The Ultimate Portable Emulation Device

The question is simple: What’s the best way to play retro games on a portable device? The answer is slightly more complicated.

Everyone has holes in their gaming history. I’ve never beaten a Zelda game, for instance. I know, I know. If only there were time. As it turns out, situations like airplane rides where you’re stuck in one place are perfect for chipping away at one’s towering pile of shame. But you can’t have all your games with you all the time… CAN YOU?

Reminder: it is illegal to use ROMs that are not your own!

The 3DS offers a number of old games on Virtual Console, but that’s a pretty small library in the grand scheme. There are handheld emulation devices, but they can be underpowered, limited to certain platforms, difficult to tweak, and pricey for something that may not work very well. Laptops, while flexible, are bulky, expensive, and frankly overkill for what we want to do.

So what’s the solution? What provides maximum flexibility, portability, and is reasonably priced? My pick: a Windows tablet, specifically the Dell Venue 8 Pro.

The Tablet

They still make Windows tablets?
They still make Windows tablets?

This thing runs Windows, not Android or some fly-by-night proprietary emulator OS, Windows. Virtually all emulators have Windows versions, so the likelihood is high that as long as there’s an emulator out there, it’ll run on the Venue. Plus you can use it for other stuff, like Steam and… Excel.

The device is solidly built and responsive. It weighs 1.15 lbs (less than my iPad), including the case I bought to allow it to stand on its own. My Venue came with 64GB of internal storage but I got a 128GB microSD card just in case. The screen is sharp and bright, and I’ve used it for a solid six hours without the battery dying.

It’s also cheap. The Venue 8 Pro is a slightly older model of Dell tablet, and since nobody’s buying Windows tablets anyway, you can find Venues for less than $100. I had a flight coming up and needed one stat, so I ended up paying $160 for my 64GB model (there is a cheaper 32GB version).

The only real shortcoming for me is the lack of buttons. There are hacky solutions like VirtualGamepad that allow you to use sections of the touchscreen as buttons, but I prefer a simpler solution: a good old fashioned controller.

The Controller

Hello, beautiful.
Hello, beautiful.

I settled on the 8bitdo SNES30. Not only is it a tried-and-true form factor, but it’s got enough buttons to work with most 2D games and even a few 3D ones. The buttons and the controller itself feel fantastic. Also, because it lacks analog sticks, it’s thin, enabling it to slide neatly into a carry-on bag along with the Venue.

The SNES30 is Bluetooth-enabled, but I got a USB micro adapter in case I wanted to plug directly into the Venue. It sometimes takes a couple of tries for the Venue to recognize the SNES30, but once it does it works like a charm.

The Software

If you’ve ever ventured into the wild jungle of emulation, you know that managing a collection of emulators and their settings can get overwhelming fast. The most elegant software solution I’ve found to tame this insanity is RetroArch. RetroArch allows you to install the functional “cores” of other emulators and launch everything from one slick interface.

RetroArch has probably the nicest interface I have seen in an emulator front-end.
RetroArch has probably the nicest interface I have seen in an emulator front-end.

Cost

You could probably save a bunch by getting the 32GB version of the Venue 8 Pro, but be sure you’re getting the 5000 series, which has 2GB of RAM compared to 1GB on the 3000 series. You could probably skimp on the SD card, too.

Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000 series 64GB $160
MoKo case $9
8bitdo SNES30 $35
StarTech micro USB adapter $5
SanDisk Ultra 128GB microSD card $40
Total $249

Not bad for total freedom.

Closing Thoughts

Airplane seats arent so bad.
Airplane seats aren’t so bad this way.

As yet, I’ve only made one long plane trip with this setup, so who knows, it might explode the next time I try it. But so far it’s worked pretty well! I wasn’t able to get some 3D games working at an acceptable frame rate, but pretty much every 2D game I tried ran like butter. I imagine I could squeeze out a few more frames by messing with RetroArch’s video settings, but the defaults worked well enough for me.

The biggest downside is probably the fact that it’s a tablet. Because it relies on an external controller, the Venue is perhaps not as “portable” as other solutions. You can’t just whip it out on a bus or in line at the store, for instance (though I did play with it sitting in my lap when the tray tables had to go up). While that would certainly be nice, I personally value the flexibility of a Windows machine over a more turnkey device.


If you go this route, here are my notes for setting up the Venue and RetroArch to work together in nostalgic harmony:

Configuration

RetroArch makes things easy, but there were still a few speed bumps along the way. Before anything else, I’d recommend updating as much software and firmware as you can. I upgraded from Windows 8 to Windows 10, then updated the BIOS and a host of drivers. Before doing so, I had issues with the Venue’s sleep button and display weirdness with certain emulators.

Configuring the controller:

If a controller is not configured, RetroArch uses the keyboard arrows to navigate the menu. This requires the full touch keyboard to be activated on the Venue. To do so:

Start > Control Panel > Devices > Typing > Add the standard keyboard layout as a touch keyboard option: On

Then, in RetroArch, using the onscreen keyboard, use the X key to select and the Z key to go back.

To configure your controller, plug the controller in, make sure it’s recognized by Windows, then use the keyboard to navigate to RetroArch’s Settings menu (the second icon from the left in the dashboard). Then:

Input > Input User 1 Binds > [follow prompts]

Tip: I like to bind both the D-pad and the analog stick inputs to the SNES30’s D-pad (useful for many 3D games).

You can now navigate the RetroArch menus with the D-pad and A and B buttons. I would also recommend setting a “Menu Toggle Gamepad Combo” (in the same menu), which allows you to return to the RetroArch dashboard by holding a specific button combination on the controller. Very handy when saving states or changing games or keybindings. I use “Down + L1 + R1 + Y.”

Installing cores:

RetroArch doesn’t actually come with any emulators, but you can install them using this procedure:

Online Updater > Core Updater > [select core]

If you install all the cores, you’ll see multiple emulators for the same system. Sometimes games from the same system run better on different emulators. Figuring out which is best requires some experimentation, but these are my general picks for each system:

  • Arcade: MAME 2014
  • Game Boy/Game Boy Color: Gambattle
  • Game Boy Advance: Meteor
  • Genesis/Game Gear/Master System: Genesis Plus GX
  • NES: QuickNES
  • SNES: CATSFC

Launching games:

Before launching games, I recommend telling RetroArch where your ROMs live so you don’t have to browse your entire system each time you want to find a file. Go to:

Settings > Directory > File Browser Dir > [browse to ROM directory] > <Use this directory>

To launch games, from the RetroArch main menu:

Load Content > Select File And Detect Core > [browse] > Open Archive As Folder > [select ROM] > [select core, if required]

Tip: When browsing files, D-pad left and right jumps eight rows, shoulder buttons jump between letters.

For more on RetroArch configuration, see the official site.

  • Drew — thanks for this! I think I’m going to pick up that controller and RetroArch for my Surface Pro 3. It’ll be a nice intermediate stage as I build out my actual SNES library. Carts are expensive.

    Also, G&T and gen 1 Pokémon on the plane? I like your style.

  • Juniper Monkeys

    Cool! The Venue seems like the perfect device for emulation while still being able to have Steam at hand. I’ve been using an Nvidia Shield, but haven’t been very happy with Android emulators, or managing that stuff with a mobile filesystem.

    It’s unfortunately Mac-only, but since you guys often have Macs in the background of Mailbags and whatnot I figured I’d mention it — OpenEmu (http://openemu.org) is really worth checking out. It’s basically doing the same thing as RetroArch (I think it shares some of RetroArch’s code), but it adds a lot of polish to the game organization and setup side of things.

    • beowolfschaefer

      As I mentioned above if you are looking to purchase a tablet for this kind of application I’d highly recommend finding one what does have an HDMI out option. You probably won’t use it often but it’s still really nice to have.

    • Tom Storm

      OpenEmu is incredible. I 100% recommend if you have a Mac, also, a PS3 controller pairs perfectly with macOS over bluetooth and is detected by OpenEmu natively.

  • Matt Berry

    I know they’re not covered in the article, but does anyone know if there are any alternatives to Emulation Station ( http://www.emulationstation.org/ ), or is this the best ROM browser/manager I’m going to get.

    • Tom Storm

      OpenEmu is my personal favorite, but it’s Mac only unfortunatley.

    • I mentioned it above, but Launchbox might be worth looking into.

  • beowolfschaefer

    Good stuff Drew. I’ve done a lot of messing around with stuff like this over the past few years which is part of why I have one of these same Venue Pro units. Another option you may not have thought of is the Nvidia Shield Handheld. It’s Android based so isn’t going to quite support as much as the Windows products but it’s got a ton of battery life and built in controls. The build quality is also excellent and since I don’t think it was really very successful in as far as sales go you can usually find them pretty cheap if you are a bit patient.

    On the Windows side I’d highly recommend taking a look at Emulation Station. It’s a very smooth front end for emulators originally made for the Raspberry Pi but now available for Windows. It gives you a really intuitive interface for all your emulators including RetroArch. It will auto scan your library of roms and download box art, descriptions, etc. and once set up it’s easy enough for anyone to use.

    One downfall of the DVP8 is that it doesn’t have an HDMI out which is a bit of a bummer if you wanted to use your device on a hotel TV for instance but there are plenty of other very similar devices that do off this so easy enough to resolve next time around. The only other shortfall is that the DVP8 uses a 32bit UEFI even though the CPU is 64bit which makes it hard to get a Linux install that will work but I’m sure the 5 people including myself who actually care about that will manage to get along somehow.

    • beowolfschaefer

      Oh yeah and while who knows if it will actually ever happen this thing still makes my wallet burn: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/08/smach-zero-a-portable-x86-steam-machine-for-e300/

      I think this one had it’s kickstarter cancelled while they updated some details but then never actually came back. There’s been a few different attempts at devices like this. So far I’m not aware of any that are worth looking at that ever made it to market but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that one will actually get made.

    • Tom Storm

      Any recommendations of emulators or frontends for android? I’ve been fussing with retroarch, but the android app doesn’t seem as polished as the windows verison. It wont seem to save any settings, or keep any saves or save states.

      • beowolfschaefer

        Yeah last time I looked I didn’t find anything particularly good either. I think I was using SuperRetro16 which at least has a better UI but of course only supports SNES games. I have seen some references around the web to an android version of emulation station but I do not know if that will ever become a reality. Hopefully it does.

  • Tom Storm

    For anyone looking for a more portable** solution, I purchased an IPEGA 9023 bluetooth controller that locks around my ASUS Vivo Tab Note 8 Win Tablet to use with retro arch and it works great, and has dual analogs for 3D games. (Playing N64 Smash Bros on a handheld is awesome)

    **more portable in that you can play it laying on a couch or in bed, less portable in that this thing is a full controller and wont fit in a pocket (though, neither would the tablet I suppose)

  • ILikePopCans

    Awesome article drew, thanks for taking the time to make it

  • Erick Zamano

    If your looking for something similar but a more portable solution there is this DS-style android powered portable. http://www.gpdxd.com/ You can install Retroarch and many android games support its physical buttons. Later this year they are releasing a Win 10 version too

  • Cool post Drew. A front-end that I like to use for retroarch and a few others is LaunchBox ( https://www.launchbox-app.com/ ). It can be a little much to set up the first time, but the overall interface is more visual and easier, imo, than just Retroarch alone. I also like it because it serves as a frontend for other non-Retroarch emulators like Dolphin.