We love XBMC media centres for watching movies and TV, but if you like video games, they can do so much more. With a simple plug-in, some configuration and a USB gamepad, you can play video games straight from your set-top box.
As if your media centre wasn't cool enough on its own, you can turn it into an all-in-one game console with just a bit of tweaking. After setting it all up, you'll be able to scroll through your XBMC library just as you would movies and pick out a video game to play right there on your TV, whether it's as old as the NES (using emulators) or as new as the Xbox 360 (using PC versions of popular console games).
If you don't have an XBMC-based media centre yet, then what are you waiting for? Check out our guide to building a silent, standalone XBMC media centre on the cheap and how to customize XBMC to your liking. Note that this guide is written for Windows computers, but should be able to work just as well on Linux and OS X (though you'll be able to play fewer games, due to there being a relative lack of games released for those platforms). If you're having trouble setting it up on your Linux or Mac machine, be sure to check out the XBMC forums for advice.
Setting Up The Launcher Plug-in
In order to play games from XBMC, you'll need to install a quick plug-in. The Launcher plug-in is no longer being developed, and thus the last official version doesn't work too well with XBMC 9.11—luckily, JustSomeUser of the XBMC forums has patched the launcher to fix these bugs as well as add a few new features. You can download the zip file directly here.
After downloading the archive, unzip it to your XBMC plug-ins folder for programs—in Windows, this will either be in %AppData%RoamingXBMCpluginsprograms or %Program Files%XBMCpluginsprograms, depending on if you're running the installed or portable version, respectively. If you haven't installed the programs menu for XBMC, you'll have to download and re-run theXBMC installer to add it. Also note that not all themes contain the programs menu, so if you don't see it in XBMC, check your theme to make sure it is included (or that you don't have to turn it on in the settings). If everything goes right, you should be able to see the Launcher plug-in in XBMC under Programs > Program plugins.
Importing Your PC Games Into XBMC
Many newer console games have PC equivalents, so if you don't have the newest systems (or would rather play everything from your set-top box), you can install the PC version of a game and get pretty close to the same experience with a gamepad plugged in. First, make sure you have the game in question installed and that you have the play disc inserted (or at least have it on hand for when you do want to play it). If you navigate to the Launcher plug-in in XBMC and select it, it should prompt you to add a launcher (if it's your first time accessing the menu). It will give you two choices: standalone, which we'll use to launch PC games, and file launcher, which we'll use to launch ROMs (more on this later).
Choose standalone and navigate to the .exe file of the game you want to add (likely in your Program Files folder). It will prompt you for application arguments, which you probably don't need (so just click "done"), and then ask you for the name of the game. This is the name that will be displayed on the menu, so delete the prepopulated application title (usually an abbreviation) and type in the actual name of the game (e.g., USM.exe becomes Ultimate Spider-Man). You should then see it in the menu.
To add a thumb to this entry, open up the context menu for it (by highlighting it and pressing c on your keyboard or right-clicking it) and choose "get thumb". XBMC will search Yahoo for the game's title and give you the first 10 results—if you're lucky, a picture of the game packaging will show up and you can pick that. If it finds nothing, it will let you tweak the search terms and try again. If it comes back with results but not the ones you want, rename the game (through the same context menu) and try the search again—once you find the right thumb, you can rename the game again to its actual title as opposed to search terms.
That's it! If you want to play the game, just select it in the menu and the game will launch. When you quit the game, you will return to XBMC automatically. To import more games, select one of the games you have and bring up the context menu—there'll be an option to add another launcher (see the picture below). Note that for most PC games, you'll have to have the disc inserted if you want to play, so keep them handy.
Note: For some reason, on the main launcher menu, I couldn't get thumbnails to show up if they were of the actual packaging, but I could get thumbs of smaller dimensions. I do not know why this is or how to fix it—I could get it working for my emulators, though, just not the main launcher menu. Your mileage may very well vary.
Importing Your Emulators And ROMs Into XBMC
ROMs and their respective emulators take a few more steps to import. Bring up the context menu on one of the games you've imported and hit "add new launcher", but this time choose "file launcher". You'll go through the same process as before, but twice—the first time, you need to navigate to the emulator's executable (say, Jnes.exe for NES games), and the second time you'll have to specify the folder in which your ROMs are stored. After you pick your ROM folder, it will ask you for your ROMs' file extensions. Enter the extensions of the ROMs compatible with that emulator, without periods. It will then ask you what you would like to call that section of your games menu (your ROMs will be organised by platform), so instead of the emulator filename, type something like "NES" or "NES Games".
After you're done setting up the emulator, you should be able to view your games by clicking on that emulator's folder—it will ask you if you want to import files from path; choose yes. Now you can view all your ROMs and give them thumbs in the same way you did your PC games. You only need to add a new launcher for each emulator you have, not every game—if you add new ROMs to your ROM folder, all you need to do is select the emulator's folder in XBMC (the aforementioned "NES" or "NES Games" folder), bring up the context menu, and choose "import files from path". This will re-scan the folder for any newly added ROMs.
You'll probably need to edit a few preferences in your emulator of choice, like making it start in full screen automatically, since you won't want to have your keyboard and mouse out to play games. In addition, I've found that it takes a bit of trial and error to find which emulators work with XBMC and which ones don't—so if your favourite one is having trouble, try another one for that platform and see if it fares any better.
Photo by Marc Wellekötter.
Set Up Your Gamepad
Of course, the whole point of this is to turn your media centre into a game console—you don't want to sit and play games on your TV with a keyboard (or maybe you do, in which case you can skip this section). If you have a gamepad already, you can configure that—if not, though, I highly recommend an Xbox 360 controller, which is USB and has drivers available for Windows direct from Microsoft. For Mac and Linux users, I know this third party driver worked well on my Mac in the past, and the xpad kernel driver or this third party Linux driver should work in Linux (though I have not tested either myself).
Most PC games and emulators have built-in support for gamepads, but this isn't ideal here, especially since since most games (and emulators) may require a little movement of the mouse. So, instead of configuring your controller in the game, I highly suggest you use something like AutoHotKey (if you're proficient with it) or, much simpler, free keymapper JoyToKey, to map your controller to specific keyboard keys. This way, you can map your controllers buttons to keys and then set up your game or emulator using the keyboard (for example, you could map the controller's start button to the spacebar on your keyboard, and then map the pause function to the spacebar in your game's settings, allowing you to pause the game by pressing the start button on your controller).
Looking up the Xbox controls for the game (if an Xbox version exists) will help you map the controls for specific games correctly. Usually, the PC version of a game does things a bit differently, but you can usually map it closely enough to get a similar experience. In addition, you can map the mouse to one of the joysticks (and one of the mouse buttons to one of your gamepad's buttons) so you have full mouse control to navigate menus and such. I also recommend setting an unpopular button on your gamepad (such as select), or, preferably, an unpopular button on the remote with which you control your media centre, to the Alt+F4 combination so you can easily quit emulators when you're done playing and go back into XBMC.
That's all it takes. Once you finish installing your games, you'll have a good-looking, functional digital library for video games (of all consoles) just like you do for your movies and TV shows—certainly enough to re-impress your friends that by now have become accustomed to the media centre you put so much work into. Got any tips for setting up your video game library, or any games your excited to revisit on your TV? Share them in the comments!