How to Set Up Retroarch on Windows

You’ve heard how Retroarch works as both a front-end and a collection of emulators. About how it makes it easy to emulate multiple older gaming platforms. Of how it’s one of the most straightforward ways to gain access to thousands of games.

Although Retroarch is all of the above, it also demands you invest some time and effort to configure it correctly.

Since we’ve already been there, allow us to lend a helping hand. Let’s go together through Retroarch’s installation and initial configuration so that you can begin playing your favorite retro games in no time.

Download & Install Retroarch

Υou can download Retroarch from its official site, but it’s also available on the Steam store. And if you’ve installed Chocolatey in the past, you can install Retroarch through it. Just type…

choco install retroarch

…in a terminal, with Chocolatey installed, and hit Enter to bring Retroarch on board.

Note that each of those paths also plays a role in where and how Retroarch will be installed. For this article, we’ll be using the classic method:

  1. Visit Chocolatey’s official site and click on the Get RetroArch button.

  2. We’ve decided to “live dangerously” and go for the latest features and optimizations instead of stability, and went for Download Nightly. If you prefer the opposite, go for Download Stable. Everything we’ll see applies to both versions.

  3. Instead of a download starting, you’ll be “dropped” in buildbot’s Retroarch project folder. Choose the Windows folder, and then x86_64. Scroll down and download either the RetroArch-Win64-setup.exe if you’d like the standard installer version, or RetroArch.7z if you’d prefer to treat it as a portable app and extract its archive to a folder manually.


When the download completes, run Retroarch’s installer, or extract its archive to a folder. Then, run it.

How to Update & Expand Retroarch

Retroarch comes pretty barren by default. To use it, you have to “populate” Retroarch with content and add the emulation cores that will run said content. Plus some “extra stuff”. More specifically:

  1. Choose Main Menu > Online Updater.

  2. Choose Core Downloader.

  3. Check the list of available cores and download the ones for the systems you’d like to emulate with Retroarch. As you’ll see, some systems have many cores dedicated to them. Or the opposite, some cores might be able to emulate multiple systems. Each has different pros and cons. We believe it’s best to download all of them and experiment later to find the best ones for the games you prefer to play.

  4. Here’s a tip: although you can download multiple cores in parallel, avoid overdoing it. We found (the hard way) that Retroarch doesn’t like having more than six to ten downloads in its queue. If “overloaded”, the process might look frozen until you restart Retroarch.

  5. Return to the previous menu and choose the Core System Files Downloader. There you will find extra files needed for the systems you want to emulate.

  6. Back to the main Online Updater menu, you can skip the Content Downloader if you don’t like freebies. If you do, you’ll find lots of demos, shareware, freeware, or indie content for most of the systems Retroarch can emulate. But you’ll also find some files required for the correct emulation of some systems (like for use with the PCSX2 PlayStation 2 emulator core).

  7. Return once more to the Online Updater. Go through the rest of the Update… options to fully update not Retroarch, but all the nice extra features and “niceties” it supports: Assets, Controller Profiles, Cheats, Databases, Overlays, and GLSL Shaders. We suggest you also enable On-Demand Thumbnail Downloads. As the option states, it will try to find and download thumbnails for the games in your playlists as you browse through them. This option will add an initial delay when you first use Retroarch, but it will soon fade away – and your playlists will look pretty!

How to Configure & Customize Retroarch

With the basics out of the way, it’s time to start tweaking how Retroarch will work on your hardware the way you want it. So, it’s time to dive into the Settings‘ menu, where you will find the following:

Setting Up the Drivers

The default settings are generic, and try to play it safe with all hardware. Change the drivers to the best for your PC. The most important for performance is the Video driver, but the best choice depends on your particular GPU. For example, Vulkan might perform much better than GL on your GPU. Or not at all.

Tweaking the Video

Change how Retroarch, in layman’s terms, “will show stuff on the screen”. You can tweak how it works in fullscreen and windowed mode, which monitor to use when in fullscreen mode, at what resolution and refresh rate, what type of scaling to use, etc.

It’s worth noting that Retroarch supports variable refresh rate solutions (G-Sync, FreeSync, and HDMI 2.1 VRR). If both your GPU and monitor support one of them, enable Sync to Exact Content Framerate (G-Sync, FreeSync), under Settings > Video > Synchronization, to ensure tear-less gameplay.

Adjusting the Audio

Under the Settings > Audio menu, you’ll find the options controlling Retroarch’s sound output. If using multiple audio devices on your computer (like headphones and speakers), choose the one through which Retroarch should produce sound from the Output sub-menu.

If you have a beastly PC that can take anything you throw at it, increase the Resampler Quality under Settings > Audio > Resampler.

This can decrease performance and worsen latency on older and more underpowered PCs, but produce better sound if your PC has the power to spare.

Would you like to “enrich” (or mutate) Retroarch’s sound? Check out the available DSP Plugin(s) under the Audio settings menu.

There are many DSP plugins to try out, and if you’ve ever used a software equalizer or the software that came with your PC’s sound system, you may be familiar with some of them. For example:

  • BassBoost enhances the lower frequencies for a more “thumpy” sound.
  • Echo adds such an effect (that may make you feel like Bruce Wayne retro-gaming in his bat-cave).
  • Crystalizer enhances some sound frequencies that, theoretically, “make the audio sound cleaner and richer to the human ear”. At least, theoretically. Your ears (and any four-legged friend) might disagree.

Setting Up the Input

Visit this menu to change how Retroarch responds to controller, keyboard, and mouse input.

It’s worth visiting at least the Hotkeys section, even if only to familiarize yourself with the defaults. Some hotkeys are the only way to access great Retroarch features, which can affect how you’re gaming. “Features” like slow motion, save states, and rewind.

Setting the Frame Throttle

It might sound like an obscure collection of advanced settings that sound uninteresting. That’s until you realize that the options under Frame Throttle are the secret to becoming the Prince of Persia.

Of course, we’re referring to Ubisoft’s classic game that introduced us to the concept of “time rewind”. In it, you could go back in time, like pressing the rewind button on an old-school VCR, to undo a game-playing mistake. Did you press the jump button too soon, losing a life in The Pit Of Doom? Rewind time up to the moment before jumping, and retry it again.

Since the Rewind feature eats extra memory, it’s disabled by default. To use it, you should enable Rewind from this spot and then configure it to your liking. You can define how much memory to dedicate to Rewind, how many frames to skip to “turn back time” faster or more accurately, etc.

Want to Record? Retroarch Can Help

Youtubers and other streamers should stop at the Settings > Recording menu.

You can enable Retroarch’s built-in recording and streaming support and configure how the output will be encoded. You can choose how many threads to dedicate to encoding, if you’ll use your GPU to accelerate it, the output quality, etc.

And with this last stop, you’ve configured the most important Retroarch settings. Now, you can play your favorite emulated retro games with Retroarch. First, let’s fix that pesky “Retroarch doesn’t list any games yet” issue.

How to Add Content to Retroarch

You can use Retroarch like other emulators, “opening” a ROM when you want to play that game. However, Retroarch isn’t merely “a collection of emulators”. Primarily it’s (supposed to be) a front-end for all your emulated content. Thus, it’s better to go the opposite route and first import all your ROMs.

  1. Choose Import Content from Retroarch’s main menu.

  2. Select Scan Directory to have Retroarch import all ROMs you’ve got in a particular folder. Scan File only scans and imports a single file. In contrast, Manual Scan allows you to manually add titles without relying on their automatic matching to a database.

  3. With your ROMs added to Retroarch, return to its Online Updater. Choose Playlist Thumbnails Updater to have Retroarch download thumbnails for all entries (that it recognizes) in your new ROM Playlist.

Note that you can import the same ROMs you’re already using on other compatible emulators. For example, you might have gone through our guide on how to use ScummVM to play classic adventure games, and are already enjoying those era-defining Sierra and Lucasarts titles.

Well, ScummVM is also included in Retroarch as one of its cores, so you can import your ScummVM game folders, to have those titles accessible from the same unified interface.

After all of that, it’s time to enjoy some retro games.

And Finally, It’s Time to Play

With Retroarch configured, all your ROMs added into Playlists for various systems, and beautiful thumbnails for each title downloaded through the Online Updater, you’re ready to play.

  1. Choose the playlist of the emulated system you want to enjoy this time. Find the game you want to play and select it by clicking on it or pressing Enter on the keyboard.

  2. Select Run from the game-specific menu that will show up.

  3. Play!

Reigniting the Past With Retroarch

As a closing note, although you’ve now got a perfectly working Retroarch installation, remember to visit its Online Updater periodically. Retroarch’s emulation cores are continuously updated and gaining new features almost daily.

By investing the time to configure Retroarch properly, you’ve turned your PC into an ever-evolving retro-gaming multi-console with access to tens of thousands of games. Literally. Ain’t that nice?

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