I don’t exactly know what got me watching JonTron, but I can’t stop watching him now. I love his off the wall review style, and his attention to detail. He has a joke or observation for almost every element of the game under review. His reviews of terrible retro games have really gotten me thinking about years gone by, and how many games I missed out on, so I have taken steps to remedy the situation.
Back in the 1990s we didn’t have a lot of money (not that we have significantly more now) so we couldn’t afford to buy a lot of games. We all started out playing on dad’s Atari ST, which had a vast collection of software acquired from one of his friends. Notable titles included The NewZealand Story, Batman, a top down racing game, Techno Cop, Pac-Man, and a bunch of other ones that I can’t remember the name of. One of my most vivid memories was of the aforementioned racing game. After selecting your racer, a level selection screen appeared and you used a steering wheel icon to select the stage. The background music was cool and began to crescendo while you decided on the track, but don’t take too long. At the climax of the musical piece, the game would crash (or bomb out as we called it, on the count of the little bomb icons that appeared when an “illegal instruction was performed”) and the only way forward was to reset the system.
Half of the games encountered random crashes, both provoked and unprovoked, and it was a miracle if you made it through the whole thing. There were some fantastic shoot-em-up games too. I remember loving the demo disks, filled with a variety of games and utilities. I was playing the Atari well past its prime, but it was still great fun and I have fond memories of spending time with my brothers and dad playing games of highly variable quality. Even after other consoles had come to the forefront in our house, the Atari still made an occasional appearance for some nostalgic fun. I didn’t have the chance to do any programming at that stage, though it would’ve been a useful skill to pick up early in life. I spent many hours trying to get games to work, and playing through some truly awful ones. It’s buried in the attic for now, but it will be resurrected some day.
After the Atari ST we moved onto the Mega Drive, a real games machine. We had Sonic and a few other games, but most of our playing was done through borrowing or swapping. It was a lot more prevalent back in the days when you couldn’t pick up cheap new and used games online. Your friend had Golden Axe, which you desperately wanted to play, so you borrowed it off him and lent him another game. Most of our time was spent playing Sonic, as it had a great two player mode, but images of Rambo III are forever ingrained in my memory. The techno sounds as Rambo drew his bow to shoot at the attacking helicopter. Using the knife instead of shooting enemies because of the bonus points. Never being able to get past the first couple of levels. Games were a lot harder back then, and unforgiving. There was no gentle introduction or tutorial, just trial by fire. If you wanted to have fun (not that games were necessarily about fun in those days) you had to perfect your technique, and do everything right. A single stray bullet from an enemy could mean the difference between triumph and taking a victory lap round the room, and throwing the controller against the wall in anguish. Because the stakes were so much higher, there was everything to gain. You didn’t need achievements – beating the game was enough on its own.
The RetroN 5 had come to my attention recently, though I had read about it a while back, as an interesting prospect for people who wanted to play retro games without requiring the original consoles. After pricing the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES to you and me) on eBay, it was a bit silly to start heading down that road. You would have to buy the console with all the trimmings, and a bunch of games to get any fun out of it. And keep in mind that the games can be expensive these days, particularly if they are in good condition. Plus the chance of failure of the original equipment, as the kit is thirty years old now, makes that option much less attractive. What if you could buy modern hardware that would play old cartridge games? That’s where the Hyperkin RetroN 5 comes in. As the title suggests, it can play games from five different systems: Famicom, NES, SNES, Mega Drive/Genesis, and Game Boy.
Rather than using original hardware like the Analogue Nt , the RetroN 5 is an emulation system. When you load a cartridge into the system, it dumps the ROM into temporary memory and runs it using an emulator. This approach has the advantage of allowing upscaling to HD resolutions and improving the sound quality over the original consoles. The downside is that you require the original cartridge, an approach to combat software pirates downloading ROMs online, though that didn’t stop the creators from using open source code in an unethical manner. These license violations soured me towards the RetroN 5; that and the price, and questionable build quality. The RetroN 5 currently costs around £130 on Amazon with one controller, compared with £150 for an Xbox 360 and Peggle 2. I like old games, but not to that extent.
Explaining the situation to my brother, he said “why not just use an emulator?”. I had been using a Mega Drive emulator to play the odd game on my computer, but it’s not the same playing on a laptop without gamepads. If only I had a spare PC to connect to my TV and dedicate to running emulators. Wait a second – I think I know just the thing. The Raspberry Pi! He had a spare Pi Model B+, but I wanted the power of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B to run more demanding games, like those from the Nintendo 64. The RetroPie project uses Emulation Station, software bringing together a number of different emulators, to play retro games on the Raspberry Pi. This tiny little board could replace all of your old consoles as far as the PSX and N64, and maybe even the Sega Dreamcast. It was time to get to work.
I ordered a new Pi 2 and two Japanese SNES-style USB gamepads. I had my eye on a 3D printed NES-style case for the Pi, but in the end I went for the much cheaper alternative – a regular transparent case. I didn’t want to hide the fact it was a Raspberry Pi, I wanted to show it off in all its glory. The Raspberry Pi doesn’t come with built-in storage so I ordered a 16 GB microSD card, onto which the operating system would be installed, and provide plenty of space for ROMs. The RetroPie image came from petRockBlog (all the hard work was done by these guys) and there is essentially no setup involved. Just format the microSD card, install the image with Win32DiskImager, and put the card into the Raspberry Pi. Done! The ROM files can be loaded using a USB stick or over a network connection, and Emulation Station comes with a built-in scraper to pull information about the games along with box art from the internet (primarily from TheGamesDB.net). The interface looks fantastic, and after some initial hiccups with some emulators and transferring ROMs, the games play and sound great.
This is the beginning of my journey into the past, and you’re all welcome to join me!