Today’s Computer Displays Distort Pixel Art Designed for 1980s CRTs

As a kid, I remember studying my CRT displays with a microscope. Each pixel that I could control with BASIC on my TRS-80 or Atari 800 or Commodore-64 was made up of tiny arrays of red, blue, and green dots that I could not control directly. There was one display mode of the Atari 800 that officially offered 4 colors — black, red, blue, and white. My brother and I noticed that the “white” dot triggered more green subdots or more red subdots depending on whether the x coordinate was even or odd, so if we placed the pixels carefully enough, we could turn this quirk into an exploitable feature, and squeeze an additional color out of a very limited pallete.

A Tumblr post, “Designing 2D graphics in the Japanese industry,” exposed me to this side-by-side comparison showing the way a 1980s pixel drawing appeared on a contemporary CRT, with blurring and smoothing that was a feature of the analog display of a digital image, and how the exact same image is rendered as much more blocky and flat on a modern display.

When viewing the artwork on the display for which it was designed, the eye supplies missing curves and a coherent topology; we could imagine a much more detailed Platonic ideal as the pure source of the image that our flickering CRTs displayed imperfectly. The perfect clarity of a modern display invites no such participatory co-creation.