French RGB Consoles
Many consoles released in France had native RGB-output, when all other versions of the console released in other regions did not. Out of these consoles, a few outputted true RGB, while others simply installed internal composite-to-RGB converters. I’ll try and compile a list of all French consoles with RGB output and list if it’s true RGB or not (this is just a start and incomplete):
|Sega Master System II
There’s actually a pretty interesting explanation as to why this occurs. Here’s a full description copied and translated from the Circuitboard-de forums (posted here by the original writer with his permission):
The french connection – RGB and other solutions on French hardware
Since there seems to be quite an interest and great confusion about the special characteristics of french gaming machines, I wanted to give a quick rundown about this topic. Why the situation in France is so special and how different companies dealt with the conditions.
SECAM is (just like PAL and NTSC) NO television standard, but different means to put color into the picture. Standards like B, G or M determine the number of line (or resolution) and the fieldrate, which is a consequence of the mains frequency of the respective area. Places with 50Hz (mains and TV) tend to have PAL and the most 60Hz areas use NTSC, but Brazil uses PAL-M (60Hz, 480i, PAL). For short: PAL doesn’t mean 50Hz, it is just often used together!
When black and white TV sets were relatively common in the mid-twentieth century, methods were researched to add color in a way that was backwards compatible to older sets. A monochrome set displays a picture by plotting dot for dot with only luminance information. Color sets operate in a similar way but with three sub-dots per “pixel” in the colors red, green and blue from which all other colors can be derived. There would have been several disadvantages at the time if the color signal would have been transmitted in such a way and first and formost there would have been no compatibility with older monochrome sets. To overcome this problem, the color signal was transmitted as a black and white signal with an additional layer of color with a lower resolution on top (chroma subsampling). A b/w set simply ignores the added color while a newer TV could utilise the added information to dye the picture with the provided colors. (This is where the composite and S-video signals come from and the seperation of luminace and lower resolution chroma is the main reason for the lower quality of these signals compared to RGB). PAL, NTSC and SECAM are the standards or “codecs” for this added color information.
Different countries chose different standards and the three competitors spread around the world, with SECAM gaining the smallest share (France and members of the Warsaw pact). If you connect a German or Italian NES (PAL50) to a true SECAM50 TV in France, it will only show a monochrome picture, because while it’s able to detect and display the underlying b/w portion of the composite signal, it can’t decode the PAL color information and thus ignores it. So, if a device shall be able to transmitt a signal via RF, composite or S-video, it must be able to encode for the region it is intended for. When it comes to video games this leads to customized hardware (like PPUs). Bad luck for the French who were the only relevant country for the industry at that time with a SECAM system. So… solutions had to be found.
2. RGB > SECAM
Like I said before, systems like SECAM, NTSC or PAL are only relevant as long as you use S-video, composite or RF. If you switch to RGB via SCART (also a French thing), you can connect a British SNES to a French TV and everything works, because both countries use a 50Hz and PAL or SECAM is of no relevance. (By the way: Most European TVs are multistandard since at least the 90ies and display 50 and 60Hz and all three systems via composite)
3. The systems
Atari 2600:We start of with the most interesting example. The Atari 2600 (or VCS) uses the “TIA” chip for color palettes and encoding and it exists in PAL and NTSC variants. While a SECAM-TIA was not considered profitable, the French got a 2600… a bad one. Besides the color mode the 2600 has a monochrome mode for compatibility to bw sets. In this mode the system displays everything in eight shades of grey. For the French version the engineers took PAL hardware and modified it to permanent monochrome mode. The monochrome signal was then put through a simple circuit which assigned a color value to each grey and added it in a way compatible to SECAM. The resulting picture was limited to said eight colors which where very flat and unpleasant. The system was not well received in France.
Atari 7800:When the 7800 hit the scene, SCART sockets were already quite common in Europe (especially in France) and TVs could easily be provided with a RGB signal. Unfortunatly the 7800 wasn’t able to put out RGB natively and so it was created artificially. Where other PAL-systems feed the composite signal to an RF-modulator, the French 7800 converts it to RGB instead in order to connect it to French TVs via SCART.
While it outputs RGB and might even produce a better picture than any other unmodded system via RF, the best picture quality it can produce is that of composite video – the conversion process might even damage the quality, which makes a system with composite video mod the preferable option. Because it’s RGB from a composite source after all. Connecting a VCR to an HDMI upscaler doesn’t make my VHS tapes HD either.
Atari Jaguar: Native RGB output
The systems by Sega proved to be the least complicated for the French at the time because nearly all of them provided native RGB output. That way standard PAL-systems could be shipped with a SCART cable instead of the standard RF solution. On some systems the RF-outputs were even covered with stickers or completely removed. There is only one exception in the Sega catalogue:
Master System II:The only non-RGB console Sega released in Europe is worth montioning here, because the version I got for christmas wouldn’t work in France, since it’s RF only and PAL. The version that reached France was a little different. It offers a real RGB out and was shipped with a SCART-cable, as you can see in the manual for the system (Attached). Since other MS2 can be modded to RGB easily, there would be no reason to convert a lesser signal to RGB for the French version and this output is considered native RGB.
All (European 50Hz) consoles by Nintendo offer native RGB output, except for two of them:
NES:The sought after “French NES” may be an interesting specimen, but is actually the same bluff as the 7800. A low standard composite to RGB conversion enables this PAL-B hardware to be seen on a French TV. The PPU of the NES is only capable of displaying composite and this signal is used for the conversion. Again: The French version doesn’t offer a better picture than any NES with composite video. It’s actually worse.
N64:And here is the biggest question mark of them all… the French N64.
While some early NTSC systems could be modded to output RGB by directing the video signal trough an additional circuit, the early French systems not only had the right DA converter (as the NTSC systems did) but had all the traces on the board for RGB output. While it’s lacking some necessary electronic components, they can easily be added and thus restore RGB functionality. It seems like Nintendo had RGB in mind for the French version (which came out AFTER the non-RGB PAL version) but dropped it during production in order to save money. At that time in 1997 most TVs in France were able to decode PAL signals as well as SECAM and it became less important to overcome the SECAM barrier. Later on the French model was replaced with the standard European Model NUS-001(EUR).
This list isn’t complete by far, since there are more consoles with unique french features, but these are the ones, the most people talk about.
Two or three more things about gaming in Europe that might be interesting:
1. RGB isn’t as common as you might think! While it’s true that SCART is extremely common here and is still supported on flatscreens today, people don’t know about RGB that much. People used SCART to connect devices, but nobody cared about picture quality. When I switched from RF to composite for my SNES, I did this because of the conveniance not having to tune to a certain channel. Composite cables for most consoles came bundled with SCART adapters with three RCA jacks for stereo and composite video and most people considered that SCART. Nobody thought about getting better video quality by using better cables.
The only people who knew about RGB for consoles in the 90ies were cinephiles, importers and modders.
2. The 60Hz mod is the most common mod over here! Most consoles were developed in Japan or the US and with 480i-60Hz-TVs in mind and it was quite a hassle to connect such a system to an (older) TV in Europe, where we have 576i-50Hz devices. We had a higher resolution but a lower framerate at our TV sets and so the systems had to be adapted. In most cases, this simply meant squashing the image to fit in our resolution without having to scale it and putting borders on top and bottom. Your 480 lines became the 480 lines in the middle of our picture with 96 empty lines in a flat color were added. To adapt to the lower field rate, the game just runs slower… a lot…
What you see in one second of “Sonic the hedgehog” on the Genesis, contains of 60 different pictures, which we see across 1,2 seconds on our Mega Drive. Doesn’t sound that much, but if you add that up to an hour, our slowdown drags us to a staggering 72 minutes of gameplay in which we see the squishy adventures of “Slowdown the sloth”. Most people wouldn’t notice, but it’s quite a difference.
Luckily, some conversions are quite good and better on the European versions and most consoles with bad conversions can be persuaded to output the picture in 240p60 instead of our 288p50. The easiest being the Master System and Mega Drive which can be switched from 50 to 60 by cutting a trace on the mainboard. You can even connect a switch to the contacts to switch the system between the two states. When put into 60Hz-Mode, a European Mega Drive outputs a non-standard PAL60-signal, which usually results in a monochrome image. That’s how most eurogamers were introduced to RGB, because that way they could get a 60Hz picture in color.
(Bonus): SCART doesn’t support S-video! 😀
The original SCART standard contains support for composite and RGB with stereo sound over seperate pins. S-video was not part of that standard and that’s why there are no dedicated pins for chroma and luma. While it’s true that many TVs support S-video over SCART, it is still a non-standard application, like YPbPr or RGBHV over SCART. S-Video over SCART uses the composite pin for luma and the red-RGB pin for chroma. In most cases this results in a monochrome image when the luma is processed as composite. There are not many CRT-TVs that can detect S-video and I can’t think of any that provides RGB AND S-video through the same port, because of the shared pins, which would require a detection. Some SCART devices have connections for set-top-boxes and only support composite.
The standard for a TV in the late 90s is around those specs:
AV1 (SCART on the back – Composite in and out, RGB in, Stereo in and out)
AV2 (SCART on the back – Composite in and out, S-video in [has to be activated via menu], Stereo in and out)
AV3 (RCA on the front – Composite in, Stereo in, sometimes with an additional S-video in)
More expensive TVs had more to offer like VGA with 480p via SCART or YPbPr via SCART, but the bulk of them worked as described above.
If you’re finished, I invite you to go back to the main page to see all the other retro-gaming awesomeness we have on this site… especially the RGB guide!