How the HDTV killed rhythm action
As a former NanaOn-Sha employee, I have met more than my fair share of Parappa The Rapper fans. With no sequel or re-release since the largely ignored 2007 PSP remake, several devotees have even admitted to recently dusting off their old PlayStations to see if they still have what it takes to master the 1996 classic.
“Maybe I’m getting old," they would inevitably say, “but I downright suck at it these days.”
While Parappa is, by modern standards, a tough and unforgiving game, there is another fundamental reason why you may struggle to enjoy old rhythm games these days – your HDTV.
Modern TVs suffer from high amounts of display lag, commonly termed 'latency' – usually more than 60 milliseconds, but latencies of 100ms+ are not uncommon. For a 60fps game, 60ms lag equates to an event happening on-screen 4 frames after your input is detected. For performance genres – like rhythm games, and beat 'em ups where a single frame can be the difference between a high score and game over – this lag is obviously of serious detriment to the game experience. Ideally any display would have less than one frame of latency (i.e. under 16ms), and in the past most CRT TVs were innately capable of this due to the simplicity of their design. I’ve actually already met a few gamers who have kept their old CRTs for classic rhythm gaming, so if you still have one gathering dust in the spare room, think twice before you bin it in the future!
The root of the problem is the proliferation of post-processing features in modern TV’s – all those acronyms on the side of the box which manufacturers claim improve picture quality through upscaling, improving blacks, sharpness and so on. In effect, the TV is applying a host of Photoshop filters to every frame it receives, so it’s no wonder that the video feed suffers.
Sadly, latency performance does not seem to be a headline TV feature for your average Joe – you won’t find a TV’s image lag speed listed in the specifications alongside the standard stats such as the number of HDMI ports. Seeing as the TVs with the most features (and therefore the highest price) tend to have the most lag, it’s no surprise that the manufacturers want to keep this stat under wraps.
It’s not a complete lost cause, though. Some modern displays are actually capable of low latency performance (particularly ones used in the commercial sector where timing is critical), and there are even ways of improving the performance of regular TV’s – you can find out more yourself by reading the excellent guide written by fighting game fans over at Shoryuken. One cunning method involves connecting your consoles via VGA instead of HDMI, as VGA modes tend to have little to no post-processing.
Sadly, the majority of customers will never read this guide, or even realise that their TV has lag issues in the first place. For this reason the game tends to get the blame when the player feels that they are being punished unfairly by the game despite seeming to play correctly. This forces them to either mentally adjust their timings or to abandon the game entirely. Guitar Hero and Rock Band tried to sidestep the problem by offering calibration options and tutorials, but this doesn’t solve the problem. It merely makes the game more forgiving; a dirty hack in a genre which prizes purity.
Nintendo recognises this, and has made a point of highlighting the “close to zero” latency of the Wii U GamePad, where the image is processed so quickly that it generally outperforms the main display – not that this is necessarily a good thing, as lag between first and second screen is a problem in and of itself, which I’m sure will give some developers headaches.
Aside from displays, other technologies have also introduced lag – none more so than the trending towards gesture based input methods, with Kinect being notorious for its cumbersome latency which rules out any time-precise gameplay styles – or at least demands compromises from them.
And does anybody wonder why the 3DS and Wii U tablet didn’t follow the trend away from resistive touch screens in favour of the ubiquitous capacitive variety? Well, you may want to ask yourself why we haven’t seen any rhythm games of the quality of Inis' DS masterpiece Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! on iOS. Current capacitive touchscreens introduce around 100ms of lag – something which interestingly, only Microsoft seems determined to improve upon. This is why using the stylus provided with the Samsung Galaxy Note feels like such an alien experience – your sketch is always one step behind, like a shadow of your movements.
The PS2 was arguably the last hurrah of home performance gaming as we knew it. The combination of wired, digital buttons with a CRT display gave a near-immediate response that allowed designers to create razor-sharp experiences as diverse as PaRappa, Ikaruga and King Of Fighters.
These days, it seems that consumers overwhelmingly prioritise prettier, but essentially superficial features such as pixel density and gesture recognition over underlying issues like latency. It’s hard not to see why when you walk into a hardware store and see the stunning picture quality of the latest Samsung LCDs with their wafer thin-frames and reams of smart features. I’ve no doubt that 90 per cent of purchasers will never even notice the lag. Meanwhile, Inis has abandoned its roots, its only console game this gen being the peripheral-driven Lips for Xbox 360; Harmonix, too, has moved on from Rock Band, focusing on the Kinect-controlled Dance Central.
Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before low latency becomes a hot selling point for gaming-related devices once again – but for the foreseeable future, we are likely to see a continued suppression of high-performance games in both the mobile and console space.