How to Set up a Versatile Retro Game Emulator With RetroArch

If you want to play all your favorite old games on your computer, RetroArch sets up a user-friendly all-in-one interface for any retro game you can imagine. RetroArch is arguably the most powerful cross-platform option for doing this, but it’s terribly difficult to set up. Here’s how to do it.

What is RetroArch?

If you want to play all your favorite old games, RetroArch will customize your PC with an all-in-one user-friendly interface for any retro game you can imagine. RetroArch is a program that integrates emulators for a variety of retro video game systems such as Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Genesis and others. It is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS and even jailbroken Wii consoles, among others. RetroArch has a menu that lets you customize your gamepad, browse your game library, and play anything from virtually any system with just a few clicks of buttons.

Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to set up – partly due to the sheer number of options (shaders, overlays, frame rate limits, etc.). But RetroArch is constantly being updated, and it has tons of possibilities to tinker with settings to give you the exact experience you want from your emulators. Let’s get ahead: RetroArch is for customizers and folks who love to tinker with every option available. This is for people who want to use certain emulators for certain games. This is for people who want to customize the visual settings for each game. It’s not so much about just playing that old arcade game of the past, but about reproducing it as accurately as possible.

However, RetroArch is quite difficult to set up and takes a lot of work to get it to work properly. Once you’ve done that, it will work like a dream come true, but get ready for the arduous customization process. There are simpler options , but none of them have RetroArch settings.

Step one: download RetroArch

Before you can do anything, you need to download RetroArch. For this tutorial, we’ll focus on the desktop version (Windows and Mac primarily), but the basics apply on any platform.

For this guide, I recommend sticking to the stable build, which you can find here for your operating system (at the time of this writing, the most recent version is 1.2.2). Just select your operating system and download the software inside the folder. Once this is complete, unzip the file.

Step two: set up your controllers

While you can navigate RetroArch’s interface with your keyboard, it is for the controller, so it makes sense to tweak it before we do anything else. After downloading RetroArch, open it, then plug your USB controller into your computer (RetroArch works with a huge variety of USB game controllers, from XBox controller to PS4 controller, but I couldn’t find an up-to-date list of compatible controllers anywhere). RetroArch will automatically detect your controller (if it isn’t, you’ll need to look for help on the forums ), and in many cases it might even automatically configure the buttons for you. But it’s good to double-check.

When you first open RetroArch, you will see a fairly simple interface with a lot of meaningless words. We’ll cover what this all means and how it works below, but for now, let’s just make sure your controller works:

  1. Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate to settings, then press X to select it. (You can press Z to return to the menu.) You can also use your controller if it works out of the box.
  2. Scroll down to Enter and press X to select it.
  3. Scroll down to User 1 Bind All and press X to select it. You will receive a graphic overlay to customize your controller. Take your controller and follow the instructions on the screen.
  4. Continue this process for any additional controllers you have, moving down the list to enter 2, 3, and so on.

You can now navigate using the A and B buttons on your controller (or any buttons you chose during setup) to navigate between menu items. As you would expect, the d-pad will also move you around the menu screen.

While you’re in the input menu, it’s worth scrolling up to the Menu Toggle Gamepad Combo option. This option allows you to exit any game to the RetroArch menu screen by pressing a combination of buttons on your controller. Pick one of the two combinations that work best for your chosen controller (for something like a PS4 controller, I like L3 + R3 because I probably won’t hit that combination by accident).

Step three: explore your video settings

You’re almost ready to play games, but before you do, you’ll want to make a few quick adjustments to your video settings.

Go to Settings> Video. You’ll find tons of options here, mostly for things that don’t really matter right now. However, there are some settings you probably want to change (you change the radio buttons with the left and right / left and right arrow keys on the d-pad):

  • Full Screen Mode: Enabled (unless of course you prefer RetroArch to work in a window)
  • Full screen windowed mode: off (reduces input lag)
  • VSync: On
  • Hard GPU Sync: On (Helps reduce input lag)
  • Bilinear filtering: Off

Of course, there are tons of other options here, but that’s all you need to get things going. You can tweak more later if you like.

Step Four: Download the Emulator Kernels and Configuration Tools.

Finally, it’s time to download some emulators at RetroArch:

  1. From the main menu screen, scroll down to “Online Updater” and select it.
  2. Select Core Updater. RetroArch calls emulators “kernels”.
  3. Here you will see a long list of different emulators. RetroArch doesn’t ship with emulators natively, so you’ll need to download the ones you will be using. Scroll to one in the list and press X to select and download it.

We are compiling a list of the best emulators for different operating systems, but for now you will need to do some trial and error to find out which one works best for your games on your computer. For starters, I recommend getting a couple of different consoles for each console you want to emulate. This way you can choose which emulator the game uses for each game. Some emulators work better with certain games than others.

From the Online Updater menu, you can also download various RetroArch customization tools. This part is a little confusing because the word “Update” suggests that you are, well, updating something, but right now you are actually downloading these various settings and settings. To do this, simply select the Refresh [item] option and RetroArch does the rest. I recommend loading each one once before you even try to load the ROM, but here’s what each of the different options mean:

  • Update Core Info Files : Updates all files related to emulators. If you’re having problems with a specific game, try updating here to see if a hotfix has been released.
  • Refresh Resources : This updates logos, fonts, and other such things that may change slightly with each iteration of RetroArch.
  • Update Autotuning Profiles : This is the controller’s autoconfiguration file. Select this update if your controller is not working.
  • Update Cheats : As the name suggests, this downloads all the different cheat files available for games.
  • Updating Databases : This updates the game and emulator database files, so when you scan the ROMs (in the next step) RetroArch can automatically detect them.
  • Refresh Overlays : Overlays are optional images that sit on top of the game screen. For example, you can add a Game Boy overlay to make your screen look more like a classic Game Boy by adding a Game Boy case image around the game ( like this ).
  • Update your Cg shaders : These are various shaders (mainly filters) that you can run to make the game look more authentic (like running a CRT filter that simulates an old TV).
  • Update your GLSL shaders : they work the same as Cg shaders, but exist where Cg support may not be available (for example, on Linux or Android).

After running these updates, you can set up emulators.

Step five: configure emulators and ROM directories

I promise it’s time to play games. But first, you need to tell RetroArch where these games are located. You will also probably want to play around with a couple of settings before loading your first game. However, first, let’s point RetroArch to your various ROMs folders (from this step we’ll assume you already have a bunch of ROMs from your favorite ROM source):

  1. Go to Settings> Directory> File Browser Directory and select the parent directory where your ROMs are located. This simplifies the following steps a bit.
  2. Return to the main menu screen and select Add Content> Scan Directory, and then select the ROM folder. If your ROMs are grouped into folders using the console, you need to scan each folder separately.

With this, RetroArch will automatically add your ROMs to the system. When you go back to the main menu, you will see an icon for each console for which you have a ROM on the main screen. Just press right or left to scroll through them.

Step six: load the ROM

You now finally have RetroArch and are ready to play some games.

Before getting started, I recommend going to Settings> Config and setting Config by Cores to On. This allows you to customize settings for individual emulators instead of generic settings for everything. So, when you download a Game Boy game, you can set up filters specifically for that emulator. Then you can choose different settings for your NES games, and so on:

  1. From the main menu screen, scroll right to the console you want to play on.
  2. Select the game you want to play.
  3. Select the emulator you want to use.
  4. Select Start Content to start the game.

If all goes well, your game should launch. Hooray! Now let’s take a quick look at how to access the game options. Click on the gamepad combination that you set in the second step (I have R3 + L3). This brings up the RetroArch in-game menu. There are many different settings for changing visuals here, but in this beginner’s guide, let’s just focus on one thing that really matters: state persistence.

To save your game, simply go back to the gamepad combination menu and select Save State. You can load your game in the future by simply selecting the download state. Now you don’t have to try to defeat Battletoads in one sitting.

If this all sounds a little cumbersome, don’t worry. After completing the initial setup process, RetroArch will do the rest automatically. Your settings for each emulator carry over to every game you load into it, so all your NES games will look and play the same, while your Game Boy games will do the same with different settings. This means that once you’ve gone through the initial setup phase, playing future games will be a breeze.

While this guide will get you started, we barely covered RetroArch. There are countless other additional menu items and settings to dig into if you like. We will consider some of them in a future post, but for the moment, wikis RetroArch , sabreddit and forums – all this is an excellent resource for troubleshooting.


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