RetroArch And Emulation On Steam


In case you haven’t heard, RetroArch is coming to steam at the end of this month. I still can’t entirely believe it — game emulation right there on Steam. It’s kind of a big deal, but apparently it’s also not entirely unprecedented.

If you don’t know what RetroArch is, it’s not technically an emulator in and of itself. It’s more like a container or a front end for a bunch of video game emulators, which you download separately and install into it. It looks relatively friendly, has a wide array of features for running games however you want them, and offers a lot of elbow room for modding. Aside from emulators not even containing any code owned by game publishers or console manufacturers, not actually coming packaged with any emulators is probably what will allow RetroArch to even be on Steam.

And this isn’t even really the first emulator on Steam. You’ve got that VR NES emulator. If you ask me, the PC version of SEGA’s own SEGA Mega Drive and Genesis Collection already sort of counts. SEGA sells a few dozen Genesis games individually on Steam that are all actually just ROMs that run on a single emulator pre-packaged with any of them. The raw, unlocked ROMs are even sitting right there in the game files — I copied them out and ran them on RetroArch, which is pretty much the legal-sale-of-ROMs solution I want to see more game publishers try. SEGA really crossed the line for me when it added Steam Workshop to Mega Drive and Genesis Collection, allowing users to straight-up upload ROM hacks and in some cases entire separate obscure Genesis games to Steam.

I’ve seen cases of other old console games sold on Steam that are just ROMs running on open-source emulators. In RetroArch’s announcement liked above, it even suggests the possibility of working with game publishers to release old console games on Steam by running them through RetroArch.

If you really wanna get technical, a good chunk of the old school games on Steam (and GoodOldGames) are just MS-DOS ROMs running through DOSBOX. When I bought Doom and Quake on Steam I simply either copied out those ROMs and put them into emulators or source ports outside Steam, or I inserted the emulators and source ports into the Steam folders of those games. I’m pretty sure you could put them into RetroArch too.

The real reason this is a big deal though is because Steam’s back end essentially solves RetroArch’s biggest problem — setup.

Initially setting up RetroArch, keeping it updated, and customizing the controls are such a pain as to discourage me from even using it for a while. Since the last time I’ve set it up I haven’t bothered to update it at all for fear of ruining the delicate balance I’ve established.

The standalone desktop program doesn’t have an auto-updater, and every time you do update it you essentially replace everything, including your customization profiles, unless you really know what you’re doing. Just installing it through Steam and letting Steam auto-update everything should take a huge load off.

Configuring controls for RetroArch can get arduous, especially if you use more than one controller for it. Normally, chances are you have to map each individual button and there’s a surprising amount of room to mess up and have to start over. Letting Steam’s own controller customization interface take care of all that would be a godsend.

At first it seems like RetroArch on Steam won’t have any of Steam’s specific features — it’ll be the same as the desktop app, but adding features like cloud saves and Steam Workshop is obviously what some are already excited about.

Emulation in and of itself isn’t illegal. It’s just the imitation of one piece of hardware on another piece of hardware, and official releases have used emulation for a long time, especially on Steam. This just seems like a new step because RetroArch is one of the biggest third party emulators now advertising itself to the biggest PC gaming audience.


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