A CRT monitor with a red mushroom on it. An NES controller sits in front of it.

In old video game consoles, Raygan found his hot rod experience.

Part of the Identical Twin Double Feature with Shane Kelly.

Music for this episode is by WMD and Torley. Illustration by Anna Delos Angeles.


Raygan Kelly: I’m Reagan Kelly, and I’m a retro video game nerd.

We had this older cousin, his name was Elliot. He was a very formative figure in my very young life because he was the cool older cousin who knew about all of the cool things. And, one day, I think he was actually apologizing to my mom after he decided that it was appropriate to show his eight year old Reservoir Dogs. So he came back and gave my brother and I his Sega Genesis and all of his games. Which was like probably the most highlight banner exciting day of my young childhood. Like, you know, this incredible bounty of stuff just ploped into our lap. And it just changed my life! That point on for a pretty sizable chunk of my childhood Shane and I, my brother and I, we just played Sega games together. We had this tiny little 12 inch TV in his room and we hooked up the Genesis to it and we played games like Toe Jam and Earl: Panic on Funkatron.

I definitely stopped playing video games at a certain point. It was when the Sega Saturn failed in the market. I got this exciting new console and then it was discontinued within, it felt like minutes of us getting the thing, and it just felt like such a betrayal at the time. Uh, that, like, I was just like, I guess I’m done with video games! And I was for years!

When I started getting really seriously back into retro games, it was out of a little bit less of an interest in the games themselves and more of an interest in the hardware. I’ve always sort of been into tech and electronics. My parents’ generation, you know, they hit their thirties or forties and started being comfortable in life. And then they go out and buy the old car that they wanted when they were 17. And then maybe they fix it up. Maybe they put a new stereo in it, they put a new trim. They make sure that it’s even better than they would have had it back then. You can be the person that your childhood self would have wanted you to be.

The retro gaming scene today is very much about improving on things in ways that try to preserve the authentic original experience, but still be better than what you had as a kid, like I’m about to do a pretty complex and expensive and difficult mod to my NES to get it to output RGV video. Why? Well, because the video quality isn’t up to snuff when you compare it with some other consoles, like I want, I want that pure, sharp RGB video out of it. And what that means is I’ve got to take it apart, I’ve got to dishonor its picture processing unit, put in new like FPGA-based card in-between the picture processing unit in the main board and solder it all back together, and then I’ve got to drill holes in the back and run some extra cables out of the inside. And it’s a complicated process and not exactly cheap either, but like that’s the kind of thing where like I’m excited to do that because I’m going to get a marginal increase in the video quality of my NES! You know, seeing a game that I’ve seen a zillion times before in a new way. And that’s exciting! This is the fancy tuner car of my life. You know, I’m not interested in hot rods or whatever, but for me buying an old NES and tricking it out is sort of my hot rod.

What I think he’s really great about retro games as a hobby is first of all, the directionality of time being what it is, we’re always getting more of them. Obviously nostalgia plays a huge role in this, too. You know, I can play certain games and just sort of flashback to where I was when I experienced these as a kid.

It’s not an either or, you know, I do play modern games, but the way you were kind of meant to engage with most retro games is different. It comes partly from the sort of arcade heritage of most of these games. You know, arcade games were meant for you to go put your quarter in and you were meant to be playing instantly. And then hopefully for the arcade operator dying instantly as well, and then putting in another quarter. And that’s really where retro video games are best, in these sort of little moments when I have 20 minutes between things. Whereas if I was going to boot up a modern game, I would probably be half out of time already by the time I was into the game. As soon as you hit the power switch, there’s no configuring things. There’s no making sure that your controller is paired. It’s just a very different kind of approach to, to video games.

A lot of people played a game on their SEGA Genesis when they were a kid and they boot it up today and it doesn’t feel right. It feels off and they don’t know how to interpret what’s happening. And they just say, “aw, this game sucks. These games aren’t as good as I remember.” A lot of the time, no, it’s not as fun as you remembered! Because these games were not designed for the modern flat screen TV they’re designed for a zero-lag CRT. There’s a real difference in that setup, and that’s part of why I like to stick to original hardware or things that are very original hardware-like.

If you can get a CRT, get one. And get any CRT that you can get your hands on. They’re technical marvels and it’s kind of amazing they ever produced at the big commercial scale that they were. A CRT essentially has a large glass vacuum tube and the very back of the tube where it kind of narrows internally down to a little point, there is an electron gun that’s firing the electrons. I mean, it sounds like science fiction stuff, right? It uses a system of electromagnets around this enclosed tube that direct where the electron gun is going to hit. It’s a pretty astonishing thing that they work at all. And the fact that we’ve completely abandoned them is a tragedy because not only were they in these incredible technical marvels, but also they produce amazing images.

If you’re just getting started in retro video games, just like buy whatever console you remember from your childhood, if that’s a thing that you have a connection with. For me, that was the Sega Genesis. And when I was returning to retro games for the first time, being able to take those existing cartridges out of a dusty box somewhere and be able to play them again was very, very exciting. Or the NES! It was produced in enormous quantities, so you couldn’t get one on eBay for not that much money. Really, just get any console and plug it into any CRT, and you’re going to have an experience that plays and looks better than you could believe.

Mark Bramhill: Enthusiast is produced by me, Mark Bramhill. Today’s music is by Torley and by WMD. Editorial assistance from Lenna Mendoza. You can find more on getting started with retro gaming, and lots more to be joyful about, enthusiastpodcast.com. This episode is part of our Identical Twin Double Feature, so be sure to check out the episode with Raygan’s brother Shane as well. Thanks for listening.