As a gamer and technology enthusiast, I've written more than my fair share of words in debates and forum discussions over what is HD, how HD is it, or who's dropping the ball in making the transition, but it's taken me at least a generation's worth of maturing to realize that at the end of the day, none of it matters much. Being high definition isn't the key ingredient to make a game wonderful, and being standard (or enhanced) definition doesn't turn one into trash. So instead of pontificating on how much better the Wii could have been as an HD console, I'll just lay out the facts and try to inform the unknowing of what they should expect from this HD war draft dodger. Now, I don't know about you, but the last edition of Revolutionary had enough ranting to tide me over for a good long while.
The optimal Wii configuration would have the console set to widescreen 480p and connected to a 16:9 widescreen EDTV. That's right -- EDTV beats HDTV for displaying the Wii's wares. Why's that, you ask? Well, the higher resolution of an HDTV requires some scaling to be done to make the image stretch across every pixel of the screen. Because most HDTVs don't scale at an even ratio, images upscaled from a lower resolution source often appear blurry in comparison to material displayed at the screen's native resolution. Some TVs have good quality hardware scalers that don't futz up the process too much, and some display technologies (CRT) take to scaling better than others (LCD). But when comparing televisions of decent quality, it's often agreed that standard or enhanced definition material looks better on an equivalent screen, as opposed to on a high definition one.
The difference between the Wii's native res and scaling on a 720p display
Some displays will let you show content at its native resolution, and depending on the game and the size of your screen, you may find that it's a better option. If your setup is anything like mine, you might prefer to run certain types of games at the smaller native resolution because the screen is otherwise too large to take in all the action at once.
The problem that most of us face, regardless of console, display technology, or screen size, is that not every game is made to fit the specs of your setup. Without even venturing into the heavily-chummed, shark-infested waters of HD classification, we have several different formats to consider.
This resolution is classified as SDTV. Chances are, if you're rockin' a ~$50 Walmart set, it can only accept a 480i input. Some SDTVs draw frames progressively, but that's a can of worms I'm not going to open this week. If your games are being rendered for 480i output, it's effectively drawing half as many pixels per frame as a 480p game. Sometimes the reduced overhead will be used to improve image quality with fillrate-hungry particles or memory-munching frame buffer effects. But not every game is made with image quality and performance optimization at the top of the priorities list, and we end up with bittersweet 480i vices like Metal Slug Anthology.
EDTV is basically any resolution between SDTV and HDTV, and even though it's the same number of pixels per frame as SDTV, the Wii's 480p mode falls under this classification. The difference is that all the pixels of of the frame are refreshed in one pass, whereas an SDTV signal, the frame is drawn in two passes composed of alternative horizontal lines.
A fixed-pixel, widescreen, EDTV display such as a plasma TV might have a screen resolution of 852x480. The Wii, even when set to widescreen 16:9 mode, tops out at 640x480. The way it works is to increase the field of view to a wider degree, and the display does the work of stretching the image to the intended proportions. So those 852x480 plasmas are also doing a bit of scaling, but it's at least confined to just the horizontal plane.
Sometimes the term "widescreen" is used to describe a picture that is actually "letterboxed." An example of this is the Gamecube version of Resident Evil 4. With black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, the Gamecube didn't have to render a full frame of pixels, so the developers were able to redistribute the console's power to make the graphics stunningly impressive. The Wii Edition of Resident Evil 4 is what we think of as a proper anamorphic widescreen image, and the extra taped on Gamecube is made to draw in the rest of the screen.
Keep in mind, when you connect your Wii to a 4:3 screen, as most SDTVs and some EDTVs and HDTVs are, you'll need to set it to back to 4:3 mode, or your normally short and stocky plumbers will look more like their lanky younger brothers wearing the wrong hue of dungarees.
If you've got an EDTV or an HDTV, you'll need a set of component cables to output a 480p signal. The option to output at 480p won't even be selectable without component cables. Be aware that not all TVs which have component inputs will accept a 480p signal, and if you set your Wii to 480p while connected to one such TV, you may have to swap back to composite or SVHS cables to see the screen again and set it back to 480i.
As complicated as things are on the SD side of the resolution spectrum, it's at least as bad on the HD end. When you're bowling the next frame with your elderly, Wii-loving relatives, ask them if the transition from black & white television to color was this bewildering. If you don't find any of this confusing, tell us if television standard omniscience is as burdensome to one's social life as we'd expect. And if you just don't care about resolutions, cable types, or aspect ratios, you too are welcome to let us know in the comments.
This feature is regularly scheduled to appear on a Tuesday, but due to the holiday shuffle, it's gone up a day late. My apologies go out to anyone who needed their Revolutionary fix on time. Thank you for your support, and we hope you'll keep watching this space to see some bold and exciting things being done on our favorite gaming console and with its innovative controllers.