Project Nayuki


Nintendo 64 over S-video

Introduction

From the 1980s to early 2000s, most home entertainment devices used composite video signals and connectors. The Nintendo 64 game console followed this mainstream standard, and it came with a composite video cable by default. Unfortunately, composite video has the second-worst video quality out of all available standards, being only a step above RF modulation. Composite video suffered from dot crawl, low luminance resolution, and color bleeding.

S-video is a small but appreciable step above composite video. This standard separates the luminance and chrominance signals into their own wires, resulting in no dot crawl artifacts, better luminance resolution, and less color bleeding. (It still retains the 480i resolution of standard NTSC television however; component video is even better because it separates the two chrominance channels and allows higher resolutions like 1080p.)

I bought my N64 machine around year 1999 and used the composite video cable unquestioningly, until a conversation in 2021 with a friend led me to do a bit of research about higher quality output options. With suitable modding (of wires and possibly extra chips), the N64 can output RGB video data, either taken before or after the onboard digital-to-analog converter. Without modding though, it seems the best output format from the N64 is just S-video. I decided to give this a try, and easily bought a 10-CAD cable that plugged into the Nintendo’s proprietary “multi out” port on one end and the S-video socket of my TV on the other end. The resulting improvement in picture quality was decent and within my expectations. I do regret not knowing about and buying this cheap cable earlier, which would’ve given me more years to enjoy better visuals when playing my N64 games.

Picture comparisons

Summary

My overall observations on how Nintendo 64 games look on S-video compared to composite video:

  • More horizontal resolution and fine detail, less blurring/halos/ringing

  • Sharper text, especially noticeable at smaller font sizes; this is the biggest benefit when using S-video

  • Horizontal pixelation more noticeable because most games choose to render at 320×240 whereas the NTSC format is capable of representing about 720×480; this is not S-video’s fault, and newer consoles like the Nintendo GameCube generally render at the full resolution

  • Diagonal lines noticeably more jagged; this is a minus point but just highlights existing flaws with the N64’s graphics

  • Dithering visible in some gradients; it seems the N64 uses 15-bit-color somewhere in its rendering data path; this is not S-video’s fault because analog video by definition does not quantize colors

Interactive comparison

Table of examples

Game title Scene Composite video S-video Observations
Cruis’n USA Map menu
  • Center text “EARN FASTER CARS” is sharper on S-video
  • Top-center map’s yellow line is sharper but more pixelated
  • Bottom-left text “B FOR OPTIONS” is sharper
  • Letter “E” in text “EASY”/“MEDIUM”/“HARD” has slight dot crawl on composite video
Cruis’n USA United States road map
  • Bottom-right text is sharper on S-video
  • Interstate logos have sharper number text and less blurring of the bottom diagonal white lines
  • Red lines in the map are less saturated and have slight dot crawl on composite video
Cruis’n USA Choose car
  • Main white text is somewhat sharper on S-video
  • Bottom-left text “B FOR OPTIONS” is sharper
Cruis’n USA Transmission select
  • Top text “CHOOSE TRANSMISSION” has more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Picture below “AUTOMATIC D CRUIS-O-MATIC” is sharper
  • Bottom-left text “B FOR OPTIONS” is sharper
  • Bottom text “PLAYER 2 PRESS START” has thinner vertical black lines due to improved horizontal resolution
Cruis’n USA Race with HUD
  • Top text “50” is sharper on S-video
  • Center orange lampposts are sharper
  • Top-left text “00:20” has dot crawl on composite video
Cruis’n USA Race sans HUD
  • Yellow dotted lines and faraway red car are slightly sharper on S-video
  • Overall very subtle improvement in sharpness
GoldenEye 007 Select file
  • Yellow logos and text are sharper on S-video
  • Red reticle looks sharper in person but doesn’t appear that way in photos
GoldenEye 007 Mission briefing
  • Main text is much sharper on S-video, especially letters like “e” and “a”
  • Right-side text is much sharper
  • Red reticle looks sharper in person but doesn’t appear that way in photos
GoldenEye 007 Control style
  • Left/right-side dark green text is sharper on S-video
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Title
  • Top “KIRBY” logo shows subtle dithering and more pixelation on S-video
  • Top “KIRBY” logo’s bottom blue border has slight dot crawl on composite video
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Level select
  • Top crayon and red rings have more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Overall very subtle improvement in sharpness
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Stage
  • Bottom HUD has more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Overall very subtle improvement in sharpness
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Enemy info
  • Title “Enemy Info” has more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Enemy #40 has sharper claws
  • Enemy #38 has slight dot crawl on composite video
Mario Kart 64 Title
  • Various objects have more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Top “MARIO KART” logo has subtle dithering of the gradient
Mario Kart 64 Map select
  • Top text “MAP SELECT” has more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Bottom-left mini-pictures are slightly sharper
  • Right-side black rectangles have less ringing on their left edges
Mario Kart 64 Race
  • Right text “Luigi” is sharper on S-video
  • Top “MARIO KART” banner’s black-and-white-checkerboard border has slight cyan/red color fringes (bad) on S-video
Mario Kart 64 Award
  • All text has more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Black edges have less horizontal ringing
Pokémon Puzzle League Title
  • Various objects have sharper but more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Top-right text “®” is sharper
  • Bottom copyright text is sharper
Pokémon Puzzle League Puzzle Village
  • Bottom-center text “HOW TO PLAY” is sharper on S-video
  • Pokémon Center’s horizontal cyan band has dot crawl on composite video
Pokémon Puzzle League 3D mode
  • Top-right text is sharper on S-video
  • Speech bubble’s bottom diagonal lines are sharper and more pixelated
  • Professor Oak’s black outline is sharper and more pixelated
Pokémon Puzzle League Options
  • Nurse Joy and Chansey have sharper but more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • For the interlace-like effect in the center region of the picture, my TV decided to blend most adjacent lines together on composite video (bad) but not on S-video (good); but there should be no reason to blend lines because composite video has the same vertical resolution as S-video
Pokémon Stadium Title
  • Various objects have more jagged diagonals on S-video
  • Blue Blastoise and other objects have subtle dithering
Pokémon Stadium Game Pak check
  • Small text “Game Pak None” is much sharper on S-video
  • Top-left text “Game Pak Check” is sharper
  • Left controller diagram has sharper black lines and less color bleeding
  • Bottom-left text is sharper, especially letters “NIN”
  • Bottom text is sharper, especially letter “m”
Pokémon Stadium Main menu
  • All text is sharper on S-video
Pokémon Stadium Submenu
  • Bottom text is much sharper on S-video
  • Top-right cloud’s black border has more jagged edges
Pokémon Stadium Stadium menu
  • Bottom text is sharper on S-video
  • Trophies are sharper
  • The 4 small pictures are slightly sharper
Pokémon Stadium Stadium rules
  • All text is sharper on S-video, especially letter “m”
Pokémon Stadium Qualifying Pokémon
  • All text is much sharper on S-video
  • Pokémon pictures are slightly sharper
Pokémon Stadium Examine registered Pokémon
  • All text is much sharper on S-video
  • This scene seems to degrade on composite video much worse than all other known scenes
Pokémon Stadium Gym Leader Castle
  • Main small text is much sharper on S-video, e.g. “SABRINA”, “ERIKA”
  • Bottom-right text is sharper, especially letters “W”, “M”
Pokémon Stadium Kids Club menu
  • Top text “MAGIKARP'S SPLASH” is slightly sharper on S-video
  • Overall very subtle improvement in sharpness
Super Smash Bros. Title
  • Bottom copyright text is sharper on S-video
  • Center logo has more jagged diagonals
Super Smash Bros. Player select
  • Bottom text is sharper on S-video
  • Various character pictures and the 5 Kirby dots have more pixelated and jagged diagonals
  • Yoshi and other character pictures have subtle dithering
  • Text “Ready to Fight” has slight dot crawl on composite video
Super Smash Bros. Stage clear
  • All text is sharper on S-video, especially letter “s”
  • Top text “STAGE CLEAR” has subtle dithering
  • All text has slight dot crawl on composite video

Methodology

The fairest comparison would involve hooking up the device under test to a dedicated video capture device. Because I don’t have a capture device and this article isn’t important enough, I took a lazier approach of just manually photographing a TV screen. Arguably this has a slight benefit of illustrating what sort of picture quality you can expect to see a real TV, but a major pitfall is that that the TV’s RGB grid can interact with the camera’s RGB grid to produce terrible moiré patterns.

After some trial and error, I locked down all the picture tuning settings on the TV (especially disabling dynamic contrast and backlighting) and the shot settings on the digital camera (especially exposure and white balance). I didn’t lock the focus on the camera because I was worried about potential focus breathing from temperature changes. In retrospect, refocusing on every photo was a mistake because the captured images seem to have inconsistent intensities of moiré patterns, making comparisons somewhat harder.

I noticed several flaws with my old, not-top-of-the-line LCD HDTV set. The deinterlacer had random occasional juddering artifacts and what seems to be frame reordering. Delivering the same picture over composite video versus S-video resulted in slightly different horizontal and vertical positioning. And it seems the image on composite video was slightly darker, as well has having tiny hue/saturation shifts. In post-production photo editing, I corrected the position offset and brightness because they are not relevant to the comparison between the two kinds of video signals.

Because I couldn’t capture gameplay footage from composite video and S-video at the same time, I had to resort to choosing scenes that were mostly reproducible, and then I manually invoked each scene twice. Because many scenes have dynamic elements (flashing, translation, rotation, etc.), the photos of composite vs. S-video don’t have perfect correspondence of every object.

More info