• Wed. Aug 17th, 2022

    Any Button Gaming

    AB-Gaming.com

    As a follow up to our best emulators for your PC, we have here our favourite retro front ends for your Gaming PC’s. Look at you, you’ve got your favourite games backed up into their various ROM’s onto your PC. You have all the emulators you like ready to go. Now you want to browse your retro library and fulfil the collector in you by making it look pretty. That’s where a retro front end comes in.

    You see, you have your emulators (the programme that can mimic or emulate your favourite systems) and you have your ROM files to play. BUT you have to log into the emulator and use the native UI there to find your library. Depending on the emulator, this can be quite a boring screen with lists of filenames and not much else. Plus, you must maintain it per emulator. Basically, your experience is different per emulator.

    A retro front end is akin to having a programme that manages your retro collection in the same way you may manage your library. Just like Steam or Epic. They give you a central place where you can view all your games by system. Many of them also allow for artwork and details about the game to be download as well as things like selecting your favourite games, as well as your review scores and other cool features. So, let’s run through our favourite front ends.

    Things to consider

    A few notes before we begin though. We are not being paid to promote one piece of software over another. All views are our own and based on personal preference. Each of the front ends we are going to list below have their fans and that’s cool. You can’t really go wrong with ANY of the below. We should also note that we are talking Windows Front Ends here. These are not full operating systems; such as some of the Linux based OS forks like Batocera which are built and configured with retro gaming in mind. These are programmes you install to your Window’s PC.

    A lot of the software here is developed by retro fans. We’ve tried to include those that still seem to have active development (i.e. have an active community).

    There will also be setup involved to get them working. You will still need to link them to your preferred emulators and do some configuration. After all, half the fun of emulation is the tinkering. So let’s get stuck right in!

    Emulation Station

    Emulation Station is a probably one of the most famous platforms in the emulation community. That’s because it has a Windows version but is also lightweight and has been adapted for Raspberry Pi and has been forked into various different OS’s on multiple devices. This includes Batocera, RetroPie and multiple emulation handhelds. So if you are familiar with retro emulation, you are going to recognise the UI.

    It is a little outdated now. Originally the work of a two dev team, original development ended in 2015. Various forks have been picked up since and we’ve tried ES-DE (Emulation Station Desktop Edition) which has been in development since 2020. Emulation Station works smoothly and has some pretty good features, including scraping for titles. A lot of the themes developed for RetroPie are workable too. It can be navigated using controller and the controller compatibility is top notch. There is also built in screen scraper functionality to get your favourite look and feel.

    Like all of these, this will need Retroarch and your emulators setting up on the system but there is an editable configuration file. There is a really good user guide on the their Gitlab page and website. Also for those lucky souls with a Steam Deck, there is a separate fork called Emu Deck which works very well on the chonky handheld. A nice start for beginners!

    Hyperspin

    Hyperspin is a launcher that really emulates the look and feel of the arcade, and as such, is more closely associated with users building their own cabinets etc. While it can send users to emulators for pretty much all systems, it is MAME that this is most famous for. We’ve used this on a friends arcade cabinet that they used and the UI is incredibly colourful with some amazing amateur themes that scream 90’s arcade. There is also a huge community but beware, there are a lot of dodgy manufacturers out there selling Hyperspin hard drives or consoles which is basically just someone stealing this free project and reselling it (grrrrr).

    The userbase is still pretty active but the Hyperspin software hasn’t had as many updates. We should also warn that it is not an easy setup, you need a secondary programme, Rocketlauncher, to work and this takes a lot of configuring. So, one for those who really want the loudest arcade style experience!

    Playnite

    This front end is different in that it is not all emulator focused. In fact, it is a nice open-source library manager for your PC. That means that it can collect all your Steam, GoG, Epic libraries into one consolidated list. On top of that, you can add your retro games and then select the system and the emulator to use. It has igdb.com integration which means it can search for metadata for your game and it has some great themes and some very detailed meta data tagging you can add to each game.

    As said, this isn’t necessarily retro emulator centred and because of that, if you have a huge library, you are going to find that there is more work for you. Your games must be tagged correctly. However, if you want to feature your modern PC game libraries with all your ROM’s as well, this is a neat way to have a consolidated library. There are also great features like time played etc.

    Pegasus

    We’ve only had a limited amount of time with Pegasus, but this is closer to Playnite by being a way to build a full game collection. However, from an Emulation perspective, it can sit over Emulation Station and LaunchBox and take its meta data from that which means you are sort of getting a front end over a front end with the advantage being you can build on over front ends you have.

    The UI seems very customisable and encourages configuration. A lot is done via a metadata editor in Pegasus and not a simple front end. That will put some users off. However, it is a frontend we intend to spend a lot more time with as we play, and it feels good to be able to run it over the top of other front ends we have already configured.

    Launchbox

    This is the front end that will come out on the top of the google search lists and it is also the only one on our list that is commercial – i.e., there is a paid version. It also has the most apparent support from some large retro emulation Youtubers and influencers. Don’t necessarily let that put you off though. If you want something that works with a simple download and minimal configuration, then Launchbox is your best bet. It sits nicely on your PC with the free license and can handle your retro collection (and non-retro too). It’s regularly updated with a simple setup process and UI. The programme will quickly and cleanly scrape all your titles and give you nice box art and meta data options.

    Commercial or free?

    You can also choose to pay for the premium version in two ways, a regular license that will allow you to use the premium version forever but will need a yearly $15 if you want to get software updates baked in. A lifetime license will cost you $75 but means you have the full version for life. Or until the software dies off. The premium gives more configuration features, such as Big Box (support for larger TV’s and projectors), gamepad menu controls, custom themes and font configuration. Without the premium you get what you are given with the free version.

    The trade off with Launchbox is that you are getting paid software with support and regular updates, which is good as some freeware loses support over time. On the downside, you pay for features. It also doesn’t play as nicely with other front ends, maintaining its own artwork versions. We’d heartily recommend Launchbox if you want a simple install and a programme that does a lot that the others do at a basic level. If you want to take it further than expect to pay. If you are a configuration king/queen then you might want to look at one of the other front ends.

    Those are our favourite retro front ends for your Gaming PC – what are yours?

    So that is our list of favourite retro front ends for your Gaming PCs, each with their own ups and downs. Do you have a front end installed? What’s your preference? Let us know in the comments below!


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    Rudy Manchego

    Rudy Manchego has been gaming since the days of the BBC Micro Computer and spreads himself thin with a love of retro, indie and mainstream gaming. He's one half of the Jambags Comedy Gaming podcast and likes nothing better than kicking back with a nice pot of lapsang souchong, a good game and a background podcast on the intricacies of Spanish cheese making.

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