The thought came to me while researching the resale value of my old G4 Mac Mini on eBay. The results were depressing; I’d be lucky to get £50 for the machine I’d spent nearly ten times that on back in 2006. Surely there must be a be a better use for such an aesthetically pleasing – but ultimately heavily outdated – computer?
Initial ideas included using the Mini as a file or torrent server, but these thoughts were soon quashed when I realised it lacked Wifi capabilities! I’d previously experimented with Plex and XMBC in using the system as a media centre, and although impressed with the quality of the front-end and seamless transition from start-up to video menu system, the Mac simply wasn’t powerful enough to even display 720p content properly.
And then it hit me. The vast majority of the retro games I play on a regular basis are largely on 8 and 16-bit consoles, and therefore emulating them on a computer wouldn’t be nearly as processor-extensive as streaming high-definition movies, for example. Using my Mini as a multi-format retro games console would be a much more rewarding option than simply selling it online for peanuts.
I began to conceptualise this system, and what would become a fun little project to work on. My "brief", if you will, was simple: I wanted to be able to set the Mini up next to my other consoles, hooked up to my TV; and it had to be controllable without the need for a mouse or keyboard. Most importantly, of course, was the ability to play a plethora of retro games – selectable from a media centre-style menu system that would be easy to navigate with a PS3 or USB gamepad.
Selecting a Frontend
With this in mind, and taking inspiration from XMBC, the first step was to either create or find an existing frontend which would load automatically upon the system being booted, instantly displaying a list of consoles and games to navigate through.
With my machine of choice being a Mac – and, as noted, an old one at that! – options for my system’s frontend were limited. While Windows users have the highly-customisable Hyperspin at their disposal, and with the similar Wah!cade only being available for Linux, my initial hunt for a Mac equivalent seemed at first as though it would be fruitless. Thankfully, however, a more refined search uncovered the more-than-adequate EMUlaunch. Its main use intended to be as a front-end loader for Mac-based MAME arcade cabinets, it can also be configured to launch any number of emulator or ROMs the user wants. Although support and development has been discontinued for some time, I had no issues downloading and installing the frontend on the Mini, which was running OS X 10.4.
The initial installation was simple. Configuring EMUlaunch’s default systems and paths to their appropriate emulator’s location on the computer’s hard drive (downloaded mostly from Zophar’s Domain), it was then a case of copying the ROMs (all legally obtained, you understand) into their specified file path (in this case, Home/[System Name]/roms), with a screenshot of the title screens for each game (Home/[System Name]/screenshots) to be displayed on the menu screens; the front end did the rest.
As a bit of a side note, I did initially have some issues in getting the selected game to load up in the appropriate emulator. This is due to the fact that EMUlaunch relies on the Mac’s Finder and the associations it places on certain file types opening in certain applications. To fix this, it was simply a case of manually selecting each system’s ROM files (all at once), going into the file properties, and having them open with the correct emulator application.
Although the frontend was now fully functional, some aspects of my initial brief were yet to be realised. Firstly, in order to have the Mac boot up instantly into EMUlaunch, I disabled all other startup items, and set the application to automatically launch when the system started up. I also cheated a little by setting the desktop background to black and hiding the file icons, to add to the authenticity of this supposedly being a retro console rather than an old computer.
Hooking the Mini up to my TV was simple with the use of a DVI-HDMI cable; your mileage may vary. Finally, although most emulators can be configured to use gamepads, how would I be able to control the menu system without the need for a keyboard? Luckily, a number of options are available; for Mac OS X, I had either Gamepad Companion or USB Overdrive to choose from. With the former being cheaper, and me being tight at the best of times, the selection was an easy one. These applications in short allow you to map keyboard input to your USB or bluetooth game controller, which I set up in order for me to be able to navigate through the menu items.
As a final step, I downloaded Quicksilver tools, and set it up to map the Mac’s shutdown sequence to a single key, which I subsequently mapped to a button on my USB controller; negating the need for a mouse or keyboard entirely.
All Systems Go!
Within an hour or so, I had my system up and running, and was enjoying the likes of the Sonic the Hedgehog series on the Megadrive, Pokemon Blue for the Gameboy, and Super Mario World for the SNES – all within a few button presses. Although my gamepad of choice is a generic DualShock knock-off, it is possible to buy USB adapters for a lot of older joypads pretty cheaply online; so you could quite easily play your games with a Megadrive or SNES controller.
Depending on the hardware used, it is possible to configure the front end to work with as many emulators/systems as are available for download. Although I was limited by the specs and operating system of my Mac Mini, and therefore struggled to emulate any games from the PS1/N64-era onwards, with the right hardware, you could quite easily have your own "console" capable of running games on systems released as recently as the Wii.
Of course, nothing quite beats the experience of playing retro games on their original hardware (and a hefty CRT TV!), but if you have an old computer you’d rather see put to better use, why not have a go at making your own emulation box? Although this article was not quite a how-to and more of a discussion of my own experience, hopefully you’ll be able to take an idea or two from it.
Some gamers have taken their projects one step further, with one person having the ingenious idea of re-casing the components of their Mac Mini inside an original NES shell for a more authentic retro experience!