NES Emulation for Dummies
The first thing you'll need to do is download an emulator. An emulator is simply a program that will run the games for you. It does this by "emulating" the original hardware, thereby tricking the games into thinking they're on the original console, which in this case would be the NES. The reality behind how emulators work is a bit more complicated than how I just described it, but it's close enough to the truth and adequate enough an explanation for our purposes here today.
The emulator we are going to be working with is called Jnes. There are many others available, however, I find this to be the most user friendly NES Emulator out there. It's a good emulator for beginners, and quite frankly, a good emulator in general. You're unlikely to find one better for the NES. To begin, you'll need to download the installation file by clicking here. Once downloaded, all you have to do is click on the file, and choose the directory you want to install it to, just like any other program. Simple, yes?
Now that you've done that, the emulator is ready to run. But what good would an emulator be without any games to run on it? The first thing you'll want to do is create a directory to store the game files in. Any game files that run on an emulator are usually referred to as ROM's. So creating a directory called ROMS would probably be a good move. You may also want to create a subdirectory called "NES Roms" or some such. This way, if you decide you like emulation and want to play games from another system, you'll already be organized!
The next obvious step would be to get the ROM's. There's a lot of questions about the legality of downloading ROM's, but what it comes down to is; downloading ROM's is entirely legal IN CANADA. I can't speak for anywhere else in the world, especially in the US, where the debate on the legality of something like this will rage on for years. If you want to know if it's legal in your country, the simple answer is I don't know. Look it up yourself, I'm sure you've got the time. However, in Canada, owning copies of media is perfectly legal, and only becomes a crime if you distribute them for profit. So to sum up, in Canada emulating software is fine, but burning a disc full of ROM's and selling them is not. I don't endorse doing anything illegal, even if it's for profit ;).
That being said, let me move onto our next step which should appeal to both or Canadian and US readers, downloading ROM's legally. The group that enforces issues regarding the legality of ROM's is known as the IDSA, and thankfully, the site that I'm providing a link to doesn't offer games that are protected by the IDSA! (FYI - sometimes you'll see a dozen different versions of the game. If one of them says it's IDSA protected, take a look at another version, chances are you can find a copy that you can play without legal concerns).
The site is called ROMNation, and they're a fantastic resource for everything emulation related. You should be able to find any game you want on this site. To link to their homepage, just click here, but for the purposes of our exercise I'm going to link us directly to a game you can download right away - Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. Once you've clicked on the link, you'll be taken to the details page for them game. All you need to do here is click on "Download this ROM." If the game is IDSA protected, it will say that here instead of "Download this ROM."
Now you should be on their pre-download page. They'd like you to vote for them here. It's not necessary, but it certainly helps them out, and after all, they're providing you ROM's for free, right? Don't worry about clicking on them for now though, as you're ROM won't be corrupt as the site claims, and I don't want to overcomplicate things your first time around.
It's pretty straight forward at this point. Just enter the number it's asks for, and the download should be done in moments. Once it is, unzip the file and copy it's contents to the ROM directory you created. One more easy step and you'll be ready to fire up the emulator!
This step is entirely unnecessary, but I find it to be a fantastic timesaver. Right click on the ROM and bring up "Properties." You see where it says "Opens With"? Click the "Change" button right next to it, then browse to where you're storing Jnes, and choose that. This way, all you have to do to start your game is click on the ROM!
Now that you've done that, just click on the ROM to start the game. This should automatically boot the emulator start the game. All you have to do now is configure a few things in the emulator to your liking, and you're all set to go. First we'll set up the controls. Go to Options menu and choose Input. Click the button next to the control you want to change, and then click on the key you want to assign to that control. Personally, I go with the ASWD keys for my D-Pad, and 4&5 on the NumPad for B&A. You should do it however you like. Play with it until you find settings you're comfortable with.
The only other thing you'll want to change is the screen. It's much too small to play on right now, so let's fix that. From the Options menu, choose Video. If you intend to play your games in a window, you'll want to change the Windowed Resolution setting to at least 512x448 and change the Drawing Method setting to Super 2x Sal. I personally play my games Full Screen, if you plan on doing the same, I suggest setting the Full Screen Resolution to 400x300 32-bit. You can also check a box here to have the games automatically open full screen. If you'd rather do it manually, you can enter and exit full screen by hitting Alt-Enter. This trick works on most programs that offer a full screen mode.
You've set up the video and control scheme options how you want them, and you've already loaded the game. Now all that's left to do is play it! Remember to hit Alt-Enter to enter and exit full screen mode, and for god's sake have fun!
When you want to download more ROM's, just visit ROMnation, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments field. I'll be happy to help as best I can. I'm also going to work on a Top 5 NES Games post so you can have some suggestions of what to download. I'll try to have it up in the next few days.