A little over a year ago, I got around to trying RetroArch, a frontend for numerous game emulators, on the Xbox Series X. Despite bugs and some frustrations, the Series X proved to be a viable option for running hobbyist emulation software through this nifty program. And although I do not primarily use my Xbox console for emulation, I did want to come back and see how the small emulation scene on Xbox has grown, and what better way to do that then to load up RetroArch once again, a year later, and see if the hoops to emulate games on my Series X are worth it.
Just a heads up, this is not a guide on how to get RetroArch or other software on your Xbox console. Not because emulation is illegal (it is not), but because guides can go out of date quickly and making one goes beyond the scope of this article. YouTube and the rest of the World Wide Web is your friend!
Is the Sun Shining Any Brighter Now?
When I first tried out RetroArch on the Series X, I was impressed. For the most part, 3D retro games ran fairly well, and smashed everything out of the park where performance was concerned. Naturally, when you have the specs of the most powerful console on the market, performance for hobbyist emulators years in the making would be the last thing you would expect to worry about! So, it is just that—instead of performance, you have plenty of bugs to deal with. If it isn’t accuracy issues with the emulated software, you’re constantly crashing back to the dashboard. If it isn’t the limited space you had to put up with, it’s the cumbersome way of managing emulator files on a system that was never really designed to give you freedom to do what you want with it.
While I did have positive thoughts on using RetroArch on my console last year, it really wasn’t my preferred method of emulation. For most cases, it was simply easier to use a Raspberry Pi, a seldom used laptop, or even your phone. Sure, your phone might not be the ideal way to speedrun Shantae, it would at least have less stability issues compared to what you could run into on an Xbox. And even if you could deal with the bugs and quirks, file management eventually becomes very annoying. And because few would use their Xbox for emulation compared to the many other devices that support emulation, I did not expect RetroArch’s maintainers and the Xbox community to improve the Xbox user experience.
And so, a year later, I am happy to say that I was wrong about the whole support thing: RetroArch is a better experience now than it was one year ago. Setting up the frontend’s required assets takes much less time and has crashed much less than it used to. An active group of enthusiasts continue to make improvements to RetroArch for the rather surprisingly now large number of people interested in emulating their games on their Xbox consoles (that includes Xbox One consoles—Gods save them). There are still unfortunate quirks, and file management is still a pain in the butt, but it is perfectly useable.
For my testing, I loaded up some Nintendo DS, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 games. I’ve dumped from my collection over the years. DeSmuMe, the DS emulator, worked like a champ, and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time was running like a champ. Dolphin, the leading emulator for Wii and GameCube consoles, did its job with the likes of Super Smash Bros. Melee and F-Zero GX, although I have had a much better experience on my PC. PCSX2, the emulator for the beloved PlayStation 2, surprised me a lot. Besides accuracy issues and glitches, the Xbox had no trouble with the likes of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. Plenty of shovelware that I’ve the misfortune of owning, too… But I just can’t get myself to throw ’em away!
Nearly all cores have some sort of enhancements you could apply to the game image. Whether it’s postprocessing effects, internal resolution scaling (it essentially bumping the game’s image quality to a more modern standard, like 1080p), cheats that uncap a game’s framerate, force widescreen on older titles, create save states for those difficult games that love to reset your progress, and much more. For the most part, these work nicely on the Series X as well. Of course, issues crop up every now and again (primarily stability ones), but usually being just a bit patient is the key to those concerns.
Despite the issues, RetroArch does the job on the Series X. But I have actually found a lot more success with standalone emulator applications, such as PPSSPP, DuckStation, and Flycast. Three of which I found much more useable than RetroArch.
Jack of One Trade, Master of All
Now this isn’t a slight on RetroArch. The frontend emulator, for all intents and purposes, is amazing considering the number of emulators and other programs programmed into it, the many options to use said applications present, and the many devices RetroArch is available on. I just found its Xbox experience to be kind of subpar, and that’s the console’s fault—and yet isn’t, because officially it was never built for these kinds of things. But just as I was finishing up my time with RetroArch, I decided to give the Universal Windows Platform (“UWP”) ports of some popular emulators a shot, and I was simply stunned by how well they performed.
PPSSPP, a PlayStation Portable emulator, has a UWP port available that works on Xbox. It functions identically to the PC and Android versions, from what I could tell. Cheat, game management, and options to adjust the look of the game being played worked like a charm. Flycast, a Dreamcast, too, worked like a dream. And DuckStation, a very modern PlayStation One emulator worked amazingly well, although unlike the former emulators, this one requires the user to dump their own copy of the PSx BIOS files.
These were my preferred choices of emulation on the console. While RetroArch covers so many consoles thanks to its designed flexibility with cores, but it was just so much easier to use the standalone emulators. Stability is key for gameplay, and although RetroArch on Xbox is one of the better versions out there (huge shoutout to the UWP developers and contributors here), it can still be hit or miss on the 3D retro titles which are heavier on resources. On the bright side, 2D cores handle like a dream on the Series X, and the frontend makes it easy for me to sort my games, so I will continue to use it and eventually beat Mario Vs. Donkey Kong. Seven year-old me will be proud.
Why Look to the Past?
This is my second article on hobbyist emulation on the Xbox platform. A low number to mention, but I bring it up in light of the recent Xbox Backwards Compatibility program news. Effectively, doors have been closed on the program, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be opened again. Phil Spencer also went on record saying he hopes to have “an industry we’d work on legal emulation that allowed modern hardware to run (within reason) older executable allowing someone to play any game.”
In essence, it’s very likely the team hit a roadblock with how they can deliver backwards compatible both physically and digitally. I would have to assume that Microsoft didn’t want a console (the Series S) to be locked out of a subsection of games, as newer titles might have been more likely to work via physical media only. Though I can only surmise that because the final batch of games released with this announcement had a good chunk of disc-only games.
With the backwards compatibility team moving on to other parts of the Xbox ecosystem, this leaves a lot of Xbox 360 and basically the entire original XBox catalogue stuck on consoles that are dying of capacitor decay, disc drive failures, the whole shebang. It’s old kit, and all efforts to save the game libraries and the consoles themselves are being done entirely by people who love these boxes. Be assured that, without legal precedence, console manufacturers would fight off these project tooth and nail, and now more than ever so that ports and remasters can be churned on a once-in-a-while basis. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, at the pace we’re going, entire game libraries could be lost to time, if not already.
Though I have to give credit where it is due: Without remasters, good luck finding a copy of popular games. Seriously, the prices can be outrageous. On one hand, it’s comforting to know that I can sell my copy of Gale of Darkness if I hit rock bottom and needed to make my car payment. On the other hand, for the average Joe, going back to old games via emulation just isn’t viable because of these prices. And that’s where a remaster or even a remake would come in handy. Unfortunately expecting Gale of Darkness to get a remaster is like expecting a sequel to F-Zero GX. Even worse, if a remaster is digital only, nothing is stopping the storefront from eventually shutting down. There’s no winning here.
Video games are one of the coolest mediums on the planet, and the work it takes to deliver those memorable games is both amazing and frighteningly health-impacting. To think that all that hard work could be lost to time is maddening to me. As I spend the current year focusing primarily on retro games, I will be jumping between real hardware and back to the emulators that are playable on my Xbox Series X. This won’t be the last time I talk about RetroArch on Xbox—we’re gonna see what homebrew has in store for us in 2022.