Let’s say you’ve got yourself a respectable little handheld collection. You’ve got devices for playing in bed, docked, couch, pantless, you name it. And yet, something lingers. I could emulate MORE you say. So you naturally do what anyone in this hobby usually decides to do.

You go bigger. As great as consoles and handhelds are today, there is just something about recreating that arcade experience. Arcade1Up has built an entire product line for the home revolving around your yearning to have a “real arcade” of your own. If you’re thinking about taking the leap, you’re going to need a frontend.

Arcade emulation frontends serve as graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that streamline the process of accessing and playing arcade games through emulation. They often provide features such as game organization, artwork display, metadata management, and controller configuration. Here is a selection of available arcade frontends that I’ve had the chance to play with.


Chances are that if you’ve seen a preconfigured arcade cabinet sold out there on the interwebs or at a convention, it’s running Hyperspin. First appearing on the scene in 2005, Hyperspin provided early MAME cabinet enthusiasts with an extensive array of options. It popularized the wheel menu display, presenting menus in a continuous rotation of options, reminiscent of the spinning wheel on “The Price is Right” showdown. This Windows frontend has the benefit of nearly 20 years of refinement, but can still be a little more resource-hungry than other options out there.


Main menu selection wheel in Hyperspin with custom categories

This frontend is highly customizable. Users can create menus, options, and control schemes to their exact specifications for their use cases. The drawback to all this customization is setup. I bought my first MAME PC cab in 2009 and was continually tweaking and fiddling with Hyperspin for years. It’s amazing once it’s done, but you might have some headaches along the way. This is not a frontend that is going to hold your hand, but preconfigured images and options for various hardware configurations have appeared over the years as the community has grown. I’d recommend avoiding the headaches and minor annoyances that I spent years tweaking, and perhaps dipping your toes into the pool with another option first.


Chances are that if you’ve been following the emulation hobby for any length of time, you’ve heard of Launchbox. This frontend appeared in 2012 and has maintained a loyal user base ever since. Launchbox benefits users by simplifying the setup process. When you initially launch the frontend and point it to your ROMs directory, it can automatically scrape metadata, artwork, videos, etc for menus and attract mode.


Launchbox Big Box menu screen

Launchbox is available on Windows and Android for free, but there is a Premium version for sale for $50 for a one-time license and a $100 lifetime license which promises forever support. The paid version unlocks access to Launchbox Big Box mode, which is what a lot of users, especially those with a dedicated arcade machine, are going to be looking for. Where the standard GUI is that of any other Windows program launcher, Big Box mode is designed for a couch of arcade experience that is navigated entirely via controller or stick.

The hook to get you into the premium version is all of the presentation bells and whistles that it unlocks. Let’s be honest, when you have your friends over for a party and show off your new arcade cabinet, you want it to look cool. A Windows interface to launch games works just fine, but it’s like having the magician explain the trick ahead of time.


Having explored most options for home arcades, Batocera remains my favorite. This standalone Linux frontend can be packed up as a portable image that can be booted into directly when the user switches the PC power on. Of course, other frontends can achieve this auto-launch with some tinkering, but none so seamlessly as Batocera. If you’re anything like me, you aren’t using a brand-new gaming rig to power an emulation cabinet, so squeezing all the performance out of your existing hardware is important. Windows adds underlying resource demand and bloat that we don’t need hogging system resources while we’re trying to play NFL Blitz.


Batocera MAME selection screen

Much like Launchbox, Batocera makes the user setup process as friendly as possible. You can point it to the folder location of your ROMs and it will scan and do the rest, with options to scrape various media and fan art for each selection. A long and robust user community means there is a library of available themes and designs for you to show off your arcade collection however you’d like. And since Batocera is an entirely community-developed frontend that lives in the Linux universe, it remains completely free.


I became aware of CoinOps after I purchased the AtGames Arcade Legends cabinet. Coinops will run great in a Windows environment, and I’ve used it on a desktop before, but where it really shines is in pre-built images designed to work with AtGames hardware. Much like Hyperspin, CoinOps presentation is based around a wheel as well, though other theming is possible. I find navigating the menus to get to the game I’m looking for slightly more cumbersome in CoinOps than some of the others, but it certainly delivers in the dedicated form I need it.


CoinOps nav wheel on the Arcade Legends

If you have an Arcade Legends machine and want to see what the CoinOps scene is all about, check out the good folks over on Reddit at /r/FansOfSauce to track development and answer any questions.

So Which is Right for You?

These are just a few examples of major arcade emulation frontends, each offering its own set of features, customization options, and user experiences. It really depends on what you’re looking for, but chances are that if you’re just getting into the hobby, someone out there has created an experience that’s what you’re looking for. I’ve tested most of the options out there at one time or another, and each has quirks that the other might not, but the landscape stands at present as accessible for the newcomer as it has ever been.

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