How do I get my Retro Console to work on a modern TV?

As an ex retro game store owner, I got a lot of pre-SCART retro consoles and computers sent back to me with reports of them not working. Upon testing, 9 out of 10 of these would prove to be working just fine, leading me to the conclusion that one or more of the following points apply:

  1. the cartridge they were using was faulty/needs cleaning (see this article on how to clean your cartridge)
  2. they had a modern ‘auto tune only’ TV (some of these cannot tune the weak RF signals that older computers produce)
  3. they didn’t understand the difference between analogue and digital signals
  4. they didn’t know how to manually tune their TV

With the advent of HDMI, USB and Wi-Fi the current generation of tech-users rightly expect their kit to just plug in and ‘work’. Unfortunately for me and them this wasn’t always the case and old tech needs a little more preparation and understanding of how it works before you can start using it.

From the mid 90’s consoles started to use an AV SCART lead and most modern TVs still have SCART connections so these consoles aren’t usually a problem. It is when we go back to RF output that problems begin to show. An RF signal is analogue and a modern TV has to be put into ‘analogue mode‘ in order for it to be tuned. Then you can usually allocate a channel and set it to auto-tune. If auto-tuning skips past the signal (usually Channel 36) then you may have to set it to manual tune. Some modern TVs don’t have manual tune. If this is the case, and it didn’t tune using auto tune then I’m afraid you won’t be using that particular TV to play pre-SCART consoles on. So to clarify:

Tuning a pre-SCART console/computer

  1. Use a cartridge that you know works (or clean your cartridge following these instructions here) and make sure your console is switched on
  2. Make sure your RF co-axial aerial cable is connected to both the console and TV
  3. If the RF cable has a built in switch box make sure it is switched to ‘game‘ (or equivalent)
  4. Make sure your TV is set to analogue mode (consult your TV instruction manual if not sure how to achieve this)
  5. Pick a channel (nowadays most people are watching digital channels so just pick any)
  6. If it gives you the option to manually input a signal channel choose Ch. 36
  7. If you can’t, try an auto tune
  8. If this hasn’t worked and your TV will let you, try manually tuning the signal
  9. If that doesn’t work buy a Commodore Pet and play old games on that

Tuning a SCART enabled console

  1. Use a cartridge that you know works (or clean your cartridge following these instructions here) and make sure your console is switched on
  2. Make sure you have plugged the SCART cable into your console and your TV (make a note of the SCART socket number on the TV)
  3. Tune your TV using the AV channel button on your remote choosing the corresponding AV number

The problem has become so bad I have taken to putting a disclaimer on all of my pre-SCART console and computer listings in my store. Hopefully with this article I can help get people to realise that the majority of the time it is their TV at fault and that their new (old) retro games machine is working just fine.

Author: Ant Harper

Father, Husband, website developer, avid gamer since the mid-70s and collector of just about anything video game related. Hoarder by any other name. 8-Bit computer and Sinclair specialist with a huge Sinclair related collection of his own. Blogs about retro gaming here but occasionally elsewhere when people ask. Can often be found modging with his Bongo. Remembers: Lunar Lander. Plays: Battlefield and Gears of War

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13 Comments

  1. There is another problem with modern televisions with regards to consoles and gaming devices that you haven’t mentioned.

    Most old games consoles, including the original Playstation don’t provide a true interlaced video signal – they only provide field 1 – twice and signal as such. Older analogue televisions (and video recorders) dutifully repeated this but some modern digital display devices don’t like this at all as it technically doesn’t conform strictly to the specified video standard (be it the NTSC standard used on American/Japanese consoles or PAL, used in Europe – it applies to both).

    I first came across this as a problem when working in the BBC around 2000 – we wanted to record a small clip from Crash Team Racing and a couple of other PS1 games as an example of what was then modern gaming, but the Digibeta video recorder we were using point blank refused to even acknowledge there was a signal coming in on the analog input.

    I got round the problem by using a professional video standards converter we happened to have in the office. I found that if we set the input and output of the device to the console’s video output standard (in our case PAL) it would correct the field problem and thus the digital video recorder would record the previously non-standard output of the console.

    I believe this problem is also why many modern flat screen displays are unable to display the output from many older, perfectly functioning games consoles.

    Sadly not a cheap solution to go down as the standards converter was worth several thousand dollars…

  2. Hi Hywel. Thank you for your excellently worded explanation. You are obviously more versed than I in technical matters related to video!
    Regards, Ant

  3. Easy enough – get yourself an old fat TV that has snow, avoiding LED/TFT screens. Most charity shops will have these old ones if they sell electronics. Would avoid 20” plus as are very heavy. Try to have a remote too as often necessary for tuning the console eg like Amiga or ZX Spectrum. They work on 50Hz technology nowadays is 60Hz (like NTSC) as standard.
    One thing I’m trying is an old 50Hz Amiga monitor (scart connection) which is the best quality and simplicity you’ll find.
    Yes this WORKS! Phillips CM8833. A bit flashy but all is well.
    Regards
    Mark C.

  4. Thank you, very helpful after just recently purchasing an old fashioned Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

  5. Glad it was of help to you Ian, thanks for the feedback! :)

  6. Hi Hywel, I’ve bought a 19″ lcd tv to play my retro consoles on, they all worked fine on my 32″ lcd tv, but I wanted a smaller screen to play them on. When I plug my mega drive into the 19″ it works fine by either the composite or scart cables that I have for it, but my newer retro consoles (Dreamcast, N64, PS1) won’t work. I just get the blue screen and “no signal” sign. It’s a bit odd as I expected to have problems with the older megadrive rf signal if any, not the newer consoles. With the newer consoles I’m either using composite or scart, same as my megadrive, plus all the consoles work on my 32″ tv. Any advice on how I can get the newer consoles working on my tv?.

    Thanks

  7. As mentioned previously, many consoles provide a tv signal that’s slightly off-standard – this is fine on older televisions but confuses more modern all-electronic televisions.

    I’m not sure what to advise – when I wanted to make a recording from a SNES console for a television programme for broadcast, I found a similar problem where the Digibeta video recorder wouldn’t accept the SNES’s signal, even though it looked fine on a monitor. I got round the problem by using a professional video standards converter and set both the input and output to PAL. This re-generated the signal to one acceptable to the video recorder… however I would hardly recommend a £20,000 standards converter as a solution!

    Probably the best solution would be to try to find an older television for use as a display. Not the best solution and not what you’d hope for but often this is the only solution.

  8. Thanks for the advice Hywel, luckily I wanted the new tv for the megadrive mainly, so yeah I can look to get an old tv for the other consoles.

    I have seen online that you can get hdmi upscalers, would using one solve the problem with my other xons you think?.the ones I’ve seen are basically a box with a hdmi lead to the tv in one end and a socket for the consoles scart/composite in the other.

    Thanks

  9. I can’t speak for your individual HDMI upscaler… however this is an electronic only device and may well be expecting a perfectly formed interlace image – something that many consoles don’t provide. If you get a chance to try out first, do so.

  10. I have just tried a spectrum zx 128 +2 on an lcd/plasma tv through the rf socket. i got as far as the test screen and despite pressing the reset button i still could not get the load page to show. Would this be down to the tv or the computer itself. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated. If needed the mother in law has an old crt tv in her bedroom
    Thanking you all in advance for any help

  11. Hi David, yeah, just to rule out speccy problems, try tuning it on the old CRT. A lot of modern TVs have trouble tuning into the weak signal produced by the modulators in old Speccys. Failing that, buy a SCART RGB cable for your Speccy. We will be reviewing on by retrogamingcables.co.uk soon if you can hang on! :)

  12. Just tried speccy on old CRT tv and i am still having trouble getting the computer past the test page. I will try a scart rgb cable and see what happens.
    Cheers

  13. What do you mean by test page? What are you seeing on screen when you reset the Speccy?

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