You probably already know you can play your favourite retro games on your computer, tablet or phone with an emulator. But emulators are good for more than just saving space in your entertainment cabinet -- they can also make your games look and play better than the original systems. Here are a few ways you can modernise those old games when they've gotten stale.
Sometimes, there's nothing like playing the real thing, but the fact of the matter is that it's very hard to get the same experience you did back on the original console. Consoles like the Nintendo 64 look horrible on modern HDTVs, and old hardware breaks down over time (especially those controllers). So, while that original console still has its place, sometimes it's nice to embrace the future and make your games better with the power of modern technology.
Note that we can't give step-by-step instructions for each tweak, because it's a little different on every emulator -- but we'll provide links where we can, and you should be able to find a lot of information about each tweak around the net. Think of this as inspiration.
Improve the Graphics with Tweaks and High-Res Texture Packs
Let's start with the obvious: graphics. For some retro games, their old school graphics are part of the nostalgia. I believe old 8-bit systems like the NES are perfect just the way they are. Other systems could use the upgrades, especially if you're playing on an HDTV that accentuates all its flaws.
You have a lot of options when it comes to improving the graphics. In almost any emulator, you should have an entire menu dedicated to "Graphics Options" (or something similar). Bring up that menu and you should find loads of tweaks to render the image more smoothly. What you choose will vary a lot based on your personal taste, but I find that hq2x (shown above right) or 2xsai is usually a good place to start fiddling. You can do this on newer emulators too, like the Nintendo 64, which will make the game look significantly better.
These graphics settings can also make those old games look more like their original selves too. For example, many emulators for old systems have the option to add CRT effects to your favourite games, including scanlines, screen curvature, NTSC filters and more. This not only preserves that nostalgic feeling, but in many cases can even make the game look better. See the above image for an example -- the image on the left is what it looks like without CRT effects, and the image on the right emulates an old TV for a more realistic-looking image (albeit a blurrier one).
Lastly, many newer emulators, like those for the Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, also support high resolution texture packs, which completely re-texture the game using new images that make use of your hardware. For example, take a look at the image above -- on the left you'll see Zelda with its original textures, and on the right you'll see it with the Community Retexture Project pack. It's amazing what a difference it can make.
Texture packs are very easy to install, though the process differs a bit with each emulator and game. Most texture packs should come with instructions, so find one you like and download it to try it out. This guide should give you an idea of the general process (using Project64 as an example).
Unlock Anything with Built-In Cheat Codes
Remember devices like the GameShark, that could unlock a lot of cheat codes -- both official and unofficial? You may not realise that lots of emulators have this built-in, meaning you can unlock just about anything your heart desires. Don't feel like playing the game over again from scratch to unlock extra levels? You can probably unlock them in the cheats menu. Want to have all the bonus characters for when your friends come over? No need to do all that work again (after all, you've probably done it once before in your life).
Some emulators will have the cheats built-in for each individual game you play, so you can just check off the ones you want. Others, however, may require you to enter a binary code to activate the cheat (shown above). So, Google around to find cheats for your game (Cheatzilla is a good place to start) and enter them in the cheat window to activate them.
Play Online with Your Friends
My greatest memories of these old games aren't playing them by myself -- they're playing with all my friends from school. Unfortunately, I don't live near most of those friends anymore, but thanks to emulators, I can still play with them over the internet using the built-in Netplay features.
It may sound crazy to think you can play Super Smash Bros. online, but when you think about playing Warcraft on a 14k modem back in the day, it doesn't seem so crazy. You just need an emulator with Netplay support to make it happen. Some emulators, like ZSNES, will require you to forward a port on your router and give your IP address to a friend. Others, like those with Kaillera support (including MAME, Nestopia, Gens and Project64k), will let you connect to a server to play with people from all over the globe in just a few clicks.
Obviously, not all these tweaks are for everyone. You may prefer the look of the original game no matter what, or you might be a big believer in earning your cheat codes. But if you're looking for something a little new and different, these tweaks are a great way to take your emulated games beyond their original incarnations.