You'll have to forgive us, but we're a little obsessed with getting the best picture quality out of dusty old game hardware here at Nintendo Life. Those of you with long memories may recall our early experiments with upscaling and scanline-generating devices many years ago, and more recently we've looked at the benefit of HDMI mods and next-level scalers, like the utterly superb Open Source Scan Converter. Not a week goes by where we don't find ourselves looking for the next retro AV challenge, and this week it's the turn of one of Nintendo's most underrated machines: the N64.
Speaking from a personal viewpoint for a moment, I never really connected with the N64 as much as I probably should have done. When it launched I was in the grip of PlayStation fever – much like everyone else on the face of the planet – and as that particular hardware generation rolled on I (perhaps quizzically, depending on your viewpoint) increased my interest in the Sega Saturn and its incredible library of Japanese exclusives. The poor old N64, while not being totally ignored, was certainly sidelined – although games like GoldenEye 007, Sin & Punishment, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, NBA Hangtime, J-League Perfect Striker and Banjo-Kazooie still soaked up many, many hours of my life, it should be noted.
There were a few reasons for my slight ambivalence towards Nintendo's 64-bit wonder, one of which was the sad fact that the N64 was starved of quality software in comparison to the amazingly popular PlayStation and even the underdog Saturn, both of which enjoyed a raft of RPGs, shmups and fighting games – three genres in which Nintendo's machine was surprisingly deficient, and three genres I was obsessed with at the time. However, a more pressing concern was the dreadful image quality you'd get from the console; while its Sony and Sega-made rivals outputted gorgeous RGB signals, the N64 was saddled with fuzzy composite or RF visuals which were exacerbated by the console's (otherwise impressive) anti-aliasing system. The story goes that early models did indeed have the DAC chip required to output RGB, but it was unamplified and disconnected, indicating that Nintendo intended to include support for RGB but changed its mind early on, perhaps to save on manufacturing costs. Even today, I remember being depressed at how disappointingly soupy games looked.
Fast forward to the present, and I've finally managed to overcome this issue thanks to a fantastic RGB modification which – when twinned with the aforementioned OSSC – gives me the kind of N64 image clarity I've only dreamed of previously. The mod in question is created by a talented fellow by the name of Tim Worthington, and is widely sold by various modders around the world; in my case, the modification work was undertaken by Old Skool Consoles, a UK-based firm which specialises in retrofitting cool tech to vintage systems. "The Tim Worthington N64RGB upgrade provides the best quality picture you can get out of your N64 natively, or as intended for technology at the time, and is compatible with all N64 models, both PAL and NTSC," explains Old Skool's David Cornish.
If you're a serious purist, then this mod offers the perfect image output for vintage Personal (PVM) and Broadcast Video Monitors (BVM), which are currently enjoying a revival thanks to the fact that they're arguably the best option when it comes to experiencing standard definition systems the way they were originally intended. Not only does the mod make the N64 look better when plugged into anything with a SCART socket, it also means you can use it with upscalers which require a pure RGB signal. "The mod opens up the system to modern HDMI-only setups as you can now run the console through an upscaler like the OSSC, which in turn connects to the HDMI input on your modern HDTV," Cornish adds.
The N64RGB mod is available in kit form, which means you have the option of fitting it yourself and saving a few pennies. "It is a fairly quick mod but does take some finesse, as depending on what model you have the pitch between pins can be fine," says Cornish. "I would say it wouldn't be too hard for anyone with some soldering experience. There aren't really any risks in terms of bricking the hardware; the main problem would be poor solder connections or bridges. These are sometimes a real pain to undo and troubleshoot when you're getting a bad picture. I would say for most people its best to just get it installed professionally; it's not too expensive and will likely be worth their while in saved time and possible mistakes, and at least you have a guarantee and technical help if you have any problems."
What makes this particular mod even more interesting is that the firmware on the board can be upgraded with new features. One of the more recent revisions is the Deblur function, created by electrical engineer Peter Bartmann – also known as bori4938. Deblur – which can be toggled by the user via a joypad combination – gets around one of the console's most common visual quirks.
"The N64 has two possible output formats: 240p and 480i," Bartmann explains. "The most common rumour is that 240p is 320x240 pixels and 480i is 640x480, but that’s not true for 240p. If you take a look at Perfect Dark (NTSC version), in the menu you have the option to switch between high resolution mode and low resolution mode. However, the output is always 240p. So, what changes? Just the horizontal resolution, or not? The N64 has a constant pixel clock of about 12.5MHz in each possible resolution. So what’s going on here is 240p low resolution mode is 320x240, 240p high resolution mode is 640x240, and 480i is 640x480 – the horizontal resolution split in two frames, each frame with 640x240 – even and odd; that’s interlaced."
That's where Deblur comes into play. "What the N64 simply does in the 240p low res mode is that the console outputs 640x240, where in the horizontal direction every second pixel is a 'true' or 'useful' pixel and every other one just an interpolated version of the neighboured pixels," continues Bartmann. "This results into a blurry picture. However, if one blanks these interpolated pixels and simply holds the previous 'true' pixel, you can effectively "deblur" the image. The true challenge is to detect whether the 240p content is low res or high res. For simplicity, you can force deblur to be on or off via a switch, via a controller button combination or via a menu option like in the UltraHDMI – or future release of the N64A firmware. So the user decides whether deblur has to be applied (low res mode) or not (high res mode)." This system works incredibly well in practice, even if it does have to be manually deployed. I noticed that with deblur enabled, text looks much sharper, with pixels edges become more prominent. When running oddball hacks like the excellent GoldenEye 007 Hi-Res patch – which can be deployed using an Everdrive flash cart – this feature really comes into its own.
Bartmann's reference to the UltraHDMI mod is pertinent, as you may be wondering why you'd want to pay money for an RGB mod when a (seemingly) superior alternative exists that allows you to upscale your N64 games without the need for any additional hardware, like the OSSC. Cornish is ideally placed to comment on this situation, as he also supplies UltraHDMI boards and mods on his site. "I've installed a handful of the HDMI kits and can say that it works very well," he explains. "The kit itself is on the pricey side at over a £100 [Cornish sells RGB-modded systems for less than that price], and they are manufactured in limited quantities and there is alway a few months wait – though hopefully this will change in future. I don't really want to directly compare the HDMI with RGB mods as both are equally good for different reasons; it really depends on what setup you are after. From my experience, most people tend to go down the RGB route for their retro consoles and then use an external upscaler, such as the OSSC. I suppose this has the advantage that you're paying for one piece of hardware for all your retro RGB consoles, and as the technology improves you can upgrade your external upscaler. Sticking with RGB keeps the console itself close to its original hardware specs." It's also worth noting that an RGB-modded N64 is completely free from latency, while the UltraHDMI mod introduces a small amount of lag (on average around 1 frame / 16ms). If this is the kind of thing you get hung up on (and, to be honest, these amounts are so tiny they're not really an issue) then you may be even more in favour of the RGB + OSSC option, as the OSSC has no frame-buffer and therefore doesn't introduce any latency whatsoever.
There's a part of me that gets almost unreasonably excited by the fact that these dusty old consoles are getting revived and updated in such a comprehensive fashion, but with top-line HDMI mods now a reality, is there really any need to take the RGB route, and has the N64 reached its final form from an AV perspective? "In my view, there is always going to be 'the next big thing' offering higher resolutions, and no doubt HD and 4K will be superseded by something better," says Cornish. "But I think, in a way, this all misses the point of retro consoles. They have a certain charm and should be enjoyed for what they are, and vastly higher resolutions aren't really going to add to your enjoyment, other than being able to play them more easily on your current setup. If you're keen on HDMI then it's worth remembering that the picture is always going to look a bit odd, because the hardware and games weren't designed for HD resolutions in the first place. Personally, a compromise of just using an good quality upscaler like the OSSC and RGB is the best option for most."
Our very own Anthony Dickens is currently putting an UltraHDMI modded N64 through its paces and will be reporting his findings in the second part of this feature series, so if you're undecided on which route to take then you might want to hold off until then. In the meantime, let us know what you think about the N64RGB mod by posting a comment below.