The Raspberry Pi is a great home media device, and just as perfect for retro gaming. Over the years since its release, the Pi has been blessed with emulators to run software for countless classic platforms.
Most these have been from the 8- and 16-bit eras, and running multiple emulators can get a bit messy. What you need is a nice unified user interface. Thankfully, this is available with RecalBox, which offers a selection of the best console and MAME emulators, and presents them with a slick interface and easy controller configuration.
Not only is that pretty brilliant, RecalBox is also simple to set up.
RecalBox vs. RetroPie
If you’re already enjoying retro gaming fun on your Raspberry Pi with RetroPie, you might be wondering just why you should switch to RecalBox. Well, you don’t actually have to, but RecalBox does offer a different way of doing things. For instance, it boots quicker, so if you’re desperate to get playing, it’s a good option to have.
As you might expect, many of the emulators bundled in RecalBox are available for both retro game emulators. Indeed, RetroPie has a larger selection. But RetroPie doesn’t have the same level of polish. The user interface in RecalBox is far easier to use, and makes your Raspberry Pi feel like a games console (with a library currently standing at over 30,000 titles), rather than a collection of emulators.
If you want to find out more about RetroPie, see our guide to installing it on the Raspberry Pi.
Best Results: Install RecalBox on Raspberry Pi 3
For the best results with RecalBox, a Raspberry Pi 3 is recommended. While it will run on the Raspberry Pi 2, the extra juice available with the Pi 3 will make a world of difference. (Although if you’re keeping things low-spec, you could get away with a Raspberry Pi Zero.)
As a recap, the Raspberry Pi 2 has a 32-bit 900 MHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor (later models had the ARM Cortex-A53 64-bit CPU) with 1 GB RAM.
Meanwhile, the Raspberry Pi 3 has a 1.2 GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53, again with 1 GB RAM. That extra 0.3 GHz makes a big difference — it can push a resource intensive game to full speed on the Raspberry Pi 3. Additionally, the hardware of this device will give you the widest selection of retro gaming emulators to choose from.
Future updates may well include higher-spec, currently-omitted emulators. Another great reason to run RecalBox on a Raspberry Pi!
Hardware You Need for RecalBox
Successful use of RecalBox on your Pi 3 will require a microSD card (16 GB or above) and a working wireless network connection. The Raspberry Pi 3 retains an Ethernet cable connection, so if wireless is a problem and you don’t have a wireless dongle, you can use an Ethernet cable. An HDMI cable is needed, too.
You’ll probably need a game controller too. This can be a PlayStation-style controller, Xbox controller, or a generic USB cheapo gamepad. Really, it depends on the type of games you’re planning to play. If you’re opting for the PlayStation controller, you’ll need a USB Bluetooth dongle as well (unless you have Bluetooth enabled on your Raspberry Pi 3). A keyboard may also prove useful for configuration if you’re using a non-standard controller.
If this is a project you’re starting from scratch, and you’ve got hold of a Raspberry Pi to build a retro console, you might consider a case to finish it off nicely.
You’ll need to download a disk image of recalboxOS from Github to get started. Once this is done, format the microSD card as FAT, and copy the unzipped recalbox files to the card.
With the files copied, safely remove the microSD card, insert it into your dormant Raspberry Pi 3, and connect the power cable to boot up.
As the RecalBox boots, you’ll see that it begins installation, displaying a selection of graphics. After a few minutes, you’ll see the completed installation as the slick, menu-driven user interface loads up. This is a complete gaming environment, with some pre-installed games to choose from and run under each listed emulator.
Oh, and it has music, too, to really get you in the retro mood. And just in case you sacrificed a Raspberry Pi running Kodi to do this, the popular media center software is also included!
Configure Your Game Controller
One of the first things you should do is configure your game controller. Fortunately, setting it up is a cinch. As soon as the controller is detected (either by connecting a USB cabled controller, or a Bluetooth dongle and switching on the controller), RecalBox will notify you. At this stage, you can begin the process of calibrating the device, then assign buttons. It’s all done within five minutes.
Any additional configuration (your controller may be non-standard in some way) can be dealt with via keyboard. From what we’ve seen, however, RecalBox has a massive selection of game controller profiles, so you’ll probably be fine.
Emulators on RecalBox
So many emulators and ROMs are available these days, and a large selection are available in RecalBox. There are omissions — for instance, the Dreamcast emulator Reicast isn’t there — but these are expected to be available in the next version of RecalBox. Unfortunately, this currently has no confirmed release date.
A massive 44 emulators are available, but not all have ROMs. If an emulator has no ROMs, it is not listed until the ROMs are added. Those with ROMs available “out of the box” are:
- Nintendo Entertainment System
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- PC Engine
- SEGA Master System
- Game Boy Advance
There’s also a Doom menu item, which offers the ability to play freeware versions of the classic FPS.
To select a game, simply use the controller to browse to, and select it.
Take Control of Your Retro Games Library With RecalBox
Want to play your existing retro games library with these emulators? The best way to do this is via your PC browser. Simply enter the IP address of the RecalBox Raspberry Pi into the address bar, and you’ll see the web console. The IP address can be found via the Network Settings menu item on RecalBox.
Use the Manage ROM Files menu item to add your own ROM files, selecting the appropriate system and then browsing for the file to upload (or dragging it from your file manager).
Once the files are added, they’ll then be available to play on RecalBox.
As ever, keep in mind that you should not run a ROM if you don’t own the physical version of the title. Tread carefully.
Menus and Options
RecalBox offers various menus covering the many different options that are available. For instance, you can access System Settings, Sound Settings, and Controller settings, all from the main menu. (This is assigned during the button-mapping stage.)
The following options can be found on the main menu:
- Kodi Media Center — Launch into Kodi (see below).
- System Settings — Disk status, overclocking, Kodi settings.
- Games Settings — Set ratio, autosave, and more.
- Controllers Settings — Configure connected controllers, and pair Bluetooth controllers.
- UI Settings — Various user interface settings, such as overscan, framerate, screensaver.
- Sound Settings — Adjust volume, toggle the menu music, and set an output audio device.
- Network Settings — Set an IP address and hostname, and toggle Wi-Fi.
- Scraper — Determine which sites images for your ROMs are pulled from.
- Quit — Restart and shutdown options.
You’ll need to explore these menus to find what is on offer in each. Everything is useful, but some are best left alone, just in case you cause problems.
Kodi and Retro Gaming on One Raspberry Pi!
It’s already a great system, but RecalBox has one more trick up its sleeve. When you’re done gaming and want to watch a movie, you can easily switch into Kodi! No getting out of your chair, simply open the main menu and select the Kodi option. RecalBox will shut down and Kodi will launch.
From this point, you can add all your favorite Kodi add-ons, and start streaming TV, movies and music with a good internet connection.
Returning to RecalBox will require rebooting your Raspberry Pi via Kodi. Within a few minutes you should be back playing again!
Why Use a Raspberry Pi for Retro Gaming?
Now you’re up and running, it’s probably time for the obvious question to be addressed: why would you use a Raspberry Pi for retro gaming?
After all, we live in an age where we are surrounded by tech. Smartphones and tablets are blessed with emulators (or even ports of classic games), and of course desktop computers and laptops have long had the ability to run emulators. So why rely on a Raspberry Pi for retro gaming madness when you could just boot up your PC?
Well, there are several reasons. The Raspberry Pi is cheap, and flexible. It can be used as a dedicated device (you might not be able to launch an emulator on your PC at all times; perhaps a sibling or child wants to play, but you want to work).
But perhaps the real answer as to why you should use a Raspberry Pi for retro gaming is even simpler. You should use it… because you can. For many of us, that’s all the excuse we need.
Do you play retro video games with your Raspberry Pi? Which platform or game do you enjoy most? Do you prefer RecalBox or RetroPie? Tell us below.