T he animated intros, the sound effects, the wheel art. Stop if this sounds familiar. For the longest time, I thought Hyperspin was the bees knees of emulator front ends. When I first discovered it back in 2012, it looked out of this world. Although I’d been messing around with emulators for ages, I was still very green to front-ends. The idea of a full menu system that loaded all your games with pretty graphics, video previews and box art – it was some next level shit.
Fast forward 6 or so years later, and I hateeeee using HyperSpin. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the developers or anything like that. The amount of work and effort that the community does for HyperSpin is nothing short of amazing – it’s just getting HyperSpin to work and play nicely takes time, a LOT of time. Time where now days is probably better spent actually playing games, than looking at a menu screen with a rom list.
Sorry, it's a pain to setup
If you Google, “hyperspin tutorial” or something along those lines, I bet you $5 bucks and a cheese burger that you’re going to find hundreds of articles on the HyperSpin forums. There’s tutorials left right and center about setting up emulators, JoytoPad configs, Dir to XML programs, RocketLauncher, HyperBase and a multitude of other programs, not called HyperSpin.
HyperSpin major (or core) updates have been far and few between, so while development stalled for a bit, the community stepped in and developed a whole bunch of third-party tools to help get your setup going. As a result, to get the most out of HyperSpin you’ll have to jump around 5 – 10 programs just to get your collection to play the way you want it.
You don’t HAVE to use these additional applications, but they make getting your setup going a lot easier, especially since HyperSpin is already hard to deal with. I’ve spent hours mucking around with HyperSpin getting images to work, using XML generators, loading third-party programs on launch, and even adding new games. HyperSpin sure looks nice, but to get an all working config the way you want it, is soul crushing. I know a lot of purists HS fans will say, “well have you searched the forums, there’s plenty of documentation”
It’s not as simple as that – there’s a lot of nuances and things that come up that is expected in a sort of front end setup like this. More importantly its setting up the most basic things that HyperSpin simply doesn’t do (or do well), is where you’ll need to grab a small utility to help you along. You shouldn’t need 50 additional programs – sorry but it’s real talk. To make matters worse, looking for a tutorial for all these bits and bobs in the HyperSpin forums isn’t easy, there’s just shit everywhere.
It's time to move on
At the end of the day, a front end is a list of games that looks pretty, that you can launch roms from. That’s it. It shouldn’t be a complicated affair. The more time I started putting into HyperSpin, the more it dawned on me – why is this complicated?
I’m wasting all this time and effort for all these images, videos and menus that I spend literally seconds in, I’m here to play games! I’m not taking a stab at HS and how it looks, people love it, and that’s fine. I even know people who actually enjoy setting these things up, and again – that’s ok. But now days, I want something simple to set up, won’t take friggin’ years to get going, and just works. I’ve setup a dedicated HyperSpin setup before and when I plug it now days, I’m amazed how I even got it going in the first place.
Time to hunt for a new front end.
I had a Sega New Astro City arcade machine that I wanted to convert into a MAME setup. I’m not going to go into the technical requirements for hooking up a PC to an arcade monitor (that’s another beast in itself) but I put in a PC in the bad boy and the machine was running, the front end was next.
My setup would only have arcade games and select console games. I never really got why people put every emulator under the sun on their arcade machine. 50% of games on other consoles don’t map well to arcade controls, and some just don’t make sense (N64 on an arcade machine, for example). Oh and also, thousands of games on lists won’t be a thing – this would have a refined selection of favourites. From all the 30,000 games MAME has, people only play maybe a fraction. If you like having everything at your fingertips, that’s your poison – but I wanted to have a solid selection of titles that wasn’t saturated down by rubbish that no one will play.
So based on my past experience of setting up HyperSpin, that was off the table. I made myself a hit list of things I wanted out of my next front end. This was what I came up with:
- Reliance on third-party tools to a minimum.
- Relativity low system resources needed.
- I can add and remove games, easily.
- Ability to have a single list, but different emulators behind each game (not a list separated by emulators).
- You don’t need a Britannica to know how to use it.
What about LaunchBox!?
Knew you’d say that, yes I’ve looked at LaunchBox and its pretty darn good. Don’t get me wrong, LaunchBox does do a lot of things that HyperSpin doesn’t. Give it a directory full of roms and it will automatically generate a list, and automatically download images! Friggin A+ right there, no additional program needed. It also has a ton of templates and import configurations for all the major emulators which makes setting up a breeze. The developers are also constantly updating LB with new features and their documentation is great. However to get the most of out LB, you’ll need to buy Big Box, which is what 99% of people will want if they want a front end.
Big Box is the full version of LB, which has the full screen menu with videos, wheels and tons more which I won’t get into. Not trying to sound like a cheap ass, but I didn’t want to pay for something. If I was running a mega rom collection on my arcade machine, I think it would be the clear winner especially with its rom management, but it was still a bit too, I guess heavy for what I needed it to do. Maybe later on when I make an emulation PC and I’ll tinker with LB more but for my arcade machine needs, it wasn’t exactly ‘it’.
So once my experimentation with LaunchBox ended, I started searching to see who the usual suspects were when it came to front end business. Much to my, not so much surprise, aside from LB there hasn’t been a lot of progress or new players in the game. There were still what I like to call ‘legacy’ front ends hanging around such as Mala, MameWah and a few other ones such as GameEx and Maximus Arcade, but 9 times out of 10, LB blew them away with features. If there was something promising, it was most likely behind a pay wall and that immediately was crossed out. I then came across Big Blue.
I think we have a winner
Big Blue is a free open source Windows based front end which fit the bill, almost to a tee. A one man project made by someone who had similar frustrations when it came to usability and features in an emulator front end, it seemed to address all the issues I had. The below is an except, verbatim from the home page.
- Powerful GUI configuration utility with the ability to query MAME’s list XML data.
- No dependency on emulator versions; won’t have to be changed continually with each new version of an emulator.
- Supports any program that you can run from the command line; if you can run it from the command line, you can launch it from Big Blue.
- Ability to choose programs (with parameters) to run both before and after the main game in your list.
- Overrides Escape key behavior so that you can quit from any emulator by pressing Escape even if the emulator doesn’t natively support it.
First of all, let’s make no mistake – Big Blue is not a front end if you like flashing pictures, crazy sounds effects, animations and all that sort of stuff – it’s definitely a case of function over form here. You’re limited to 1 image and 1 video per game in the menu, aside from the SF2 theme the rest are a bit meh and it doesn’t give off the same sort of wow factor you get from say LaunchBox. But this is absolutely fine, if it does what’s written on the box.
I’m not going to break down every little component of Big Blue right here, nor is this a tutorial, I’ll save that for another article. The thing that sets Big Blue apart from other front ends is the design behind its lists. Unlike most other front ends which are usually broken down into systems or consoles, these lists can be anything you want – you’re not tied down to a single emulator.
Lists lists and lists
Say you want a list to consist of fighting games, but the games range from MAME, ePSXe to GameCube. Big Blue will allow you create a single list of games from all these different systems, regardless of what actually runs this in the background – you’re not forced to use a single emulator. Marvel vs Capcom from MAME, Dragon Ball GT from PS1 (yeeeah I got a softspot for that one) and Soul Calibur 2 from Gamecube can all appear within a single list, and launch flawlessly without needing to create separate wheels for different consoles. I know HyperSpin can do this with enough tinkering around, but being able to do it without another utility and easily? That’s where Big Blue has the upper hand.
You can manually add exactly what games you want with ease, allowing you to filter by genre, manufacturer, no. of players, all while happening incredibly fast. Also small but invaluable features like allowing you to removing duplicates, a migration tool for config files and the ability to clean up rom names (eg so there’s no revision numbers) just sweeten the deal.
Remember this is all within the front end itself, no additional program, no prior trickery or knowledge on what to do, its built right in. LaunchBox, I will admit has a great autofilter from the first time you import MAME games, but it doesn’t let you cherry pick them like Big Blue (aside from a favourites menu). Did I also mentioned that Big Blue is super lightweight? Clocks in at a measly 35mb zip package.
Why am I gushing at the about this? Well typically in say HyperSpin, if you wanted to only make a select list of games to appear, you’d have to generate an XML list based on these roms. To do this, you’d need a another tool or HyperSync to generate the XML (which is what HyperSpin uses to display roms), and it would consist of what’s in that directory. So if you wanted to add another or remove a game later on, you’d need to put the rom/s in that same directory, generate the list, and then replace the list that HyperSpin uses.
There’s so much more good shit underneath the hood with Big Blue, here’s a quick rundown of what’s possible:
Custom program templates
Define command line parameters of an emulator or program (pre and post also supported) Select the template, drag and drop your roms it BB and viola they’re added to the list with all the parameters you defined.
No, it’s not a new Jedi power. Big Blue can force close any emulator via the ESC key, even if the emulator doesn’t support it. No need for a third party program, no complications.
Completely program agnostic, you’re not tied to specific emulator versions, nor do you need to change anything when a new one comes out. If you can run it from cmd.exe, you’re good to go.
Disable inputs when launching a game. This may be small but a lot of front-ends don’t do this. Ever tried hitting controls when a game loads in a front-end? Yeah it will probably lose focus and fuck everything up.
HyperSpin is very much catered for the “I want every game ever in my list” crowd. I mean there’s a site dedicated to premade lists for almost every console (See HyperBase), which I find kind of ridiculous. You’re telling me I can’t just pick and choose what I want within the front end itself? I think this reason alone turns me off HyperSpin now days, the requirement to have every game ever isn’t my jam. But with Big Blue I can freely add whatever, I don’t need another program to do it for me, I don’t need to mess around.
A front-end that doesn't induce headaches.
As you can tell, I like Big Blue, a lot. It’s currently in my Astro City now and it works a treat. This basic philosophy of having lists and not being tied down by emulators and its MAME integration, is by far Big Blue’s major selling point. It is designed for a very particular sort of user in mind though. Like I mentioned before, it’s not about style here it’s about function and ease of use in the backend. If everything I just talked about above doesn’t exactly appeal to you and you’re fine with your HyperSpin setup – I’m probably not going to convince you to switch. But after all the time that I’ve wasted setting up emulator front ends in the past, Big Blue is a breath of fresh air. Again this all comes down to personal preference and what you want out of your setup.
This won’t be the last article I do on Big Blue, I’ll probably write a few tutorials on getting a basic Big Blue setup going and I do want to try make some themes. The developer has touched on what’s possible theme wise but there’s no solid documentation on what’s possible so it’ll be some tinkering around before I get figure what I can and cannot do.
Until then, give Big Blue a whirl, it might surprise you.