RETROARCH new guide
It is one of my favorite programs for retro game emulation because it can emulate many systems. But it does have a fairly steep learning curve. In this guide, I’ll demystify some of the more exotic aspects of this analog front end, and show you how I set up RetroArch on my own gaming rig.
The purpose of this guide is to help you set up various iterations of RetroArch. The same method works on MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS, Vita, and Xbox platforms, among others.
RetroArch really shines on retro systems, especially PlayStation 1 and below games. For more modern consoles, it’s often more efficient to rely on standalone emulators, which are often more optimized than RetroArch. However, if you’re using a system that relies heavily on RetroArch for emulation (such as an Xbox), or if you have a powerful PC that works well regardless of optimization, you may also have success emulating higher-end systems in RetroArch.
What is RetroArch?
It is a frontend for emulators, game engines and media players. It runs on common platforms like Windows, MacOS and Linux, but also iOS and Android for tablets and phones, and games on PS2, PS3, PSP, PS Vita, Wii, Wii U, 2DS and more Run on the machine, 3DS, Switch, etc. RetroArch’s frontend is often referred to as the “libretro frontend”.
Note that “RetroArch” should technically be pronounced “RetroARTCH” vs. “RetroARK” since it was first based on Arch Linux, but both pronunciations are considered acceptable. I’m used to pronouncing it the latter way, and that’s what you’ll hear in my videos.
It is consists of what they call the “core”, which functions like an emulator embedded into the program. Therefore, in this guide, I will use the words “emulator” and “kernel” interchangeably. Depending on the version of RetroArch you’re using, you can pick and choose which kernels to load to be able to customize your experience, or the RetroArch build may have all working kernels preloaded.
So you might be asking yourself, why should I bother with RetroArch if I already have the standalone emulator option to play my games? This is a fair question. The answer is that RetroArch includes many common features not implemented by other emulators. For example, with RetroArch you can unlock the following features:
- Extensive system support. You can find RetroArch on many systems, and it can emulate a large number of systems too. Here’s a full list of cores so you can learn about all the emulation options there.
- Universal button mapping. You can set buttons for any RA core and also save settings and button remaps per game for the best experience. You can also set hotkeys for saving states, loading saved states, bringing up the RA menu, fast-forwarding, and more. Using this method, you only need to remember hotkeys for one platform, rather than remembering different keymap options between various emulators.
- Precise video scaling options. With RetroArch, you can adjust game graphics to match the size and resolution of your device, and even apply bezel overlays to customize the screen layout. If you have a specific preference for scaling (pixel-perfect accuracy, or stretching images to fill the screen), RA should have what you need.
- Shaders and filters. Shaders apply overlays to your screen that can mimic scanlines, shading, or other effects to recreate CRT displays, chunky LCD grid displays, and more. Filters are like shaders for games, changing the screen to give you a better visual experience. Adding filters to your game graphics can remove pixel artifacts from screens that don’t exactly match the original console you’re simulating.
- Playlists and thumbnails. RetroArch uses “playlists” to organize your game library, which allows you to add a cover (“thumbnail”) to each game as you scroll through, and you can also set favorites, which is very convenient.
- In-game saves and save states. RetroArch is able to save your games using SRAM (in-game), just like on the original console. You can also take snapshots of any game at any time using save states.
- Fast forward, rewind support. RetroArch usually supports fast forward and rewind hotkeys. This can make your browsing in some games slow (or dangerous).
- The universal liar. With RetroArch you can simply add the appropriate cheat files and access all cheats from the RA menu.
- Achievements. RetroArch supports Retro Achievements, super fun.
- Online games. You can use RetroArch to host or join online gaming sessions for retro gaming.
- Recording and streaming. You can record your gameplay directly in the app, and even stream it to services like Twitch.
- Active development. Since RetroArch came out in 2004, its development team is very active.
Having said that, It is not perfect. The user interface can be cumbersome for novices, and some emulated cores don’t perform as well as standalone emulators. For this reason, sometimes a standalone emulator is preferred over a full RA build.