I love videogames and I grow up with what now is called retrogaming. I also switched from Windows to Linux a while ago and, despite having a dedicated gaming desktop PC, it is mainly for recent titles. Taking advantage of some holidays I decided to setup some emulators at the laptop. It wasn't always easy so I decided to write this post, both for myself in case I need to repeat it and just in case it is of use to anybody else.
Note: At the time of writing this blog post, my system is an Ubuntu 16.04 x64. Based on my experience, Linux software is very sensitive to operating system versions (way more than Windows), so I can't guarantee that everything will run for example at Ubuntu 17.04.
For Arcade machines I use MAME, I use the oficial Ubuntu Software Center MAME Arcade build/binaries plus the GNOME Video Arcade GUI (available at Ubuntu Software Center too). The main issue is that it is a barebones GUI, missing many many features from things like MAMEUI, so I also keep MAMEUI inside a virtualized Windows XP SP3.
Before continuing, a small intermission to explain the reasoning behind that Windows XP virtual machine. VirtualBox has come a long way regarding Virtualization, and even under Linux (where I haven't been able to make work 3D emulation) it works quite nicely and I use it mainly for three tasks that have to do with videogames (among other unrelated tasks):
- Playing old Windows games that don't work with Windows 7 and don't require Direct3D, like Civilization II.
- Access advanced VirtualBoyAdvance features like object and map memory visualizers (GameBoy development related). It works really well inside VirtualBox, and Wine wouldn't load it.
- Launching MAMEUI to see game snapshots (screenshots). Initially only until I finish doing the cleanup but I actually want to try running a virtualized MAME32. Note that I haven't tried running it with Wine, so it might work. From a host SSD it boots up in less than 3 seconds and just has configured a few shared folders to not need to move things in & out. And yes, XP is really old, but precisely is that version the one chosen for conflicting games (with Vista and 7 more than a few old Windows games stopped working). Oh, and for USB 2.0/3.0 and other goodies support, install also the VirtualBox Extension Pack.
For old Nintendo systems (Gameboy, GameBoy Color, Gameboy Advance, NES/Famicon and SuperNintendo/SuperFamicon) I use Higan. Should at least be v103. The main reason (apart from typical better emulation and speed) is that GameBoyAdvance BIOS ROM loading was mostly broken under Linux and got fixed around version v100. One remark, to run GameBoy Advance ROMs, you need the BIOS ROM.
My beloved Commodore AMIGA 500 still works nicely, but floppy disk loading times and the like are tiring, so I also play this great computer via emulation. Especifically, using FS-UAE + FS-UAE Launcher. A few notes/tips also here:
- RTFM. There are many options and some "flows" are really clunky, like disk swapping (you need to "multi-select" all disks to be able to F12 and switch them, but the UI doesn't mentions this anywhere). The documentation is almost a mandatory read in this case
- To run anything you need the desired AMIGA firmwares (e.g. I needed Amiga 500 one). In this case there are even official commercial compilations of AMIGA software which include them
- To run Workbench tools you need AMIGA Workbench, and to run hard disk programs you need to first create an AMIGA hard drive (via the configuration)
- Combining that the AMIGA was prone to give Guru meditation errors either with cheats or with obscure unrecoverable errors, plus other mysterious hangups that make my whole Ubuntu freeze to death once or twice while running in fullscreen, this is the only emulator that didn't felt 100% stable. Still, in general works nicely and I'm not entirely sure it is not due to my graphics card, as in windowed or borderless maximized window I had no such issues.
And finally, to play old MS-DOS games either not available at Good Old Games or that I already own, nothing beats the great DOSBox, which can for example be found at Ubuntu Software Center. This is a generic operating system virtualization so each game might need individual tweaks, but many work perfectly out of the box.
One thing that I haven't tried yet is Playstation/PSX emulation. PS2 is still not 100% emulated under Windows so I don't even care, but I have pending to check for Linux PSX emulators, there should be something decent already...
Once setup, all this software works nicely, but it is not an easy task (at least not without this post summarizing it ;). There is a great all-in-one solution that I tried, RetroArch. It is a multi-emulator GUI-software-thingy that supports plugins to run many many systems, from legacy ones to really recent stuff like Wii's Dolphin emu. The reason I wasn't convinced by it is that at least when I tried it a few months ago, the Linux build was unstable and only worked with some systems. Windows build looked way more robust (I tested it) but as wasn't my plan uninstalled. It is the base system used at the RetroPie distribution, so the distro is correctly setup and already contains many basic features I probably missed out, but it wasn't as trivial as I thought.
My laptop is an old 2012 Dell XPS but runs perfectly the systems mentioned above. I know a Raspberry Pi can even run now Neo-Geo games at a decent framerate so one day I'll get one, but my two main reasons for waiting are a) I wanted to do this learning experience before grabbing a quick'n easy solution, and b) I still want to wait a bit further until commodity hardware evolves and runs more powerful machines like the PSX or GBA without frame skipping (probably something like a Raspberry pi 4 will do).
Hope this list helped you out!