Besides being a PlayStation fan. My other favorite gaming brand is Nintendo. Well, for the 35th anniversary for Super Mario Bros’. Nintendo is going all out. They plan to release a compilation of popular games in the franchise and a Game & Watch handheld for the festivities. Coming Nov. 13 as a throwback to the 1980 device, the Game & Watch will let fans play the original game and Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. But if you look closely, something about the device’s graphics might seem a little off.
Pointed out by the gaming historian Frank Cifaldi on Twitter, the color palette for the NES-style game is not quite right, to the degree that Nintendo itself uses two different color schemes for Mario. It is most notable when you compare the reds; one is more orange than the other.
Cifaldi also noted that some of the assets in the Game & Watch version appear to have shadow lines that are not present in the original Super Mario Bros. He guesses that this Game & Watch version might be scaling the game differently to simulate CRTs. CRT is the cathode-ray tube. CRT is a vacuum tube that contains one or more electron guns and a phosphorescent screen and is used to display images. It modulates, accelerates, and deflects electron beam(s) onto the screen to create the images.
These might seem like minor nitpicks, but they speak to a curious problem facing Nintendo and retro gamers. They want to experience old games in their proper fashion. When you play a version of a game that is not running on original hardware, it can play or look different from the original title, sometimes intentionally, if the developer tweaks to modernize or streamline an experience.
What is it about NES graphics that make them so hard to capture in 2020 accurately? Part of it comes down to the displays themselves. NES games output a signal that must be decoded by the television set. The decoder varies from TV to TV. Even today, NES games tended to appear slightly differently depending on what TV or monitor you are using. And the TVs of today do not display visuals in the same way older televisions do.
An accurate NES color palette almost seems like a philosophical, impossible question. What looks right to you might look entirely different for me, which might stray wildly from what the next person remembers and played. Not that this has stopped people from trying to capture the nostalgia. Some folks have been attempting to reverse engineer the NES palette by self-described “obsessive” projects. In contrast, others have resorted to taking the colors directly from screen captures. These efforts can come close, but they are still approximations of something that varied depending on how you played the first iteration of any specific game.
Granted, we can suppose that Nintendo had a specific vision for what the game should look like, given that it made the thing. We can only guess as to what the original artists were looking at when they first made it. Nintendo itself has, over the years, released versions of Super Mario Bros. with slightly different palettes. It is a little funny that it is not even consistent with the same release’s promotional materials.
Given that the game industry is lousy about preserving its history, perhaps these inaccuracies are inevitable. On top of that, Nintendo has had multiple generations of developers working on Super Mario Bros. in different forms, resulting in varying interpretations and technical implementations.
Minor as they might seem, the underlying danger is that, over time, said tweaks between could become cumulative, ultimately placing us farther and farther away from the original artifact.