NOTE: This is (mostly) current, for the end of 2022. The field, sometimes stays rather stagnant and sometimes updates pop like pop-corn.
Since I have well over 35TB emulation data, aside from following some cataloguing projects (like TOSEC and No-Intro), aside from full MAME, aside from maintaining own collections and emulators, aside from following “gender specific” projects, like Gruby’s AdventurePack or eXoDOS (and other eXo projects)… aside from all that, I realized the usefulness of “ready-to-run” collections, for the other members of my family (ranging from 6 y.o.), that cannot be bothered with weird intricacies of every emulator, or where the games are actually stored.
For me it is easy to fire up specific emulator and go find the game I want in TOSEC or wherever and make it run (I am comfortable with the operation of most 8/16/32 bit computers), but I cannot expect the same from others.
So, I started following those projects too, starting from some older CP78 collection. I had to stop using and stop following CP78 work for some time, but later after a couple (?) of years, I went back following his work.
Co-operating with the builder of a given collection is vital to me. I need to be able to ask, propose, assist (fixes etc.) and even express my appreciation. If I cannot do it, I prefer to stay clear. Some builders evolve to be more open, some people evolve to be worse. CP78 belongs to the first case. Then there is the other case…
After I stopped using CP78 work, I moved to CoinOps projects. Then, mostly because of BP (who builds CoinOps), I started looking towards other such projects.
Another reason I started looking around, is that I love computer history, so I also love front-ends that present some info about the emulated machine and game (or the option to do that at least). For machines I mostly know their history, but for games, sometimes it is very interesting to read brief info before actually playing (in that respect, even mame own GUI using mameinfo.ini was great a few years back).
This made me look into the differences between the front-ends themselves. Because you see, the collections would never work if there wasn’t a good front-end in the erm… back. So you will see a separate table presenting the rough advantages and disadvantages of the front-ends.
I am writing this, partly to decide for myself (something I revisit every few months), as I cannot really have all big collections, updated, all the time.
Imagine, big collections are easily 5TB+ to keep and seed and 6TB+ to actually use… each (and getting bigger).
NOTE: I got some arguments, saying that there are other builds (in other words the “base” over a front-end, giving it shape), that I should have mentioned, although they are much smaller, because people (users) can add to them and make them as big as they want. This is NOT the point of this article. ANY front-end and possibly ANY build can grow as much as someone can provide the games themselves and the metadata needed (arguments specific to game, screenshots, videos etc.). I am dealing specifically with builds that along with RELEASED add-ons (or specifically planned and claimed for upcoming release), are big enough to cover most known systems (consoles, computers, handhelds, arcade, pinball etc.) and providing the whole content ready (or almost ready) to use and they have so much content (with the add-ons) that are over (usually way over) 1TB. This article is very specific about that. Some people fail to understand the point of the article and still bash it. No problem.
The advantages and disadvantages, as everything in this document anyway, are my personal feelings about the front-ends. If you see something blatantly wrong, feel free to contact me to correct me. That said, I will not discuss my own opinion about things. It is what it is.
I am only listing front-ends used in the collections that are the discussed of this very document. This is very very far from complete. Yet, I can safely say those are the most influential front-ends currently.
RetroBat project uses EmulationStation as its actual front-end. What RB does, is to “auto-config” the front-end and used emulators and maintain some central list of emulated systems and information.
|– Free and Open Source.
– RetroBat part, mostly actively maintained.
– Looks nice and seems light.
– Windows and Linux.
|– Not sure how much ES is maintained. Seems it is, but the original project I think died around 2015!
– Nobody seems to be interested to improve ES although it is FOSS. I mean really improve in giving new features.
– Seems French love it and follow it more. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if most French didn’t like to only talk in… French. In other words, you won’t find very active English discussions about this project.
Started as a front-end for dosbox but expanded to a very complete front-end.
|– By far the most actively developed front-end.
– Very good communication with the devs. Devs allow for voting of new features and follow the list of proposals.
– Dual-mode front-end. Can be “computer friendly” and “cabinet friendly”.
– Integrates with gaming platforms like Steam etc.
– Easier to make sections and subsections.
|– Its most beautiful part (BigBox) is not free. (that said, I don’t care since I have a license)
– Some things are maybe more complex than needed.
|– Free and Open Source.
– Actively developed.
|– …although some claimed “private” changes (but not proven).
– …but not that much (and mostly around BP needs).
No collection I follow uses this, but I list it, as it is the inspiration of newer “cabinet friendly” front-ends. The first “ready-to-run” collections started in HS and then moved to other front-ends.
|– Looks very nice (all the above can look like HS nowadays).
|– Painfully complex to configure and made popular exactly because of the ready-made collections for it.
– Not maintained at all.
Based on the above, there is no ideal front-end.
Someone with the proper expertise could probably make a set of (filesystem) links and make a collection “multi-front-end” (supporting at least two of the three major). I am looking into this option in the future.
If I had to choose one, I would possibly choose LaunchBox (since I also have the license so I can use the full potential), as active maintaining of a project is vital to me. LB is improved every few weeks, for the last few years.
If multi-OS is vital the most common choice is EmulationStation.
Linux is actively becoming an entertainment alternative OS, with stand-alone specialized for gaming machines using it, especially low-cost ones. That said, most such systems, have made the choice of front-end (and general GUI) for you already. And as I mentioned, it is EmulationStation.
Again, few things to clear up for noobs (that is ok to be):
- Builds are not “front-ends”. They are BASED on (and under the hood use) front-ends.
- Sometimes builds are not even using their own front-end themes (the way they look). Although the experience is more complete (and more identifiable) if they do.
- Builds are not meant to be “complete” (except in the context of their own “mission statement” …which admittedly is not always clear). For many of the machines emulated, this is not even possible (because either the number of games is immense or the size of the “roms” is huge, which is the case with latest gen and PC gaming).
- Builds are not always easy to find. ESPECIALLY if they include newer systems and systems made by the company that starts with “N” and likes to sue everybody.
Do not help big companies strike such projects.
- The generic term “roms” usually doesn’t even mean “ROM” in the purely Computer Science meaning of the term. It is just an umbrella term that may mean “cartridge dump”, “disc image”, “tape dump” or whatever and in the end means “a game” (and a way to store it as an entity).
NOTE: I do not include every single project. Doesn’t mean I don’t know about those missing (although it is possible of course), just that it doesn’t “qualify” with my own prerequisites (being for Windows, being huge, being mostly complete and not just be pipe dreams in their infancy… also should deal with arcade AND consoles AND retro computers).
This time I will use alphabetic order. So here we are:
CoinOps Next 2 and Retro ARCADE 2 (RetroFE)
To me the two most important projects made by the guy (let’s call him BP). Next 2 is by far the most recognized (and most ripped) version BP has made. The big advantage of N2 is that it started from the beginning as a modular project with a (mostly) well organized method to add official and non-official packs. To me, this is a good thing and I find it unfortunate that most other projects do not implement an ORGANIZED (and documented) method for people to add packs AND enforce some minimum quality requirements.
A fully “populated” N2 is a few TB large, although for this you need to include unofficial packs, as no new official packs are coming (official I think will get you to less than 2TB).
RA2 is newer and does follow the modular scheme, but for that, mostly unofficial packs came out (and porting of N2 packs is easy), rather than official (which are very few).
PLUS: Themes are smooth, free, work out of the box and have plenty of “self-help” scripts. Also (for N2) very organized pack implementation plans.
MINUS: First and foremost, BP. You are guaranteed to get punched in the face (usually banned from discord which happens regularly in “packs”) for various non-reasons (like BP seeing you JUST PRESENT in “enemy” build channels). Also, his packs are more or less the same, just new names, confusing to EVERYBODY and new selections of the same games (more or less of them depending on the “specialization” of each build). You will very quickly get mixed up on why something exists and how it differs. There is a reason most people stay in N2 (or RA2 if they want to port N2 packs). One thing (I personally) find negative, is that CoinOps themes are “arcade” (cabinet) centered, there is no real info on a plarform or a game. Just the name. On a computer you expect to be able to see more info.
CoinOps “all other projects”. (RetroFE)
BP has plenty of other projects older and newer than N2 and RA2. There is an issue though that his fans (until he bans them, and they stop being his fans) seem to ignore: They are in 99% of cases “more of the same”, with tiny theme tweaks (and improvements) or back-porting (ahem) of “new tricks” other RetroFE theme makers introduce. Many times, casual users cannot even distinguish CoinOps builds. Also, the games included are 99% the same.
So, they do not deserve a special mention, sorry, make your own FAQ if you disagree. Some builds are rightfully custom made (like Linux version or made for Steam Deck), but those also don’t deserve a mention as they don’t fulfil my prerequisites.
CORE TYPE-R (RetroFE)
CORE TYPE-R has most probably the best looking themes among all others. Custom made and really really nice. Which is what led someone else rip them and use parts of it as his own (while claiming they stole him – when someone that can follow the traces can see where it all started).
The build is SUPER actively maintained, with very regular official and fan made packs.
Also, TYPE-R is as I said in my previous post, the “spearhead” of 1G1R project (although this has slowed down a bit). That is supposed to be the “de facto” collection for each platform.
That said, 8 bit computers (and 16 bit) haven’t seen much love just yet.
TYPE-R is also probably the richest build in custom made “playlists” (Collections, like for example Wipeout collection or Persona collection) which is a rather nice way to find the game you want.
I will quickly move to PLUS and MINUS, as this will paint better what TYPE-R is (and is not).
PLUS: As I said, the nicest looking by far. If you want to make a cabinet in some living room or lobby, get this. Very active project (also by fans of the project). Very helpful discord, with experienced people that can help you.
MINUS: It grows too much and seems that it might crumble under its own weight. And I explain: It has a very helpful discord as I said, but almost completely lacks any documentation. A new user of this build will probably quickly get confused and cannot really make a clean plan on sizes needed, interconnections and conflicts between packs etc. Also the team actively denies the need of documentation. Time will show if they are correct. Also there is a rough plan on how to make a pack, but really no enforcing on any minimum set of quality prerequisites. It’s FFA and survival of the fittest. Also, like CoinOps, the themes are “cabinet” oriented, no real info about consoles or games presented… but still soooo… nice looking.
LAST MINUTE UPDATE: There is now a Google sheet, helping very much with what is available!
CP78 Complete Play (LaunchBox)
CP78 could possibly be the “oldest” build maker (which I know people from other teams will argue against) and probably the first that rose to relative “fame” between casual users of retro builds. He has made various builds using various front-ends, but the most complete (and still active) project, is Complete Play.
This is not centered around a custom theme (you can really use any LaunchBox theme, although some fit way better than others) and the priority is to make things work and be complete on needed metadata (although misses DO happen).
It is actively maintained in a mix of (mostly) free and patreon (less but newer platforms) packs. Most patreon packs, end up free, except those that need to remain more restricted (for various reasons). A complete build is around 11TB currently and growing.
Recently he closed his free Discord server (so no real support for free pack users and free pack users cannot really even help and report issues) and kept his patreon Discord. Seems that packs still eventually end up free, but there is no real info about this any more, you just have to watch his favorite (and our favorite) tracker site for new releases. I have to say I believe this will make the project lose some “traction”, but who knows.
PLUS: LaunchBox. It is by far the most elaborate and actively developed front-end. Size. It easily grows to multi-TB, but you really “see” them. Being developed by a single person. Which means you won’t get half backed packs with lower standards (this is also assisted by that there is also a patreon side of the project). You get patches etc. Not theme based. So you can choose whichever LB (BigBox) theme you like and you do get info on platforms and games (if the theme supports showing those).
MINUS: LaunchBox. Well, LaunchBox is not free if you want to use the (beautiful) BigBox. So along with (although deserved and not expensive) patreon part of the project, it means the user must pay. Size. You might get a 16TB disk and maybe next year it won’t fit you if the project keeps on the same rhythm. Being developed by a single person. Which means project progress depends on that single guy. Also, decisions are made by one (good or bad). Not theme based. Which means you don’t get a NICE distinct theme that really identifies the project.
(Yes indeed, PLUS and MINUS are actually the same)
Retro-Bliss LevelUP! (RetroBat)
This project stands on its own, because of the choices of its team. It is based on RetroBat, which in turn is a (supposedly) easy way to use RetroArch (and other emulators) in Emulation Station (not sure why it was considered “hard”, but anyway this is a different discussion). So theoretically, this could be multi-platform (although I am not sure it is that easy to port to non-Windows systems). It is a very nice project, also pack based (98% official, very very few -esp. older packs- are non-official and you really don’t need them).
The project is by far the best documented and organized in terms of when comes what and why. Even before downloading, you really know what to do and how to do it. With previous version, while the project supposedly got “finished”, in reality a few packs came after the official “EOL”.
Very recently we got an updated re-release based on RetroBat 5 (which got a surprise release before Xmas 22) and the project manager’s (VIRTUALMAN) own customizations. A very serious project, someone needs to always have on the radar. You need something bigger than 8TB for this. It is very possible that this will revert to being my build of choice because of its “tightness”. Everything is there, every issue resolved and easy to find its resolution when they make it.
My only issue with the project is that they insist not to post a complete list of supported packs INCLUDING the old ones that are compatible (even a couple from the even older Pi version are compatible, but you need to find out yourself). New users will get confused. Thankfully a user just made a nice post (which I will supplement with a table myself), to make things cleaner.
PLUS: A rather complete build, easy to follow documentation, easy to plan, nice looking, consistent, dedicated forum (not discord).
MINUS: RetroBat. OK probably has its advantages to the build makers, but is very restrictive otherwise (actually I recently found out RetroBat team doesn’t even endorse Retro-Bliss… which is rather stupid of them, as Retro-Bliss is possibly their most successful implementation) and with very slow update cycle (RetroBat, not Retro-Bliss)… latest RetroBat update was 15 months ago until the last update a few days ago.
Wolfanoz Fully Loaded (LaunchBox)
This is an older project (2019), (also known as “2.6TB” or “[3TB]” …but actually 2.7TB), monolithic (no packs), that is worth mentioning, because it was really well made from the start. The “small” (compared to others above) size of the project, doesn’t mean it is thin in the systems it supports, just that because of the build’s age, it doesn’t include latest couple of gens machine emulation (that use much larger roms). We already talked about why LaunchBox is an advantage (or disadvantage). It looks nice and just works.
PLUS: LaunchBox. Still of the most complete implementations for some of the machines it includes. One download and you are ready to go. That said, the size (less than 3TB) shows the build’s age. It used to be considered humongous, but newer builds with newer machines emulated (that use larger roms), easily go three times the size.
MINUS: LaunchBox. Old, no new development for it (or heard of newer project by the builder), doesn’t include the most modern machines.
So… What would I use ideally?
Complete Play, run on LaunchBox AND RetroFE (user preference… actually support for more than one front-ends for the same build is not that hard if implemented from the start as most front-ends can use the same metadata), both running TYPE-R theme and having RetroBliss documentation and support and CoinOps restrictions on how to implement a supported fan made pack.
So I can keep dreaming.
This cannot happen and sizes are MONSTROUS (if someone wanted to have all the above at the same time, 40TB are probably not enough AND double that, if you also want to keep the installs, to seed, re-use etc.),
I can privately tell you what I have done for myself but this really depends on someone’s needs and preferences.
Before I close this huge thing, I want to mention a few smaller and/or specialized builds, that deserve attention:
Crusader’s Computer Classics RELOADED (RetroFE)
This started from a stand-alone build (based on CoinOps), specialized to (some) 8 bit computers. The project then shifted (way before really completing the 8 bit part if you ask me, but this is the decision of Crusader) and added a few 16 bit computers. Then added some early consoles. Then added some early PC games and some arcade. Latest “add on” is a PS1 pack that is (probably) bigger than the rest of the project. So it really switched to being a “mini-me” Next 2. Not sure of the path this project will take, but it is interesting and deserves mention and packs really work as Crusader probably hand-picks each game.
Zombeaver’s C64 Dreams (LaunchBox)
This is the love child of Zombeaver for the C64. It started as Zomb’s idea of porting Gamebase64 to Launchbox, but while it still is the “core” of the project (he hasn’t yet finished all GB64 alphabet), it went further as Zomb also adds games he likes or being requested by others. It is a very elaborate project, very well made with details I cannot really list here (for example you can really call a game’s manual right then and there while gaming), but is not BigBox based, just (free) LaunchBox. That said, there is a slowly progressing video capture project, that MAY help this move to BigBox in the future.
Even without the fireworks of BigBox, this is really the de facto C64 build to have. This is what someone that needs to add C64 to some other collection needs to blatantly steal (as it seems to happen in the field of retro builds anyway). Zomb really listens to people needs, but also has his own rhythm (and Real Life [TM] reasons) to make updates on the project. Release 0.45 came in January 2022 and next release (probably 0.60 and a rather major update), is unknown really (but is mostly complete, I hear). My only “issue” is that I would love to see 1.0 before I have grandchildren.
Gruby’s Adventurepack (custom, simple, front-end called SVMe)
Well plain and simply, the go-to collection for playing adventures. This is not limited to SCUMMVM, although the main body of the collection IS SCUMMVM. If you want a nice looking shiny build, this is not it. It is just the, as complete as possible, collection of any interpreted adventure, in any official (AND unofficial) language released. So probably an overkill to many, as it currently closes to 1TB (will probably touch it in a couple of releases). It used to have a roughly monthly release, but now is more like every 2-3 months.
eXo’s builds (eXoDOS, eXoWin3X and upcoming). (LaunchBox)
eXo is one of the most organized builders and actual developers of collections, currently specialized in bringing DOS and Win 3.X games to current PC. He manages a sizeable team that is really dedicated improving and growing the projects. eXo’s projects rarely update, but are really beta tested and ready to go when released. We are eager to see the next versions of everything.
Gamebase (own front-end)
This is just here as an “honorable mention” as it is the grandfather to many of the projects. It uses a (now very old) front-end (which now also has an unofficial, newer, java implementation) and people made collections specialized to single machines (you actually chose which collection you want to open when running GameBase), with the most famous being GameBase64 for Commodore 64 (which DOES still get updates sometimes).
MAME (yes, it does have own front-end)
MAME is also mentioned honorably, and I don’t really expect people to use a “plain” MAME (although I do), when MAME is part of probably ALL other builds (even those claiming to use RetroArch, remember RetroArch is the “glue” to existing emulators, not an emulator itself, MAME IS an emulator to thousands of systems).
It deserves to be here, as it DOES implement a GUI that supports screenshot display and such (and many people seem to not realize it after all these years, as it started command-line based). I do not mean MAMEUI and such builds. Plain MAME does have a GUI (limited and less beautiful sure, yet functional). Since complete MAME itself is nearing 4TB (!!!) fast (WITHOUT videos of the games) and you can run everything from its GUI, it can be considered a “build” by itself.
Closing (until next update)…
As I said, I left out plenty, but I think the info is enough already.
What could be useful to some, is my personal history using the builds and why I moved around… This is the most personal part of this document, so it SHOULD NOT affect your choices whatsoever.
- Found CP78 older project (way before Complete Play). Initially one not using LaunchBox, then an update using LaunchBox.
- Initially found it in some non-verified location, then found that the project had its own discord and realized there is an official host of the packs and re-downloaded from there (as there were issues from the other source).
If you need to know, got things from ArcadePunks, they were messed up and I re-downloaded from back-ups.me. You will eventually realize this is a trend, so it must mean something.
- I left CP78, as I think there were communication issues between us. There was some tension (not that much) and it was best to let things cool down. Disclaimer: I don’t claim that was entirely CP78 fault.
Another thing I didn’t like, is the heavy use of middle-ware called RocketLauncher. It shouldn’t bother me (as normally a user never knows what makes things tick underneath), but since I was already seasoned in emulation, I had my own preferences, likes and such.
- Found BP’s builds, because of back-ups.me and his discord. I don’t remember which build it was back then, but looked very nice, although purely “console oriented” (i.e. looks nice on an arcade console – maybe not the best on a PC where you expect more mouse control and more info).
- Realized BP had a long history of builds starting from Xbox, moved to PC, but I wasn’t very sure of the differences of those builds. Seems that with every tune-up or skin tweak he made (or copied), he made a different build, named differently. Something he still follows to this day and still doesn’t make sense.
- Still, I supported the project(s). To me Next 2 was the magnum opus, if we take flexibility into account. I made a script to help people with multiple disks, I even got the t-shirt (literally).
- This didn’t stop the personal issues BP has with well, practically everybody. I got banned because he saw me on the member list of some “competitor’s” discord (yes not even talking in there, just joined). Then I realized this was happening every now and then. He just dumped people en masse (even fans) just because they were… looking (!!!) at competitors’ work. Work that he believed “others” steal from him (while I later discovered that he has done the same and admitted to it too). It was clear we were dealing with mental issues. So I stirred clear, although following loosely his work progress.
- Next 2 remained my main build, basically because my younger son was really comfortable using it.
- So I discovered CORE’s work and their upcoming Type-R project (and side-project 1G1R). Looked REALLY nice. I actively helped (and managed) to spread the word and the project grew larger and started releasing things. Although it was possibly the best looking, I didn’t go deep into it, as it was not very much into old 8-bit computer stuff I so much liked. The plan was that it WOULD add those, but really looked more focused on 16bit console era. Things became worse when I realized there was no real attempt to organize what is released, by whom, how and in general set standards for possibly even internally (although I am sure people will say I am wrong). There is a discrepancy even for original packs… there are 1G1R packs (“everything that matters”), there are “best of” limited to around 25 games, there are other types of packs too… plus an uncontrollable river of unofficial packs.
So I do support the project, cannot really follow it properly though. Your mileage may vary.
- …but the above contributed, so that Type-R, although a work of art, never got to be my main build.
- Somewhere in between I discovered Wolfanoz build, which was “one off” but “good enough” (only lacking more modern emulation), download, extract, run, a single things. Also based on LaunchBox, which promised an easy porting or merging to other LaunchBox projects. Wolfanoz though never made it to become my main build either, but I kept it (and keep it), as although so old, it is still right there on top with most of the platforms it supports.
- Also somewhere there, I found RetroBLISS and its completely different philosophy of tight schedule of release, elaborate work on every pack, follow up on updates of the packs etc.
- Unexpectedly enough (I didn’t want a third front-end in my life, LaunchBox and RetroFE were enough), RetroBLISS DID become my main build. At least for a while.
- Having gotten back to CP78 discord, I was looking deep and hard, at Complete Play. RetroBLISS was great, but being “a completed project” by his creator (as I thought then), was in contrast with my preference on continuously evolving and improving builds. So CP became my main build AND RetroBLISS had to go (although I kept the majority of install files, I didn’t have space to keep it expanded somewhere to use).
- Two newer updates.
One is that Complete Play moved to no “free” support, although it will supposedly keep releasing free packs (after a patreon-only delay), but since only a couple of packs released soon after this decision (and we have no way to know if this decision changed further), we are not sure if the free packs will keep coming. I was actually planning to help through patreon (and not stopping anybody from doing it – he well deserves it), but this move, actually… stopped me (yes my brain goes counter-clockwise sometimes), at least for now, as I much prefer “Robin Hood” projects.
The other new thing is that RetroBLISS DID get its new release (December 2022) and all previous release packs are compatible and there are already a few new ones released at the same time as the main update! Knowing VIRTUALMAN’s (and team) elaborate work, this project pushed itself back in the arena.
- This is where we are now… Funny enough, although most CoinOps versions (except some stand-alone spin-offs) are eliminated from my server, Next 2 is still in limited use (because of my 6 y.o. son).