Back in college my friends and I would pass the time during class by playing classic NES, SNES, and SEGA Genesis games with emulators on our laptops. The recent popularity of the NES Classic Edition has resulted in a revival of classic 8 bit and 16 bit emulation. I’ve long kept emulators on my Android phones (I prefer the ones made by Robert Broglia), but after purchasing my Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet last year I got the idea that I would really enjoy being able to play games on the larger screen. Add in a gamepad and I’d have a pretty sweet portable gaming machine.
That sounds great, except that the Fire OS is totally locked down. There aren’t emulators in the Amazon app store, and the OS doesn’t support bluetooth gamepads. A challenge to work with? Yup. Impossible? Not at all! After some trial and error, I finally got it working, and it was worth the effort. For me, this very much enhances the value of this sub-$100 product that’s already a great value. The Fire HD 8 is a wonderful travel device for reading books, watching movies, and – with a gamepad and 15 minutes of work – playing retro games. All without an internet connection.
What You’ll Need
- Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet
- Bluetooth gamepad that can be used in keyboard mode – I like the 8Bitdo NES30, available on Amazon
- Bluetooth keyboard for setup, a lot of options available on Amazon for under $20
Step 1 – Install RetroArch for Android
RetroArch is open-source software that uses a single graphical interface to integrate a bunch of different emulators. So instead of downloading one emulator for NES, another for SNES, SEGA Genesis, Atari, N64, and so on, RetroArch can run them all from a unified interface. It’s available on a ton of different platforms, including Android, and the Android APK is available to download outside of an app store, which is key for us.
Before installation though, you’ll need to allow third party apps to be installed on your Fire tablet by checking the box under Settings > Security > Apps from Unknown Sources. After you’ve done that, download the RetroArch APK and follow the prompts to install it.
Step 2 – Configure Your Gamepad
Since Fire OS doesn’t support bluetooth gamepads, you’ll end up connecting your gamepad as a bluetooth keyboard. Unfortunately, RetroArch already has some shortcuts assigned to keyboard keys that will interfere with your key mapping, so before getting started we’ll need to map those to other buttons.
- Make sure that bluetooth is enabled on your tablet.
- Connect your bluetooth gamepad based upon the instructions provided by the gamepad manufacturer.
- Click every button on the gamepad and make note of each key that it’s mapped to.
- Connect the bluetooth keyboard. In RetroArch navigate to Settings > Input > Input Hotkey Binds and change any key mappings that would interfere with the gamepad.
- Reconnect the gamepad and (finally!) map your keys by going to Settings > Input > Input User 1 Binds
Step 3 – Play Your Games!
RetroArch takes a bit of getting used to. Each individual emulator is called a core, which you’ll need to download from within the program before using. Check out the Getting Started with RetroArch page from their official documentation and this tutorial on Reddit for more info.
You will, of course, need ROMS to play, which is outside of the scope of this post. I tend to primarily play user-generated ROMS like those available on TecmoBowl.org and NHL94.com, where games like Tecmo Super Bowl and NHL 94 are updated with current teams, rosters, and new features. ROMS of almost every classic game ever made are available online for free, however it’s worth considering that there are some legal/ethical concerns. According to Lifehacker, “[t]he rule of emulator ethics is that you should have a physical copy of a game if you have a ROM.”
Enjoy! If you have any questions leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.