Solutions for the Future – RetroPie Review

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

So ever since I was a kid and I first learned they existed, I’ve been obsessed with emulators. There could be any number of reasons for this, but after some soul-searching I think it’s fair to say that my interest mostly stems from the idea that I could access a console’s entire library whenever the hell I wanted without the time or expense of actually, you know, going out and buying them.

But even ahead of that, the idea of having access to them was way more important. No matter what game it was, whether it was a forgotten title from my youth or some random Japanese game that we never got over here, I always found a great deal of psychological comfort in the idea that basically any game I wanted was right there waiting for me on the internet whenever the mood should strike me. It’s allowed me to keep up with old, long-lost favorites and try out all-new experiences. Illegal? Inarguably. Morally dubious? Absolutely. But convenient as hell and oddly comforting? Goddamn right.

The only kicker is that sometimes emulating it just seems so…fake. Call me a big whiner, but to me the experience of sitting in front of the TV, controller in hand, isn’t exactly the same as being cooped up in an office chair in front of a monitor watching Nesticle fake its way through Contra Force or Little Samson for you. So over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with a number of methods to better replicate the whole “TV-and-console” experience with emulation, whether with different EverDrive cartridges, my modded Wii, or whatever.

During a trip to a friend’s wedding that required me to dress like a Viking, I was exposed to the wonder and convenience of the Raspberry Pi, and specifically the RetroPie software suite/GUI that offers access to a number of different system emulators and the capacity to play whatever damn game I felt like, so long as it wasn’t any newer than, say, the Dreamcast.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s pretty awesome in its own right, and it’s sure as hell easier than actually, you know, buying video games.

The Raspberry Pi, for anyone unaware, is a small kit-built Linux computer that allows you to program it to do one thing, and it will do that thing forever. Pis use an ARM processor similar to what you see in phones and dedicated game systems like arcade cabinets – not nearly as flexible as standard computer processors but able to operate for much longer periods of time and better at staying focused on one individual task. An increasingly popular option for Raspberry Pis is to convert them into dedicated emulation devices, as if there’s one thing you can rely on for any device or operating system, it’s that someone will start writing an NES emulator for it within a week or two. The Raspberry Pi proved itself fairly adept at this task, and it eventually got to the point that a group of programmers brought together all the different emulation frontends into one streamlined OS – RetroPie!

retropie logo.png

There’s a few different installation options, but I’m not going to lie to myself or anyone around me – I’m only ever going to use this particular Raspberry Pi for emulators, and I can’t act like I’m ever going to get a second one anytime soon. RetroPie takes all of the controller and configuration options, frontend and menu settings, and actual emulation software from a bunch of different Raspberry Pi setups and places it together into one easy-to-install combined package. (Granted, I say “easy” not having done it myself and instead having bribed a friend of mine into doing it, but whatever, he said it wasn’t hard so I’m gonna trust him on it.)

Fun disclaimer: I don’t know shit about Linux, and I don’t like going under the hood of software I use unless I totally have to. So no, I haven’t actually fucked around with most of RetroPie’s settings except for the occasional BIOS configuration or whatever. I have, however, spent a decent amount of time with a lot of the emulators, and for the most part I have good news to report other than a few heartbreaking shortcomings. (And really, aren’t the emulators the most important thing?)

NES: I can’t really explain why, but whenever I try new emulators on anything, I always make sure the NES works first. Maybe it was because it was both the first system I had and the first system I ever emulated, maybe I just subconsciously know I’m going to be playing more NES games than anything else, or maybe I just need to know that any device I own can conceivably play Mr. Gimmick. Well, the good news is that my Raspberry Pi can totally play Mr. Gimmick, and a shit ton of other games too. The colors come through sharper than a lot of other emulators I’ve seen, the pixel and line definitions are damn good, and the sound is spot-on.

Sounds too good to be true, right? It kind of is. The NES emulator in RetroPie has more compatibility problems than any other NES emulator I’ve ever used. I can’t fault an emulator for not having 100% compatibility, but the omissions on RetroPie seem…odd. Kirby’s Adventure maybe I can understand since it probably uses a weird mapper, and the same can be said for Castlevania III (even though that generally only malfunctions on clone hardware like the Retron 3, NOT emulation)…but why can’t it run DuckTales or Metal Gear? I’m really not trying to shit on the Raspberry since I love it and otherwise it works great, there’s just a surprisingly large number of NES games it can’t run. The Internet tells me that it might depend on if the ROM had a good dump or not (and suggested to download everything from Dope ROMs, but I tried that and it still didn’t help), but…I dunno, it just strikes me as weird that I get better NES compatibility out of my Wii, even if the picture and sound quality is arguably better on the Pie. C’est la vie.

GAME BOY/GAME BOY ADVANCE: So it has emulators for all three iterations of the Game Boy, which isn’t something I’ve cared about since I tried to play the Mother 3 English ROM forever ago, but they’re all friggin’ great. The sound and picture replication is dead-on for all three of them, and the Game Boy emulator even displays with a lime green backdrop as opposed to the straight-on black and white that most PC emulators use. I’m kind of a bad person and there’s not a lot of Game Boy ROMs I’m really that into (and it won’t play River City Ransom EX which is heartbreaking) but whenever I get that itch to play one of the Wario Land games or Astro Boy: The Omega Factor the RetroPie will do right by me.

SNES: Not much to report, which is a good thing – the SNES games look great, have high compatibility and functionality even among games that tend to trip up flash carts and clone systems like Super Mario RPG or StarFox, and overall works pretty great. It does have a hard time keeping up with the SNES’ occasionally muffled and farty sound chip, but most emulators do, and it doesn’t detract from the experience – trust me, I’ve heard some pretty fucking awful NES/N64 emulation, and this isn’t anywhere near as bad. Besides, now I have something new to try my once-yearly EarthBound playthrough on!

GENESIS: The Genesis emulator is the one I have the least to write about, but that’s a good thing in this case – it works perfectly. Picture is good, it responds well to controls (and should support both 3- and 6-button controllers depending on the system) and the sound is great, which is something emulators struggled with for a long time. Frankly, I’d have been more surprised if it didn’t work since Genesis emulation has been in the bag for a while – and after the NES emulator came out of nowhere on me I was a little hesitant – but everything seems nominal here. It even plays Pulseman correctly!

TURBOGRAFX-16: Alright, so this one might be my favorite part. The TG-16/PC Engine emulation is perfect – everything ran fine, even Japanese games, which is more than I can say for my Wii (which basically doesn’t bother). But after I did a little BIOS wrangling, I figured out something hugely important – it can play Dracula X. That’s right, I now have an emulator that can play Dracula X with a very minimal amount of effort. And it’s SO GOOD, you guys. Rest assured, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of me going on about Dracula X, but even if the rest of the TG-16 emulation sucked, the fact I can play that (and no other PC Engine CD games) is worth it.

PLAYSTATION: Here’s another big one – the PlayStation emulation is actually pretty damn good. I’ve only played Mega Man Legends and Klonoa so far so it remains to be seen if it can handle the slightly more emulator-unfriendly games, but for right now it looks like it works great. And with a minimum of fuss, too – it isn’t hard to find the right BIOS and well-dumped images, and there’s not a second of slowdown, framerate problem, or emulator error to be seen. Time will tell if it can handle something like Metal Gear Solid (and it probably can’t make Parappa the Rapper work well on an HDTV, which is a shame) but for right now I am aaaaall set.

DREAMCAST: Alright, other than the occasional NES goofup this is the only bad news I have to report. And even then it’s only sort of bad. The Dreamcast emulation is easy to configure, seems to have good compatibility, and loads up no problem. The Raspberry Pi, or at least the one I bought, just…doesn’t have the heft to keep up. I can get Crazy Taxi to load, but the second the actual level starts it’s waaaaaay too choppy and slow to deal with. Allegedly, overclocking will solve this little problem, but…I’ve never overclocked ANYTHING and I just don’t want to bother. Especially not when I have so many other options for getting Dreamcast stuff to run…but that’s a post for another day.

I guess my point is this: if you aren’t worried about 100% compatibility and just want a cheap option to play emulated games on a real TV, I say go nuts. If nothing else, this has stopped me from buying any more EverDrives, and that’s a good thing – I have too many robot toys and guitar pedals to spend that money on instead.

If you’re curious, here’s an Amazon link to the specific one I bought: Vilros Raspberry Pi 3 Basic Starter Kit

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