Is RetroArch for Steam an easy way to get into retro gaming?

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RetroArch is one of the most commonly used front-ends for emulating classic games these days — whether you’re doing so on a home computer or on a modified console.

If you’re unfamiliar, it’s essentially an all-in-one piece of software that allows you to load various “cores”, each of which is designed to run software from one or more classic systems. The aim of RetroArch, among other things, is to provide a single, highly customisable place that takes care of all your classic gaming needs. And it achieves this pretty admirably — though it’s fair to say that it isn’t the most intuitive piece of software for the new user. In fact, it can look downright daunting thanks to its sheer number of options.

RetroArch’s recent release on Steam doesn’t entirely solve this problem, but it does streamline the process of getting things set up quite nicely. The biggest change from regular RetroArch is the fact that rather than having to navigate the Byzantine labyrinth that is its interface in order to add cores for new systems, the Steam version of RetroArch is instead distributing cores as free DLC. This means that you can simply add them to your account from the Steam store and RetroArch will take care of installing and updating them automatically.

It’s still a somewhat cumbersome process to add all of the available cores — of which there are quite a few now — but that’s really a Steam problem rather than a RetroArch problem. Once you’ve added all the DLC to your Steam account, you should be good and ready to start playing some retro games. So with that in mind, I thought we’d test just how well stock RetroArch for Steam handled some commonly emulated platforms with all its DLC installed — no tweaked settings, no fiddling around with BIOS files, no hunting down patches to make things work better: just the pure, vanilla, beginner-friendly(ish) experience.

Atari 2600

Retroarch - Atari 2600

RetroArch handled an Atari 2600 ROM in .a26 format with no difficulty whatsoever. It didn’t prompt to ask what core we wanted to use — it just ran it. Simple and straightforward — very beginner-friendly.

RetroArch uses the popular “Stella” emulator for its Atari 2600 core, and this performs well. Controls are set up with a sensible layout for Xbox 360-compatible controllers — Back/Select for the 2600’s Game Select switch, Start for Game Reset, A for fire button — though you may run into difficulties with games that make “player 1” use the right controller by default, such as Air-Sea Battle.

One thing I did immediately run into was the question of how to get back to RetroArch’s menu once a game was running. You can press Escape twice to quit the program and then open it back up again, but this is a bit clumsy. A better solution is to go into the Settings > Input menu and activate a controller button combination that calls up the menu. L1+R1+Start+Select is a good one, since you’re unlikely to press that accidentally during gameplay.

Game Boy Color

RetroArch: Game Boy Colour

RetroArch works just fine with Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance ROMs, and with the Steam DLC you can open any of these with several different cores. It doesn’t matter too much which one you pick, since all the cores that RetroArch offers you for opening Game Boy ROMs are compatible.

In-game, performance is good and the default control mapping matches the original Game Boy button layout nicely. No problems here.

NES

RetroArch: NES

There are currently two NES-compatible cores available for RetroArch, and both work just fine. When starting a game, you’ll be prompted for which one to use, but RetroArch doesn’t confuse matters by listing emulators for other systems like it does with some other types of ROM file.

Performance in both emulators is good, and they are set up to use a standard controller with no issues whatsoever. One of the most beginner-friendly parts of RetroArch.

Neo Geo

Did not work, despite arcade emulator FinalBurn Neo supposedly being compatible. RetroArch simply crashed to desktop without an error message when attempting to open a Neo Geo ROM. You’ll likely need a Neo Geo BIOS ROM to make it work, and getting that up and running is beyond the scope of what we’re talking about here.

PC Engine/Turbografx-16

Also did not work, but this time around it simply didn’t recognise the ROM files in the directory. This suggests there is not a compatible core currently available for the Steam version of RetroArch, but it will likely be added in time.

Sega Master System

RetroArch - Sega Master System

The Master System is a little more fiddly than the NES in that you need to use a RetroArch core that is compatible with multiple systems in order to play Master System games — and the list that RetroArch prompts you with isn’t exclusively populated by cores that will fit the bill, particularly if you are using Master System ROMs in .zip format.

Pick the right one, though (Genesis Plus GX does the job) and things work just fine. Default control mapping is no problem, and you’ll find most games are fully playable.

Sega Mega Drive

RetroArch: Sega Mega Drive

As you might expect, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis is one of the most well-supported machines that RetroArch can handle with its DLC cores available on Steam — though we do run into a beginner-unfriendly issue when picking a ROM to play, since RetroArch offers to open it with a variety of incompatible cores, including the Atari 2600 emulator Stella!

This raises one potential issue for RetroArch newcomers — due to copyright and trademark issues, none of the cores are allowed to actually refer to which platforms they emulate, so you’ll need to learn which core goes with what platform. For Mega Drive, it’s hard to beat BlastEm, named after the platform’s legendary “Blast Processing”.

Super NES

RetroArch: Super NES

You’ll have no real problems with Super NES emulation in the Steam version of RetroArch — while there are several cores you can use among the DLC, it doesn’t list any incompatible options, unlike with the Mega Drive offerings. Simply got with SNES9X for most purposes and you won’t go far wrong.

Default controller setup of Super NES games makes perfect sense — though remember when looking at on-screen button prompts that Nintendo labels their A, B, X and Y buttons the opposite way round to an Xbox controller!

Nintendo 64

RetroArch: Nintendo 64

Nintendo 64 games vary a little in terms of their performance and compatibility with stock Steam RetroArch and its DLC cores. Banjo-Kazooie worked perfectly, but Blast Corps suffered from significant graphical flickering that made the game near-unplayable. The software didn’t prompt for which core we wanted to use, though; it just ran the game with minimal faff.

When they work, the standard graphical settings look pretty similar to what the original N64 would have looked like on a decent TV — minus the CRT fuzz. It’s possible to tinker with the settings to make them look better if you want, but the default settings strike a good balance between quality, authenticity and performance.

Default controls work just fine, with the N64’s analogue stick mapped to the left stick on today’s controllers and the other buttons being where you would expect.

PlayStation

RetroArch: PlayStation

RetroArch handles PlayStation games just fine — you can even load them from original disc if you want — but it does place a slight barrier to entry in the form of a list of cores you might want to use. Confusingly for the newcomer, the correct choice in this case with all the DLC installed is actually the last option.

Starting a game also prompts that you may need a genuine PlayStation BIOS file for maximum compatibility, though many games will run just fine without it — Brave Fencer Musashi, pictured above, worked with no problems, for example.


In conclusion, RetroArch for Steam is, for the most part, a reasonably easy way to get up and running with an all-in-one emulation solution on your Steam-compatible computer. Obviously you’ll need to provide your own ROMs — and we’re not getting into that here for obvious reasons — but once you’ve got some things to play from the back catalogues of the most popular retro platforms out there, it’s a pretty simple matter to get them up and running without any extensive tinkering required.

This makes it a good way of getting started with retro gaming without needing to invest in any additional hardware — just don’t be put off by the initially daunting menus!

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