Like many others I have an immense passion and fondness for everything retro gaming, what it boils down to I guess is that I’m trying to relive my childhood. Sometimes it pays off and I get that same childlike excitement if only short-lived. Other times it simply destroys how I remember a game so it can be a risky hobby. There is definitely a massive market out there for retro as all of the major console manufacturers include some form of backwards compatibility nowadays. Whether that be emulated, streamed or repackaged to run on their latest powerhouses it all brings in additional revenue. Nintendo has even taken to releasing classic mini versions of their older consoles with a selection of preloaded games. Sega, Atari and a number of other companies have also been down this route previously by licencing out their machines to third parties. All with varying levels of success but honestly, in my opinion, it’s mainly been a failure.
I have taken my interest to the next stage and delved into the world of emulation. You can pretty much get hold of an emulator for any classic console, there are some limitations naturally but the work involved in getting these up and running is second to none. As technology moves on it gives us the opportunity to keep playing but with modern equipment. It really highlights the dedicated fans and hackers have in preserving and making these classics available. There is the legal issue around the reproduction of licenced games, known as ROMS, being made available to download online. I often feel they are made available because it’s the only way of getting our hands on them apart from tracking down the original which, depending on the format, may not be playable anymore. Over the years I have amassed a large collection of ROMS covering my favourite consoles from different locations online because of this I have spent many hours filtering through the different versions, custom builds and naming conventions to get each collection into a state I am happy with.
To date, I have hacked/jailbroken a number of consoles and also have purchased a couple of Raspberry Pi boards. This has given me hours of fun just in the process of learning how to get the custom firmware and emulators running.
With most of my new hobbies, they can quickly escalate into a full-blown obsession. I began researching what consoles could be jailbroken and subsequently started to pick them up at the right price point. It seemed that once a console had ended its lifecycle the hacking community was able to do their magic without the danger of further firmware updates to interfere. Over the course of a few months, I had managed to pick up a PSP, Wii, Xbox original, as well as a couple of Raspberry Pi boards but they were slightly different in the fact that they were a blank canvas. After the initial jailbreak, it looked like most of the available emulators was based on the same source code with slight amendments depending on what machine you wanted to install it on.
I found the PSP extremely easy to unlock, in fact, it was the easiest to date. I needed to make sure that the PSP was the correct model and motherboard configuration but after that, it was simply a case of downloading the required files copying them onto the memory card and following the guide with a few button presses thrown in. The PSP was powerful enough to run almost anything up to the PS1 era and being portable offered a different experience to the main consoles. It suffers from the usual N64 slowdown problems, game compatibility but additionally, it only has a limited amount of physical buttons.
The Wii again was really simple to unlock but I did find getting everything to work a little more time-consuming. The initial jailbreak involved sending an email to the console with the needed software attached and opening it. Although not a massive powerhouse even at the time it was more than capable of running anything up to the 16bit era with ease and naturally its own games (including GameCube). It was a great feeling to have the full catalogue of Gameboy, GBC, Gameboy Advance, NES and SNES games available on the Wii. N64 games ran but from my experience, not everything worked as it should and I purposely only put Nintendo systems onto it. The biggest issue using the Wii was using the right input device, a combination of GameCube pads and the classic controller is essential as the Wii-mote is lacking in buttons.
This was the daddy of consoles to hack looking online. It could be connected to a modern TV with a composite cable to increase the picture quality, although I did this on the Wii also. It had an internal HDD to store games on, internet connection and decent wired controllers (well in the form of the S controller). This was a little more labour intensive to jailbreak though, the route I had chosen involved getting an original copy of Splinter Cell and a special USB cable that would allow a flash drive with modified save file to be plugged into the memory card slot. I ordered the cable from the internet for a couple of pounds so it wasn’t a deal breaker. Once all that was in place it was another simple procedure, load game, open save file and done. I also decided to upgrade the internal HDD from the original roughly 9GB to 200GB to allow for extra games to be installed. The difference with the Xbox hack was that I didn’t mess around with individual emulators as the community had worked long and hard for many years on an all in one solution, called Coinops. We are currently on version 8 of Coinops which in turn comes in numerous revisions all depending on HDD space or game packs wanted.
As the Pi is essentially a credit card-sized computer it is much more of an open platform for emulation. Based on the Linux operating system it can be programmed to do whatever the imagination can think of, well within the limitations of its power. I have two different models of board the version 2B and 3, with the latter adding a little more horsepower, WIFI and Bluetooth as standard. There was also an all in one solution for the Pi which I went with, this wasn’t as structured as Coinops though. I still had to install the emulators that I specifically wanted, add my own ROMs and config to my liking.
I have also dabbled in the PC side of things, many years back, using SCUMMVM and abandonware. SCUMMVM or Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion Virtual Machine is a set of game engine recreations which was originally created to play LucasArts point and click adventures but then expanded to support a number of different devs. Abandonware tends to be software that is no longer supported by its creators and has been made available for all to use even though it can still be covered under copyright. I guess this is where it all started from, especially for me.
Overall each set up has its own merits and failures but for the most part, things work well, even if the fun and excitement are only short-lived. I believe in context there is a place for this, it is proving to be a fun pastime and one that I am hoping to continue with. I can see how this could be abused, jailbreaking the latest systems to run the latest games for free which to me is not what emulation is about. For me now it’s becoming less about playing the games than I anticipated and definitely more about the challenge involved in the setup. I do hope that the gaming community eventually gets to a place where we have access to pretty much any retro game we desire, across all formats in one place and in a legitimate form… but for now I am ok with the emulation side of things. Right, I’m off to research what console will be my next project…