I can remember the first time I became aware of the difference in speed between PAL and NTSC games. It was some time after I got my Gamecube when I recognised it. I’d always heard 60hz was better so I always picked the option when the game started but I never noticed any change until one day when I was playing Super Monkey Ball’s bowling minigame. This particular minigame features a rapidly moving cursor that requires ridiculously precise timing to aim your ball. At some point I noticed that if you played in 50hz mode, the game became much easier – the speed was reduced to the point that you could get the ball centre of the alley most, if not all of the time.
I’m not exactly addicted to speed, but there is a good reason why I wanted my Sega Saturn modded to play any game, including PAL games, at full speed. If I had to name a single game to justify this desire it would be Tomb Raider. Praise be to the Saturn, because in its slowed down European form this game takes the piss. The European console versions of the original Tomb Raider are nothing short of diabolical experiences. To this day I play PAL N64 and PS1 games that run 16.58% slower than their NTSC equivalents, and I don’t typically complain or mind. Tomb Raider is an exception however, so this post will provide a brief trip into the convoluted world of NTSC and PAL, where 50hz and 60hz are meaningful terms and phrases like “unoptimised PAL conversion” give rise to unbridled anger.
In case anyone out there is completely lost by my first two paragraphs, let me explain really quickly. It all has to do with the different television formats worldwide, which subtly affect things like colour, speed and the rate of display. Europe, Australia and Brazil all use the PAL TV standard which runs at 50hz whereas North America and Japan use NTSC which runs at 60hz. I’m not really interested in the technical side, but the result was that for many years PAL regions were regularly shafted when it came to games coming out of America and Japan (and in the case of Tomb Raider, sadly, we were even shafted by developers and publishers based in PAL territories). Specifically we were shafted to the tune of approximately 16.5% of a game’s speed and some additional black borders at the top and bottom of the screen. And this practice persisted on consoles right from the days of the NES and Master System until the Dreamcast finally set the record straight and made full speed an option as standard.
If you’ve never heard any of this then your mind could well be exploding by now. And if it hasn’t exploded yet then take a peek at this PAL-NTSC comparison video with Super Mario 64 that demonstrates the differences between the two regions.
So should these consoles in their PAL incarnations and all of their games be tossed out as inferior rubbish? Not necessarily. Several old consoles can be modded to play PAL games at their original speed, including the SNES, Megadrive and of course Sega Saturn. PS1 and N64 not so much unfortunately.
So the fact that I could play the original Tomb Raider at full speed on the Saturn without importing was a selling point for me. But why did I want to play Tomb Raider at all in the first place? When I played Tomb Raider 3 recently on PS1 it rubbed me up completely the wrong way. The levels are just too damn big and after just half an hour of playing the tank controls were taking a serious toll on my thumb. The idea of playing the original game on the Saturn was by contrast much more appealing: smaller, cosier levels to be navigated via a comfortable controller.
Even though I’ve never been a huge stickler about the whole PAL/NTSC speed thing (native Europeans often can’t afford to be), swapping between 50 and 60hz mode on-the-fly in Tomb Raider has been a real eye-opener. Because it’s terrible. In 50hz or PAL mode, running with Lara feels like a joke. Press up and it feels as if Lara’s running on the spot, she moves forwards so slowly even though her legs are kicking healthily. As if running wasn’t essential enough, other show-stoppers include the animations for pushing/pulling blocks, for climbing up on ledges, for sidling – everything that is essential to playing this game in short.
Tomb Raider definitely owes a debt to animation-rich games like the original Prince of Persia and Another World. To that end, Lara’s animations in Tomb Raider are detailed and deliberately long. Watching Lara struggle to climb up on a ledge or pull a block backwards is a smart way of making Lara a more believable, and therefore relatable character. And the lengthy animations aren’t annoying or distracting, when the game plays at full speed. Make the gameplay 16% slower though and the gameplay loses its sense of fluidity, becoming a stop and start affair. Lara becomes maddening to watch.
To this day I find the PAL-NTSC speed difference tough to wrap my head around. I say that because in my experience the change in speed between PAL and NTSC versions is generally rather subtle. My reaction to Tomb Raider is an extreme one, but that’s the exception rather then the rule. I mean, really, when you think about it 16.5% is such an odd number. I tried to find out the exact speed difference between Street Fighter 2: World Warrior and the later versions like Turbo Hyper Fighting that upped the speed but I couldn’t. Regardless, I bet you that difference is greater than 16.5%. If Turbo Hyper Fighting was a breath of fresh air for the Street Fighter series, in most cases the shift between PAL and NTSC games is more like a light breeze.
Still, when I watch any footage of Super Mario 64, I know immediately if it’s 50 or 60hz because I know that game practically by heart. Mario’s movements are more lithe and the animations more smooth in 60hz versions. And I have to admit that while I am intrigued by the idea of playing the full speed NTSC version, I really like how Mario controls in the PAL Super Mario 64. And if anything, I felt that in Sunshine and beyond (all games which I played at full speed), Mario feels a little too smooth and slick control-wise. If, someday, I ever try the NTSC version of Super Mario 64, I could even see myself not liking it and wanting to revert to 50hz for the “real experience”, as it were. Irrational? Insane? Perhaps. Even so, thanks to Tomb Raider, I know now that 99% of the time I’ll take full speed, no borders 60hz games over reduced speed, bordered 50hz games.