For anyone looking to build or buy an arcade machine, it is essential to get the aspect ratio correct.
Modern television displays have “stretched” in recent decades, with the 16:9 widescreen format now being the industry standard for shows and movies. But if you try stretching Pac-Man or Donkey Kong into that format, you will be severely disappointed.
Continue reading for a thorough discussion of the proper aspect ratio of arcade games and arcade monitors. Whether you are planning to buy or build, this guide will provide the information you need to avoid making a critical mistake.
Quick answer: What is the proper arcade monitor aspect ratio?
If you want to skim the article, or just see the quick answer, here goes – the 4:3 full screen aspect ratio provides the ideal dimensions for arcade games.
Because the original games were designed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, buying or building an arcade machine with a 4:3 display will ensure that your games are authentic and not stretched to fit an incompatible screen. Additionally, you won’t have to worry about hiding the black bars that are present when trying to display 4:3 programming on a modern 16:9 widescreen display.
What is the Best Arcade Monitor? Aspect Ratio & Style
As mentioned above, arcade games are designed to be played on a 4:3 display. This is also called fullscreen, and has a nearly square shape, as opposed to modern 16:9 widescreen displays which are significantly wider than they are long.
Without a doubt, 4:3 gameplay is the gold standard aspect ratio for arcade gaming and arcade machines. Most of the products on our “Best Of” list feature a 4:3 or similar aspect ratio. However, you also need to consider the type of display, rather than just the size and aspect ratio.
Arcade machines through the years have been built with CRT (cathode-ray tube) displays. Although CRT technology had numerous drawbacks, the CRT display remains the gold standard for an arcade monitor. Sadly, CRT televisions are no longer being manufactured.
Why did they stop making CRT televisions? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, the technology is primitive compared to the LED, OLED, and 4K displays that are available now. Simply put, the clarity and graphics of old-school CRTs just can’t compete.
Additionally, CRT televisions are extremely heavy, bulky (much deeper than the inch-thick TVs we have now), hard to repair, and prone to flicker.
So, we certainly don’t blame electronics companies for ceasing the manufacture of CRT televisions. However, it does leave arcade enthusiasts in a tough spot.
For an authentic arcade gaming experience, your best bet is still to find a working CRT television. You have to accept that this display will be bulky, heavy, and potentially hard to find. And if you are sensitive to screen flicker, it may be worth avoiding the CRT altogether.
By choosing a CRT TV, you accomplish two things. First, you get to experience arcade gaming at its finest, the way it was meant to be – on a 4:3 aspect ratio CRT display. Second, you get to save a CRT TV from the scrap heap, since arcade enthusiasts are some of the last remaining people on earth that value cathode-ray tube technology.
What kind of screens are typically used in new arcade machines?
If you are building an arcade machine, you can choose any kind of screen you desire.
As mentioned above, finding a used CRT will save it from the scrap heap while also providing you with an authentic gaming experience.
However, many users choose the convenience of a modern LED or LCD display. For less than $200, you can buy an excellent LED television. It will be a couple inches thick, rather than a couple feet thick like a CRT. And it will be potentially a hundred pounds lighter, as well. For anyone designing and building an arcade cabinet, this decreased thickness and weight gives you a lot of flexibility and space savings.
But despite the convenience, using an LED or LCD TV imposes its own challenges.
First, these TVs have a 16:9 aspect ratio which must be compensated for. There are really only two ways to correct this aspect ratio with an arcade game – “stretch” the game into 16:9, or keep the game in 4:3 and have “black bars” on the sides of the screen.
If you stretch the game, it won’t resemble the original game at all, and it just won’t look right. So, the only “fix” is to keep the game in 4:3 and have black bars on the sides of the display. This is unpleasant from a cosmetic standpoint and it also wastes a lot of the display.
By using a 16:9 display with a 4:3 game, a large portion of the screen is wasted by black bars. This means that if you want a proper sized screen (for example, 19-21”), you will have to buy a much larger 16:9 TV (most likely 32”+).
This means spending more money, for starters. But the bigger concern is that this larger TV wastes valuable space inside of your arcade cabinet. If you want a 32” display in your arcade cabinet, this would require a 50”+ widescreen television, which would be too large for almost any arcade cabinet to accommodate.
Next, LED & LCD televisions have some amount of input lag. There is debate about how important this slight lag actually is, so I will leave that discussion to the engineers and people much smarter than me. But there are definitely gamers that feel that this lag affects the gameplay of an arcade game.
Next, modern LCD and LED screens are simply too vivid to recreate classic arcade games. The crispness of a modern display doesn’t enhance the gameplay – instead, it makes the game appear blurry and hard to look at.
To correct for this clarity mismatch, there are a few solutions. Some companies (and resourceful DIY arcade machine builders) introduce “shaders” into the screen to recreate a CRT appearance. The goal is to get the convenience of a modern, lightweight LCD/LED and tint it or shade it to look like the CRT screens we grew up with.
Another solution is to purchase a “scanline generator.” These are relatively simple devices that can be used with modern displays to recreate the “scanlines” that were present on CRT televisions. Again, the goal is to create the retro effect on a modern display.
What screen should I look for when buying an arcade machine?
If you are buying, rather than building, the process is much simpler.
Many new arcade machines are built with a 5:4 or 16:10 display. Neither of these are true 4:3 aspect ratio, but they are much closer than the now-standard 16:9 aspect ratio. The concept with these displays is that they are “close enough” to the original that you won’t notice the slight stretching of the screen. Some users are sensitive to the slight amount of screen stretching, while others don’t notice any difference.
The most important consideration here is that you need to buy from a reputable manufacturer that can answer your questions and provide details on the machine they are selling. Some of the budget-friendly arcade machines that are found on “Best Of” lists don’t list any details about the display other than the size and type (for example, ‘19” LCD’).
Generally, if you buy a cheap machine through a third-party seller, you won’t get much information about the product. This makes me nervous, since even a “cheap” arcade machine can be nearly a thousand dollars. If you purchase from a legitimate arcade machine company, they will likely provide you with more details, like the aspect ratio of the screen in addition to the size.
If you are struggling to decide what style of arcade machine to build or purchase, see here for our comparison of cocktail versus upright machines.
Do they still make CRTs? Why did they stop making them? Can I still buy a CRT?
As mentioned above, CRT televisions were perfect for arcade games. The displays had the proper 4:3 aspect ratio, and the games were designed to look great on a CRT.
But CRT technology has enough downsides that it eventually became obsolete. By 2010, it was virtually impossible to find a new CRT TV. CRTs are heavy, bulky, and challenging to maintenance. The graphics are unimpressive by today’s standards, and they also emit a small amount of radiation.
If you are creating a home theater, you should absolutely opt for an LED, OLED, or other modern television. But for arcade machines, there are still legitimate reasons to choose a CRT.
We mentioned previously that “recycling” a CRT saves it from being trashed. Considering that half the fun of arcade games comes from recreating a nostalgic, retro environment, outfitting your machine with a 1950s technology that has been obsolete for 15 years certainly enhances the experience! These TVs also contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and other dangerous chemicals – so it isn’t bad to keep them out of the landfill for a few more years!
The downsides have been discussed already, and you shouldn’t consider a CRT if you are trying to keep your build lightweight or if you are sensitive to screen flicker. And because it is challenging to repair a broken CRT TV, you should build your arcade cabinet with the awareness that you may someday have to replace a CRT display with a newer LED or LCD.
For anybody that is committed to an authentic arcade experience with a CRT display, you can generally find these televisions on the used market for $100-200 (although shipping can cost a pretty penny due to the weight and bulky size). Because many people consider CRT a dated or even useless technology, you can snag a great deal if you have a friend or neighbor that is getting rid of one.
One great thing about arcade machines is that arcade gaming values vintage style and authentic gameplay rather than chasing the latest trends in technology. For this reason, you still can’t beat an old-school CRT television with a 4:3 aspect ratio. This 4:3 (nearly square) fullscreen display remains the gold standard in arcade gaming – and it may remain the standard forever.