DISCLAIMER: Video Game Piracy is not something this site or any of its affiliates condones! You should only use emulators to play copies of games that you legally own! They are meant to be used for personal convenience, not as ways to avoid supporting game developers.
Now that the legal jargon is out of the way…On Episode 52 of the Button Smashers Podcast, the topic of emulation came up and Sade and myself mentioned how far emulation has come and how even very modern consoles can be emulated quite well. Q’s unawareness of this fact led him to tell me how cool he thought it would be if we had an article covering some of the better emulation options out there so that people like him would be able to understand what choices there were for people wanting to enjoy some of their favorite games on their PC, either just for convenience or because they want to record or stream some of their gameplay.
This article will serve as a quick guide to some of the systems that I enjoy emulating and will include my choice for best emulator for that console, and potentially some runner-ups.
FCEUX (NES): For the original Nintendo Entertainment System, I recommend a nice little emulator called FCEUX. This program provides ton of functionality, including the ability to make internal game-play videos, and offers playback for all regions of the NES game console, including the Japanese Famicom and the Famicom Disk System add-on. I have not been able to get XSplit to “hook” to it through Game Source capture, though you can easily use its Screen Region (window capture, basically) to hook into the game and everything will run flawlessly.
ZSNES (SNES): Many years ago, SNES emulation was a toss-up between ZSNES and another emulator called SNES9X. However, over the years, ZSNES came to surpass its competitors in terms of quality, emulation speed, and compatibility with pretty much all SNES/SFC games ever released. The “final” version of the program was released back in 2007, and honestly, there isn’t really anything more that could need to be added to it. The program has tons of built-in options, including methods to “smooth” the graphics and make them look more HD in style, including upsampling the resolution to resolutions of your choice. I recommend running the emulator in full-screen mode (with filters turned on) and using VSync to keep it looking nice and smooth, but for recording or live-streaming, you may need to run the application essentially in full-screen windowed mode (due to its age and therefore compatibility), which will allow it to hook into the application of your choice with no issues at all.
Visual Boy Advance (GB/GBC/GBA): When it comes to emulating the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, or Game Boy Advance, Visual Boy Advance has the market cornered. The program was last updated back in 2005, yet much like ZSNES, there really isn’t a whole lot more they could add to it. I tend to run the application in Windowed mode (mainly because of the low resolution of these games anyway) and it has no problem being window-captured by modern recording software.
Fusion 364 (SMS/Genesis/GG/32X/CD): For an all-in-one emulator that will run pretty much anything from the Sega Master System, Genesis/MD, Game Gear, 32X, or Sega CD, Fusion is probably the best option out there. Compatibility pretty much seems to be 100% and everything runs at full-speed. Fullscreen is what I’d recommend for most games, though if you record/stream you might need to run it in windowed or full-screen windowed mode to hook into the program, though it will run just fine in this mode.
Project64 (N64): This one seems to be a toss-up as other people seem to like 1964 as their N64 emulator of choice. Yet, it seems to mainly come down to personal preferences. Personally, I like the versatility and the interface offered by Project64 and I find that it runs everything quite well. One thing you might want to do if you give this one a try is do a quick Google search for the latest build of the Rice Video Plugin, which will add DirectX9 capabilities and therefore allow for better Game-Source capture by recording tools as well as overall better graphical options (such as more advanced AA to smooth out the graphics) and smoother play.
NullDC (Dreamcast): For a while, finding a good Dreamcast emulator was tough, yet NullDC seems to be the best deal in town currently. The graphics scale pretty well to modern displays, the options are pretty solid (even if slightly confusing at first), and the program offers effectively full compatibility with Dreamcast games. In terms of recording or streaming, the program seems to hook just fine into Game-Source options of both XSplit and OBS, so if you want to share your play experiences of the Dreamcast, you should have no problem at all doing so.
PCSX2 (PlayStation 2): For the PlayStation 2, PCSX2 should meet most all of your needs. The program is pretty easy to use with lots of options (including great graphical scaling and tuning to make the games look much better) and yet can be tailored to your own tastes and computer hardware. The only downside is that while compatibility is very high, there are a couple games that may present problems while running them (the game Gun being one of them, which I know because I tried running it on a whim one day and had some issues with it). That said, those cases should be few and far between, and if you really need to run a certain game that PCSX2 cannot handle, there are alternatives you can track down to meet those needs.
So, these are the programs that meet my current needs in terms of emulation, yet this is by no means an all-inclusive list. In fact, I may need to do another guide in the future to include some of your options for systems that I did not go into in-depth, mainly because I am not currently using those programs. These might include good PlayStation (PS1) emulators, such as ePSXe or PCSX-Reloaded, and ways to emulate the GameCube (Dophin being the current standard).
Want to toss out some alternatives or share your experiences? Feel free to comment! :)