by Travis Fahs1
RetroArch Android Review
The ultimate emulator comes to Android.
Emulation has always been one of the bragging points for ‘droid gamers. The system’s comparative ease of file management and Google’s laissez faire management of the Play Store make it an ideal platform for retrogaming on the go. Unfortunately, these loose policies also mean there are a lot of people out there stealing other people’s code, and selling it as their own. Search for emus for any system, and you’re likely to find countless clones with the same emulation core, usually a port of an open-source PC emulator, often used without credit and with a $5 price tag attached.
On the PC, this is unheard of. We enjoy high quality emulation of dozens upon dozens of different systems without paying a penny. RetroArch seeks to bring a bit of that spirit to other platforms, with a modular implementation that allows for plug-in cores to run identically on computers, consoles, and now our Androids. This isn’t like MESS or other multi-emus where these are drivers that share different code. Rather, they’re completely different emulators that run through RetroArch’s common interface, libretro. Best of all, it’s free and open-source, with the ability to expand and provide support for more systems with future plug-ins.
All the cores are based on PC emulators, which means they are very accurate, with broad compatibility. We put these cores through their paces with all of our favorite “problem” games like Clayfighter, Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia on SNES, and Virtua Racing on Genesis, and found it passed with flying colors where many other emus on the platform failed. The Genesis core even includes Sega CD support, which ran circles around the buggy implementation in MD.emu, making it the ideal choice for anyone looking to play a little Popful Mail on the go.
RetroArch also introduces a few new games to the platform. For the first time Virtual Boy emulation comes to Droid, and although it doesn’t support any kind of 3D views (nor does it have a VB-specific control overlay), it’s as solid as any VB emulation I’ve used and a good way to play Wario Land. There’s also support for the indie platformer Cave Story, as well as Doom, which is widely available via a lot of illegal paid apps, but it’s nice to have a karma-free implementation.
Since all of these cores are essentially different emulators with a common front-end, their performance varies wildly. The PlayStation emulation, based on PCSX, is excellent and relatively fast, while the Game Boy driver is startlingly slow. Most of these are more demanding than competing emulators, but they’re also more accurate. Since RetroArch doesn’t support frame skipping, a powerful handset is an absolute must.
While it’s technically very solid, RetroArch struggles to pull these disparate cores into one cohesive whole without compromise. There are no system-specific options, which means no support for game-specific accessories like light guns or mice. There isn’t even an option to assign different default controls to specific systems, meaning you’ll have to go into the options and change the overlay settings if you want to go from SNES to Genesis without staying with the SNES controller. These overlays are also very tablet-centric, with tiny buttons, and no built-in options for resizing. You can make custom overlays, and I’m sure there will be plenty of great options available in time, but right now there aren’t. If you prefer to use a controller, the support is excellent, and RetroArch is a more compelling first choice.
RetroArch offers some unique options, like the ability to “rewind” games in real-time, and a host of advanced filters based on customizable plug-ins. These features are pretty demanding for today’s handsets, but this is clearly a future-minded app. Even with so many systems available in this initial release, there are still some libretro plug-ins that aren’t included, like Stella (Atari 2600), Yabause (Sega Saturn), and Desmume (Nintendo DS), so we can already see the road ahead.
RetroArch is good, but I wouldn’t delete those paid apps just yet. Before it can truly replace all your emulators, RetroArch’s going to have to add configuration options to its individual cores, and smooth out some of its basic usability issues. It may not be the ultimate emulator yet, but it still has a place on every ‘droid to fill in those gaps in all of our emulator libraries. Being able to fire up Cave Story or play Sega CD games is a huge boon, and it’s a great free alternative for many of the systems it supports. In time, it will be a force to be reckoned with, and those with paid apps may have to worry.
Is it hardcore?
Summary: RetroArch is an incredibly powerful, accurate multi-system emulator, but performance and interface issues keep it from being the new gold standard.