How our Arcades Play Games

Understanding ROMs, Emulators and Front Ends

What is a ROM?

Definition: Read-only memory (ROM) is a type of storage medium that permanently stores data on personal computers (PC) and other electronic devices. It contains the programming needed to start a PC, which is essential for boot-up; it performs input/output tasks and holds programs or software instructions.

To keep it simple, a ROM in the world of arcade is the game. If you think back to an old school video game cartridge which had the game on it, such as Donkey Kong, that is what a ROM is, it is needed to play the game Donkey Kong.


What is an Emulator?

Definition: In computing, an emulator is hardware or software that enables one computer system (called the host) to behave like another computer system (called the guest) … emulation refers to the ability of a computer program in an electronic device to emulate (or imitate) another program or device.

To keep it simple, an emulator is the hardware. If you think back to an old school arcade game such as Kung Fu Master, although we had the cartridge, we still needed a hardware source to pay the game, this may have been a Nintendo Entertainment System. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the emulator.

In summary, when we put a ROM and an emulator together, we pretty much have a game that plays. It’s a lot more in-depth at the back end, however, players don’t need to understand that side of things for basic retro play.

What is the Front End?

The front end is what you see in front of you. There are several front ends available such as LaunchBox/BigBox, Retropie, Pinnup Popper and HyperSpin to name a few. One of these are what you see on the screen when booting up the computer. It shows menus such as Arcade, Genres, Favourites and then when you enter one of these menus a list of available games is displayed. You then select your game of choice, and the front end goes to work loading the game from the emulator allocated to it. Once loaded the game is then ready to be played.

When we build our arcade machines, we choose Retropie front end with a Raspberry Pi 3b+ for our computer builds and either LaunchBox/BigBox or HyperSpin for our PC builds.

Are these the Best Front Ends to Use?

We find that the Raspberry Pi 3b+ can run ROMs and emulators right up to the PS1, however, we are looking at moving to the Raspberry Pi 4 with 4G of R.A.M. as soon as we see that it has become stable because the ROM’s and emulators are on the edge of struggling with the power of the Raspberry Pi 3b+. When this move is made, this may push our pricing up a little, however, there will be smoother gameplay.

We find LaunchBox/BigBox is a great front end for our PC builds. It’s easy to use and navigate, it has search features which are easy to use, and as your collection grows it makes finding the games you are wanting to play very easy. You can also add extra ROMs yourself, create playlists and it doesn’t need to be locked down, however, you can choose to stay off the internet if you have any concerns. LaunchBox/Big also has continuous updates being pushed out by its programmers, whereas HyperSpin hasn’t had an update for a very long time. Having said that, there are third parties working on the HyperSpin front end.

Now that you know a little more about how it all works and if you are interested in building your own arcade machine then head over to our “How to Build an Arcade Machine” page to get started.

PLEASE NOTE: If you’re purchasing a fully built machine with a complimentary front end and ROMs included, you are acknowledging that you have the right to use these ROMs and you agree that if there are ROMs which you are not able to use that you will dump them from your system.