Archive for the 'Tech' Category


RetroPie All-In-One Emulator

The Raspberry Pi is a small, low cost, USB powered computer that’s become popular with DIY enthusiasts, programmers, and increasingly more often, gamers.  Even the Pi, a computer with a fraction of the processing power of today’s smart phones is capable of running games through the fourth generation of consoles, and from personal computers of the same period.  For some, emulation is nothing new.  There are many programs for emulating games on virtually anything with a CPU available today.  It’s a hobby that can require a bit of technical skill and willingness to dig around in the guts of the games and software, and patience to try and play these games using a keyboard interface or to configure a controller for each emulator you wish to run.  On top of all that, there’s just something that’s not the same about trying to play a SNES game on a computer monitor.

For myself, a lot of the caveats to playing games on an emulator were mitigated by using home brew programs on the Wii.  They were ready to use with a controller, could be easily played on your TV and were all tuned to work perfectly with the Wii hardware.  But the Wii is outdated hardware that will soon require emulation to be run itself.  And it also required a hack to even begin running home brew software.   To be a bit of a nit-picker, it was also kind of a pain to have to jump through so many menus to start playing a game.  For some, it’s still a viable route to enjoying games that either don’t have a modern platform to replay on or are prohibitively priced.  There are a ton of great games out there that may not be on the radar for the companies who own the IP, or are unable to re-release them due to licensing issues.  There’s no reason why today’s gamers shouldn’t be able to access and preserve these games in a way that most closely approximates their original form.  The RetroPie project makes this real in a way that’s low-cost and accessible.

Lifehacker has put together a step by step guide on how to load and configure the software on a Raspberry Pi.  While there’s still some need for technical know-how and patience in configuring the controller and ROMs, the end result is something that looks and feels like the real thing.  Not in the sense that a NES game is represented exactly as it was on the NES, but that firing it up and playing that game felt like it did back when I actually kept a NES console connected to a TV.  The USB SNES controller that Lifehacker recommends feels right as well.  There are certainly other controllers that will work with the RetroPie project (I have a PSOne controller with a USB adapter as well) but the USB SNES controller works well with all of the emulators I’ve tested.  So what exactly makes this different from other emulation solutions?

  1. One uniform piece of hardware: RetroPie and the embedded emulators are all designed to work with the same hardware.  There’s no guess work factoring in the operating system, other programs running at the same time, video cards, sound cards, etc.  It provides the same advantage that early consoles did: one architecture that everyone worked around.
  2. The emulators are baked in: This was one of my chief complaints regarding the Wii home brew solution.  It required installation of each emulator, individually.  And while the end result worked, having them all ready to roll with RetroPie is even better.  Just copy over your games and you’re ready to play.
  3. It boots into a game selection screen: This is probably my favorite feature of the project.  When you boot the Raspberry Pi, you don’t have to start emulators from a desktop or command line interface.  It immediate boots into a screen that allows you to select games with the controller.  Once the system is configured, you’ve got a console, not a computer.
  4. Configure the controller for everything: The controller is configured once on the first run in order to use it to browse menus, and then another time to configure it for every emulator on the system.  Then your done.  Or you can simply copy someone else’s controller config file and use it as your own.
  5. The entire system can be redistributed: One thing that I love about the Raspberry Pi is that the operating system is housed on an SD card.  Just swap in the one you want and it boots up straight away.  You can easily copy that SD card, give it to someone else, and everything will run exactly the same way as it did on your Pi.

I’ve been able to test out games running on the NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Genesis, all without any problems.  It’s capable of running consoles from later generations, but I’ve not attempted this myself, but I feel safe saying that running a PSOne game on the Pi is going to stretch its resources pretty thin.  For the fourth generation and earlier though, it’s great way for you to be able to preserve and share the experience of playing these earlier games.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get all the high scores in Kirby’s Pinball Land.



The Steambox is the most interesting console of the next generation


It’s been fun watching Sony antagonize Microsoft and it’s indecisive approach to the Xbox One.  I have never sat down and watched through an E3 press conference by Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.  Seeing Sony eat Microsoft’s lunch felt vindicating after years of contending with the growing complexity of DRM, DLC, and season passes.  What was best about these press conferences though is how each sought to reassure gamers that next generation consoles were going to cater to core audiences and not go off the deep end with motion controls, DRM, cell processors.  It felt that these press conferences were aimed at clearing the air of uncertainty (whether or not they were successful is another story.)  While the console industry has focused on not rocking the boat and trying to emulate the success of Steam and mobile platforms,  Valve will now be staking its claim in the living room in a way that really does feel worthy of being called “next gen.”

Around this time last year, I wrote a #BoRT post on the value of video game input as opposed to audio/visual output.  It’s been no secret that Gabe Newell has been looking at how the gaming experience can be improved with reduced latency and greater precision in gaming controllers, and that vision has come to fruition in the form of the Steam Controller.  It was Valve’s third announcement following SteamOS and the Steam Machine.  While the first two products expand Valve’s reach into the console gaming sphere, the Steam Controller is a more radical departure for PC gaming and console gaming.  There are some who are nervous about the lack of face buttons and joysticks.  Valve wants to assure us that the lack of tactile feedback from buttons and sticks will be compensated for through use of linear resonant actuators.  Instead of having the immediate feeling a button giving away under pressure, it appears players will instead be feeling the controller respond more programmatically.  From what I’ve read on it, the Steam Controller will make the nature of interaction with the controller part of a game’s design.

Of course, part of the attraction of having Steam in the living room is being able to tap into an existing library of games.  Valve once more attempts to reassure gamers that the Steam Controller is being designed with this in mind and will be providing legacy configurations that provide a natural experience while playing games designed for traditional controllers or the mouse and keyboard.  (If you’re interested in hearing a hand-on account of what the controller is like, check out this post by Tommy Refenes.)  And given the nature of Steam OS, you won’t be forced to use a Steam Controller to play games on the system.  Ultimately, the controller introduces a lot of potential, and uncertainty, in ways similar to motion controls in the previous generation.  I feel there’s more reason to be optimistic about the Steam controller though since it seems to be designed to empower designers rather than dictate to them as motion controls or the cell processor did.

There’s no guarantee that developers would jump on board with this new control scheme, and Valve would suffer little if their controller went the way of the Playstation Move.  But right now, the potential of the Steam Controller offers a much bigger step forward for games than the most recent console offerings by Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.  While those companies are trying to just catch up with the technology of the last 6 years, Valve is in a unique position to actually innovate rather than iterate.  Here’s hoping that it succeeds!

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