How to Play PC Games on Your HDTV
Playing games on your PC is fantastic if you have the right hardware. Sure, playing console games on a big-screen HDTV is convenient when you have a group of friends gaming together, but games will always look better on a gaming PC with a beefy graphics card and plenty of extra RAM. Hooking your PC up to your TV is also a great way to play pixel-perfect re-creations of classic console games on your HDTV, the way they were meant to be played. This guide will walk you through what to do to get those pixels in order, no matter the emulator or the TV.
Using an HDTV as a Monitor
Let’s begin by assuming that you’ve just plugged your TV into your Windows 7 PC as an additional monitor. For this step, usually all you have to do is connect an HDMI cable from the HDMI port on your graphics card to the HDMI input on your HDTV. If you don't have the luxury of owning a PC and a TV with HDMI ports, however, you'll need to buy an adapter cable that accommodates your unique hardware situation.
Once your TV and PC are connected, turn both on, and then right-click anywhere on your Windows 7 desktop and click Screen Resolution. In that dialog box you should see one more monitor icon than you're used to, which represents your HDTV; if your PC does not detect your TV as an additional display, you may need to configure your TV for HDMI-out or PC-out mode.
In the Display drop-down menu, select your TV as a monitor (the name can vary, but if it’s the only display other than your main one, it will be numbered as '2'). Next, change the 'Multiple displays' setting to Extend desktop to this display. Now take a look at your TV--if you see an improperly stretched version of your desktop wallpaper, you’re on the right track.
Next, make sure that your TV is set to the highest possible resolution, which likely will be either 1280 by 720 (720p) or 1920 by 1080 (1080p). You should perform this step because LCD and plasma HDTVs do not look good at anything lower than their native resolution. It's a no-brainer for playing modern PC games such as Civilization 5, but even if you’re emulating classic console games on your PC and you're (understandably) concerned that a Sega Genesis game designed to run in 320 by 240 will not look right in 1080p, turn your HDTV up to its maximum resolution. Trust me: You’ll get much better fidelity by doing the image scaling in software rather than trying to force your TV into a resolution that approximates the native resolution of classic games.
The only instance in which you might not want to max out the resolution is if you have an HD CRT (you lucky, lucky person with your 90-pound piece of furniture, you), in which case lower resolutions may look just fine.
While you have the Screen Resolution dialog box open, here’s one last tip you ought to know. See the 'Make this my main display' option? You may need to enable that when you’re trying to run some console emulators in full screen on your PC, as they’ll function only on the primary display. Making your HDTV your primary display can be a pain, but it’s something you just have to tolerate.
Next page: Adjusting settings in an emulator
Adjusting Emulator Settings
Next you need to run your (legally obtained) emulator on your PC, dig into the video settings, and find the full-screen resolution setting. Crank it up to match the maximum resolution of your HDTV. You might run into trouble with older emulators that offer only a list of fixed resolutions, as they may not go high enough to match your HDTV; if that's the case with your emulator, you’ll have to open the emulator’s configuration file and put your desired resolution settings in there manually.
Thankfully, this procedure is not as scary as it sounds. As an example, I configured the Neo-Geo emulation program WinKawaks to run at 1280 by 720 resolution by editing the WinKawaks.ini file (usually you can find a similar .ini file containing video settings in the folder that corresponds to your emulator).
Within the first 20 lines of the WinKawaks.ini, you’ll come across the following lines of text:
In those settings, simply change the 640 to 1280, and change the 480 to 720.
Save the file, and open the emulator--and, whatever you do, don’t touch the resolution settings in the menu, or you'll overwrite the change you just made in the .ini file.
Now, if your PC desktop is showing up on your HDTV, you should be ready to rock. Of course, you have to tweak a few more video settings first if you want to get the best gaming results on your HDTV. Not all games or game emulators have these options; if you can make the following changes, however, you’ll obtain solid results.
Your first priority is to find and select the 'Maintain aspect ratio' setting. If you don’t, often you’ll end up with old games configured for a 4:3-aspect-ratio screen stretched out to match your widescreen resolution, and they’ll look terrible.
Next, you should enable the 'Stretch image' option if you can. I know I just said that stretching isn't advisable, but here's why you might want to do it anyway: Not all old consoles output a perfect 4:3 resolution. The NES, for example, had almost-square proportions, at 240 by 224. If you set up your emulator to maintain the original aspect ratio, stretching the image output on your HDTV just a bit gives you the best of both worlds and produces an image that's as close to that of the original game as possible. This setup is really appropriate for playing classic PC games in Windows 7, since it helps to ameliorate the issues with playing older PC games that use wonky resolutions.
Finally, determine whether your game of choice supports bilinear filtering. Turn it on in your older PC games, and they will look much better on your big screen. Your emulator may also support bilinear filtering, but be cautious: Image filtering is, to put it mildly, a contentious issue when it comes to emulator fidelity. Some emulators have a TV-mode function that you might want to try, but they are inconsistent and most of them don’t emulate the appearance of classic games very well; instead, enable bilinear filtering to slightly smooth the picture on your big screen without detracting too much from the overall classic-gaming experience.
At this point you should be all set to go. Start up a PC game, throw it into full-screen mode, and enjoy.
One final tip: Now that you’re up and running from the couch (presumably with a gamepad or two), you'll likely find it convenient to operate PC game menus without having to grab the mouse. You probably already know about the free PC-gaming application JoyToKey, which allows you to map PC keyboard keys to a button on your joystick or gamepad; what you may not know is that JoyToKey also lets you map mouse movement and mouse buttons to your gamepad's joysticks and face buttons, respectively. Give it a shot, and game on.