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volume 1, issue 27

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Pad Happy:
No PAL of Mine





By Nick Ferguson

Living in the console gaming backwater that is Europe, Nick Ferguson has come to a conclusion: PAL sucks! NTSC roolz!

hat the hell is this PAL vs. NTSC thing, and who gives a crap anyway? If youíre well versed in the differences between the two TV systems, skip the next few paragraphs and head for the rant. Donít say I didnít warn you!

NTSC is the TV encoding signal used in the US and Japan, PAL is the signal used in Europe and Australia. Here are the important differences:

    1. NTSC operates at 60 Hz (updates-a-second) with a vertical resolution of 525 lines.
    2. PAL operates at 50 Hz with a vertical resolution of 625 lines.

Essentially, PAL provides a more detailed display than NTSC but it updates less frequently. The upshot of all this is that (since almost all games are written primarily for NTSC systems) when pure NTSC game code is run on a PAL display the screen has to account for the missing 100 lines (resulting in ugly black borders at the top and bottom of the screen) and runs almost 17% slower due to the difference in Hz. Yeuch. Thankfully, most software houses make an effort to optimize game code for a PAL release Ė this is the reason most often given to justify the common three to six month delays between NTSC and PAL release dates.

Unfortunately, PAL optimizations are a tricky business. The only way to fill the "missing" lines on a PAL screen is by upping the resolution a game runs at - not only is this time-consuming, but it also creates a greater demand on the hardware. Coupled with the fact a game is already running at 83.3% of the original NTSC speed before a single line of code is touched and the obstacles to a Ďperfectí PAL conversion (low frame rate, slowdown) soon become apparent.

So, what are developers to do? Itís understandable that games are designed with NTSC in mind - not only do you get better performance from the hardware, but the NTSC market is sizably larger than the PAL one anyway (even European software companies develop in NTSC). I have sympathy for the developer who, having pushed the hardware as far as he can, suddenly has to find room for the additional demands of a PAL conversion. Itís a difficult question, but it has to be said some developers manage better than others: when you see sub-standard PAL software that could never push hardware to its limits (like puzzlers or retro titles), it just reeks of laziness.

So, pity the poor PAL gamer. Last weekend, nearly 6 months after the Japanese release, Metal Gear Solid was finally released in the UK. The stores are full of standees, posters and display units - goading Britainís legion of PlayStation owners to take on the (rather brief) challenge that is Metal Gear Solid. As I type this, hordes of eager gamers are no doubt hunched over their pads, enjoying the epic action-movie majesty of the same game their American and Japanese counterparts finished months ago. Except, theyíre not playing the same gameÖ

The effects of sub-standard conversions are quite significant. First of all, they make the game much easier; the player is given more time to react to events (as itís essentially running in mild slow motion). Also (without wanting to sound like a pretentious twat), the whole look and feel of a game gets spoiled; the borders present in many titles have the unfortunate effect of "squashing" the in-game graphics, so the game doesnít even look like the creators intended. Thankfully, Metal Gear Solid runs without any borders, but it looks like the extra strain this puts on the PlayStation hardware has taken its toll.

PAL Metal Gear Solid is s-l-o-w, Iím telling ya. When I saw the UK demo released a couple of months ago, I noticed it was pretty pokey compared to the Japanese and American versions that Iíve played but assumed it was probably not 100% optimized yet. Wrong! The final retail version is just as lethargic (Solid Snake looks like heís been doped), and to put it to the test I decided to compare the UK version head-to-head with my own. The difference is extremely noticeable when you see the games running side-by-side. The worst part is, Metal Gear Solid isnít a particularly bad PAL conversion Ė the lack of borders is an unexpected bonus, and the slow speed isnít as bad as some titles in the past. Even so, the difference between the native UK version and the original is pretty significant.

Still, in the old days things were much worse; NES and Master System games (and most 16-bit titles) never got anywhere near a PAL optimization, I suspect. I still get twinges of anger when I play my PAL copy of SNES Pilotwings, a brilliant game, resplendent in its 16:9 ratio. Thankfully, in the last few years the importance of the PAL market has risen dramatically in the eyes of many companies. I suspect we have the N64ís failure in Japan to thank for Nintendoís newfound interest in the European market (a dedicated "Nintendo Europe"? Whatever next?) and Sony seems to be narrowing the gulf between NTSC and PAL releases. A greater number of PAL games seem to be running full-screen, too (although the N64ís Zelda Ė like Metal Gear Ė is notably slower than the NTSC original).

Thereís an easy answer to all this, which goes something like, "anyone who cares about this will always buy NTSC stuff. The rest of the PAL market is happy to remain in blissful ignorance - what you donít know wonít hurt you". Bullshit! I spent a long time with PAL releases, but I wish Iíd realized earlier just how inferior they often are. Iíll admit that in some genres, the PAL conversion doesnít necessarily have a major impact (namely non-action oriented titles, like RPGs) but in racing, fighting and shooting games (the console stalwarts), speed is king. Why should we think itís okay to remain in a state of blissful ignorance? Soylent Green is people, dammit!

(Continued on Next Page)


Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.