How to Play ROMs on Your TV
At the time I'm writing this, the worldwide pandemic is happening. Many of us are stuck indoors and looking for things to do. Video games have been a great activity to keep us busy. But yet, that has its challenges because the inventory of video game hardware has become scarce. The Nintendo Switch, for example, costs almost double with its pandemic-inflated price.
You've probably played ROMs at some point this year to stay entertained. But yet, have you tried a more authentic experience and played ROMs on your TV? In this struggle to find ways to keep busy, I'd like to review with you all the different ways I know of to play ROMs on your TV :)
Option #1 - Using a Laptop Computer
I think this is the easiest option - simply connecting a laptop to your TV to play ROMs. Any modern laptop is equipped to do it. You only need a long HDMI cable for this (probably 10-25 feet). Or a normal length HDMI cable along with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
Output connection types for connecting a laptop to a TV vary. Newer laptops use USB 3.0, so you'd need to purchase a USB 3.0-to-HDMI cable. Other laptops already come with an HDMI port, so you'd need a normal HDMI cable.
On the subject of laptops, I highly recommend Chromebooks. Chromebooks are cheap $200-400 US laptops that perform as good as premium Windows/Mac laptops. They don't heat up like a normal laptop so you can keep them on your bed and not worry about heat buildup. The trade-off for this performance on the cheap is due to having a watered-down OS that only runs Google Chrome.
What's awesome about newer Chromebooks is that they added support for Android apps from the Play Store. That means all of Android's video game emulators are available to you. You could install RetroArch, giving you the ability to emulate any video game system. If you want a visual organization for all of your emulators and ROMs (like how games are selected in the SNES Mini), you could install the Dig Frontend.
In terms of speed, I would say a standard Chromebook can handle from NES up to PlayStation 1, N64, NDS, and PSP. Beefier Chromebooks could possibly handle up to PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, GameCube, and Sega Saturn.
Any model Chromebook should be fine. Just make sure it has the Play Store. Here's a good collection of recommended models: Cnet - Best Chromebooks under $500
Are there any drawbacks with using a laptop? Well, there's a couple. You need to configure your gamepad with every emulator you install. Navigating the emulators needs to be done manually with the laptop in front of you or with a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse. It's not like a RetroPie or Mini system (explained below) where you can navigate a single, global interface with ease using only your gamepad. Also, Chromebooks (and other budget laptops) typically only come with 32 GB. That's not enough space for hundreds of ROMs plus storing your normal files.
Final thoughts: A laptop is great if you want to invest in a multi-purpose device, as opposed to the options below that are gaming-only devices. Given the steps involved to set up your gamepad and get games running, laptops are good for casual gamers who only intend on playing a handful of games.
Option #2 - Using a RetroPie
The history of the Retropie started years ago when the Raspberry Pi was released. It's the famous $35 Linux computer for tech enthusiasts. It should come to no surprise that people wanted to put video game emulators on the Pi. Hence, “RetroPie” was born. RetroPie is an easy software installation that turns the Pi into a video game system that can emulate anything! It organizes all your ROMs into categories by system in a graphical interface that you can control with a gamepad.
In terms of speed, the $35 Pi hardware is impressive. RetroPie can handle emulating all classic video game systems from NES up to PlayStation 1 and N64. N64 games are hit or miss; certain games run great (Mario 64, Mario Kart), but others lag (Golden Eye, Donkey Kong). Sega Saturn games don't run; they barely run on desktop computers so don't expect them to run on $35 hardware.
As for arcade, I believe any game up to 2005 should run fine (non-CHD). RetroPie lets you install multiple versions of MAME and FinalBurn Alpha. Best of all, you can set a ROM to load with a specific version of MAME or FinalBurn Alpha. If you've fussed with arcade games on a computer, this is a familiar territory having to deal with different arcade emulators/versions to emulate different games.
So how do you obtain a RetroPie? Even though the Pi itself costs $35, that doesn't include the AC adapter, case, and HDMI cable. Hence, you'd need to purchase a bundle that includes all that. If you don't already own gamepads (USB or Bluetooth for PCs), you'd need to purchase those as well.
The cheapest route is to set up a RetroPie yourself. However, you could purchase a pre-setup RetroPie bundle that even includes ROMs (this could cost nearly double):
- The cheapest method: Purchase a Raspberry Pi kit (around $80-100 US) and set up RetroPie yourself following instruction videos on YouTube. The Pi 3 is the older, cheaper model and the Pi 4 is the newer, faster model.
- The easiest method: People sell RetroPies already setup, pre-loaded with ROMs, and bundled with two USB gamepads. They go for around $150-200 US.
Other notes to keep in mind when setting up a RetroPie yourself:
- Setting up a RetroPie yourself for the first time could take around 20-60 minutes depending on how computer-savvy you are. Please don't let that intimidate you. YouTube has a plethora of videos walking you through the setup process.
- The first-time setup does require a USB keyboard so you can enter your Wi-Fi password. If you don't have a USB keyboard, there are ways around this using a PC. The Wi-Fi step is important because that's how you transfer ROMs to your Retropie.
- The Pi's (RetroPie's) capacity depends on the SD card you get. Typically, these cheap Pi bundles on Amazon come with a 32 GB SD card. That's a good enough size to hold a few hundred ROMs. If you really want a monster RetroPie that can hold every ROM in existence, you may want a 512 GB or 1 TB SD card. Also, you should only purchase SanDisk and Samsung SD cards. Obscure brands are not reliable and may not work.
- Those SNES and Genesis Pi cases I showed earlier are Retroflag brand cases. They also have a NES and Famicon case. They go for around $15-20 US.
Final thoughts: RetroPie is the most affordable and most customizable option. RetroPie is especially strong when it comes to emulating arcade games. This is a good option for classic gaming enthusiasts who are serious about this and want to play all games in one box. It may take some time to set up, but in the end, you get a completely customized experience with all of your favorite games.
Option #3 - Using an Android set-top box
A popular 'mini computer' option is to use an Android set-top box. The most popular model is the Nvidia Shield TV Pro. Like with using a Chromebook, you're blessed with full access to Android's video game emulators.
The Nvidia Shield TV Pro goes for $200 US. The official gamepad is sold separately, but you don't need to get it because any other Bluetooth Android gamepad is supported. Don't buy the cheaper, pill-shaped Shield TV because it doesn't support 64-bit apps. This is important because RetroArch (the #1 multi-system emulator) is 64-bit.
Setting everything up on a Shield TV is the same way you'd set up emulators on an Android phone or tablet. Simply go into the Shield TV's app store and download the video game emulators you want. All of the popular video game emulators in the Play Store are present in the Shield TV's app store. All of the menus and emulators can be navigated with your Bluetooth gamepad.
The Shield TV Pro is a beast with its Tegra X1 processor. Not only can it handle up to PlayStation 1, N64, and PSP, but it can handle them with high-resolution 3D. Thanks to the Yaba Sanshiro emulator, Shield TV can even handle Sega Saturn emulation (Saturn emulation has a reputation for being CPU-heavy).
The drawback is with capacity. There's only 16 GB of space, which doesn't hold a lot of ROMs. You can, however, connect an external harddrive for extra storage. Even just a small $20 128 GB flash drive is enough to hold hundreds, possibly thousands of ROMs.
Final thoughts: The Shield TV Pro offers power at a great value. It's a good option if I enticed you on a Chromebook, but you'd rather have the elegant experience of a set-box than be physically moving around a laptop. Plus it offers neat options for 4K TV.
Option #4 - Streaming from your computer
Maybe you're reading this guide and thinking, “Meh, I don't want to buy a mini system or Chromebook just to play ROMs on my TV. I like using ePSXe, Kega Fusion, ZSNES... why can't I use those on my TV?“ - you can! You can play all of your favorite desktop emulators on your TV without physically moving your computer out of your office. You can stream your computer to your TV. There are a few ways to accomplish this. I'm going to focus on the most popular method: using Steam Link.
Steam Link is an app from Steam that streams your PC or Mac to a device that has the Steam Link app. Many devices have Steam Link: any Android set-top box, Chromebooks, Rokus, Apple TV, Samsung TVs, and more. All of this is free.
Setting everything up is easy:
- Sign up for Steam and install the Steam app on your PC or Mac (a credit card isn't required for signing up).
- In the Steam app, under the “Games” tab look for “Add a non-Steam game to my library”. That's where you can add custom shortcuts to your favorite emulators.
- In the device connected to your TV (Chromebook, Roku, Apple TV, etc.), look in the app store for Steam Link. Install it.
- Next, you need to connect a Bluetooth mouse and gamepad to the device connected to your TV. That detail can be a little tricky. If you have an Android-based device, your Bluetooth mouse and gamepad needs to be supported by Android. If you have an Apple TV, your Bluetooth mouse and gamepad needs to be supported by iOS. And so on and so forth.
Steam Link does have its drawbacks. Streaming from your PC relies on your Wi-Fi's network bandwidth. Hence, there can be moments when there's a delay in button presses or experiencing sluggish video framerates. You may be stuck in a scenario where your Wi-Fi network delay makes action/adventure games impossible to play, but turn-based RPGs are tolerable.
Final thoughts: Streaming your computer to your TV is a great option if you want to use the same desktop video game emulators you're comfortable with on your TV. This is especially useful if your computer can handle CPU-heavy emulators such as for PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Wii, and Sega Saturn.
Option #5 - Hacking a NES/SNES/Genesis Mini
Nintendo and Sega blessed us with wonderful mini-systems to relive our childhood memories and play our beloved classics. But yet, being restricted to a limited number of games meant we couldn't fully relive our childhood memories.
Fortunately, hackers solved that problem by allowing us to load any games we wanted on a mini system! Hackers even took it a step further by creating “Hakchi”, which allows any single Mini system to support NES, SNES, and Genesis.
Here are tutorials on YouTube to walk you through this hacking process:
I need to point out that these hacked Mini systems are not very friendly with ROM hacks and translations. They're hit or miss and may not always work.
Final thoughts: If you don't mind being limited to NES, SNES, and Genesis, hacking a Mini system is a great option. But good luck finding one! NES and SNES Minis have become scarce and overpriced. At the time I'm writing this article, Genesis Minis are not as scarce and go for around $60-80 US.
Option #6 - Using a Retron 5
The Retron 5 is a handy video game system that can load games from real carts! It supports NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. Best of all, the Retron 5 supports loading ROMs for those systems through an SD card. There are videos on YouTube that walk you through the process of loading ROMs onto the Retron 5. The Retron 5 goes for around $150 US.
I want to point out that I'm only saying Retron 5 is a good option for playing ROMs. It's not the best option for playing real carts. The Retron systems are emulation-based and don't use native hardware. There are other systems that use native hardware (but don't support ROMs) such as the Super RetroTRIO.
I also need to point out that the Retron 5 is not very friendly with ROM hacks and translations. They're hit or miss and may not always work.
Final thoughts: The Retron 5 is the easiest option; you can be up and running in five minutes. Plus if you still own all your old games, you could play them again with this all-in-one system!
There are a few other 'honorable mentions' that are worth running by you.
Using a computer (instead of a laptop)
I know I kept pushing that you get a laptop rather than a computer. I'm certainly not opposed to computers. If grandma doesn't use her old PC anymore, by all means, take it and turn it into your personal emulation machine for your TV. You could even buy a cute little mini tower PC - they go for $120-$300 US. However, I still think a laptop or an Android set-top box are better investments for the advantages they offer.
Hacking old video game systems
You can breathe new life into an old video game system by hacking it. Once hacked, you can install a variety of different video game emulators. The PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Dreamcast, and Wii are popular systems for hacking. YouTube has videos that walk you through the process. I don't push this option because hacking may not be easy for everyone. But yet, this is a good option if you want something 'free' (well, to use something you already own) to play ROMs on your TV.
Using knockoff video game systems
Look up “games system” on Amazon and you'll get tons of those Chinese knockoff video game systems. They normally come bundled with ROMs, or make it easy to load your own ROMs. I don't know how reliable they are. None of these systems are particularly popular. Although I have been hearing that the RG350m is pretty good. It's a portable multi-system emulation device; it can also connect to your TV. It has similar hardware as the Raspberry Pi so it smoothly runs all the classics up to the PlayStation 1. It goes for around $120-$160 US. This is a good option if portability is important to you.
Final thoughts: A computer is great if you can get a hand-me-down from someone. If you're okay with hacking a precious video game system of yours, using that for emulators is handy. The RG350m is pretty cool if you expect to be playing games on mobile more so than on a TV.
Official ROM Collections
As much as I try to tell people there's nothing wrong with using ROMs, some still furiously insist “ROMs are illegal! ROMs are bad!” So if you're reluctant to try the options I'm recommending above, I can recommend some official ROM collections from Sega, Nintendo, and Square-Enix:
- Genesis Classics Collection - For $30 US you can have over 50 Genesis classics! It's a very generous offering for a great value. All of the Genesis' core RPG classics are included: Shining Force 1+2, Phantasy Star 2-4, Beyond Oasis, Landstalker, Shining in the Darkness, and Sword of Vermilion. This is available for PS4, Switch, Steam, and Xbox One. In my opinion, I think this collection has the best emulator compared to all other emulators in competing collections. It offers lots of features and has button shortcuts to those features.
- Nintendo Switch Online - If you're willing to pay $3.99/m US for Nintendo's cloud services, you're given access to play many NES and SNES classics on the Nintendo Switch. Some RPGs are offered: Crystalis, Breath of Fire, and Breath of Fire 2.
- Collection of Mana - For $25 US, Square-Enix offers a collection with Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, and Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3). This is only available for Nintendo Switch. The price has gone down, but I still think $25 is a lot for just three games. Other collections offer more games for less.
There are also many RPG classics available for individual purchases such as most of the Final Fantasy games and Dragon Quest games. And that's all I'll say on this subject because I want to focus on ROMs.
Final thoughts: If you're okay with a limited selection of games, these collections are the most convenient option. On your Switch (or other systems), you can quickly jump between playing modern video games and your favorite classics.
Tip: Obtaining ROMs in Bulk
At this point you might be wondering, “Ok, you've sold me. Now I have 32 GB I need to fill up with ROMs. But downloading ROMs is a pain because I have to download them one at a time! Can't I just download all ROMs for a system with a single click?“ - Yes, you certainly can!
The best site I know of that offers bulk downloads of ROMs is Archive.org. The tricky part is that the site is horrible to navigate; it's not easy to find the ROM collections. Fortunately, you can 'hack' this UX problem by using Google to find what you're looking for.
On Google, search for “archive.org [system] collection”. You can download all ROMs for every classic system in a zip file or torrent.
For example, let's say you want to download every SNES game:
- On Google, search for: “archive.org snes collection”.
- Click the first link in the search results, as shown here
- In the right column, you'll see a box with “Download options” and “ZIP” or “TORRENT”, as shown here . Click on the option you want.
Note: Bulk download only works with systems up to the 16-bit era. The games for 32-bit era systems (PlayStation 1, N64) and beyond are too large to download in a single zip file.
I've reviewed lots of ways you can turn a common device into a robust multi-system video game console. The order I presented these options is the actual ranked order I recommend them. Hence, I think a Chromebook is the best and most efficient option. I like being able to, say, check my emails in Chrome then jump into Snes9x to play Chrono Trigger. It's a hybrid system like a Nintendo Switch - play games on your TV or on the go.
However, I only recommend a laptop for casual classic gamers who only want to play a handful of games. For those of you who want to get serious with reliving the classics, a RetroPie is best. You can load hundreds or even thousands of ROMs onto an SD card, resulting in a monster RetroPie that lets you play everything. RetroPie is immensely popular and backed by a strong community. There's a ton of RetroPie help videos on YouTube covering any question or problems you need help with.
Here's a wrap-up of these options in a comparison table:
|🎮 Option||💸 Price||🙂 Pros||😐 Cons|
(budget to mid-range)
|Hybrid device--play games on your TV or on the go||Typically limited to 32 GB and navigating needs to be done manually|
(for standard kits)
|Affordable, versatile, and highly customizable||Setting it up can take a long time|
|Nvidia Shield TV Pro||$200 US||Offers power at a great value||Need to purchase external storage to compensate for the measly 16 GB|
(but you need a mouse & gamepad)
|Play your favorite desktop emulators on your TV||Performance relies on your Wi-Fi's network bandwidth|
|NES, SNES, Genesis Mini||$70-$300 US||Once hacked, you can play any game you want||Limited to those three systems|
|Retron 5||$150 US||Very quick & easy to set up||Limited to five systems|
This is a tough time for all of us with this pandemic. In my small way, I want to make your life easier. It's my hope this article inspires you to play ROMs on your TV, giving you something new to do to stay entertained :)