14 November 2016

Off Topic: Preparing Retropie from a Mac (with November 2017 update)

This is not much Mac-related, but I am currently spending all of my 'computer time' with preparing two Raspberry Pi 3Bs with Retropie as Christmas presents. I will collect my insights, and again like it was for MAME, my conclusion is that Macs and Raspberry Pis/Retropie are a good combination.

It is mostly a MAME 2003 romset. But Final Burn Alpha (then with different ROMs) seems to be a very good choice in case of performance problems on the Pi.

After having gone through some learning curve, I cannot give enough kudos to the Retropie project! What an impressive achievement - including some really good online documentation that is up to speed with the development. One thing is clear: You can hardly beat this system in the living room when it comes to a smooth retrogaming experience.

I will summarize my recommendations in the following:

  1. As a starter, stay with the stable releases as downloaded. We are not with version 4.3 and it is more stable than ever. Upgrade Retropie from inside via update of the Retropie Startup Script only if you know what you are doing. I recommend only binary updates, whereas source code versions take long and may contain regressions.
  2. The SFTP Connection from my iMac to the Raspberry Pi is perfect for all necessary data transfers. SSH via Mac Terminal just works, no further software needed. The Apple Wireless keyboard pairs perfectly with the Raspberry Pi 3B, which has Bluetooth built inside. But even better is this tiny keyboard here that works system independently with its USB dongle.
  3. The most important topic is to have your joypad control perfected - and that can be a lot of work. Have the general Joypad configuration perfected before going anywhere further, as tempting as it might be. Take a very close look into the Hotbinding configuration. You will definitely want to have the following Hotkeys configured properly: Exit (otherwise you will always pull the plug), RetroArch Menu (extremely useful here is the QuickMenu), and Shaders Next/Previous. But they only work with the Libretro Cores and that's why you will want to stay with Libretro Cores whenever possible.
  4. Stay lean on the systems and only use those systems that you really wanna play. Also think twice prior to installing additional Emulation Station layouts (like the one above), because it may slow down things. That's why Amiga and NES64 are no longer on my system for the time being.
  5. It really pays out studying the Retropie WIKI on every system you wanna use. Different Cores make a hell of a difference performance-wise.
  6. Shaders and Overlays rule in Retropie/Libretro. To be able to switch from one shader to the other within the game with a Hotkey is the coolest thing you can imagine for choosing the right shader and look into its performance. The Gameboy Shader/Overlay combination makes you giggle because it is so cool. But stay with the pi-specific shaders and closely check for performance issues - especially shaders and overlays can bring the Pi down to its knees.
  7. Scraping is a stunning experience. But as tempting it may be, begin with Scraping only if your system is stable, and use a keyboard for the fine tuning. Do not scrape on Sunday evenings or other busy times, it makes a huge difference on those servers.
  8. MAME cores: Yes the 2003 Libretro Core builds on a 13 year-old MAME, but the Raspberry can deal with it. In exchange for this compromise, you get a system in a cigarette box that produces no noise at all and boots up like hell. The dedicated pi shaders with curvature look cool enough. Also a lot of games are backported to MAME 2003, and there is a lot of development happening here. In contrast the 2010 Libretro Core is lacking development, so it is just for a few games that do not work nicely on MAME 2003. Forget about the 2014 Libretro Core, which is more or less crashing all the time. The 2016 Libretro Core helped me in very exceptional cases (e.g. Berzerk), but otherwise is already too much to bear for the Pi. 
  9. Big learning - trim down your backup image with GParted Live: The backup image from one SD card will not always work on the next SD card because some SD cards are a bit smaller than the others, even from the same manufacturer! These instructions saved my day. So my strategy is to trim down my 32 GB backup image by approximately 1 GB, so that they will fit on 32 GB cards of every type.
  10. And I recently upgraded the SD Cards to a Class 10 MicroSD (in my case Sandisk Extreme) -> Megadrive Games no longer stutter and PSX games work better (no overclocking). Also backups to my Mac are much faster. Amazing how important fast SD cards seem to be - I will always head for the fastest option.
  11. And finally, Attract Mode is a nice place to be - also on the Raspberry Pi. The experimental packages of Retropie works flawlessly for me. I need to look into some error messages concerning the Designs, but otherwise it just works. Setup on your Mac is disussed here and here.
  12. But rather recently, EmulationStation got Video support, so it's back, and it is rather hard to decide between the two. Clearly EmulationStation has a lot of more development and themes going on. Decide by yourself.
And here is a list of useful tools for your Mac, so that you can do everything from your Mac:
  1. Use Apple Pie Baker to frequently back up your achievements, and you have the perfect clone. 
  2. If you have to convert music tracks from .ape to .wav, look no further than to XLD on the Mac.
  3. For .ecm to .bin conversion (I do this because Retroarch on Macs don't like ECM), you have to go to the command line: Follow these instructions, and I compiled my own binaries from the source you can download from here (the GUI is only PowerPC only). The binaries work perfectly and blazingly fast.
  4. For slimming down your ext4 partition on your SD card, fetch the incredible GParted Live software for MacOS and build a live system on an USB drive. Plug it into your Mac and press Alt during bootup, you can now switch to the GParted system, and my Mac just boots flawlessly. Working on the partitions with GParted is very convenient. Hardware limitations: no Bluetooth mouse or Keyboard, and no internal Card reader support, so use a USB card reader.
As a nice by-product, Retroarch on my Mac also works nicely, but that's for a later post...

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