Retro Gaming, the Easy Way!

I’ve mentioned before I’m not much of a gamer. It isn’t that I don’t think modern games are amazing and fun. It’s just that I don’t have time for gaming. I have a full time job and a family, and the idea of sitting down and playing a game for hours on end doesn’t even cross my mind.

Still, like so many people who grew up during the “Nintendo Age” of video games…NES, SNES, N64, etc…when I think back to playing those games, I get a little misty-eyed.  mario-1998595_1280Over the years I’ve tried various methods for getting some of these older games running in a practical way on modern hardware. Some have produced less-than-enjoyable results. RetroPie on a Raspberry Pie is fully functional, but struggles with many of the games (at least my first gen Pi). Other methods were amazing at the outset but proved too cumbersome to set up and maintain (I’m looking at you Hyperspin).

I wasn’t necessarily looking to build myself an arcade cabinet, I just wanted a way to be able to play and enjoy some of my old games without the need for a standalone box, and with a simple but functional interface.  Mario and his friends have always held a special place in my heart.  Earthwom Jim was a blast at the time. And I was dying to try a few games I’d missed when they were originally around, like one of the all time classic SNES games…Boogerman!

boogerman-a-pick-and-flick-adventure-usa
You thought I made that up, didn’t you…

After a bit of Googling, I came across the Reborn Remix build of Libreelec. It’s based on XXXX of Libreelec, with the addition of Retroarch, Emulation Station, and the requisite emulators for most of the older consoles.

If you’re interested in trying this build, you can get started here.  After reading through the various FAQs and disclaimers, you’ll be able to download the appropriate image for whatever hardware you’re going to be using.

Once you have the image, you can use an image writing utility like LiLo to make yourself a bootable USB stick. From that point, the install process is the same as for the official Libreelec release; boot to the USB stick, select where you want to install it, remove the stick, and reboot.

The Reborn Remix looks very much like standard Libreelec, but has a few additional menu options, the most important for my purposes being Emulation Station.  It starts with the same wizard, too.

Hardware

When it comes to retro gaming, hardware matters.  I originally started this as a way to find a use for my Intel Compute Stick. I’ve had it for years, but haven’t had much for it to do. While the concept is cool, Compute Stick’s limited memory, slow storage, and single USB port make it impractical as a Windows system. I thought retro gaming would be a better assignment for the tiny device that could disappear behind a TV. I was wrong. intel-compute-stick-largeWhile it was easy enough to install the build, and the addition of a USB hub gave me enough ports, Compute Stick’s performance with anything other than NES games was disappointing.  I tried some SNES and N64 games on it, and none played well. In fact, the painfully slow animation made game play impossible.  It seems the Atom CPU just couldn’t handle much in the way of emulation. My compute stick is a first generation, so it’s possible later models handle emulation better. But this one wasn’t up to the task.

IMG_20181204_185503129
Also, it only stays small if you don’t plug anything in.

So I switched to a NUC6CAYS system to see how it fared. It played every game I tried beautifully.nuc6cays

I would speculate that the vast majority of NUCs would have no issues at all with game emulation. It didn’t hurt that it comes with plenty of USB ports, as I was planning to use two controllers for some red-hot head-to-head Super Mario match-ups.

Sound

One advantage this build has over other retro gaming builds is it’s configured to use the  sound output device you’ve selected in Kodi as the default for the emulators.  Other builds require you to use aplay to identify your sound device, then manually edit your /.config/asound.conf file and add it there. Kind of a pain, and it can be a bit of a guessing game.

Reborn did still need a couple of steps to make the sound work smoothly, though. When I initially tried to play games, they all worked but had no sound. A little Googling found a suggestion that I change a couple of settings in Kodi. I’m not sure why, but that did the trick.  Here’s what I had to do:

 

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Hey, whatever works, right?

Games

Adding games in this build is as simple as copying the rom files into the right folders. This can be done using Samba or through the File Manager in Kodi. I found the Samba method a bit easier, but if you have a lot of games to copy, plugging a USB stick into your system and using File Manager might be a bit faster.

To use Samba to copy games: on another computer, connect to \\[name] or \\[IP Address]. This will show a number of folders. Find the ‘rom’ folder. Within, you’ll find sub-directories for the different consoles.  You’ll want to copy the roms into the appropriate folders (i.e. copy Nintendo Entertainment System roms into the ‘nes’ folder.

Let’s get something out of the way: roms are a touchy subject.  As I understand it, you’re only allowed to use roms for games you actually own.  Fortunately, I frequent thrift stores, and have found several cartridges for old games.  It seems like the rules about roms are a little fluid, what with all the retro gaming builds out there. Anyway, proceed at your own risk.

Emulation Station

Once your games are copied into their appropriate folders, you can start Emulation Station. I prefer Emulation Station to other retro game menus because it a) looks great, 2) automatically sorts your games, and d) is easy to use (hey, it’s Christmas).

When Emulation Station comes up, all of your games should be listed automatically in separate groups for each console.

Before you can play, you’ll need to set up your input. If you’re planning on using your keyboard…well then you’re missing out on some of the nostalgia. If you have a USB controller, you’ll be closer to the old-timey feel. Either way, you’ll want to select Input from the Emulation Station menu and follow the prompts to pick which keys/buttons do what. I happened to have an old Logitech game controller (been sitting in a box for about 5 years) that fit the bill nicely.

logitech game controller
Way too many buttons for me.

Once that’s done, you can select a game from the main screen and get to playing.  As I mentioned, your experience will vary depending on your hardware. Running on the original Intel Compute Stick I found the NES games were exactly as I remembered. Some of the SNES games were too, but others struggled. And when I got to N64 games…that’s when things became unplayable.

On the NUC6CAYS, all games played as though they were on their original consoles.

One thing I did find frustrating…and this is probably my lack of experience…was exiting games. For some reason, when I hit the hot key to exit the game, instead of returning me to Emulation Station, I was dumped into the Retroarch menu. From there I could exit, but that put me back at the main Kodi screen. To try another game, I had to open Emulation Station again and start over. A little annoying, but I’m sure there’s a way around it. I just haven’t been playing with this build long enough to stumble across it.

The Quick List

So, to summarize the ultra-simple steps I used to get this going, here’s a list:

  1. Download the Reborn Remix build
  2. Use Lilo to create a bootable USB stick from the Reborn image
  3. Boot your device from the USB stick
  4. Install as you would any Libreelec build
  5. Reboot the system into Libreelec and go through the setup wizard
  6. Click the gear button, go to System Settings, select Advanced, then go to Audio and set ‘Play GUI Sounds’ to Never and ‘Keep audio device alive’ to Off
  7. On another computer, connect to \\YourServerName\roms and copy your rom files into the appropriate folders
  8. Open Emulation Station and configure your input device(s)
  9. Get to gaming!

One Last Thing

I was at my local Dollar Tree the other day and they had a display of wall clings. You’ll never guess what one of them was:

IMG_20181208_115721494

I had to snag that up. I’ve experimented with printing my own clings for NUC lids, and I’d considered doing that again for this one. But when you find something for a dollar that’s exactly what you were going to do yourself, it’s hard to pass up.  I think it looks nice & retro. Hardly perfect, but fun nonetheless.

IMG_20181208_124826063
Try THAT on a compute stick!

 

Overall, I love the Reborn Remix build. It gives me a relatively easy way to get set up for retro gaming, while still having all the functionality of Kodi and Libreelec.  This setup could easily find a home in my living room, running as my home theater PC for watching, and my retro gaming rig for playing.

I recommend you check it out if old games are your thing.

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I'm a self-described technology nut, as well as a writer. That means the only thing I love more than learning about and playing with new technology is writing about it! Techster means "one who techs", and that's me!

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