What Is RetroArch?

What Is RetroArch?

There are many different ways to play retro games on many different platforms, however one of my favourite methods is through RetroArch. The technical explanation of what retroArch is, is it’s an open source front-end retro gaming application for running emulators and their associated ROMs.

Now this all sounds like technical mumbo-jumbo, so in more simple terms, what is RetroArch? RetroArch (pronounced retro-arc) is a program which allows you to access a multitude of different gaming systems (emulators or cores as they are referred to in RetroArch) and games (ROMs) on your computer, console or mobile device. It has been continuously developed since 2010 by the Libretro Team and is built around the libretro API. Gone are the days where you need an individual console to play specific games. With RetroArch all you need to do is boot it up and you can have access to potentially tens of thousands of games within a few clicks. These systems and games can be accessed via the RetroArch interface which  is fully customisable to suit the needs of a particular user.

RetroArch homescreen

So What’s So Special About RetroArch?

Now, I am not saying that you need RetroArch in order to play individual emulators. Hell, you could simply download all the emulators one at a time and load them up when you feel like playing them. However RetroArch does possess a number of exciting features that may sway your decision some what
Fully customisable
In the past RetroArch has been criticised for its poor UI interface. Comments that have included
‘boring’ or ‘unuseable’ have been common place over the years. Thankfully there are many settings that you can experiment with to make the interface more exciting and engaging. On top of that you have EmulationStation which enables you to completely change the appearance of RetroArch

Joypad auto configuration
No more messing around with the fiddley controller configuration of some emulators. Common controllers are automatically configured as soon as you plug them in so it is literally plug and play. You also have the option to configure your controllers manually so that you can set up special actions to button combos.

Are you tired of the overly blocky graphics created by playing retro games on an HD screen? If so the shaders feature can help you out by applying a graphical filter to upgrade the rendering of older games, making them almost resemble vector graphics (see screenshot below). You can even go the other way and replicate the look of your chosen retro game on a CRT screen. Now that’s nostalgia in stereo!

Ever continued playing an Xbox One game despite the fact that you’ve completed the story mode, just so you can unlock more achievements? Well now, by linking RetroArch up to your RetroAchievements account you can now setup and unlock achievements on all your retro games.

Retro gaming, online? How is this possible? Well I don’t know the technical answer to that I’m afraid. All I know that it is possible through RetroArch. Imagine playing Mario Kart 64 with 3 other friends and having room on the couch. Or experiencing a game of Worms Armageddon that doesn’t end in a fight as no one is in the same room? What an age we live in.

Recording and Streaming
If like me you’re too embarrassed to reveal your retrogaming incompetence to the masses, then this feature probably won’t interest you. However there are many individuals out there with the confidence and talent to impress many with their nostalgic video gaming abilities. These people would surely be eager to make use of RetroArch’s ability to record their gaming sessions so that they may show them off to their friends at a later date. They may even have the courage to stream their sessions live on Youtube for all the world to see… Rather you than me.

Select individual emulators for each rom
With the vast array of different emulators at your disposal in RetroArch, you can afford to be picky. That’s why if a particular ROM doesn’t work very well with one emulator, you can simply choose another one from the list to see if it functions any better. Once a particular emulator is selected for a ROM it becomes the default for that game, unless the user decides to change it again.

Next-frame response time
What the fiddle-sticks is this I hear you say. Well, if you’ve ever used emulators in the past you may have noticed that on some, there is a distinct lag between your controller input to the response on screen. This is not the case when playing through RetroArch as it is capable of next-frame response time, meaning that there should be nearly no difference in input latency from the real hardware.

The beauty of RetroArch shaders

What Systems Can I Play Using RetroArch?

With RetroArch you have the potential to access a huge number of systems. The initial install of RetroArch does not include any emulators so it’s up to you to select which ones you want to install from the list and then link to a folder (on your machine or on an external storage device) containing the ROMs which are compatible with that emulator.

Looking at the extensive list of emulators, it’s clear to see how many options are available to you. Basically cores are available for every system that was released up to the PS2 and Original Xbox. The reason emulators for the latter aren’t available yet is due to the fact that they have not been truly perfected yet. In many cases you have the option of multiple cores for each system. If you find that a specific ROM doesn’t run particularly well on one emulator, try another one to see if you have more luck.

Remember though, the type of ROMs you can play depend on the specs of the machine that you are running RetroArch on. For example if you were running RetroArch on an mobile phone with the Ice Cream Sandwich operating system (Android v4.0) then the most advanced system that you would hope to run would be something like a Sega Megadrive or SNES. On the other hand if you are running RetroArch on a high end Windows 10 PC then you shouldn’t have any issues running systems such as the N64 or Sega Saturn.

See below for a list of popular systems to play on RetroArch, along with their recommended emulators.

SystemBest Emulator to Use
NES Bnes or QuickNES
SNESHigan Accuracy or Snes9x
Nintendo 3DSCitra
Nintendo Gamecube/WiiDolphin
Sega Game Gear,
Sega Master System,
Sega Megadrive/Genesis,
Sega Mega CD
Genesis Plus GX
(this emulator can run all 4 systems)
Sony PlaystationBeetle PSX

What Platforms Can I Run RetroArch On?

To be honest there’s not many systems that RetroArch can’t run on these days. From Windows to Mac to Android to IOS it seems that RetroArch has got you covered regardless of what obscure out of date platform you have selected for your gaming interests. You can even run RetroArch on the more modern games consoles. One thing to take into consideration is that the less powerful the machine, the less likely it is that you will be able to play the more resource demanding ROMs such as those on the N64. See the table below for a complete list of supporting platforms.

RetroArch Supporting Platforms
10, 8, 7, Vista, XP, 2000, ME, 98SE, 98 & 95
XboxNintendo Wii
LinuxXbox OneNintendo Wii U
Raspberry PiPS2Nintendo Switch
Apple macOS / OSXPS3Nintendo Gamecube
Apple macOS High Sierra (and later) with Metal2PS4Nintendo 3DS/2DS
AndroidPSPWeb browsers

Where Can I Get RetroArch From?

As mentioned before RetroArch is an open source application and is therefore free for anyone to download and install.

Where Can I Get ROMs From?

Out of the box, RetroArch does not come with any ROMs installed so it is up to you to find these yourself. There are many resources for ROMs available on the internet ranging from download sites to torrents. A simple Google search for something like ‘Megadrive ROMs’ will reveal a whole host of collections available to you. It is recommended however that you use caution when downloading files from an untrusted site as many ROM files come packaged with virus’ which can infect your computer. Be sure to research any site you are downloading from and make sure you have decent antivirus software installed with up to date definitions.

Is RetroArch Legal?

Emulators themselves are perfectly legal. They do not contain any proprietary code and so do not infringe on copyright laws. ROMs on the other hand are a different kettle of fish.

Downloading a ROM when you don’t own an original cartridge is illegal as it violates copyright law, however the legal details on this are sketchy if you actually own the original game. Either way, at the time of writing there hasn’t been a case of an individual being prosecuted for such infringements it’s not a huge issue to be concerned about.

If your plan is to download emulators and ROMs in order to sell them on then I would definitely advise against it. In these circumstances it is very likely that you will be prosecuted for such actions as you will be profiting from your sales and the big development companies will not look too kindly on this. You may initially receive a cease and desist message but this will quickly be followed by criminal charges.

I should stress that I am not a lawyer and this should not be taken as legal advice.

So, To Sum Up

So that’s RetroArch in a nutshell. I would certainly say that it is my favourite method for playing retro games on my PC. There are certainly a lot of other options out there but I find that the ease of use that RetroArch provides makes it a must use application if you’re passionate about your retro gaming.

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