Gamers Without Borders: Let’s Get Started

Next month, Sony and Microsoft are launching allegedly new gaming hardware. More specifically, we’re just weeks away from the launches, and I’m still struggling to figure out why. Between the Xbox XS and PlayStation 5, there are two games that you cannot find on the PC or (after about another week) eighth-generation platforms. Both of these games are exclusive to the PlayStation 5. One is the pack-in, and one is a remake of a PlayStation 3 game. Destruction All-Stars was slated to be the lone genuine exclusive game available at retail day and date with the system… until it slipped this week to February.

There’s no doubt the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is playing a major role in this, but there’s a saying in the business world: Never give your customers an opportunity to examine whether their engagement is passionate or habitual. It was probably better to scuttle the launches until Spring or even until Holiday 2021, with better hardware supply, an actual software identity for the systems, and maybe even a lower price point, than to shuffle minimal units out the door with maximum hype on the promise of better things to come “someday.” If your passion has somehow survived but your enthusiasm is genuinely shut down for the moment, I encourage you to read on.

Two $500 boxes, zero games you can’t get elsewhere in some form.

One selling point to which they could have committed early (frankly at the first sign of pandemic issues) is to refocus their energies on backward compatibility. New hardware, after all, means another reshuffling of devices on our entertainment centers, and there is not infinite space for anyone unable or unwilling to significantly alter their living rooms to make it happen. If Sony could come forth with fully functioning and at least very highly (~95-99%) backward-compatible PS5 units across the PSX, PS2, PS3, PS4, PSP, and PS Vita, or if Microsoft could do the same with the Series X and the legacy Xbox, 360, and One, that would be an incredible value proposition for the disc-drive-equipped, “are you kidding me in this economy” $500 models. Sony tried that approach with the PS2 and it worked remarkably well. It only fell off with the PS3 because they started at a price point they never should have entertained in the first place, and they had to start killing vital features to bring it back down.

F-Zero GX is but one of many great games players stand to lose convenient access to as rotational gaming rig management comes back for its ninth-generation round.

I can’t speak for any of you, but I know I’ve easily dumped five figures into the libraries of these legacy platforms, and frankly I find it insulting that my options are limited to either keeping the old hardware connected (and functional) or to limit my classic options to whatever the platform holders can re-sell me, or at least whatever they can continue selling to others. In light of that, doesn’t it feel like there are better places to put your money than a full-price, newly-launching platform that has no games of its own until further notice?

(Nintendo, you’re not innocent in this, either, just because you aren’t launching a system at the moment. A lot of money went into Virtual Console libraries, and the Switch wouldn’t bat an eye at running any of the VC and WiiWare games that I would hope the company is still legally obligated to have account-based evidence of us owning.)

The message is clear: “We got your money, you’re on your own.”

It’s time to respond in kind, “If you won’t help us protect our investments in your gaming legacy, we’ll take matters into our own hands.”

Let’s find a better use for that $500.

I recently went down the rabbit hole of mini reproduction consoles like the Sega Genesis Mini and the PlayStation Classic, and the modifications thereof. As revelatory as the experience was, being able to replay these old games on official hardware manufactured and released by the actual platform holders, what we know about said platform holders makes it hard to believe that such devices will ever find a permanent spot in their respective product lines so long as they remain as modifiable as they are.

We need a platform that belongs to us.

It comes to the PC, but it has to shed a couple of things before it’s ready for our purposes. First of all is its obnoxious existing identity as a gaming platform. PC gaming has long since grown beyond the historical shooters, micromanagement-intensive RPGs, and hardcore life simulations for MIT graduates that have long defined its place in the landscape, but to the “PCMR” faithful, that’s still the beating heart of the platform. What I want to propose is a specific alternative identity for machines built toward this purpose, “PC as a console”, which takes me to my next point:

The standard desktop gaming PC is an unwieldy nuisance that demands its own space just by virtue of its size, an aspect that many aftermarket hardware suppliers enthusiastically embrace. This is wholly incompatible with the space-sensitive nature of console gaming as a whole. Recent podcasts include many instances of my colleagues wondering where on earth they’re going to fit an Xbox Series X in their own gaming spaces in a couple weeks. What chance would a full size gaming desktop have? Compromises have to be made.

Thankfully, small form factor PCs are not a rarity, but something that small while still able to stand up blow-for-blow to the imminent wave of gaming hardware is going to be a crippling expense to the tune of $2,000-3,000. Not at all what is being attempted here, so let’s set a specific vision for this “fourth console.” It doesn’t have to be bleeding-edge, because the key point is to protect your existing investment in software without having 15-20 boxes connected to your TV at once. Since we’ve already established that the PS5 and Xbox XS will effectively replace the PS4 and Xbox One with the backward compatibility they do have, let’s aim for a comprehensive entertainment center of…

Nintendo Switch
PlayStation 4 (PlayStation 5 once it has a library of its own.)
Xbox One (Xbox XS once it has a library of its own.)
PlayStation 3 (Covers PSX, but doesn’t really have to as you’ll see here.)
Xbox 360 (Covers a good deal of Xbox.)
“The Fourth Console”

This shouldn’t be a major adjustment for those already deeply invested in older platforms and actively attempting to keep their libraries accessible. It also provides a more focused shopping list for compatibility features needed of “The Fourth Console.”

Nintendo: Everything except the Switch
Sega: Everything
Sony: PS2, PSP, PS Vita
Microsoft: Some legacy Xbox, and yes, that’s a big problem…we’ll come back to it…

Such a device would also be able to play a good chunk of new or recent PC titles, so that’s a nice bonus. What I want to do, now that we’ve established what this system needs to be able to do, is introduce you to my personal rig, while also offering up a few alternatives that should suit your needs.

Alienware Alpha | Dell Canada
The Alienware Alpha is a gorgeous and undeniably convenient little piece of kit that doesn’t look the least bit out of place next to your other gaming consoles.

Meet the Alienware Alpha, the basis of my personal build. Don’t even consider grabbing one of these new because the Alpha line was discontinued and you’ll pay a grotesque premium for the remaining unopened product. Thankfully, the aftermarket is rife with them, their form factor is approximately what you would get if a Wii U went to the gym, and you can generally get your hands on one for $200-300 if you’re watching eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace closely. I got in on an i5 with 8 GB RAM and a 120 GB SSD for $200, doubled down on the RAM for about $80, and then got an aftermarket i7-4790t for $165 to bulk up the CPU power for emulation (necessary if you want a high level of PS2 compatibility). Once I connected a spare external HDD I had on hand, I was good to go.

For some, the size of a PC may not be the issue that it is for others. In that case, just about any midrange build in the $400-500 price range should be a perfectly fine starting point, perhaps built from a repurposed office desktop if you still want to be frugal. For those who are more space-conscious, I reached out to my good friend and former Smashpad colleague Filippo Dinolfo for a straightforward console build. Here’s what he came back to me with.

The ASRock Deskmini (“The Filbox”? No?) is a superb foundation for The Fourth Console. With the right additions, it provides a vital new dimension to your gaming rig.

Base: ASRock DESKMINI X300W – $180 as of this writing (late Oct. 2020)
RAM: Crucial 16GB (2 x 8GB) 260-Pin DDR4 SO-DIMM DDR4 3200 – $67.79
SSD: WD Blue 3D NAND 1TB Internal SSD – SATA III 6Gb/s – $104.99
CPU (low-end option): AMD RYZEN 3 3200G 4-Core 3.6 GHz – $120.49
CPU (high-end option): AMD RYZEN 5 3400G 4-Core 3.7 GHz – $139.99
The difference in the CPU options will primarily be seen in PS2 emulation.

Before I go into case-by-case emulation compatibility with my specific build, let me first cover my ass and address the necessary topic of legality.

Technically, it is illegal to play a ROM or ISO you did not personally make. Practically, because the former is very difficult to enforce, the common logic is that you should at least own copies of the games you emulate, which is also entirely compatible with the concept of using emulation to protect your existing investments (which is itself the entire reason for the “personal copy” law in the first place). We’re not declaring open season on software piracy here.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.

Nintendo: Everything went swimmingly here, except for CemU (Wii U) which is a pool I haven’t really dipped a toe into as of yet (though I would understand if the spec I’m operating at has some issues). GameCube at 1080p with widescreen hacks is absolutely one of the stars of this whole project. 3DS emulation under Citra is fairly new and extremely spotty, but at its best, you get to experience some absolute classics in 1080p that were previously relegated to your pocket, and it can only improve further from here.

Sega: Everything you could want from this, you get. Flycast (under RetroArch) and ReDream are great for bringing the Dreamcast to your entertainment center in HD, and the massive strides that have been made in the way of Saturn emulation in recent years are evident with the Beetle Saturn RetroArch core. Anything older than the Saturn and Dreamcast has been perfectly emulated for years, and that’s no exception here.

Sony: Without having had a chance to examine the Vita emulation scene, there are but three platforms I can report on. Although the proposed entertainment center above has the PS3 to support it, the PSX is also the big star of the show here since the original had so many visual flaws baked into the hardware that Beetle PSX fixes beautifully. PS2 emulation under PCSX2 is great, not perfect, as even with the i7-4790t, games like Gran Turismo 4 and import Sega Rally 2006 just pushed the PS2 so hard that the Alpha can’t help but fall short. PSP emulator PPSSPP has been a known quantity for years, and the Alpha is no bottleneck here.

Microsoft: The Xbox is the odd man out, unfortunately. Xbox and Xbox 360 emulation are very much in their infancy, and although early indications are extremely promising, there are also some very important games that are not remotely ready for prime time. CXBX Reloaded (Xbox), XQEMU (Xbox), and Xenia (360) are all promising emulators with bright futures, but the reality is that they’re all punching well above the Alpha’s weight class.

This may be a low hardware spec to come in at for a similar price point to the hardware being launched imminently by Sony and Microsoft, but the point is in the purpose that it serves. It simultaneously lifts virtually all boundaries created by software incompatibilities in the new platforms, while also lifting all regional restrictions those older consoles suffered from. The result is a comprehensive gaming box that fills virtually all gaps formed by what the current range of consoles will not enable you to play, and it will be a vital part of protecting any investment you have already made in gaming up to this point.

If those barriers are to be lifted, then all that lies behind them will need coverage. That will be the spirit behind Smashpad’s newest podcast, Gamers Without Borders, premiering next month. Imports? Retro gaming? It’s all on the table. Tips and pointers for the more DIY-type aspects of your new investment in gaming? We’ve got you.

Stay tuned, because we’re taking a one-way trip off the beaten path. Come along for the ride.