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The Munificent Musings Of A Maniacal Mammal

My progressive use of video games pretty much stopped around the turn of the century (still feels weird to say that about the year 2000 rather than 1900). As a kid of the 80s (born in 1975), I grew up during the birth of video games. I played plenty of arcade machines, but of course I also played a lot of games on the home consoles of the early era. My most formative and early home video game experiences were via the Bally Astrocade console, which is an overlooked, underappreciated console (with what is arguably the most unique controllers ever designed for a console). I did plenty of gaming on the Atari 2600 and was a big Atari fan all the way up through the end (I had a 5200, 7800, Jaguar and even a Lynx). But the consoles I probably spent more hours on than any other were the Colecovision, then the Sega Master System and then my beloved TurboGrafx-16. Unlike most kids of my era, I didn’t play much on the NES (I never actually owned one, and was much more loyal to the Sega Master System). I did, however, have an SNES that I quite liked. I would say that my video gaming days kinda ended with the original Playstation, with it being the last console I had that I used heavily. And while I had an original XBox that got a bit of use, the last console I ever owned was a PS2. It was during that era where I kinda just stopped playing video games, for a variety of reasons.

“Retro” video games from the early years of the industry just tend to be more of my kind of thing. For one thing, if a video game involves a plot or story, I have no interest in it. I’m an arcade shooter and puzzle game kinda person. If I can’t just fire it up for 10 minutes and play it and walk away, then it’s not my type of game (so you can see how “quarter eating” arcades were right up my alley). In the years since I dropped out of playing video games, I have gone down the rabbit hole a number of times with emulation of old retro consoles and arcade games. I played around with MAME during its formative years. I messed around with individual emulators for various systems. A half dozen years ago I played around with RetroPie and spent a moderate amount of time on that platform, including assembling massive sets of ROMs, etc. I had an 8BitDo NES30 bluetooth gamepad that kinda worked (though it had sucky bluetooth range). It’d been a few years since I’d messed around on the RetroPie at all, and hadn’t even had it hooked up.

I do follow a couple YouTube channels that are heavily retro emulator related, including the great ETA Prime (though I mainly follow that channel for all the unique hardware he tests and presents). In a rare case of YouTube’s related video list recommending something that became quite the project and distraction, it suggested a video comparing a few of the modern retro gaming emulation OS platforms, including a couple newer ones I hadn’t heard of (Recalbox, Batocera, etc). It wasn’t a particularly great video, but it was enough to spark my interest. And that, of course, led me down the rabbit hole of other videos all about the platforms and hardware and all that.

I happened to have a Raspberry Pi 4B laying around from a previous project. Since it wasn’t doing anything, I decided to do some messing around of my own with the various platforms, including the latest RetroPie. After screwing around with various stuff on and off for a couple weeks, I came to a few conclusions.

  • It’s great to see some competing platforms helping push each other into cool new directions
  • That I just wasn’t very fond of the 8BitDo NES30 controller I had, not just for its temperamental bluetooth, but it was never ergonomically one I liked too much.
  • That ROM sets are as much an art as a science
  • That of the platforms I messed with (RetroPie, Recalbox, Batocera and Lakka), Batocera was the one that won me over.

All the platforms have their own list of pros and cons, of course. If you’re a hardcore emulation nerd, RetroPie is probably still the best, as you can really get into its guts and tweak an insane amount of stuff. On the flipside as a result of that, the guts of RetroPie can be kinda daunting. And, to be honest, too many settings are still too buried deep in the unfriendly levels of its guts. Lakka was one of those little footnotes that kinda just has that “well, this has potential, I suppose” feel to it. I didn’t mess with it much, as I had more problems with it than the others, and I just didn’t get the best vibe from it, personally. Having been pretty familiar with RetroPie already, I didn’t spent a lot of time in it, mostly just looking to see what had changed (not much). Recalboox and Batocera were the ones I spent the most time with. While I was playing with Recalbox, I had determined that I did prefer it over RetroPie. Once I’d kicked the tires on it a fair amount, I switched to the final one I wanted to play with, which was Batocera. Quite frankly, it didn’t take too long for me to come to the conclusion that it was going to be my final choice. I won’t go into all the reasons, as its just too much for me to want to try and break down. Don’t get me wrong, all of these have things they do better than the others. Batocera just ended up being the one I liked best.

One of the things Batocera did a good job with was connecting to a share on my unRAID server for not just the ROM library, but also for its game save and BIOS folders. It’s the only thing in Batocera where I had to dive into a config file for modifications (though it’s only a few lines to change to make it work). Once I made that change, it works great with using the ROM library on my unRAID server. Which makes the Pi4B unit running Batocera simple a front end device, much like something like Kodi, my HTPC app of choice, would be for an HTPC (interestingly, a unique thing about the Batocera OS is that it actually bakes Kodi into it natively – and is actually a feature I haven’t messed with as yet).

Once I had settled on Batocera as my new platform of choice, I decided I wanted to make a couple hardware changes. For starters, there was the question of if I wanted to stick with my Pi4B, because the Batocera OS can be just as easily installed on any x86/x64 type PC hardware. Incidentally, the Batocera site has a nice compatibility reference table as to what hardware is capable of running which systems. I looked into getting a small form factor machine or refurbed major OEM type thing, as that would let me run even newer console platform emulation, but for now I decided to just stick with the Pi4B. I may switch to better PC hardware at some point, but at least it would be very easy to switch, as all the ROMS and such are on the unRAID server, so it would be pretty easy to just switch to new hardware for the Batocera front end itself. Having decided to stick with the Pi4B for now, one thing I wanted to change was the case I had for it, which I didn’t like. I didn’t put in too much research into the one I got as a replacement, the Miuzei Raspberry Pi 4 Case, but ended up quite liking it. The “7-layer cake” approach that the case uses takes a bit to put together, but is quite unique (if you get one, don’t use the print instructions – go straight to the assembly video on its Amazon page). I also decided that I was gonna ditch the old 8BitDo NES30 controller and did a bit of searching. I got a bit of a deal on 8BitDo’s new “Ultimate Wireless Controller”, which so far I love. Though it has a big brother version that includes bluetooth, I went with the lower model that uses a 2.4ghz USB receiver, which so far has flawless, excellent range. The higher model would have been twice the price of the deal I got on the lower one. I’ve been perfectly happy with the one I got so far and quite like it. Highly recommended.

I’ve been working at rebuilding my collection of ROMS. I’m currently preferring what are referred to “1G1R” sets, which stands for “1 Game, 1 ROM”. Rather than having a bunch of versions and dumps and clones of games, it boils it down to the main/best version of each. These sets are still overkill for what I prefer, so I may do some weeding eventually. There are some other approaches to the sets, including “all killer, no filler” ones, which is what I’ve currently gone with for MAME, because the MAME rom sets are insanely overkill. The ROM collection is certainly a work in progress, but it coming along nicely, including rather huge libraries of optical based systems like the Playstation and Dreamcast. Batocera is doing a good job at adding in support for more and more systems, including surprisingly modern ones. The official site also has a nice reference list to all supported systems with notes about each, including supported ROM file formats and so on. At some point, I may upgrade beyond the Pi 4B to something with more power, which should be pretty easy with Batocera, since the rom and meta stuff is on my storage server and the Batocera system is simply a front end. Anyway, here’s the official trailer for the most recent version of Batocera at the time of this writing (version 36).

And here’s a video listing out all the systems supported in the current version 36…

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