserting what the Big N believes to be the mindset of its European market while also confirming with knowing awareness its knowledge that in 2010 there are few, if any, gamers boasting television sets so outmoded that they are unable to take advantage of the benefits that 60Hz gaming can offer them.
The statement is also supremely frustrating for PAL Wii owners wishing to make use of the console’s Virtual Console service. The PAL VC, unlike Nintendo’s retail output, boasts a mere handful of titles that run in 60Hz, which, when weighed against the hundreds of titles that do not, displays a depressingly unpleasant dichotomy with the policy that Nintendo so clearly endorses in the instruction manuals for its retail games.
But what is "60Hz"? What benefits does it bring? Why should anyone care about playing games in this format over the traditional 50Hz method and what makes people so angry about the prospect of a game running in 50Hz that they would decide not to purchase the title in question?
Playing Sonic in 50Hz just isn't right.
NTSC vs PAL
To answer these questions, it is first important to distinguish the basic differences between the encoding system of European Television sets in comparison to those of our North American and Japanese cousins. While the NTSC format is the standard in North America and Japan, most European (and some other regions) television sets use the Phase Alternating Line (PAL) method of encoding. Without becoming embroiled in the technicalities of the two mediums the important differences to distinguish here is that NTSC televisions typically output a 60Hz refresh rate, displaying 30 frames per second with each frame consisting of 525 lines. In comparison PAL televisions traditionally output a 50Hz refresh rate displaying only 25 frames per second but with an improved resolution of 625 lines.
In the Eighties and Nineties PAL gamers frequently received a raw deal from publishers. Our release schedules were staggeringly far behind those of our NTSC regions and, as a consequence of this, we almost always received ports of North American title for systems such as the NES, SMS, SNES and Mega Drive. For most developers, porting games to the PAL region became a difficult problem of pushing a square block awkwardly into a round hole, with inevitably undesirable results.
The first problem was that the slower frame rate of the PAL output could lead to timing problems with gameplay when running with code created for a faster refresh rate. There were two solutions to this unwanted and unacceptable situation: recode the game to output correctly or slow down the game to match the reduced refresh rate. Inevitably, faced with the prospect of an extra workload for the former, almost all developers chose the latter option and as a result PAL gamers experienced their games running at a speed 17.5% slower than their NTSC counterparts. Not a good start.
The second problem occurred, ironically, due to PAL television’s superior resolution. Because the vast majority of games were created for the 525 line display of NTSC televisions, the extra lines available to PAL TV’s were not utilised when porting the game over to PAL machines. This created an unfortunate “letterbox” effect; with ugly black borders at the top and bottom of the screen filling in the gaps left by the missing lines not utilised in the conversion. This by itself might have been bearable if it wasn’t for the fact that the incorrect aspect ratio caused by the implementation of these borders left the graphics themselves taking on a squashed appearance as developers were, again, reluctant or unwilling to spend time and money recoding the games to compensate for the different output.
For those still struggling to imagine what playing a game at a slower speed and with a squashed letterboxed display must have been like in comparison to the original, we suggest you take a look at the following video which compares neatly the differences between the NTSC and PAL versions of one of the Nineties most popular titles: Sonic the Hedgehog.
The difference is immediately noticeable: with the PAL version chugging along with noticeably slower gameplay and music, not to mention the compressed nature of its graphics and those ugly blue borders at the top and bottom of the screen. In comparison there can surely be few who would claim to prefer this version over the full screen, full speed original available to the NTSC market.
Consumer Consciousness and the Rise of 60Hz TV
While it’s probably fair to say that the degraded quality of PAL conversions went largely unnoticed in the 8-bit era, burgeoning consumer awareness began to grow during the 16-bit era, fuelled by an increased exposure to what was then labelled the “grey import” market.
Fed up with interminable delays and an unreliable release schedule, PAL gamers began turning to North American and Japanese imports and an increasing number of people began noticing the difference that existed between PAL and NTSC games. Television technology had moved on, and many PAL sets were now able to display NTSC outputs. People became increasingly aware that they had essentially been paying for inferior quality products for many years and the complaints began rolling in, backed by a large section of the UK videogame press who further drew attention to the problem.
The initial response to the complaints by several big name publishers was encouraging. SEGA partially recoded the PAL version of Sonic 2 so that the audio ran at the same speed as its NTSC counterpart (although the borders and squashed screen display were retained) while Nintendo made a similar effort with Super Mario Kart, increasing the game speed to compensate to generally mixed results. To be fair to developers, such recoding to translate the game to a 50Hz PAL output was inevitably time-consuming, potentially pushing back releases still further.
Wave Race 64 suffered a poor PAL conversion.
By the time Generation Five arrived the output for Nintendo’s flagship N64 had become an unreliable mixed bag; with horrendous PAL ports of crucial first party titles such as Wave Race 64 and Pilotwings 64 being counterbalanced by carefully optimised efforts from European third-party developers such as Rare.
The efforts and passion of some of those responsible for going that extra mile is to be commended. An excellent interview with one such figure, the late Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, responsible for the PAL conversion of N64 launch game Shadows of the Empire is available at Game Set Watch. Meanwhile, another equally good piece by UK journalist Stuart Campbell highlighting the contrasting views shown by higher profile figures at Nintendo was published in N64 magazine.
The 60Hz Solution
Putting aside the properly converted exceptions that occasionally saw release it remained obvious that, to advance beyond relying on the goodwill of a handful of individuals, then a more robust solution had to be forthcoming if developers and publishers were to permanently address the situation and give PAL gamers the conversions they deserved.
The solution in question was pioneered in 1999 with the launch of SEGA's Dreamcast console across PAL territories. The company had seemingly been listening diligently to the complaints of consumers and emerged as a veritable white knight to European gamers. Many Dreamcast games, taking advantage of the new technology of modern PAL television sets, allowed the user to select the option to run the game in PAL60 mode, essentially allowing the game to run in 60Hz exactly as its NTSC version had, and importantly, without the need for the type of major recoding that had put off so many other developers in the past. Nintendo’s GameCube followed SEGA's lead and Microsoft’s Xbox even went so far as to offer a 60Hz dashboard. In what seemed like an early admission of 60Hz's prevalence long before the Wii manuals were ever printed, Nintendo began releasing 60Hz-only titles in some instances, including key titles such as Metroid Prime 2 and the Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. To PAL gamers it seemed like all the troubles of the past were over.
Animal Crossing came in 60Hz, but its NES games didn't.
By the time the Virtual Console service was announced for Wii, worrying about poor PAL conversions seemed to have become a thing of the past. In reality, however, Nintendo had already marked its intentions with the much delayed PAL release of Gamecube title Animal Crossing. Although the game itself ran in 60Hz, the NES games that could be unlocked within it curiously did not, but instead were the same versions available during the 1980s. With the Wii taking a cue from the Xbox and incorporating the option to run the system itself in 60Hz then Virtual Console releases would feature the same option. Sadly the initial week of releases was a disappointment.
When service launch title F-Zero slipped onto the screen along with borders and 17.5% slower gameplay there was uproar online with numerous complaints and threats to boycott the service. At first, just as in the Nineties, this tidal wave of complaints appeared to cause Nintendo to listen: while not officially acknowledging that the inability to run 60Hz games on a system with a 60Hz dashboard was in any way technologically impaired, small improvements were noted with the next batch of VC releases. While doing nothing to fix its NES titles, all subsequent SNES titles and a handful of N64 titles were recoded to remove the borders and make them run in full screen, if not full speed. The rest of the VC continued to be a mixed bag, with SEGA, once the white knight of European gaming with its pioneering Dreamcast, releasing a mass of 50Hz bordered Mega Drive and Master System titles for the VC service, while curiously releasing corresponding titles in full 60Hz on the rival Xbox Live Arcade service. As more and more systems were added the problem mounted, with just a handful of imports and the library released for the Turbografx console running in 60Hz mode, and this only because those titles never received PAL versions in the first place.
Perhaps the most peculiar releases, however, were to come again from SEGA. Whereas all Hanabi inports found in Nintendo’s VC output run in full-screen, full-speed 60Hz, SEGA's Hanabi releases such as Pulseman, Puyo Puyo 2 and M.U.S.H.A run, through some bizarre emulation device, in exactly the same squashed 50Hz format they might have done had they received their PAL conversions in the Nineties. This was not a case of “gaming as you remember it," but round pegs in square holes all over again and even more inexplicable in its execution than it was back in the day; with seemingly nothing preventing SEGA’s games from following Nintendo’s 60Hz-only Hanabi lead other than implementation.
Following the recent issues with the PAL release of Last Ninja 3 for VC, the question might well be asked whether Nintendo is completely aware of the quality of content being placed onto its service, something evidenced by the following screenshot which can be replicated by looking at any of SEGA’s 50Hz Hanabi offerings:
While the Wii Shop Channel might claim “runs in 60Hz,” five minutes spent playing any of the the titles in question will be enough to convince PAL gamers that this is not the case. Why this misleading information continues to be displayed on the Wii Shop Channel is something Nintendo has yet to confirm, although it should be noted that the recent NEO GEO import release Iron Clad also suffers from being shoehorned into 50Hz, but has had a similar message removed from its software confirmation screen days after its release after numerous complaints.
So what are the possible reasons for Nintendo’s decision to make the VC an almost exclusively 50Hz area?
It could be that the company would argue that it wants to ensure that everyone can download and play the titles in question and, although they are few and far between, the reality is that there are still people out there with television sets that might not properly display a game running in 60Hz.
There are two problems with this as an argument. Firstly Nintendo has for some time now been releasing key titles such as Metroid Prime 2 in 60Hz only. If it doesn’t care about excluding this userbase to a core first party title then why would it care about excluding them from a download service which, by its own admission, is only being used by a minority of Wii owners? Secondly, Nintendo has released 60Hz titles on the service itself in the form of its Hanabi imports, and as the Wii has the option to run retail games in 50Hz and 60Hz without a problem then where is the harm in giving people the same alternative on the VC? Why lock Virtual Console titles out of what is a useable, built-in and furthermore company-endorsed feature of your console?
Another argument, and one frequently used by Nintendo’s Service Centre when fielding complaints about the issue is the old chestnut: “this is how the games were originally,” and therefore, “this is how people remember them.” While this may be true, does that lead to the conclusion that because we played an inferior port in the Eighties or Nineties we should be unable to play the game as it was intended, when the technology allows it, in the year 2010? In other words, because we may first have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on a grainy VHS copy don’t we ever want to watch it, digitally remastered, on DVD?
In some gamers' eyes, Nintendo has yet to produce any viable arguments against having a 60Hz option for its VC library. Real change was brought about in the Nineties, and an industry standard was created out of people’s frustrations and refusal to accept being sold inferior conversions.
There's one final quote from those Wii instruction manuals that resonates in favour of users seeking out the 60Hz option:
“We at Nintendo want players to enjoy our games under the best possible play conditions."
Over three years into the Wii's life, it’s time Nintendo began living up to that ethos.