Recalbox 6.1.1One of the most recent additions to the DistroWatch database is Recalbox. What is Recalbox? The project's website describes this Linux distribution as follows:
Recalbox allows you to re-play a variety of video game consoles and platforms in your living room, with ease! Recalbox OS is free, open source and designed to let you create your very own Recalbox in no time! Use Raspberry Pi, ODROID or even PC (x86)!
Put another way, Recalbox is a minimal Linux distribution which has essentially two purposes: to launch a simple, game console-like interface that allows users to play classic video games, typically ones that would normally be found on gaming consoles. The other key feature is the ability to run the Kodi media centre. Recalbox is designed to be copied onto a USB thumb drive or an SD card, plugged into a PC or single-board ARM device, and then used as a livingroom appliance. One which acts like a console that can play both classic video games and multimedia files. The project's website lists supported consoles and hardware platforms.
I downloaded the compressed image file for 64-bit (x86_64) personal computers. The 521MB download expands to about 3.3GB when it is unpacked. This large image file can be transferred to a thumb drive or SD card and then plugged into the computer we want to turn into a gaming appliance.
I began my trial with Recalbox by running it in VirtualBox. Booting from the supplied media brought up a graphical interface with a black background. A window popped up and indicated that no gamepad had been detected and I could press F4 to exit or press a button to signal the input device I was using. Pressing F4 drops the user to a blank text terminal with no information and no login prompt. We can switch to other virtual terminals and, optionally, sign in as the root user. I had some trouble finding the default login credentials, but they are supplied in the project's documentation. (The password is "recalboxroot".)
I booted a second time to get back to the graphical window with the message to press a key to indicate the input device. I tapped a key on my keyboard and the word "keyboard" appeared for a second in the window. Pressing a key and holding it caused the word "keyboard" to get darker. Left long enough the keypress would cause my keyboard to be accepted as the input device and I was brought to a new window, this one used to match actions to keypresses. For instance, I could map any key to actions such as "up", "down", "A", "X", "Top Left", and "Top Right" buttons - essentially mapping part of the keyboard to controller button equivalents.
Here I ran into two problems. The first was I couldn't find any way to revert an existing mapping. If I went back up the list and tried to change a mapping, it wouldn't work. The second problem was, after all my actions were mapped to keys, I couldn't find any way to have my selections accepted. I highlighted the "OK" button at the bottom of the window, but no matter what I pressed (Enter, "A", "X", Spacebar, etc) the menu remained on the screen and I could not proceed.
During this time I also noticed my CPU was constantly pegged at 100% usage. This was causing my host machine to heat up. At this point I decided to switch to physical hardware and fetched my laptop.
Things went much more smoothly when I booted Recalbox on my laptop. I was quickly brought to a graphical screen which presented me with a list of game consoles the system could emulate. Along the bottom of the display are hints on how to navigate the interface with a game controller. No keyboard short-cuts are provided. Unlike when I ran Recalbox in a virtual machine, I was not asked to map game controller buttons to my keyboard. My CPU ran closer to idle, avoiding the heating problem I had when running the distribution in VirtualBox.
Using the arrow keys, the Enter key and "A", I was able to browse through available emulated consoles Recalbox can support. Selecting a console brings up a list of free games the distribution has pre-loaded. We can select a game to play it. I tried a handful and most loaded and worked, though a few just presented me with a blank, grey screen when I tried to run them.
A problem I then ran into was I could not always back up out of a console and its collection of games to get back to the main menu. Usually Enter would back up a level through the menus, but in this case it did not. I eventually found that "A" would select a highlighted item and "S" would cancel an action or go back up a level. The Enter key would select items, but not confirm selections. Since there is no mouse pointer in the distribution's interface, it seems the only way to efficiently make use of the environment is to have a gaming controller. I do have a few in the house, and I tried to use them, but none of them turned out to be compatible.
One highlight of the Recalbox experience is the Kodi media centre. It can be launched from a menu on the main Recalbox screen. Kodi presents us with a way to play audio and video files, along with several other options. Getting around the interface with a keyboard instead of a mouse was cumbersome and I would not want to do it with a game controller, but it was functional.
The lack of mouse and proper keyboard support could be a problem in other situations. There are settings menus in the main Recalbox menu, including ones for connecting to wireless networks and performing upgrades. The steps to connect to a wireless network bring up text input boxes and on-screen keyboards. Unfortunately the on-screen keyboards only work by moving the selector over the desired keys and pressing a button to pick the highlighted key. Typing on the physical keyboard does not produce text in the input boxes. I also found that my laptop's touchscreen could not be used to interact with the menus or on-screen keyboards.
Recalbox uses about 2.2GB of disk space for its operating system. About another 275MB is set aside for shared data, presumably pre-loaded games, and background music that plays on the main menu. Very little memory is used, generally in the range of 100MB to 200MB of RAM. This allows Recalbox to run on lower-end hardware, including single-board ARM computers, such as the Raspberry Pi. In the background, the distribution uses SysV init and runs on version 4.15 of the Linux kernel.
Recalbox is one of those projects which I suspect is quite good at what it sets out to do, its functions are just outside the realm of my usual experiences. I don't have compatible game controllers in my home to use with it, I am a keyboard and mouse user rather than game controller user. I don't need a game console or media centre as I have access to emulators and media applications on my workstation which adequately fill my needs. I'm not likely to fire up retro games and sit around with a group of people, passing controllers around the room.
However, if I were, I believe Recalbox would fill the role nicely. Apart from its unwillingness to use keyboard and mouse input for some functions, the system appears to offer a handful of good approaches. The interface is simple and geared towards the controllers its users are likely to have on hand. It ships with some free games out of the box. Recalbox also provides a lot of emulated platforms and some neat features such as the ability to rewind some (maybe all?) games to undo mistakes. The distribution appears to provide a simple, user-friendly appliance, at least while running on physical hardware. I wouldn't recommend running it in a virtual machine.
I also like that the distribution does not need to be installed. We only need to copy the image file to a removable device and plug it in. Also, when not being used as a gaming platform, Recalbox can launch Kodi and access media files. This, combined with the platform's ability to connect to local networks, make it an appealing option for people who want a Linux-based classic gaming platform in their home.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast