How to survive quarantine with retro gaming
The Coronavirus has dominated most news stories for the past few weeks and is obviously a big deal that is way more important than any form of gaming. However, smart people are working out all the important stuff so why not use this very odd chapter of modern history to indulge in our favorite hobby of retro gaming. I hope no one reading this is in actual quarantine, but with sports and concerts cancelled, schools suspended and office workers being sent home, I would imagine a large percentage of us have some extra downtime that we were not expecting. So what should you do with your new found, possibly forced free time?
Take stock of your gaming collection
The first thing we should all do is take a good look at our setups. A lot of us are streamlined to only a Raspberry Pi and some modern systems, but others have impressive collections that span decades of titles and will fill up a decent sized room. This is the time to literally "dust off" those old games that are sitting around and make an impressive shrine to vintage gaming. If you frequent the Discord server, you will have seen some of the very respectable gaming collections that Emulate This fans have accumulated. Spend a night that you would normally have spent watching hockey or basketball organizing your collection.
If you really want to go above and beyond, and have a decent sized collection of physical games and hardware, I suggest taking a digital inventory of your collection so you know exactly what you have when you are trying to figure out what to play. Its easy to forget what is in your library when all you see is a bookshelf full of NES carts. There are a couple ways to go about this, either the old school way of an excel spread sheet, or going more modern with an online resource or mobile app like "GAMEYE" but at the end of the day I like the simplicity of a good old fashioned spreadsheet.
Try a pre-built image for your Raspberry Pi
There is a certain level of pride one gets from putting together their version of Pi perfection, and i do love how comfortable a home made image feels when trans versing the deep well of games that make up most Retropie builds. I have recently dove into the world of "pre-built" images, which in some circles of the community can be a touchy subject. Some people object to using a pre-built image because it goes against the core philosophy of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which started making single board computers to ignite technical education around the world.
I have to admit it did feel a bit dirty the first time I downloaded a 128gb image and fired it up. It was just so much more flushed out than anything I had ever done. little touches like the option to select your overclock speeds in the main Retropie menu vs manually editing the config file. Even if you have no interest in using a pre-built image, they are a fantastic way to amass roms. I have gotten some of the most hard to find rom collections by burning a custom image and pulling the roms I wanted off the Pi. The one word of warning I do have for you if you are going to pick out a fancy pre-built image is that since you did not build it, they are incredibly difficult to diagnosis and fix when something goes wrong. easiest way around this is to make a good backup of your setup once you are happy with it, pre-build does not mean it is customized to your tastes so you may want to make some changes and then make a backup image. Go wild with these, download massive builds or small ones. Some brave souls put hundreds of hours into these builds and they should be enjoyed. I don't think its a great look to link sites that host pre-built images here, but if you "arcade punks" out there google "pre-built Retropie" I'm sure you will find what you need.
A pre-built image is also a good way to quickly build a Retropie setup for a friend who is freaking out being stuck at home. You can have them order a Raspberry Pi kit online and have it sent to your house for assembly and tweaking to make sure they do not have any issues. Then you can drop it off for your friend and create a new one of us! With enough boredom retro gaming can spread almost like some sort of virus...
Build an arcade cabinet or fight stick
This one is going to depend on you not only having free time, but a varying degree of free cash on hand. This is a great time to build your dream arcade setup, or at least the most financially plausible version of your dream arcade setup. Obviously the dream here is a four person arcade cabinet powered by a blazing fast gaming rig to emulate anything that is out there, but that may not be realistic for most people. There are a few different directions you could go here.
If you live close to a "Microcenter" store, which is like a Toys 'R Us (RIP) for computer nerds, then you can buy a flat packed full cabinet or smaller bar top setup. They sell just the wood pieces, or the complete setup. They are not a bargain, but you have to remember that you are paying for convenience here. They seem to be solid setups from my limited time with them in the store.
Full Cabinet(just cabinet)-$549.99
An even easier option than the Microcenter kits would be a cabinet from the guys over at Arcade 1Up. I touched briefly on these in a past article, "The Future of Retro Gaming". These come with around 4 games loaded on them, but like anything with this hobby, they can be hacked and filled to the brim with arcade roms.
The most interesting option is also the most difficult but possibly sort of affordable depending on how you configure it, and that is building your own. There are plans online for any setup you could imagine and with the right tools you could realistically knock the project out over a weekend. This would be awesome and if you do it, please share your triumph for all of us to droll over on Discord!
The most affordable option, while still feeling like you built something would be putting together your own arcade stick. I did this a couple years ago and it is fantastic. It really feels like you are playing on an arcade cabinet, but for a fraction of the cost. I have even seen people mount them in cheap coffee tables for a more realistic setup. I like being able to move mine around though. Here are some links if you want to build your own! This works perfectly on my Raspberry Pi, and I would imagine Windows as well.
Dive into a system you never played before
Most of us are guilty of sticking within our retro gaming comfort zone. We can talk about our favorite SNES games or Genesis games that we have fond memories of and like to revisit on our Raspberry Pi's. This behavior is really a by product of most of our busy lives. A lot of the games we loved growing up fit nicely into our busy lives when we maybe have an hour to game, and it is nice to fall back into a familiar game that we are comfortable with. If I have 20 minutes, I can burn through a couple levels of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 without turning my brain on.
This is not the time to load up Sonic 2 for the 1000th time. This is the time to dive into an obscure system that you may not have had the pleasure of playing in the past. I would wager that there are more people in actual quarantine right now than owned a Neo-Geo back when it was new, or have played multiple turbo graphic 16 games. There are some amazing experiences that you have scrolled past on your way to play NBA Jam. Next time you feel overly bored, challenge yourself to pick a game that you have never played. Pick out a style of game you would not normally play and make a valiant effort to let the game get its hooks in you. Its possible you will find a game you love that your typically stretched for time gaming self would have over looked. There are a lot of really interesting games on some older often forgotten systems that really are an important part of video game history. They don't always hold up today, but they are still good catalogs to go through.
Learn about coding
This one may get some eye rolls, but its a good time to learn something new. A lot of us have Raspberry Pi's just sitting there and its a little insulting that all we use them for is to save the princess. These tiny computers were made to teach kids all of the world to code, and that is what we should at least entertain using them for. You could either get another small capacity micro SD card and burn the "Raspbian Desktop" to it, or just install the baked in desktop environment inside RetroPie which is called "Pixel" which is found in the setup menu. I personally like separate cards for desktop work on the Pi, but used Pixel inside of RetroPie for my own coding project.
I am far far far from a professional coder, but my feet are mildly wet. I am approach the "knows enough to be dangerous" category, but would be hesitant to claim any knowledge of coding in a room full of strangers. There are multiple "languages" when it comes to coding, and based on my very limited experiences, Python seems to be the easiest to get into. The first thing that surprised me about coding is it is not like working in The Matrix where everything is controlled with a series of "1's" and "0's". There is an inherent logic that leads to a slow drip feed of understanding. My coding journey ended with me "programming" a pre-built strip of LED's (Pimoroni Blinkt!) to change colors to a predetermined color or pattern that coordinated with a specific system. So in my build, loading any NES game, would change the LED's to all red. An N64 game would result in a multicolored 2D representation of the N64 logo. I sunk hours into this project and while I was happy with the end results by the time i was finished, I was more interested in what I learned about coding.
Learning the basics of coding is pretty handy for navigating outside of the standard RetroPie UI. The basic terms like sudo, bin, and bash can help you get to certain settings that are not possible to get to inside the main RetroPie menu. Things like checking SD card capcity and system temps can be done from the main terminal! Just learning the langue that RetroPie is built with can help you understand how to do things like using screen scraper scripts or setting a fan to turn on when it gets a little to hot under the collar. There are so many resources out there to help you learn how to code, especially relating to the Raspberry Pi.
Listen to the backlog of Emulate This
The guys are on their 4th season and have for sure hit a sweet spot of random conversation mixed in with retro gaming goodness. There was a time where each episode was a bit more of an adventure. I would recommend that everyone goes back to the beginning when Rory only wanted to be referred to as "Five Card Stud" which worked for about 5 minutes before the boys just said screw it and called him Rory. We all have our favorite episodes that we chuckle when we think about them. I personally love the shit show that was the Oregon Trail episode. The Carmen San Diego episode is also podcast gold. This may sound a bit depressing, but the chemistry that the guys have on the show is good medicine if you are feeling isolated with all of this social distancing.
Join the freaking Discord server already
So this is a shameless plug and I don't care... The Discord server is a great place to come and hang out with like minded people. I have been looking over the Discord for a while now, and there has been zero drama or internet trolls. Ryan does an awesome job talking about the Discord on the show, but you don't really get it until you jump in. You can show off your gaming setup, ask questions about your Raspberry Pi, or just shoot the shit with a bunch of nerds who all love the podcast and retro gaming. It is also the best way for fans to end up talking games with the hosts of the show, or asking Ryan about his thoughts about various cereals. Seriously, if you are bored come hang out with us. We are trying to get some people together for an on going multiplayer on modern systems with games with Rocket League, Minecraft or any Sports Game. We have also had a pretty successful Neo Geo Turf Masters league where everyone would just post screenshots of their rounds on Discord. There is always something going on with the Discord, and I would like to thank the Emulate This crew for stopping by and interacting with the fans!
Explore the odd world of rom hacks
Rom hacks can be horrid half brained abominations or masterful works of art that have gotten their creators real jobs within the industry. There are two main variants of rom hacks. You will either find rom hacks that use a familiar game as a foundation for a completely new creative idea, or a rom hack that acts as a sequel or new version of the base game. There are a seemingly endless amount of Mario and Pokemon hacks that just give us more of the same great game to play, but with little tweaks. For example, some Pokemon rom hacks take a more adult approach with very dark story lines and violent outcomes from the base game. My favorite one see's the hero kidnapped and sold into human trafficking after her family is murdered by the mafia. You escape and go on a murderous tear to avenge your family... All within a Pokemon game. They also up the difficulty which is a welcome change to the base kid targeted games.
My favorite style of rom hacks are modern versions of classic sports games. There are popular rom hacks out there that take a classic like NBA Jam, and import modern rosters. I personally love a particular rom hack that brings NHL 95 into the present. I enjoy being able to play NHL 95 with the 2019 Stanley Cup Champions St. Louis Blues! I miss sports... a lot...seriously
The other more hit or miss genre of rom hack's are ones that obviously are built on a game, but they have hijacked the sprites to serve their own purposes. I have enjoyed playing a Super Mario World hack that replaces Mario with Bob Ross, and special coins with paint brushes. Rom hacks are a lot of fun that require some patience because for every excellent Super Metroid 2, there is a dumpster fire Super Pikachu World. I recommend googling "rom hack" and going wild downloading and playing these fan made labors of love. If nothing else, it will allow you to appreciate a playable SNES game when you go back to legit games.
Replace your kids modern games with classics
There are a lot of schools closed for the foreseeable future and the execs who run Fortnite could not be more happy about this. Before your kids steal your credit card to buy that new stupid dance, or hot pink gun, swap their PS4 out with a Raspberry Pi and let them discover the magic of retro gaming. It is not going to be an easy sell, but it may be easier if they have been exposed to any of the "pixel art" indie games that are trendy today. If your kids like gaming, there is a classic game out there that they will be interested in.
If you are worried about a system shock going from a modern controller and crisp graphics to a retro setup, take a peek at the online store of whatever system you have in your house and you will find a surprising amount of retro games that you can download. The Nintendo Switch is probably the best bet for retro gaming on a new system as you can find great examples of retro Sega, SNK and obviously Nintendo games. I love the age that we are living in where I can play Mario 3, Sonic 2 and King of Fighters all on one system. With the Nintendo Switch Online service, you can actually play classic NES and SNES online with friends. This is the best way to "social distance" while playing couch co-op with a friend.
This is not going to work if you just get them on a game and walk away though... This is going to require you to be their guide. Old games are cryptic as hell and require assistance, or a long attention span. The Fortnite generation of gamers is not figuring out many puzzles in Link's Awakening on their own. This is your time to shine as a gaming god and make some awesome memories with the kiddos.
Setup a modern "LAN" party
The LAN party was a magical event that teenage me lived for. Fond memories of lugging around big ass CRT TV's and linking our Xbox's together with excessively long ethernet cables are still fun to go back to. Recreating that today is a bad idea. Do not gather a basement full of friends together and get sweaty playing Halo 2 all night... The future that we all live in allows us to play Halo 2 online with friends easily or any other game we want. We can even use a decent PC to link up via netplay through Retroarch. Don't just see which one of your friends is online and send them a message. Make plans like if you were going out with friends, or having them over. Get snacks, order Pizza, drink Monster and Red Bull till 3 am. If you want to organize a hang out night, hit up the #multiplayer channel on Discord to make it happen!
There are obviously scary things going on across the globe and we need to have some perspective on what is really important. We are lucky that we have hobby that pairs so well with being isolation and it should be used as a tool to make sure we stay sane when our favorite team is not playing or our favorite bar is closed. There are so many amazing games that are waiting to take us away from the bleak times we are going through. Stay safe and wash those paws!