Forgotten technology: the madness of Video CD

Looks bad sounds worse easily pirated — and it’s still available

Hey remember Video Compact Discs?

No of course you don’t. They were ridiculous and never caught on in North America even when they were current technology. Now that they’re as outdated as Betamax and eight-track cassettes only a fool would bother writing about them.

Well folks I am a fool and I can prove it by the fact that when I rooted through my video collection this week I found two drawers full of the stupid things. My reaction to this discovery was a combination of “Hey cool!” and “Do I even have the means to play VCDs any more?!”

That last question took a while to answer as I fruitlessly tried shoving VCDs into every piece of home electronics that had a slot in it. My old DVD player would have sufficed but it choked to death on a midget kung fu movie last year. I remember playing VCDs on my old PlayStation 1 years ago but that thing’s long gone and the discs won’t work on my PlayStation 3 nor my PlayStation 2. (Look I like PlayStations okay?) My computer plays them fine though which is fortunate because I was almost ready to try the toaster.

Video Compact Discs are exactly what they sound like — CDs with MPEG movie files saved on them. If you’ve seen them at all you’ve seen them in Chinatown video stores priced cheaper than a bag of chips.

The first thing that you notice when booting up a VCD is that both of your speakers are squawking at you in different languages. Y’see some bright bulb thought it would be cool to have multiple audio tracks available to the consumer which is a feature that we now take for granted with DVD. The trouble is that the VCD solution is to put for example the original Mandarin language track on the left speaker and the Cantonese dubbed track on the right at the same time. That is the default setting; listening to two different kinds of gibberish every time a character speaks. Not only are they different languages but they’re usually different voice actors giving vastly different performances. I saw one evil wizard speak with a deep booming voice and a shrill falsetto at the same time. It’s up to the viewer to either fix the problem by fiddling with Windows Media Player’s menu options or by turning off one of the speakers and listening to the whole thing in mono.

Not only does the audio on VCDs sound like the characters are possessed by differently accented demons from the country next door but the video quality is just as crappy as VHS and the entire format makes piracy stupidly easy. Region encoding and copy protection simply don’t exist for VCDs and even your least tech-savvy relative could probably figure out the drag-and-drop function well enough to start a film piracy racket using this vulnerable format.

Were VCDs ever popular? Yes but almost exclusively in Asian territories that were slow to adopt VHS and DVD. Video CD players were cheap plentiful and reliable and most homes in places like Hong Kong India and Malaysia had at least one. That’s why so many of the films available in the format are Asian in origin and why I had to start buying the darn things to feed my Asian movie addiction. In the ’90s if you wanted to watch stuff like Taoism Drunkard Darna: the Return or Mr. Vampire parts 2 3 and 4 (Look I like hopping vampires okay?) VCD was your only option.

That has changed. Today since every VCD on Earth has been diligently pirated any movie you might have found on VCD is probably on YouTube. You don’t even have to switch discs partway through or turn off your left speaker. Ah progress.