How Retro Gamers Can Game on the Cheap

By Jeffrey L. Wilson on 25 December 2009 8 comments

That slick widescreen high-definition television that's the centerpiece of your living room is an abomination, and not just for the price. Sure, it makes a fine addition to your multimedia center, but if you’re a retro gaming fan looking to hook up your NES, Super NES, Genesis, Turbo Grafx-16, or other pre-PlayStation era video game consoles for a few hours of old school entertainment, prepare for plenty of blotchy colors, fuzzy pixels, and perhaps a bit of sobbing. Here is why HDTVs are the bane to the retrogamer and how one purchase can save you lots of money.

You don’t need an HDTV

The natural evolution of display technology has made retrogaming a no-no on HDTVs. A 720p (1,280 x 720-pixel resolution) or 1080p (1,920 x 1,080-pixel resolution) television wrecks, for example, the 8-bit beauty of the NES' visuals (256 x 240-pixel resolution) as it has to stretch those meager amount of pixels over a much greater area. I learned this digital lesson the hard way. Two years ago, I made the mistake of attempting to play the classic Tecmo Super Bowl on my mom's 42-incher, and my New York Giants squad looked very much like blue cotton balls dashing across the massive screen.

Don’t let modern consoles tempt you with nostalgia

The Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3 have online marketplaces (Xbox Live Arcade, Virtual Console, and PlayStation Network, respectively) where you can purchase updated, tweaked versions of classic games that have been filtered and upscaled to look as you remember, but on a HDTV. Unfortunately, these reworked games can't be played in full screen mode (there's typically letterboxing), and a number have yet become available for download.

The Big Three gaming companies aren't offering these games for altruistic purposes; they're hoping that nostalgia for long past days will encourage you to re-purchase these games, typically at $5 to $10 a pop. Dropping a Lincoln on a favorite game may seem like meager money, but if you try to rebuild entire libraries of your favorites, you can easily spend a hundred dollars or more. It doesn't have to be this way.

One low-cost purchase (and a little desk space) is all that's needed to play your favorite retro titles in their native low-resolution without fear of visual blight. It comes, oddly enough, from a home computer that's nearly 30 years old.

The Solution: The Commodore 1084 Monitor

The Commodore 1084S monitor is tailor-made for your 8- and 16-bit titles with its old school-friendly 14-inch display and 640 x 256-pixel resolution resolution. As you've probably sussed out, the 1084D was originally designed for use with the classic Commodore 64 home computer, the machine that introduced many families to the wonders of personal computing.

I picked one up from eBay about five years ago, and it has proven to be one of the most cherished additions to my retro gaming setup. I’ve played everything from Super Mario Bros. to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater on it, and the visuals have always been nothing short of crisp. Even better, the 1084S has built in stereo speakers (hence the "S" in its name) that eliminates the need to purchase or attach external speakers. Be careful, however; a 1084 monitor (without the "S") is also floating about that lacks speakers. Composite and RGB inputs are housed in the back of the machine for attaching your consoles for the best picture possible.

Where to find the Commodore 1084S Monitor (for cheap!)

The Commodore 1084S typically sells cheap ($15 to $25), but you may have to pay a pretty penny in shipping as the monitor weighs over 20 pounds. I found mine on eBay for a total of $40, $15 of which was spent on shipping. Although eBay and other auction sites are the fastest, easiest ways to obtain the display, they aren't the most frugal; you can save money by combing the computers/electronics sections of your city or town's Craigslist, as you can pick the monitor up yourself without being nailed with shipping and handling fees.

Happy hunting, circle of the joystick. Game on.

This is a guest post by Jeffrey L. Wilson, editor-in-chief of 2D-X, a site devoted to 2D and 2.5D video games. Read more from him at 2D-X.

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Guest's picture

You can also get a Commodore 1084S monitor and other nostalgic gaming items from I have made many purchases from them over the years.

Guest's picture

Interesting topic. i'll have to see what type of rig i can put together.

Guest's picture

That monitor was intended for the Amiga. The old NTSC video games have only 320 pixels of data, but the monitor does 640, so the shadow mask must have more detail.

For comparison, VGA has 640 x 480.

Guest's picture

Lots of old video and arcade games have a new life on the cheap toy isle, and as stand alone games.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture

right after the digital transition i picked up a couple of small analog tvs at goodwill for about $7 each. one for my sega genesis and one for my atari 2600.
fortunately i have the space for them.
i know where there's an intact commodore 6 with monitor but my dad's not giving it up just yet!

Guest's picture

if you have a computer already don't spend a dime and just get emulators. The roms and emulators you can find for free.

Guest's picture

Ease of accessibility/availability does NOT necessarily mean that emulators/roms are legal. Check your local copyright laws.

Guest's picture

the worst thing about retro games on a new tv isn't the picture quality... they look pretty good on my 52" samsung, not perfect, but good. The lag is so much worse... so many atari games depend on high speed movements... almost impossible to play at all. Nintendo isn't much better, there is no way in hell I'm going to Punch Out Tyson on there.