Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Impressions: RetroEngine Sigma. Emulation made easy?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 18, 2017

One of the problems with being a retro-gamer is hardware obsolescence. Not only do parts wear out and require difficult-or-expensive-to-source replacements, but it becomes incompatible with more modern systems that it is dependent on. For example, any game console released prior to the late 90s might have problems connecting to modern televisions. I have an original Playstation that I managed to get working with our main HD TV, but for some reason it only displays black & white images. I have maintained a 3.25″ floppy drive on all of my computers simply so I can still load up some of my old favorites. (I’m out of luck for the ones that used the larger old floppies).

Emulation is really key here, but it can be a pain in the butt sometimes to set up. One of the advantage of getting older titles from a place like GOG.COM – besides making sure your licenses are 100% legitimate and legal – is that they take a lot of the pain out of setting things up. I’ve purchased games from GOG.COM that I already own which is still in the box. It’s convenient. However, a lot of the classic old console games are best played in the living room, in front of a TV, with game controllers. And multiple players.  I’ve done that with a laptop, but it’d be nice to have a replacement console that handles all that.

RetroEngine Sigma represents one possible solution to these problems. I received my backer delivery this week.  This is a tiny console devoted to the playing of retro games via emulation, with an emphasis on ease-of-use. Now that the campaign is over, the pre-order of the “consumer” version is $80. Now, the makers really just bundled off-the-shelf hardware with pre-configured software and several licensed games, and added a case and controllers (which made it easier to pre-configure the system… everybody’s using the same controllers). Some people take moral offense to this for some reason. Me? I’ve been considering making something like this for a while for my own use, but I’m just as happy to buy one from someone else, so long as the price is right and it saves me some headaches.

The system itself has an OrangePi Lite single-board quad-core computer in a palm-sized case made to resemble a vintage gaming console, with two standard USB ports, a USB OTG port, HDMI output, 512 MB RAM (optionally 1 GB at additional cost), a 32 GB card (and reader) installed with pre-configured software, a couple of programmable buttons, and built-in WIFI. The package also includes one dual-stick USB controller that looks and feels a lot like a PS1 / PS2 dual-stick controller, a 5v power adapter, and a reasonable-length HDMI cable.

The short version of the story: I followed the simple-but-not-super-simple instructions to set it up, and within a few minutes I was playing BurgerTime – one of the many licensed classic games that comes pre-installed with the machine. A little while and a bit of research later, and I was able to play a bunch more games. I had the start button die on me on a brand new controller. Oh, and I also discovered that I still suck at BurgerTime. So … with caveats… the out-of-the-box experience for me was positive.

Longer version: The whole point of this product (aside from having a cool-looking housing for an inexpensive all-in-one computer on a board) is supposed to be ease-of-use. Anybody can do a bunch of research and build a Raspberry Pi-based system, install the OS and some emulators, configure the whole thing, locate a bunch of ROMs, and then have a little all-in-one retro gaming console in their house. It’s not a trivial project, but still within the capability of the average mortal in this era of step-by-step instructions on YouTube. This little device is supposed to minimize that effort, for beginners and lazy people like me.

So instead of putting the thing together over the course of a couple of 8-hour days, I was able to get it up and running in about 30 minutes. Nice improvement, and for a price that’s not much more than the cost of components. So far so good. Unfortunately, it’s not 100% seamless. You still have to use some kind of WiFi device to log into the console, and from there start things running. That’s not so wonderful.

The pre-installed licensed classic games include BurgerTime, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Heavy Barrel,  Karate Champ, Bad Dudes, and several others. Of course, as this is emulation, if you want to go beyond the 40 pre-installed games (which is still pretty good!), you’ll have to be savvy enough to locate the images and bios packages for certain emulators, and should probably understand the legality (or lack) thereof. As I understand it, you should have a legally purchased license for the software in order to legally possess a ROM image here in the U.S.  For retro gamers, we often own licenses several times over, so that’s less of an issue. The RetroEngine Sigma eases the pain somewhat, using a web-based uploader as well as a file-sharing interface. You can even plug in a USB stick with ROMs on it, and it’ll pick those up. I just used the file-sharing. I moved the files over the network from my computer into the appropriate directories for the RetroEngine Sigma, and then reloaded the “EmulatorStation” on the console from the quit menu, and the new games appeared. Kudos here to the makers of RetroOrangePi, which powers the thing.

Unfortunately, the Super Nintendo and most Sega emulators require an optional install that involves a two gig download on a stressed server. To make matters worse, rumor has it that the automated install has failed for some people. Ack! Warning flag! (Note: There is a new image available online for a fresh install on the card. Maybe this addresses these problems…)

As to the rest of the emulators… the NES, Atari 2600, Atari Lynx, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, and arcade (MAME) emulators work out of the box with the provided controllers pretty well.  You’ll need to plug in a USB mouse and / or keyboard to control the vintage computer emulators, like the Commodore 64 or Amiga emulators. That makes sense. For many of the built-in emulators (like the Playstation 1, TRS-80 Color Computer, Intellivision, Colecovision) , you’ll need to manually install a software BIOS package for them to work correctly, since they can’t legally include that copyrighted software with the machine.

At first I was really pleased with the controllers, but disappointment came a few hours later. I have two of the dual-stick controllers, and they look and feel awesome. But then the start button quit working for me on one. A shoulder buttons sticks on the other, but after a little while that seemed to smooth out. These are probably things I can fix on my own, and I really like the feel of the controllers. While the machine can handle literally any other USB controllers, that requires some configuration work. I also have one of the Saturn-style controller that I bought as part of my package. I haven’t tried it one yet. Once again, it looks and feels good. We’ll have to see about the durability.

The big win of the evening, however, came from my getting Jaleco’s Tetris Plus working on the machine. It’s sort of a bizarre 20-year tradition in my household for a tournament during Thanksgiving, and last year’s restriction to a black & white display from the old Playstation 1 was a bummer. So … Thanksgiving is saved!

So, my full take on it: “Easy” is relative. This isn’t like plugging in a nice old-school stand-alone game console. Your mileage may vary depending upon your level of willingness to roll up your sleeves and start tweaking things. This is still a hobbyist device, not a consumer device, but it saves you 90% of the trouble creating a stand-alone emulator… and at a price that’s not a whole lot more than it would cost you to do it all from scratch.  Are there more or better options out there? Probably. Right now, I’m annoyed at one controller, and doing the “optional install” is going to require either a re-flashing of the system to start over, or a manual process I’ll have to figure out. It is not a big deal either way (I don’t THINK), but it’s a bigger headache than I anticipated if I want to play any SNES or Genesis games on the thing.

Going forward, what they *should* do is have the full “optional” install be pre-installed on the card (since they are dropping the lower-end 16-gig card on the consumer version, I don’t think this should be a problem), and lose the weird login and control feature on first start-up. Provide the user with the ability to log into WIFI, but the system should work without any connectivity ever until the end of time. BUT… all that being said… it works now. It plays emulated games pretty well. It comes with a bunch of licensed vintage games. While slightly more of a pain to set up than I’d hoped for, in the end it does what I expected it to do (once I resolve the start button problem). So while I cannot give it a glowing review, beyond the controller malfunction, I can’t really complain either.

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