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 ANDROID FEATURE

Getting to grips with Android emulator app RetroArch

One emulator to rule them all - but is it any good?
Product: RetroArch Android | Developer: Libretro
 
RetroArch Android Android, thumbnail 1
Android has been popular with fans of emulation for a good few years now, thanks largely to the fact that Google doesn't impose the same strict rules on app developers that Apple does.

Although emulators have been known to vanish from the Google Play market from time to time, the vast majority remain in place and ready to download at a moment's notice.

They also come with some surprisingly steep price tags, which is quite cheeky when you consider many of them are simply rough-and-ready ports of existing free PC-based programs.

RetroArch is an attempt to do something a little different. Instead of emulating just a single platform, it covers 18 different systems - although strictly speaking, two of those - Cave Story and Doom - are simply interpreters for individual games.

Consoles such as the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Sega Mega Drive (and its ill-fated Mega CD add-on), Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo Entertainment System all make the cut, and you can run them all from the same application - quite an achievement.

Having dabbled in Android-based emulation previously, we decided to go hands-on with RetroArch to see whether it really is a one-stop answer to retro gaming - or merely a jack of all trades and master of none.



The interface

The concept behind RetroArch is that the different emulation 'cores' - the individual emulators, essentially - all use the same interface. So no matter which emulator you're playing, the on-screen controls and basic menu appear exactly the same.

This uniformity is a big bonus, especially when you consider the many conflicting approaches taken by Android-based emulators when it comes to input and options settings.

From the main screen you also have access to an extensive range of settings, such as image filters, Bluetooth controller support, ROM pathways, and other elements.

Downloadable PDF guides are also accessible from this menu, and these do a reasonably robust job of explaining the finer points of each core, as well as offering hints on how to change the appearance of the on-screen controls (something which is a little more long-winded than most people will put up with).

During the game, you can call up a menu that controls elements such as save states, fast-forward control, and even slow-motion. You can also trigger real-time rewinding, allowing you to skip backwards in time if you happen to make a mistake in a game.

This feature is switched off by default and needs to be enabled in the settings menu before it will work. Rewinding is quite demanding on your device’s CPU, and reduces the overall emulation speed when in use - but it's a really useful feature all the same.



Emulation performance

Each core is based on a different emulator, and all of these have been taken from existing PC-based programs. As such, there's quite a large degree of difference between them - some function at almost full speed, while others are prone to slowdown, skipping audio, and other performance issues.

Even on the cores that are supposed to provide full-speed play on dual-core devices, we noticed skipping music and occasional jerkiness - despite the fact that we were running RetroArch on a quad-core Nexus 4.

There’s clearly some work to do here - a direct comparison with other standalone Android emulators reveals quite a large gap in overall speed and stability.

RetroArch doesn't come with any ROMs, so you'll have to source those yourself. If you're already a keen Android retro gamer then chances are you’ll have amassed quite a selection already, but if not you should be aware that the distribution and downloading of ROMs is still considered quite a shady practice.

Many classic titles have seen been made available by their copyright holders for modern-day systems - in fact, companies like Sega, Square Enix, and Konami are making their past classics available for consumption on mobile platforms, such as iOS and Android.

You really should consider supporting such ventures before browsing the web for a free - but shady - download.

Once you’ve actually got some ROMs, getting them loaded up is a painless experience. All RetroArch asks is that you point it to the right location on your device's internal storage.

There are some niggles with getting PlayStation titles to run - most PlayStation emulators require a copy of the system BIOS, which - like a ROM - is copyrighted material.

The PlayStation core used in RetroArch is designed to circumvent this issue, but you might find some titles refuse to load unless you also have the BIOS in your ROM folder. Mercifully, all of the PlayStation games we tested loaded without complaint.



The verdict

The aim of RetroArch is something we can definitely get behind - having all your emulators in one place and linked to a clean, unified user interface is a brilliant idea. It's also pleasing to see the app provide such a large amount of customisation - something which is often missing from some of the emulators on the Google Play market.

We also approve of the developer's intention not to charge to download the app, and to keep it entirely free of adverts. As the team behind RetroArch clearly states, the emulators are supplied by their original developers under a non-commercial licensing agreement, which means no profit should ever be made from their distribution.

Having said all of that, RetroArch is clearly a work in progress. Some of the emulators included are badly in need of further optimisation, and have a long way to go before they reach the standard of standalone rivals such as Robert Broglia’s excellent MD.emu and PCE.emu.

Given time, we're sure they'll get there - the app has already been updated several times since launch, proving that the developer is committed to making it as polished as possible.

Emulation may still leave a bad taste in the mouths of some gamers, but should you find yourself in support of keeping retro gaming alive via ROMs and emulators then RetroArch is certainly worth a download.

It might take a while for it to truly hit its stride, but we're sure the wait will be worth it. If the developers behind this project can tidy up the overall performance then RetroArch could render all its competitors obsolete.
 

Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran 6 February 2013
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'Terry Marvin | 07:05 - 17 January 2014
curious: why dont these emu's have an option for downloading roms? legal?
Joined:
Oct 2013
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1
@shadowhacker000 | 00:01 - 28 October 2013
Oh, whats this flame war about? Something ridiculous? Thought so.
Joined:
Mar 2011
Post count:
33
alejobd | 09:11 - 12 February 2013
libreto:
I GAVE you my advice for FREE. I don't know then why you feel entitled to complain about it...
Have a nice day.
Joined:
Feb 2013
Post count:
5
@libretro | 16:35 - 11 February 2013
Steve3000:

'Obviously the majority of people who use Android emulators must "not know what they're talking about"....'

Your entire 'subscene' does not know what they are talking about - since you support a scamartist known as Broglia whose only claim to fame is ripping off emulator code he did not write himself, wrap an 'Imagine' frontend around it, and yet you all heap idiotic 'praise' on him for doing... exactly what?

'Wrong! It emulates PS1 poorly in comparison, that's on a Tegra3 phone and a dual core tablet. The compatibility is lower than both as well. '

Then how come it runs better on my Cortex A8 then vs. any of those two? Seriously, I don't want people like you to even use my software. Stick to your payware crap like ePSXe and FPSe if it makes you feel happier - I couldn't care the slightest.

'Maybe if you spent more time actually testing it and less time spamming forums with self-directed cheerleading you might get less people who view it as a secons class product and not one they would ever pay for.'

Only idiots are paying scamartists for emulators they did not even write themselves. But hey, if you think 'frameskipping' equals 'better performance', then we have nothing more to say to each other - idiots are going to be idiots.

Goodbye now (and really, let it be stated one more time - I DO NOT WANT YOU AS AN USER - I COULD NOT CARE THE SLIGHTEST). That must be difficult for you to understand, right? People who view 'emulation' as a commodity can go to hell for all I am concerned.
Joined:
Feb 2013
Post count:
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@libretro | 16:26 - 11 February 2013
' I must say that your attitude does not play well with those other intentions. '

My attitude is just perfectly fine - it is that way as well in every other scene where I have the very same 'app' available - people have learned to live with it.

' presume that you want to get your product widely used. If your product is perceived as inferior by the average user (I don't know for sure, just assume it is)'

You assume a whole lot indeed. I just find it hilarious because I have went through those emulators and honestly, I could not find a single one that ran decently on my Cortex A8 tablet (and yes, that includes Broglia's supposed 'excellent emus').

Also, you can 'perceive' things to be inferior all you want - it doesn't bother me the slightest - I do this stuff for free and I don't treat my 'app' or what i make as a 'product' - that must be news to you, but I'm not one of these 'Android hucksters' like the porter brethren you know that beg for donations or want to 'monetize their app'.

'Not giving the CHOICE to use frameskipping, because YOU don't like it/consider it "good enough" it is not (freedom of choice is THE basic freedom). '

It IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH, that is the entire point. If we can find a way to make it work without resulting in a lot of false positives, then we could do so - however, Android being the subpar and sub-realtime OS it is, that is not looking hopeful. The next version will have 'refresh rate calibration 'at least so that this will be less of an issue.

'Not giving the CHOICE to use frameskipping, because YOU don't like it/consider it "good enough" it is not (freedom of choice is THE basic freedom).'

If that is so, that is none of your business - I make the app, I decide the rules - and I decide against stuff that detracts from the flawless performance of my app. If you can set up your refresh rate properly AND if you can be arsed to read the documentation, then RetroArch will work wonders. IF you can't be arsed to do so, then you (and other people) will perceive it as 'inferior' and frankly, I could not give a damn less.

'So I encourage you to think about the goals you want to achieve with your project, and if you are acting accordingly. '

I encourage you to keep your opinion to yourself then instead of telling me on a Play Store 'drop the attitude' - especially when levelled at a guy who provides you with 14 and more cores for free - something nobody else in this scamartist world revolving around Android would even bother doing so in the first place.

Perhaps it is YOU then that should do the attitude adjustment instead - you feel entitled to stuff when you have exactly ZERO to feel entitled over.

And lastly, why should I feel concerned about people feeling my 'emulator ports' (and RetroArch is not only about emulation BTW) are 'inferior' 'to the competition' when 1) there is no competition, and 2) even on my underpowered Cortex A8 tablet, it has ran most games far better than any of Broglia's emus, and 3) this is all for free anyways and we return back to 'you have zero right to complain anyway - whether it is about the 'quality' or whether it is about my 'attitude'.

Seriously, lose the attitude yourself, OKthnx. Bye.
Joined:
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Post count:
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alejobd | 07:15 - 11 February 2013
libreto:
I didn't use your emulator yet, but I'll do it for sure. Even now, I appreciate your intention of bringing a free and convenient emulator "suite".
BUT...
Reading your comments, I must say that your attitude does not play well with those other intentions.
In the first place, I presume that you want to get your product widely used. If your product is perceived as inferior by the average user (I don't know for sure, just assume it is), it does not matter much if it is indeed a masterpiece, there is obviously something that can be done better... and blaming the ignorance (even if it was/is true) of the users, and saying that "it is not your problem" for sure it is not the solution.
Educating people is one of the solutions, and a very good thing to do, but doing it in a condescending way not.
Trying to convince people that zero frameskipping is achievable, and a lot better that frameskipping, is good. Not giving the CHOICE to use frameskipping, because YOU don't like it/consider it "good enough" it is not (freedom of choice is THE basic freedom).
So I encourage you to think about the goals you want to achieve with your project, and if you are acting accordingly.
Greetings.
Joined:
Apr 2011
Post count:
15
Steve3000 | 10:37 - 10 February 2013
Yeah, what a nice condescending and insulting post! You can try and say your emulators are better than everyone else's but try doing that on retro forums, see what they think of RetroArch there..... I can assure you most users think it's below par.

Obviously the majority of people who use Android emulators must "not know what they're talking about".....

What I have found by ACTUALLY USING RETROARCH is that less games run, those that do are often problematic. You can harp on about the technical details that make it "better" but the patchy performance speaks for itself, at the moment RetroArch feels like several half finished ports cobbled together.

Your claim about PS1 emulation is hilarious. Both FPse and ePSXe run more games much more smoothly than RetroArch. I have both those emulators installed on my devices as well as RetroArch, so surely by your claims I would be using RetroArch right?

Wrong! It emulates PS1 poorly in comparison, that's on a Tegra3 phone and a dual core tablet. The compatibility is lower than both as well.

I know all about refresh rates thank you very much, I have been using emulators for years and am perfectly capable of setting up whatever device I am using. Trying to undermine other posters and insult their intelligence because they don't quite value your product as highly as you do is idiotic.

It's hilarious how you are so keen to slander other developers (who's emulators are light years ahead of yours at the moment) yet you yourself can't take the slightest bit of constructive criticism. Are you actually 14?

Perhaps you shouls try concentrating on getting a few emulators right before trying to do everything at once, I'm sure something which emulates a few consoles with near perfection would be preferable to most people than RetroArch in it's current state.

Currently the only person I see vehemently defending RetroArch and claiming it to be better in any way than the current crop of Android emulators is you - the developer. Go on forums, read people's actual experiences.

Maybe if you spent more time actually testing it and less time spamming forums with self-directed cheerleading you might get less people who view it as a secons class product and not one they would ever pay for.
Joined:
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@libretro | 21:09 - 9 February 2013
Steve3000:


just not particularly well executed.


You have no idea what you are talking about.


I have other emulators (paid for and free) that run games faster with better frames and much greater compatibility.


You once again don't know what you're talking about - so you should stop posting this as if it were fact and actually try to find out the cause of your problem.

If you were right and if all these other paid emulators and free were so much better performing than RetroArch, then how come RetroArch with FBA is the ONLY emu on my crappy Cortex A8 single-core tablet that has a snowball's chance in hell of actually running CPS2 games at fullspeed? (NOTE - that is AT FULLSPEED - ZERO FRAMESKIP).

Because I can assure you no other single Android emulator (frontend or official) does that right now on the App Store - go ahead and list me the name, you won't be able to find it. Same thing for PS1 - neither FPSe or ePSXe will match PCSX ReARMed with RetroArch Android there on my underpowered tablet.

So here is what it comes down to -

See my post below about refresh rates - you're expected to know how to set it up in case your device lies about its screen's refresh rate (and they do - a lot of times - including a lot of companies you consider to be 'top tier').

RetroArch will refuse to ever succumb to frameskipping. You might not notice it - but I do and I refuse to play any game that resorts to frameskipping. That's why those 'other emus' appear to be 'better' to you while RetroArch appears to be 'worse' to you- because your device reports a wrong refreshrate and you are expected to set a 'locked refreshrate'.

Once again, if you don't know what a refreshrate and why it matters to overall emulation performance - that is your problem - but don't misequate that with 'the emulators need better optimization' - no, your device is sold by a manfacturer who doesn't want the world to see what its screen's actual refresh rate is (since it's likely to be much, much lower than what the marketing would have you believe) and hence why you're into this situation where you have to 'manually' set up the real refresh rate of the screen in RetroArch to get decent performance out of it. That other emulators take the lazy route out and just use frameskipping (which apparently you don't notice) is once again your problem, not mine.

And in case you will argue the contrary - once again I will point to that Cortex A8 single-core tablet outperforming both Broglia's and other emus.
Joined:
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Post count:
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Steve3000 | 17:42 - 9 February 2013
RetroArch is good for a feebie, I don't think I'd pay for any of these emulators as a standalone purchase however they are useful if you are low on funds and the idea is a good one, just not particularly well executed.


I play a lot of retro emulation from NES up to N64, using a dedicated Android gaming tablet and a Tegra 3 phone. I can honestly say that even though RetroArch is installed on both of them it never gets any use, I have other emulators (paid for and free) that run games faster with better frames and much greater compatibility.

Appreciate the effort and hopefully in the future I'll be able to uninstall all the others with their different interfaces and just have RetroArch on there.
Joined:
Feb 2013
Post count:
5
@libretro | 21:55 - 6 February 2013
'Even on the cores that are supposed to provide full-speed play on dual-core devices, we noticed skipping music and occasional jerkiness - despite the fact that we were running RetroArch on a quad-core Nexus 4.'

I think this part should be explained better by me in the manuals -

RetroArch Android uses static syncing. If you notice any skipping music or 'jerkiness' - rest assured it's not our code - it's likely that your device reports a wrong refreshrate to the OS (Android in this case). For instance, certain devices have refresh rates below 60Hz - the Note 2 is an example of that. Now, to get any decent audio and video out of any application, you will have to synchronize the game's refresh rate with that of your screen - if the refresh rate cannot be properly synchronized, you will get bad audio pops and video glitchiness.

The problem is that a good many Android devices 'report' the wrong refresh rate to Android. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is known for doing this - it reports a 60Hz refresh rate when it isn't (the Note 2 for instance has a 58Hz screen but at least reports it correctly). So, because it 'reports' a wrong refresh rate, the option 'Synchronize refresh rate to screen' will not yield good results.

What you should try instead on your Nexus 4 is to go with manual syncing - turn off 'Synchronize refresh rate to screen' and set "Forced refresh rate (Hz)' - start at 59.94/59.95. If it still audio pops/crackles, lower the value until you hit a sweet spot.

Unfortunately, there is no easier way to do this right now - if the vendor reports the refresh rate correctly, then 'Sync refreshrate to screen' will work like a charm - if not, you have to mess around with 'Forced refresh Rate'.

We are experimenting with attempting to read the REAL refresh rate of the screen programmatically, but the deviations in framerates are still too bad for it to be useful. Android really is not an ideal platform for any kind of realtime gaming, and it really shows here.

Regardless, with a bit of experimentation you can get this right easily - I am running games on a single-core Cortex A8 device (1.2GHz - Allwinner A10) and I get no sound pops or any video glitchiness at all in most cores. So this is entirely a refresh rate issue that you can overcome easily on most devices by doing what I state above.

The reason why you most likely are not experiencing these problems on Broglia's emus is because he is using frameskipping and unfortunately it seems like some people can't tell the difference between 'jerky frameskipping' and solid 'zero frameskip' gameplay - the difference actually is rather huge, and this is one of the reasons why I am reluctant to add frameskipping anytime soon.
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