How to Install RetroArch on Xbox One or Series X/S
Microsoft’s Xbox console is essentially a PC, which means it’s relatively easy to download and install not only games but apps and other tools. Retro-game enthusiasts will be pleased to know that developers have made RetroArch available to install on modern Xbox consoles, so not only can you play the latest and greatest AAA titles on your Xbox, but you’ll be able to put on your rose-colored glasses and take a trip down memory lane with tons of emulators. The best part is that there is no modification of your Xbox necessary – RetroArch can be downloaded and installed to your stock, vanilla Xbox.
Why Use RetroArch on Xbox
RetroArch is a frontend for a wide variety of emulators. It has a number of features that you can tinker with. However, its main draw is that it allows all of your retro games to be accessed from a single app.
Also, with RetroArch, you won’t lose access to your Live account, your games or your achievements. In addition, because you’re playing on an Xbox, the Xbox controller works automatically with all of the cores within RetroArch, so you won’t have to waste time configuring controls for each emulator – you can get right into the game!
Previously, in order to emulate other video game consoles on your Xbox, you needed to put your Xbox into developer mode. Developer mode is intended for developers to use standard Xbox consoles to make their own games and apps. While putting your Xbox console into developer mode is totally safe, there is a major downside. In order to play games, you need to switch it back to retail mode, which requires a reboot of the console. While not a deal breaker, it is a significant annoyance. Fortunately, RetroArch allows you to run emulators directly from your Xbox’s dashboard, with no developer mode required. While there are standalone emulators that are available for your Xbox, in this tutorial we detail how to get RetroArch up and running.
All of this is possible thanks to the hard work of an independent developer known as gamr13. MakeTechEasier is not affiliated with gamr13 in any way, however, we felt that it was only right to acknowledge the hard work that went into this project. Gamr13 can be found on Twitter, Reddit, Discord and YouTube.
What You Need to Run RetroArch
- An Xbox console: the method of installing RetroArch is identical for Xbox One/One X and Xbox Series S/X. You just need to be connected to the Internet.
- A USB drive: this is where all of your ROMs and BIOS files will be stored. We recommend a USB 3.0 drive. As far as storage capacity is concerned, it will largely depend on what consoles you want to emulate, with newer consoles having larger ROM file sizes. However the bigger, the better. This way you’ll have the option of adding more games in the future.
- A PC: you’ll need to use a Windows 10/11 PC to format the USB drive and transfer all of your games.
1. Install the Gamr13 App Store on Your Xbox
You need a bit of prep work to download RetroArch.
- Launch the Edge browser on your Xbox console from the “My Games & Apps” section on your Xbox’s homepage. If you don’t have the Microsoft Edge browser installed, grab it from the Microsoft Store app on your Xbox.
- Using your Xbox controller as a mouse, point the Edge browser to gamr13.github.io.
- Download the gamr13 app store by clicking on the green “Download App” button.
- A pop-up will appear notifying you that the site is attempting to open the Microsoft Store. Allow it to proceed by clicking the “Open” button.
- The Store app will launch and you’ll be presented with the Gamr13.AppStore installer. From here, click on the button labeled “Install.”
- Once the installation is complete, you should see the Gamr13.AppStore on your Xbox’s dashboard. Go ahead and launch it.
2. Install RetroArch on Your Xbox
Inside the Gamr13.AppStore, you’ll see a bunch of stuff, but what we’re interested in is RetroArch.
- Click on the RetroArch icon and select “Install” from the drop-down menu that appears.
- This will take you back to the Edge Browser where you’ll once again be prompted that the site is attempting to open Microsoft Store. Click “Open” to return to the Store app.
- Install RetroArch by clicking the “Install” button.
- Once RetroArch has finished installing, you should see the icon on your Xbox’s dashboard. Launch RetroArch and give it a few minutes to set itself up.
3. Set Up RetroArch
Before you start playing your favorite retro titles, you need to do a bit of configuring.
- In RetroArch’s main menu, scroll down to “Online Updater.”
- On the following screen, you’ll see a bunch of update options. It isn’t necessary to run all of these, but we recommend selecting “Update Core Info Files”, “Update Assets” and “Update Controller Profiles” before you proceed. Updating these will make sure that you’re running the latest versions of all the emulators and enjoy an overall smoother experience.
- It will take RetroArch a moment to download, extract and apply each file, so just be patient.
4. Download Cores
RetroArch refers to emulators as “cores,” so from here on out that’s how we’ll refer to them. There are a bunch of cores available for a variety of game consoles. We recommend downloading several cores to see which ones you prefer. To download cores, select “Load Core.” The next screen will display the full list of available cores. Simply select the ones you want to begin downloading them.
5. Download Core System Files
Scroll up to the top of the page and select “Core System Files Downloader” to see a bunch of ZIP files that correspond with specific consoles (e.g. PSP, Gamecube). Selecting one will download the BIOS file for that system. It’s not entirely necessary, but having the BIOS file can result in better emulation performance.
6. Set Up the Correct Directories
Most of the time all of the proper directories are selected automatically. However, there are rare instances in which RetroArch has not selected the right ones. Unfortunately, if that’s the case you won’t be able to launch any emulators or play any games. To double-check that RetroArch has chosen the right paths:
- Select “Settings” from the menu on the left.
- In the main window on the right, scroll down to “Directory” and select it. On the subsequent screen, you’ll see a bunch of directories (e.g. C:\).
- Find the directory that has a string of characters after it; this is the RetroArch folder installed on your Xbox console and is usually the last directory listed.
- Select this directory, scroll down and select “Configs -> Use This Directory.”
- Go back and select “Core info,” select the RetroArch directory, then select “Info -> Use This Directory.”
- Go back again and choose “Databases,” select the RetroArch directory, then “Database -> Use This Directory.”
7. Set a Hotkey on Your Xbox Controller
There is one more thing you need to do before you can play your favorite retro games – assign a hotkey. You don’t need to map any buttons; all of the buttons are assigned automatically and accurately.
A hotkey is a button or combination of buttons on your controller that will exit the game you are playing and bring you back to the main menu of RetroArch. Without a hotkey enabled, you’d have to quit RetroArch and relaunch it from your Xbox’s dashboard every time you wanted to start a new game.
To set a hotkey:
- Highlight “Settings” from the menu on the left, then scroll down and select “Input.”
- On the following page, scroll down and select “Hotkeys”.
- Select “Menu Toggle Controller Combo” to go to the page where you can assign your hotkey combination.
- Choose whichever combination you think will work best from the options available. We prefer the combination Start + Select, as that is the default hotkey combo for RetroPie.
8. Prepare Your USB Flash Drive
At this stage, switch over to your Windows PC and take the following steps to prepare your USB flash drive.
- Plug your flash drive into your computer.
- When your USB shows up in the left-hand column of the File Explorer window, right-click it and select “Format” from the drop-down menu.
- This will open a new window that will enable you to change a bunch of parameters, but there’s only one you need to pay attention to. Under “File system” click the drop-down menu and select “NTFS.”
- Rename your drive in the box labeled “Volume label” if you like. We suggest something like “Xbox” or “Roms”.
- Click the “Start” button and your USB flash drive will be formatted and ready to go.
9. Transfer Your ROMs
- Open your newly formatted USB flash drive and create a folder called “GAMES” or “ROMS”.
- Inside that folder, create subfolders for each console you want to emulate on your Xbox. For example, if you plan on running Super Nintendo games, create a folder called “SNES.”
- Once you have created all of your console-specific subfolders, begin transferring your ROM files. It goes without saying but you’ll want to put your ROMs into the console subfolder that they are associated with. Therefore, Gameboy Advance ROMs would be placed into the GBA folder and so on.
10. Prep Your USB for the Xbox
Now that your ROMs are on your USB, there’s one more thing you need to do before plugging it into your Xbox console – navigate some menus of technobabble to ensure that your Xbox will be able to read your USB and actually play your ROMs.
- In the File Explorer window, locate the USB drive in the column on the left-hand side and right-click it, then click on “Properties” in the context menu.
- In the new window that appears, click on the tab labeled “Security.” Next, click on the button labeled “Advanced.”
- This will open up an entirely new window. Here, click on the “Add” button.
- Click on “Select a principal.”
- In the new window that opens, click on the “Advanced” button. This will launch yet another window.
- Click the button on the right labeled “Find Now.” In the search results field, find and double-click on “ALL APPLICATION PACKAGES.”
- On the next window that appears, click “OK” to close that window. You should now see the “Permission Entry for Your_USB” window. Click the “OK” button.
- You should now see a window labeled “Advanced Security Settings for Your_USB.” In the “Permission entries” section, ensure that you see “ALL APPLICATIONS PACKAGES” under the “Principal” column and “Read & execute” under the “Access” column.
- Put a check in the box labeled “Replace all child object permission entries with inheritable permission entries from this object” at the bottom of this window. Finally, click “OK.”
- A few other windows will pop up warning you of security issues and asking if you want to proceed. Select “Yes” and “Continue” to finish up.
- At this point, your USB is ready to be ejected from your PC and plugged into your Xbox console.
11. Launch RetroArch on Your Xbox
- With your USB plugged into your Xbox, fire up RetroArch.
- On the main menu, select “Load Content.”
- You’ll be brought to a new page that displays a bunch of directories. Scroll down to drive “D” and select it, as this is where you will find the contents of your USB.
- You should now see a folder called “GAMES” or “ROMS” depending on which you opted for. Select that and you should now see the console-specific subfolders that you created earlier.
- Select one of the subfolders to display all of your ROMs for that console.
- Select a ROM to pick the core you want to use to run that game. There are usually a few to choose from, so feel free to experiment.
- That’s it. You are now running emulators and retro games on your Xbox console. Have fun with them!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a difference in performance running RetroArch on my Xbox One versus my Xbox Series S/X?
The short answer is yes. You can follow the steps above to get RetroArch up and running on your previous generation Xbox. That being said, you will see a decrease in performance. The Xbox Series S/X has beefier components under the hood compared to the Xbox One/One X. This means that you’ll see better performance with the newer console, particularly with emulators that demand more grunt.
Based on our testing, the Xbox One does fine with 8-bit and 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo and the Gameboy Advance, while the performance of 32-bit consoles like the PlayStation 1 can be hit or miss. Therefore, if you’re aiming to emulate a more powerful console like the Gamecube, you’ll see the best performance from an Xbox Series S/X.
What are the best cores to use?
This is a tough question simply because RetroArch enthusiasts will have different preferences for any number of reasons. There are many forum discussions dedicated to this very question, so feel free to do your own research. However, if you want to start playing as quickly as possible, we have a few suggestions for some of the more popular consoles.
- Nintendo Entertainment System – Mesen
- Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance – mGBA
- Super Nintendo – SNES9X or bSNES
- Sega Master System, Genesis/Mega Drive, 32x, Sega CD – Genesis Plus GX
- Sony PlayStation – DuckStation
- Nintendo 64 – Mupen64Plus
Do I need BIOS files for the emulators?
BIOS files enable your ROMs to run more accurately. In most cases, you do not need to provide them in order to play a game, but some emulators do require them. For legal reasons, we can’t tell you how to get your hands on BIOS files. However, if you have them, you can create a folder called “bios” on your USB and chuck them in there. Then you can point the emulator within RetroArch that requires a BIOS file to the necessary file on your USB.
Image credit: Unsplash & RetroArch
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