Have You Played… RetroArch?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Hey, you know all those old console cartridges you have all the originals of and painstakingly took ROM backups up yourself? Turns out there’s a way to use ’em. Who knew?

I borrowed a 3DS to play the new Pokeymans just before Christmas. I got bored of Pokeymans almost instantly, but I did tumble down a Virtual Console rabbit hole, enjoying a revisit to the 16-bit age with all its side-scrolling and jump-and-fail and blip-bloop noises. I’ve been turning my nose up at that stuff for years, because a certain section of PC gaming became so swamped by retro-fetishists who couldn’t get Mario out of their system.

Distance allows me to enjoy it all again at last, and the lean simplicity of early 90s Nintendo and Sega does make for a welcome opposite from the bloat and chest-thumping of today’s big-budget gaming.

But how to play it all? RetroArch is the one that best did the trick for me. Rather than individual emulators, it’s an umbrella application that loads in different ‘cores’ depending on what platform/game you’re trying to run, as well as having trickery like auto-categorising per console and adding thumbnails, which pleases the OCD everything-in-its-right-place part of me.

It’s also got a nice fullscreen, Playstation 3/4-aping UI, so I’ve got it setup to auto-load on a teeny Intel Atom PC I’ve got rigged up to the telly as a dedicated retro box. So much easier, quicker and prettier than half a dozen different consoles and cable adaptors.

39 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Retroarch is also included on the Retro Pie / Retro Pi build for Raspberry Pi hardware. For like $50 or so, you can pull together a nice little emulator box the size of a mobile phone, that can store basically every game released pre-N64 and run them too.

    I like mine, anyway.

    • stu says:

      Same. It’s really incredibly fantastic, took about 10 minutes to build and flash the OS. I have it running on a massive projection screen :)

    • Beefsurgeon says:

      I’m loving RetroArch on the Pi.

    • jmtd says:

      I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but I’ve found retropie a disaster. Every time I turn it on something isn’t working, whether it’s pairing my Bluetooth controller, connecting to my network or launching a game (4/5 times I get a black screen and the thing has dropped off the network) or on rare occasions everything works so I’ve got a game going for 10 minutes and then it hard freezes. I’ve tried a brand new pi3 with the official psu etc, same.

      Sometimes I like a technical challenge, but sometimes I just want to sit back and play something, and sadly it’s always been the former for me, never the latter.

      • Premium User Badge

        Minsc_N_Boo says:

        Blue tooth is a bit wonky on the Pi. I use a wired controller so cant help there!

        As for the other issues, the “black screen” normally means it’s an issue with the rom file.

        If it is the console games, try looking for the “no-intro” roms sets. Mame can be a bit more fiddly. Each version of the Mame emulator only works with a specific “set” of roms. TLDR – get the 0.2.97.38 from archive.org. This should work nicely with the lr-fbalpha

        The Reddit r/retropie forum is good for tips too :-)

        • jmtd says:

          Thanks for the tips. I’ve tried both the PI3’s onboard wifi (5KB/s at one point!) and bluetooth, as well as external wifi & bluetooth dongles for both my PI1 and the PI3, but I think at this point I will have to resort to wiring both the controller and network, and see if that keeps things stable. Ideally I’d have both wireless technologies working; my ambition was to have this plugged into a wallmounted TV in a downstairs room and play from the sofa, which isn’t practical with wires. But I have it upstairs in my study at the moment for debugging purposes and it can be wired there OK.

          The emu that I tried that most consistently failed is a SNES one with I think the Zelda and “Robocop vs Terminator” ROMs which I haven’t independently verified as correct but on the other hand, the retropie only fails most of the time, I’ve played both for ~30 mins at least once each without issues (except ED-209 kills me every time, but that’s just me). The NES emulator has never worked for me. The Megadrive/genesis emulator worked for me for up to around 10 minutes when it hard locks, ROMs in this case were mostly sonic ones extracted from Sega’s virtual console thing on Steam. I did wonder whether it’s possible my Pi is actually faulty and there was an overheating problem.

          Some non-retropie stuff I’ve put on there all works fine: chocolate-doom hand-compiled (I’m a dev on that project) and Lexoffle’s Pico 8 are both great. I’ve added them both to emulationstation so if that fires up OK, I can launch those two without issue.

          As a side-note, when investigating things, I’ve been really frustrated with how sloppy retropie is from an implementation perspective. I’m also a Debian developer, and they just ignore all the packaging conventions of Debian which is a shame. For example the modified SDL1 or SDL2 packages; I wanted to know what was changed, but they deleted the changelogs from the package so I have no idea. I’m not even sure whether its retropie or raspbian who have modified the packages, and of course the changelog would have told me. The retropie stuff being a git clone into a user dir and generally lots of paths used all over the place, it’s kinda hard to work with… I should say at least it’s something, it exists, it has a lot of users, and seems to be evolving rapidly.

          • KillahMate says:

            As a side note, have you had any experience with Lakka? It’s the RetroArch team’s own integrated HTPC implementation, running on top of OpenELEC:
            link to lakka.tv
            I don’t have enough experience for comparison, but from a distance it seems less polished but much more coherent than RetroPie.

  2. Lord_Reynardine says:

    Has anyone tried running this via Steamlink? I know you can add non-steam apps to Steam, but haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

    • buschap says:

      It can be done, but it was a little janky the last time I tried. I think there were some controller issues due to the virtual Xinput pad the SteamLink uses (though I could be mixing it up with MAME).

      For sure, there were some conflicts with the guide button, as RetroArch expects to use the guide button, and so does Steam.

      More notably, at least for me, was that the latency was a bit issue for the precision those games require (even with a wired connection).

      If you’ve got the free HDMI port, you’d likely be better suited with RetroPi, but it couldn’t hurt to try SteamLinking RetroArch.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Just got a steam link and did a bit of looking up, I you need to use Ice emulator to get stuff to work well.

    • runadumb says:

      I tested it briefly over Christmas and it worked well. I used big box to launch retroarch cores directly.
      Tried it with super Mario Bros using a wireless ds4. The “lag” wasn’t an issue.

  3. Ushao says:

    I just loaded that on my PS Vita actually. I’m finally replaying Vagrant Story since I didn’t want to dig out my old consoles or pay for it again on PSN.

    • TrynePlague says:

      Vagrant Story… Best game ever just after Shenmue I & II.

  4. Kefren says:

    I’m confused, is it only to imitate consoles (which weren’t part of my gaming history after the Atari 2600), or computers too? Currently I use Spectaculator for my Spectrum games, WinVice for my C64, and WinUAE for my Amiga.

    • raptir says:

      You can see all of the supported “cores” at:

      link to wiki.libretro.com

      From your list, there’s Fuse for Spectrum, P-UAE for Amiga but no C64 emulator.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      The “Cores” include not just consoles, but certain computer systems, DOS, Game engines without the game (Doom for instance) and even a stand alone game or two.

      • jmtd says:

        We looked at porting more doom engines to retro arch, but unfortunately it enforces a particular frame rate or engine rate on cores that is incompatible with vanilla doom, and rules out something like chocolate doom.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    “Hey, you know all those old console cartridges you have all the originals of and painstakingly took ROM backups up yourself? Turns out there’s a way to use ’em. Who knew?”

    I know this is a joke but I have actually done this myself.

    • RealWeaponX says:

      Joke is, since this is a UK site this is still illegal.

      • Ich Will says:

        But crucially, it wasn’t at the time most of those devices were current – and since you can’t be proscecuted for a crime that wasn’t a crime when you did it, it would be almost impossible to bring a viable case without spending a massive amount of money – a risk I doubt anyone is prepared to take.

    • Chuckaluphagus says:

      Same here – I have archived ROMs from all my consoles, ripped myself from purchased discs/cartridges. I love the games, but the hardware is never going to last forever – I’ve already worn through two Nintendo DS devices.

  6. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    RetroArch is pretty great for providing a single relatively coherent interface to a bunch of different emulators, but I really wish that interface was better. Specifically, I have a lot of trouble getting it to behave properly when I want to change controllers for different systems. Even with per-core configuration on it completely fails to handle it properly and I have to remap every time.

    Other than that it’s pretty great though.

  7. Streamgen says:

    RetroArch is a great tool to play older games. However, I find it even better / easier to use all in one distribution when you have the required hardware.
    I am using a Raspberry Pi along with RetroPie in order to play my backups from previous consoles. It works really nice, and it allows me to play with some friends, from the couch with wireless (not so retrogaming, I agree) gamepads.
    I wish I had this when I was younger, travelling to my friends with the consoles in my backpack. ;)

  8. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    It would be nice to know how good the compatibility really is – I know it isn’t bad, but more information would be good.

    It’s so common for emulators only to play a small selection of games effectively, or for multi system emulators to have only a few functional systems.

    It looks like it’s pulling in known good libraries in some instances, so that’s welcome (although MAME is by itself very varied in compatibility)

    • buschap says:

      RetroArch is sort of like a frontend for other emulators. It loads them as “cores” and handles the graphical display and input internally, but the compatibility is handled by the core. Some cores are better than others, but there are five (at least) GBA cores. At least one should be pretty solid.

      NES has FCEU. SNES has bsnes with different optimizations, so you can pick speed or precision.

      There’s a hardware accelerated PSX core that’s probably a little rough, still, as it’s pretty new.

      But basically, the compatibility of a core will match the standalone emulator. So, NES via FCEU on RetroArch will be as good as standalone FCEU.

    • Dushanan says:

      Yeah it definitely depends on the system and the core. The only option for psp is ppsspp so obviously that’s the one to use, but check around for systems with multiple cores.

      (I recommend mGBA for GBA, and the balanced bsnes core for SNES. Ask around what’s best for other systems!)

  9. SaintAn says:

    I’m using it on my Vita. Mainly to play Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced again. It’s a horrible FFT story, but the world and contact with other characters feels almost like an MMO but singleplayer, and there’s so much to do and it has such cool Jobs (like Morpher and the monster capturing stuff to train monsters to morph into) But the GBA emulators in RetroArch don’t work too well so the sound is strange and things slowdown so it needs improvement.

    Need to check it out on PC to see if they have PS2 emulation because I really want to play the Dot Hack games while I watch the anime. Now that MMO’s are dead that’s all I have left other than SAO’s first 13 episodes before it got bad and that other MMO anime with the strategist and Ninja girl.

    • Dushanan says:

      Retroarch doesn’t have support for any PS2 cores (or at least for PCSX2, which is kinda what you’d want). But PCSX2 has gotten pretty good in the past few years, and I think can emulate all those .hack games fine, last I checked.

      So good news for you and your 100% legally backed up games!

      As for Retroarch on the Vita (a completely different subject), I’m not sure what the compatibility is for any of those emulators, but have you tried mGBA instead of Retroarch? The sounds in that might be a little better. I know native homebrew for the Vita is kind of new right now, so maybe it’s still a work in progress.

      • SaintAn says:

        I tried the other popular GBA emulator on Vita (can’t remember if it was mGBA) and it had the same problem. I think they’re all still being worked on, though the popularity of modding Vita has died down a lot as most people missed out on 3.60 or updated because it wasn’t worth not having access to the PSN store. The RetroArch on Vita supposedly does get updated frequently, maybe even nightly.

        I have Adrenalin, the PSP emulator that emulates the entire PSP system on Vita, so I might be able to use old PSP GBA emulators through it if they don’t improve any time soon on Vita. Haven’t tried that though.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Waltorious says:

    I have indeed used RetroArch, specifically to play the original Final Fantasy again (which I then wrote about on my personal blog: link to waltorious.wordpress.com)

    I still intend to play the other early entries in the series, but using RetroArch made me want to try all sorts of other old console games too, for a variety of systems. It’s an excellent piece of software for those with a historical interest in console games. Who knows when I’ll find time for all that though.

  11. Raoul Duke says:

    Allow me to recommend the excellent LaunchBox as an alternative to retroarch. A lightweight, pretty looking launcher that relies on you setting up your own underlying emulators for each system.

    • Soleyu says:

      Or, or you could set up Launchbox to use Retroarch, which is what I did and it works beautifully.

      The coolest part of that is that I set it up for specific games to use other emulators in case somethinf does not work.

      I highly recommend it.

  12. CaptWaffle1 says:

    Back in the day I used to shake a tree and ROMs would fall out everywhere… I seem to recall that when I checked to see if ROMs were still available online a year or so ago they were much harder to find. Anyone aware of the current up-to-date availablity of ROMs? Just for educational purposes, of course. Noone would EVER do anything as scandalous as downloading something like that…..

  13. KillahMate says:

    Anyone who likes RetroArch and is considering setting it up on a HTPC should know about link to lakka.tv – the official RetroArch HTPC distro. It’s better than RetroPie specifically because of the much wider hardware range supported, though otherwise not quite as polished.