TVs have changed a bit since 1986, and memories have faded a bit too. So just in case you’ve lost some cables, or just need a refresher, here’s how to connect a NES to a modern TV so you can get a Zelda or Mario fix.
Keep in mind your vintage 8-bit Nintendo NES will work just fine with a modern LCD or LED TV, but the light gun won’t work right with newer TVs. The light gun requires a CRT to operate. Also, while it is possible to modify an NES to output something resembling a modern digital video format, I’m assuming you’re not looking to go to that kind of trouble, and just want to connect an unmodified Nintendo console to an unmodified TV.
Does CRT vs LCD make a difference?
Purists prefer a CRT display for vintage gaming as it matches the original experience more closely. But most households don’t keep an old CRT around anymore. The venerable NES will work with the newer display types, as the video standards it used still exist today. The graphics may scale a little weird sometimes because newer HDTVs are a different resolution than vintage TVs and you may get just a touch of lag, but many people won’t notice any difference. Some people may even prefer the newer display type. Your NES will probably display better on a 720p HDTV than on a 1080p HDTV because 720p’s resolution is an even multiple of the NES’ 256×240 resolution.
Of course, as I said before, the light gun won’t work with a newer display, so you won’t be playing Duck Hunt. You can play Mario and Zelda all you want though. Or my favorite, Baseball Stars. I bought an NES just to play that one.
How to connect a NES to a modern TV via RF
The most common and popular way to connect a NES to a TV in the 1980s was over RF, via a cable that connected to your TV’s antenna. Believe it or not, this still works on most modern TVs. And it probably works better today than it did then, since your NES doesn’t have to deal with broadcast interference on channels 3 and 4 anymore. If you happen to have the newer top-loader model, this is the method you have to use.
It’s not the best way to do it, but it works, and if you still have the box, you can get it running pretty fast.
If you have anything plugged in to the round RF connector on the TV, unplug it. Plug the gray NES RF box into the antenna port, then plug that cable into the duplicate port on the other side of the RF box. Then plug the other end of the cable into the RCA port in the back of the NES. To minimize interference, try to keep the power and video cables separated if you can. You’ll get a better picture that way.
Finally, tune the TV to channel 3 or 4. Select the slide switch on the back of the NES to match the channel you select on the TV. Skip the next section if you need help setting up the rest. I have you covered there too.
How to connect a NES to a modern TV via composite
If you don’t have the RF box anymore, or you want a better picture, keep reading. There’s a much better way to connect your NES to a modern TV, as long as you have the older front-loading toaster model. On the side of the unit, you’ll see three RCA jacks. These output composite video and audio. This method gives a much cleaner signal than RF.
To use it, you just need a standard set of A/V cables, such as what came with a VCR or DVD player. While newer Nintendo consoles use a cable with its own connectors, the NES used cheap, standard ones. If you don’t have any handy, most electronics stores still carry them, and they’re cheap on Ebay. You should be able to get a set for around $4. Note that modern cables have two sets of audio cables to support stereo sound. Stereo TVs weren’t common in 1986 so the NES just uses mono audio. You can hook up just one channel using the red cable, or you can get an RCA Y cable and connect the single-ended side to the NES and plug the dual ends into the red and white plugs on the TV. The result will be high fidelity instead of stereo, but it will come out of both speakers.
Connecting the TV side
Sometimes the TV side is simple and sometimes it’s tricky. Many TVs have multiple sets of composite plugs for old game consoles, VCRs, and the like. If yours does, fantastic. Plug the yellow plug from the NES into the yellow plug on the TV and you’re set.
Some TVs have a dual component/composite set of plugs. That’s a bit trickier. On a TV like that, the white plug is audio. So is the red plug right next to it. The video plug you want is a dual color yellow and green. Plug the yellow cable into that one. Pay attention to the legend printed above the jacks if you’re unsure what any connection is. If you have both component/composite and composite available, I would recommend saving the component input for a newer console that can use it. Component input is in the same league as VGA input in quality. Not as good as HDMI, but better than composite.
Turn on the TV and select the appropriate composite input, and now you’re ready to finish up the NES side.
Connecting up the rest
Connect the power, connect the controllers, then insert a cartridge and turn on the NES. Assuming the NES doesn’t blink, you should see a picture. Here’s what to do if your NES blinks. I don’t recommend blowing into cartridges. It works as a temporary fix but in the long term it makes the cartridges and the console less reliable. If you clean them thoroughly they’ll last years. The main reason NES consoles got unreliable in the 1980s was because of cartridge rentals. The dirtiest consoles in town dirtied up the cartridges and then the dirt spread to the rest of the consoles like a disease.
If you misplaced the AC adapter, that’s easy to replace too.
But that’s how to connect a NES to a modern TV, in a nutshell. Have fun playing the old games.