Graduating from Retropie to LaunchBox
When I got my first Raspberry Pi a few years ago I was a life long console gamer who had only dabbled with unstable emulators on my old laptop that made organizing and enjoying a library of retro games nearly impossible. Sure there were solutions out there at the time to use the hardware that I had to play old games, but I never took the time to use any of the low end rigs I had to emulate the games I grew up loving. PC's were for homework, media and web browsing. All gaming ran through a wide variety of consoles.There was also the factor that the games that the games I truly wanted to emulate were on later platforms that my crappy laptop would not touch. What started as a way for me to easily play old games on a compact computer turned into a new hobby that quickly became more about cooking the meal than actually eating the dish.
So after years of perfecting my Retropie library and making the jump to the new Pi 4 that finally played systems like Dreamcast and N64 it was time for me to stop my endless tinkering and finally kick back and play 30+ years of games right? That would make sense, but instead I put my Raspberry Pi 4 on the shelf and graduated to gaming PC...There is a lot of baggage when it comes to the realm of gaming on PC's vs consoles and I have always been strictly on the side of the console gamer and I will still most likely pick up the new Xbox Series X when it launches later this year. However I have gained a new respect for the gaming PC crowd and finally get it when they talk about the "PC Master Race".
The PC build-Skip this part if you don't care about PC nerd things-
I knew I wanted to check out the world of PC gaming, but I also knew that I was not in a position to spend $2000+ on a RGB filled, liquid cooled cutting edge beast of a gaming PC. My goal was to see how modern of systems I could emulate well, without investing a ton of money into a PC. I had hopes of PS3 and Wii U emulation, but as of writing this, up-scaled Wii and PS2 are as high as I have soared. I have not had the chance to find a good source for PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii U iso files as of yet. I set out and searched Ebay, and picked up a seven year old Dell Optiplex 9020 MT that had a 4th gen i5 and no graphics card to speak of. There are a ton of YouTube videos out there that can walk anyone through how to take an old pre-built office PC like this one and transform it into a competent gaming rig. After throwing in a reasonable graphics card (Asus GTX 1050ti 4gb), 16 gigs of ram, a new SSD to load everything faster and a 2TB hard drive for game storage, I was left with a PC that was able to tackle newer AAA titles at 1080p @60 fps. I was shocked how good games like The Witcher 3, Forza Horizon 4, and Doom Eternal played on my "new" gaming PC. However, none of us are here to talk about how well a low end gaming PC can play modern games. We are here for that retro goodness.
The PC Front Ends
One of the biggest advantages of using a Raspberry Pi loaded with Retropie to manage your retro game library is how nicely organized your games are. With Retropie you are able to see all of your games in one easy to navigate program. It is important to remember that while we see and interact with these programs, none of them are actually doing the heavy lifting of emulation. They are merely grabbing a rom file and loading it into an emulator (core) that you have installed on your PC or Raspberry Pi. Retropie is nice since it has a ton of emulators already loaded up so you do not have to go hunt down a specific SNES core to play Super Metroid. These programs will make helpful suggestions and even link to the correct emulators to download, but they will require you to designate the correct core before you get to your game. Here are the programs that I have found on PC to be a suitable replacement for Retropie. Spoiler alert, its LaunchBox/Big Box. Just go get that now.
Launch Box is an excellent, free front end program. If you are looking for purely function over form, then Launch Box is all you need. regardless if you pay for the premium version or not, this is the program you will work on your collection in. You can add roms individually or batch load a folder or full MAME set, source metadata and assign emulators/cores to each platform/game. You can even link LaunchBox to your Steam, Epic Store, Windows games, or GOG accounts and have all of your PC games in on place! Launch Box allows you to manage every detail of individual roms and platforms. LaunchBox is the kitchen that makes the pretty food that you are served in the premium version. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just using Launch Box. The grid format makes finding the game you are searching for a breeze and it displays metadata just fine for each game. I ran with just the free version of Launch Box for a couple weeks while I was moving my rom collection from my old laptop/Pi 4 to the new PC and I did not ever feel like I was putting up with an inferior program just to save some money. I still go back to Launch Box to work on my rom collection and sometimes its easier to just launch a game from here.
The latest update saw MAME high score lists added to a good selection of games. I have not tried to beat anyone's scores yet, but the ones I saw looked manageable so I think it could be a fun incentive to keep playing an arcade game over and over again. LaunchBox does like to move your game files if you let it, so I found it easier to just download roms directly to the directory that it would eventually want to put them in anyway. There are a few things like this that just work better if you go with the flow and store everything inside its folder in the directory. One of my favorite features of Launch Box is how it knows the right emulator for the job and links the download for you. I suggest creating an "Emulators" folder in the Launch Box folder to store all of the individual emulators. I am probably making this sound more complicated than it is. LaunchBox really is the easiest to use front end for PC out there. It is crazy that this is the "not pretty" version of the program. The team behind Launch Box is seriously talented.
As good as LaunchBox is, it is very much like seeing the how the sausage is made vs enjoying your bratwurst with a ice cold beer. Big Box captures that Retropie feel with custom themes, video previews and a smooth UI that makes you feel like you are playing on a mainstream console. I just broke down and paid for Big Box partially because I wanted to see what I was missing out on, and partially for this article. I'm sure Ryan will let me expense it to the show any day now... I really like the presentation that I get from Big Box and its something that I think is worth the investment. I am not sure if I will renew it for another year or just go with the lifetime license when my year is up.
Big Box is not the best program to work on your collection, that is what LaunchBox is for, and they remind you of this by including an option to switch over to it in the menu of Big Box. Even the UI seems easier to navigate using a controller vs a keyboard and mouse. They really want you on your couch, controller in hand getting down to the business of playing games when you are enjoying Big Box. This program feels like a splurge to me, its not needed at all, does not improve the in-game experience really, but if you were making a nice media center/gaming setup, or putting a PC in an arcade cabinet this is the front end you need. I have been saving some cash lately not having a social life due to a certain pandemic so I figured I would give this a shot and I am glad I did.
Honorable mention goes to the OG of PC front ends, Retroarch. It is the foundation that Retropie is built off of, so even if you are not directly familiar with it, you sort of are. This is probably the best known front end out there and it is great at what it does. I actually have several of my systems in Launch Box set to use Retroarch to find the right emulator/core for the game. My issue with Retroarch is its just not as user friendly to me. I always up backing out of screen, or choosing the wrong thing. Also the themes leave something to be desired. They do have one theme that is great. The "null" theme will just make the screen black all the time no matter what you select. It is a theme that essentially bricks the program. That was a fun issue to navigate if you enjoy editing .cfg files to get a picture back when you open a program. Chances are if you use Retroarch as your front end of choice, I am not going to tell you anything new about it. It is the old pickup trucks of front end programs, it may not be exciting, but it will get the job done. I still mess around in Retroarch to experiment with different resolutions, cores, and plug in adjustments to get the best settings for the game I am playing. Retroarch also has the "killer app" of "Net-play" that I really want to try out with a fellow Emulate This fan, hit me up on discord if you want to test it out!
Do not take anything I have said in this article as knocking the Raspberry Pi or Retropie. What the devs have accomplished with such modest and affordable hardware is super impressive. I was just tired of hoping that the next revision would make hitting a new level of emulation possible. I wanted to be able to play more demanding retro games without having to worry about if the game would even load. Ultimately this ended up being more about tinkering with a new toy than it was about playing God of War II. Like most of my time with Retropie, I have been working on the collection more than playing it. I will say there have been two casualties of my new PC Master Race membership. My Raspberry Pi 4 and my Xbox One. Now everything goes through my PC and I could not be more happy with the setup I ended up with. I can do things with it that would either never work on a Pi, or require dedicated builds for. I can play Super Smash Brothers Melee, while my kids stream a movie off our new Plex media server all running off this old PC. It was an investment that I am glad I made, and one that like all hard drugs, will probably lead me to a larger finical commitment in the future... So if you have an old PC sitting around collecting dust, it may not be that difficult to breath some new life in it and making a very capable emulation station.
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