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NTSC games on PAL consoles

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PAL/ vs NTSC is the well known curse of retro gaming. I thought I'm pretty familiar with this subject, and yet today I realized it might not be quite true.

 

I'm a microcomputer guy, and that's the hardware I mostly collect, but I do have a hard-modded PAL PSX and soft-modded PS2 and Wii. Recently thought about acquiring some 8-16 bit consoles as well, read a bit about it, and have realized that having region lock mods does not equal region display mods. For example, I just bought a "modded" Genesis where the guy said he has to cut one cable to make it play NTSC-region games, while also claiming it would run them in correct NTSC speed (on my NTSC-capable Trinitron).

 

Is this actually true? And which (if any) PAL consoles are capable of acting like NTSC hardware (ie run games with proper NTSC speed and in correct AR)? I've read somewhere N64 can do that, while older-gen like NES can't without extensive mods (crystals, chips, etc). I always thought that my PSX/PS2/Wii are actually running proper NTSC games, was that an illusion?

 

What say you?

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Two points :

- Region locking is usually/commonly associated with TV Frequency but it's not a hard rule : PAL A and B region for the NES, Japan and USA are often separate regions, as is Japan and "Asia", etc. Some console only use a hardware region locking (different cart shape) or a software one, sometime both (Megadrive cart shape are different between regions AND feature software locking)

So a region-modded console may not play games at the original speed.

 

- console speed is dependant on the console architecture. Some consoles are built with "proper" CPU and graphic processors for each region (NES, N64) which mean you cannot change their speed easily.

Luckily most consoles contain a connection or a series of connections that change the display speed.

AFAIK, most PAL console can be modded to play at 60 htz. The ones that can't are mostly the NES and N64. The SNES can be, oddly (I assume because Nintendo rushed it for PAL launch).

Note that the N64 only use hardware region locking, in the form of tabs and notches on the cart shell, so you only need to remove or hack the bottom of the cart slot to region unlock it. Also, given how sluggish N64 games tend to be, the difference is usually hardly discernable (Mario 64 NTSC : 13FPS on average; PAL Mario 64 : 12 FPs on average. Really only matters for speedruns XD)

Consoles from the CD Era can usually be switched entierely in sofware, with a chip usually, or a special cart like on the Saturn.

 

128 bits consoles usually either use flag in game to speed up the gameplay as intented and/or offer you a 60 htz option.

 

Switcher sa Master System II

Master System I and II, the hardest consoles to switch! :D (note that Japanese and Western carts have a different shape so you'll need an adapter to play Japanese games on a PAL System. However, since the Master System was the most successful in Europe, not only are a few games PAL optimized and will run better on a 50 htz system, but most/all good games are in Western format)

 

 

Oh and going back to region locking, several games perform a speed check on boot, so if you have PAL games, they might become unplayable on a NTSC console because they detect the speed change. It's not a big issue for consoles you can switch speed while running, but its still a problem.

Many NES and SNES game, because they contain enhancement chips, will not run properly either. Starwing and super Mario All-Star PAL version wo'nt run gracefully on a NTSC console or 60 htz modded consoles, even if switched after boot. So you will need to either keep a console in PAL version or buy the game in NTSC version.

Edited by CatPix
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Well since we're on AtariAge, I should mention that most (all?) pre NES consoles usually are of the fixed architecture type, using different chips for 50 and 60 htz; Atari 2600, 7800, Intellivision, Colecovision, Fairchild Channel F (commonly found as the Saba Videoplay in Europe but other licenced models exists)

The Odyssey2/Videopac and Vectrex are exceptions : due to having their own screen and vectoriel graphics, the Vectrex doesn't have any notion of PAL/NTSC games (save for the box design itself). The Odyssey2/Videopac display use their own frequency and generate an adapted picture so games run at the same speed. There are some issues with games because of the different resolutions but usually nothing more than a few minor visual glitches on the top and bottom of the picture.

Similar to the SMS case, since the Videopac was way more successful in Europe, save for the Voice! enhanced games, you already are in the "good" region for collecting and enjoying Videopac/O2 games :)

 

For Channel F, Atari 2600, 7800, Intellivision and Colecovision games, from my personnal experience, the difference in speed is quite minor (and the voice module of the Intellivision get hilariously slow on PAL systems too) so unless you're a rabid collector of those, it really shouldn't matter much.

 

Edited by CatPix

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21 minutes ago, CatPix said:

unless you're a rabid collector of those, it really shouldn't matter much.

It wouldn't normally, but I'm doing it mainly in regard to the you-know-what project. So the visual accuracy is paramount, and since these machines were mostly from NTSC area, I'd rather have these versions. Otherwise, I'm perfectly happy with having the older consoles on MiSTer. It's only because covid is still locking most of the world up and I will have to spend another winter holed up in my HQ. I will most likely  sell them later in spring (these things don't go down in price, that's one good thing).

 

Thanks for the write up, but admittedly I'm still a bit lost. What about softmods and Everdrives, which allow you to play out of region games without any changes to hardware (as in motherboard)? Eg if I get an Everdrive for N64 will it output proper NTSC signal? (In fact I probably won't have many original games, just flashcarts)

 

I'm also watching a "modded" PAL NES, the guy says it's done by adding couple of cables, not cutting the chip's leg. I assume this is only a region lock mod, and even if I got it and ran an NTSC game on it, it'd work but in PAL (ie letterboxed and slower)?

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At this point, we would need to go down for each console's specifics.

 

Everdrives only make the console believe that you're playing a normal cart. As such, unless your console is modded, if you play a game ROM from a NTSC region on a PAL console, (let's say on the Megadrive) then the game will detect it and refuse to play (as far as I understand. I only have the Master System and Game Boy Everdrives... two console that lack region protection! I also have the Harmony Encore for the 2600 but it's another console that doesn't have region locking!)

For the N64, since it doesn't have software protection, an Everdrive will allow your to play any game on it but the N64 will remain  in 50 htz (or 60 htz if you have a NTSC one and play PAL games on it)

 

Softmods only/mostly exist for latter consoles. For example the Pseudo-Saturn cart disable region locking and even copy protection (just saying). But it cannont change the display speed.

 

For the NES, yes, the only way to change the speed is to replace the CPU, PPU and crystal. The mod you describe is most likely a region mod, as there is one that exist without the leg cutting, that apparently improve compatibility with some games; but games will remain slower and letterboxed.

 

The general rule is :

consoles made before the NES : require chip replacement and/or getting a 60htz console.

consoles made post-Krash until the 128 bits era : can be switched with the exception of the NES and N64

consoles 128 bits and beyond : adapt the gameplay speed and can be forced in 60 htz mode with a softmod or even by games.

 

Edited by CatPix
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Alright...good to know. I actually have a couple of NTSC-J consoles coming this week (Saturn & SNES)...that step down converter I've just bought for the MSX2 will come in handy! Am bidding on some JP Famicoms too. Already bought that PAL Genesis, so we'll see what image comes out of its cable-snapping "mod".

 

N64 is a bummer, I was hoping NTSC could work ok on a PAL console (had read this very confusing thread from krkizz)...but, oh, well. Maybe I can snag a JP N64 somewhere too, though they seem to be nonexistent here.

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I ordered a bunch of sega saturn reproduction discs recently and two of them were PAL releases (Wipeout 2097 and Street Racer).  The guy is actually sending me the japanese versions as I type this.  I didn't notice any slowdown (i think?) but the bottom part of the screen was cut off on Street Racer making it really annoying to play even though it didn't affect gameplay much.  Apparently the screen being cut off at the bottom is a PAL issue too, maybe just for saturn and on CRT's tho?!  I never bothered much with PAL stuff with their terrifying looking SCARTs and all.
 

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9 hours ago, NeonSpaceBeagle said:

I ordered a bunch of sega saturn reproduction discs recently and two of them were PAL releases (Wipeout 2097 and Street Racer).  The guy is actually sending me the japanese versions as I type this.  I didn't notice any slowdown (i think?) but the bottom part of the screen was cut off on Street Racer making it really annoying to play even though it didn't affect gameplay much.  Apparently the screen being cut off at the bottom is a PAL issue too, maybe just for saturn and on CRT's tho?!  I never bothered much with PAL stuff with their terrifying looking SCARTs and all.
 

10 years ago I used to have the same confusion, as I incorreclty assumed the NTSC version was always the best version of PS1 games.

 

The thing is, the PAL version of Wipeout XL/2097 is the original one. So with these particular games and other European titles for that console (and probably many others), the NTSC versions are based on the PAL one (unless they released both at the same time, in which case the NTSC is often better). So what I noticed in those scenarios is that the NTSC versions are a bit deformed, losing a bit of image in the upper and lower parts of the screen as everything is now "taller than it should" (even if they probably run faster).

Edited by IntelliMission
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More on this:

 

- 25 years ago I bought the PS1 in Spain, Europe:

           - The demos were all in PAL, but many of them were PAL original (mostly Psygnosis games) and were smooth.

           - Some of the pirated games were NTSC/U or NTSC/J and I could tell the different. As they normally were American or Japanese games, the PAL conversions had 2 huge black stripes in the upper and lower parts of the screen and ran 17% slower. Sometimes the guy who sold these games gave you the PAL version and sometimes the original NTSC version, it was random. I especially noticed the issue when he gave me the PAL version of Quake 2 in late 1999, as I didn't know about this when I played the PAL conversion of The Need for Speed 3 in early 1998.

           - Spanish magazines mentioned some games having very good PAL conversions, like Gran Turismo. I remember watching a video about this some years ago. It looks like they reprogrammed the game so that both versions were good (with PAL having less FPS, of course).

           - The same probably happened with Wipeout 2097/XL. The NTSC version came a month after the PAL one and had 30 FPS instead of 25. It was also reprogrammed making it sligthly more easy. I guess someone could easily test both games in a real hardware to see wich version has the best aspect ratio.

           - Years later, in both the PS1 and the PS2, I made the mistake of assuming some games were American, when they were actually European. This happened to me with No Fear Downhill Mountain Biking (PS1) and Mashed/Drive to Survive (PS2). I burned NTSC versions of them and the graphics were "too tall". The games also ran faster, but not necessarily in a good way.

           - Because that's another ironic thing about these PAL to NTSC conversions. People normally complain (rightfully so) about NTSC to PAL games being slower (I distinctively remember platform games where the guy spends way too much time in the air while jumping), but apparently some PAL to NTSC games run too fast. This seems to be the case with Medievil.

 

P. S.: I also remember checking release dates to see which version was the original. This is when i found out that some European games were released almost simultaneously in both markets for the PS1, so there is a chance the NTSC versions are better in those cases (my cousin complained about Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation running too fast in NTSC, which made the characters move faster than the dialogs in the interactive intro). I also suspect some of these games used a "middle road" approach both in aspect ratio and speed: this could be the reason why some "PAL original" games don't cover the whole screen, probably preparing the game for the future NTSC release where things are "taller than usual" to avoid losing key information in the screen.

Edited by IntelliMission

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I had PSX at the time in Europe but did not really know about the whole "slower/faster" quagmire then. Or, if I did, didn't care because all I remember is having a lot of fun and being blown away by the arcade-quality games in my living room. Same when I got PAL N64 few years later and was playing it via (allegedly) "shitty" composite.

 

These days people like to boast about "perfection" and split hairs a little bit too much, back then we were just enjoying the games.

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17 hours ago, NeonSpaceBeagle said:

so Europeans play video games that are slowed down that much?  Do they not notice the slow down!?  It does actually explain quite a bit lol..

 

 

Explain what?

 

Beside, the slowdown is really dependant on the system, and architecture, and the care (or lack thereof) of game producers.

 

PAL NES games released by Nintendo ironically run faster than their NTSC counterparts, because Nintendo modified the games to run faster, and since they couldn't nail the game speed to match the console slowdown exactly, they run faster. If you look at tests of NES clones, this is why sometime you have sped-up Mario games. It's not bad emulation, it's PAL ROM played on a NTSC system)

 

Slowdown on SNES games, given the slow CPU, was much less visible than on the Megadrive. On Megadrive, Sega had planned a system of "flags" that made their game play faster when they would detect a PAL console. Famously, the first Sonic game lacks it.

 

The difference also depends on the type of game. Fans of Arcadey games or SHMUP were more likely to notice the speed difference, but fans of platformers or puzzle games... not so much.

 

Also one last detail, but despite the CPU being slowed down a bit, since PAL require to draw 50 images/seconds but NTSC 60, the overall difference mean that on PAL console, you can have up to 20% more CPU time available; this is one reason why more and more demos are made on PAL systems;

This is also why games made in Europe will be slower. One famous example is Dragon's Lair, which was programmed in the UK; the game run faster on PAL than on NTSC systems :

 

 

 

Basically games are slower in Europe because studios were lazy.

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20 minutes ago, CatPix said:

Basically games are slower in Europe because studios were lazy.

I don't know about "lazy" - it was probably a mixture of factors such as greed, deadlines, company policies, etc...

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Oh course, I'm oversimplifying :)

It's also because of the hardware being tied to the display. The Odyssey2/Videopac didn't, and early PAL Channel F had a faster CPU.

It was possible to do that, but it was more costly and also limited graphics and tricks (this is why Videopac homebrew doesn't feature amazing tricks in general).

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3 hours ago, CatPix said:
21 hours ago, NeonSpaceBeagle said:

so Europeans play video games that are slowed down that much?  Do they not notice the slow down!?  It does actually explain quite a bit lol..

 

 

Explain what?

I'm also curious about what @NeonSpaceBeagle wanted to say with that. I hope it was related to video games and not... well, you know.

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22 hours ago, NeonSpaceBeagle said:

so Europeans play video games that are slowed down that much?  Do they not notice the slow down!?  It does actually explain quite a bit lol..

 

 

Its all comparitive though, if you were used to 60hz and NTSC speed games, you notice the difference going to 50hz PAL. If you are European and you've only ever played in PAL and games that were in 576i, that's all you've ever known and seeing 480 resolution you wonder where all the lines have gone. 

 

Realistically for most people these days a lot of rom carts function fine with other region roms in displaying something, even if the timing is slightly off. Region locking includes anything from simply refusing to play at all to making the carts a different shape so it wouldn't fit without modification. As always, N64 gets the lose because it reads region from the rom not the console, I can play ntsc games just fine on my N64 as long as I have it connected to another device before it goes into my TV to convert the signal away from NTSC otherwise its just black and white and looks even uglier than it usually does. 

 

I have 2 consoles, one that is definitely NTSC-J as its a Japanese neo geo Aes, and my turbografx that might be NTSC rather than PAL as there was only a very limited release for UK and mine was modified by previous owner. After that, I don't think I have any issues playing NTSC games on anything except specific games other than the N64 issue highlighted above. 

 

I've wondered about getting different region consoles and for the most part I don't think I'll bother at all. The closest one I've considered to getting is sega saturn as I can't for the life of me get the English translation of Dragon Force 2 to work on any system I've used so far and it might be specific to PAL / European machines. 

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Didn't Nintendo at least adjust the music in their own NES/SNES games so they wouldn't be off pitch/tempo?

 

For the European folks here, did you play Sonic 1 back then and think something was off about it?  How common was it for PAL localized games to not have the music fixed?

 

Sonic 2 had the music fixed and Sonic 3 had it adjusted, but quickly falls out of sync with the NTSC version.

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Yes, for the NES, as I mentionned, game by Nintendo themselves even tend to play faster (because the game routine speed couldn't be synced exactly with the console slowdown).

Nintendo did even better with the SNES ; the sound chip has their own clock, so everythign that is played on it sounds the same no matter what the video speed is.

Things that require processor like voice samples will be slowed down, tho.

Again, here, Nintendo's own games were adjusted in gameplay speed.

Most third party games weren't adjusted and will feature slower gameplay (and music, for the NES).

 

I didn't got Sonic BITD, never even heard of the Megadrive or Sega (so fun fact, while I knead about Sonic, I though it was a cartoon character).

But from what I heard, people saw it fast because Sega's own ad and video demos in store used Japanese footage so people easily see and hear the difference.

 

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Similarly, we did not have the early consoles in my area (something to do with carts not being easily copied) so I don't know about Sonic and the like. But, I guess, I either wouldn't know better or care about it too much. Back then what counted for me was being able to play games at all.

 

I thonk it's not that easy to tell the difference without some frame of reference. Eg I'm used to Amiga PAL games and when I saw some in NTSC recently (Lotus especially) it was immediately evident it's running too fast. But it's a game I played a lot back then.

 

One curious thing is that when I look at my SMS No Intro set, there are plenty of Europe (or Japan+E) only games: even titles such as "American Pro Football". What's up with that? That console wasn't "big in USA"?

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The SMS was a huge failure in the US and a very mediocre seller in Japan. In fact, Sega stopped the sales of the SMS in Japan in 1991 and in the US in 1992, but kept selling it and even releasing games until 1996 in Europe (and some major titles like Sonic 2, Mean Bean Machine and Street of Rage 2, not just trash or filler games)

It's why I mentionned that usually most good games are PAL or optimized.

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IMG-20211117-201512.jpg

 

Nippon Invasion has commenced. Since taking that pic I got Famicom AV (so cute) and have N64-JP coming, possibly PC Engine too. It's quite fun to be messing with carts after being in a strictly-micro/CD console zone for a long time.

 

I'm pondering getting an original Famicom...already bid on one but withdrew after reading about the Japanese RF being incompatible with other TVs. But then later I saw some guy on utube saying he connects via normal RF cable with no problem. @CatPix, do you know anything about that? I'm only interested in original RF on a CRT, no mods or anything. I have mostly "modern" PAL/NTSC Trinitrons (from early Noughties).

Edited by youxia

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Great thread!

 

 Yeah, I think some terms (as Catpix was pointing out) need to be clarified. There's "slower rate" and there's "slowdown". Those are two very different things. Slowdown is when the CPU is overloaded and cannot complete the frame update in time, so it's skipped and synced with the next available frame. This is usually half the hz or refresh rate, but can be slower (some early snes games have more than 50% slowdown). As far as frame rate tied to refresh rate is concerned; 50hz or 50fps is your "temporal resolution". If you locked a game to the frame rate as-is (which is what older consoles did), then said game will play at that "rate". 60hz is 20% faster than 50hz. The way to fix this, is have the characters/enemies/scrolling happen at 120% movement of their original. With that adjustment games will play at the same rate. Makes sense right? And if you don't adjust, then playing a 60hz game on 50hz will be slower. 

 

 Honestly, I think most games it isn't highly noticeable because you get used to it really quickly. I've recently played a bunch of PCE games on my PAL Turbografx and part way into playing all these games, I didn't even notice it anymore. Some games like Rondo, where I definitely have memory muscle/reactions, felt off because the timing was off (i.e. slower).

 

 So, another difference for PAL vs NTSC is resolution. And this is something older 2D consoles didn't adjust for. For 3D consoles, it's rendering polygons to a bitmap buffer, so you can easily adjust for the new aspect ratio. But for 2D games, you would have to redraw everything! That might be okay for sprites, but because these are tile-based systems - you can't simply tell the system that you want 8x10 size tile instead of the usually 8x8, to overcome the higher vertical resolution and keep the same aspect ratio. So yeah, while 50hz vs 60hz is a thing, so is vertical resolution and the impact it has on graphics aspect ratio. I.e. a 2D 8/16bit NTSC game played on a PAL system will have a more wider appearance (simply because the vertical res is more). This is interesting because it changes how wide or narrow a pixel is. So NTSC Genesis 320x224 res mode has a pixel width (PAR) of 0.92. What does that mean? A square pixel (same height and width) is a PAR of 1.0. So 0.92 means the pixels aren't square, but slightly skinnier, right? But since PAL has 288 lines vs 240 lines, those lines are 'skinnier'. This changes the PAR. For NTSC it's 0.92, and for PAL it's 1.10! It's actually slightly wider than square. 

 

 Music has been mentioned as well. For the NES/SMS music is tied to the refresh rate. When vsync happens, process the next audio frame. So, slower frame rate means slower audio rate. This doesn't affect pitch, but rather tempo. For MD and PCE, quite a bit of game music engines are also tied to vsync as well, but they aren't limited to and have other methods to do there music timing. SNES spu has a dedicated cpu with dedicated timers. These timers don't have anything to do with vsync. As with video, you can fix the issue - although audio/music purist will tell you that since it affects note length that there's some aliasing in that range but I doubt most will be able to tell. I originally wasn't aware that PAL Sonic didn't have it's music fixed for the slower rate, and it changes the mood of the game completely! It's more relaxing hahah.

 

 RGB isn't so much of an issue with PAL and NTSC, but composite is a different story! You've probably seen the term "YC" before; it means luma + chroma. Chroma is the color part of the signal, and Y is the black and white part. PAL and NSTC composite are actually very much alike - they both use a subcarrier signal to transmit the color part. The big difference though is that PAL uses a different frequency of 4.43mhz vs NTSC 3.57mhz. So for a system mod, assuming you're still using composite (or RF) output - you need to change this as well. This almost always requires changing a source xtal for the subcarrier clock.

 

 And finally pitch. Depending on the system, to keep things more in sync, the cpu clock might be changed.. or the master clock for the whole system. Whether audio is embedded into the cpu, or a separate chip but based on the master clock - changing that can change the pitch of the sound generation. It might be slight.. like 1% difference, or it might be more drastic. If it's more drastic, it would require developers to change the note frequencies for said game.

 

 

I personally am not a fan of modifying PAL systems to play NTSC games. It's 2021.. if you want to play NTSC games, get an NTSC system and vice versa. I was looking on line for PAL Turbografx stuff and there's a lot of people modding the thing for NTSC. There's only a limited number of those systems. For christ sake, just buy an NTSC system instead of ruining a rare piece of history. smh

 

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