Virtual reality gaming is on the rise. Mobile gaming is increasingly popular. Engaging in MMOs with headsets for a bit of voice chat over Discord, and streaming the experience to Twitch or YouTube continues to entertain.
Experts predicted all of this years ago.
But who could have foreseen the rise of retro gaming? What sane person could have guessed that a credit card-sized PC and hobby device would become instrumental in the rise of retro gaming?
The Raspberry Pi is hugely versatile — much like a desktop computer, but a lot lighter — and can emulate a vast collection of gaming platforms. Interested in building a retro gaming machine with a Raspberry Pi? Here’s what you need to know.
What You Need for a Raspberry Pi Gaming Center
You’ll need several elements for a robust and reliable Raspberry Pi retro gaming center. Before looking at the software, let’s first take a look at the hardware.
The Raspberry Pi
Since its 2012 release, the Raspberry Pi has had several iterations, each more powerful than the one before. These days, you have two reliable options:
- Raspberry Pi 3 (our coverage) — Features a 1.2 GHz 64/32-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 system-on-a-chip (SOC) with 1 GHz RAM (shared with the GPU). Measures 3.370 inches × 2.224 inches (85.60 mm × 56.5 mm). Has wireless networking and Bluetooth built in.
- Raspberry Pi Zero (our guide) — uses a 1 GHz single-core ARM1176JZF-S SOC with 512 MB (shared with the GPU). This more compact device is 2.56 inches × 1.18 inches (65 mm × 30 mm), and has a wireless variant, the Zero W.
Although you can get good results using a Raspberry Pi 2, the increased performance on offer with the Raspberry Pi 3 means you should take that option.
Other Hardware and Cables
In addition to the Raspberry Pi, you’ll also need an HDMI cable, reliable microSD card, a keyboard/mouse combo for initial setup, and game controllers. While a Pi 3 costs under $40, if you’re starting from scratch, you should be able to buy the complete kit for under $100.
You might also opt for a starter kit, which includes most of what you need (save the keyboard and mouse).
Choosing a Retro Gaming Suite
Once you’ve got your Raspberry Pi and associated hardware, it’s time to find the right emulators. While you can install these individually, it’s far preferable to install an emulation suite. This is a package — usually ready to be written to the microSD card — consisting of many top emulators. Any that aren’t included you can often add alongside the pre-installed emulators.
Five current projects are available to choose from.
Probably the most famous of the retro gaming software options for the Raspberry Pi, RetroPie gives access to a vast collection of emulators, via the EmulationStation user interface. Emulators are presented via the RetroArch front end, while various ported games (several PC games run natively on the Pi) are bundled.
RetroPie also includes the MAME arcade machine emulator, and supports numerous controllers. You’ll find the Kodi media center is preinstalled alongside RetroPie.
Very similar to RetroPie, RecalBox supports over 40 emulators, including MAME, and in excess of 30,000 titles. Again using the EmulationStation UI, and with emulation support from RetroArch/libretro, RecalBox also features Kodi.
Gaming is enhanced on RecalBox with the cheat codes, a Rewind tool (to help you undo in-game mistakes) and screenshot functionality.
Meanwhile, the RecalBox website also hosts an online store selling Raspberry Pi gaming hardware. On the whole, however, RecalBox is quite similar to RetroPie, but comes solely as a writable microSD card image.
3. PiPlay (formerly PiMAME)
Featuring 12 emulated machines plus the ScummVM point-and-click adventure game platform, PiPlay is the compact alternative to RetroPie and RecalBox. You can download PiPlay and write it to a microSD card, or install it from within your Raspberry Pi OS via GitHub.
Without the slick UI of the EmulationStation, PiPlay has a more traditional, text-based user interface. It’s a stable emulation solution, however, with good support for popular controllers. Just make sure it supports the platforms you wish to emulate!
Describing itself as “a lightweight Linux distribution that transforms a small computer into a full blown emulation console,” Lakka also uses RetroArch. Supporting around 40 emulators with thousands of games, Lakka is a strong alternative to RetroPie and RecalBox.
To add games, you’ll need to first manually enable the SAMBA server in the Settings screen. It’s also worth enabling SSH for remote administration of the gaming center.
By booting with BerryBoot or NOOBS, you can dual-boot Lakka alongside other Raspberry Pi operating systems.
I’ve only recently come across this ArchLinux-based collection of emulators running with RetroArch. With 18 hardware platforms plus MAME, there’s also Kodi and support for a number of game controllers (including the perennially popular PS3 and PS4 control pads).
PES also has support for wireless networking and network gaming (with the exception of the N64 emulator), and like Lakka can be dual-booted using BerryBoot.
Which Emulation Suite Should You Choose?
With so many emulation systems to choose from, you might find your options a little overwhelming. As a general rule, if you want a system that will emulate almost anything, choose RecalBox or RetroPie. There’s very little difference between them.
For a more specific experience (featuring emulators you’re actually going to use), meanwhile, try PiPlay, Lakka, or PES.
Finding, Importing, and Playing Games
To enjoy games (or even applications) on an emulator, you’ll need to acquire ROMs. Both game ROMs and BIOS ROMs are required. It’s easy to overlook the requirement for the BIOS ROMs, but without these, the emulators cannot launch the games.
The legality of this is a bit muddy. It was once the case that if you owned the original, you were safe to use the ROM. These days, with peer-to-peer networking common even on apparently standard download sites, the practice is a bit risky.
Alternatives are available: the main solution is to create your own ROMs. One such device that makes this possible is the ARMiga, an ARM-based version of the Amiga computer, complete with built-in disk drive. With this device you can create disk images of your Amiga games, and extract them (or play them on the ARMiga). We’ve also shown how to emulate the Amiga on a Raspberry Pi.
Similarly, you can buy dedicated tools to do the job for other platforms. This information is given, of course, strictly in the understanding that you retain the ROMs for your own use. A search of eBay may yield the results you’re looking for.
Once you’ve identified a ROM you wish to use, you’ll need to import it to your Raspberry Pi, and leave it in the right directory. An FTP solution that supports SSH, such as FileZilla, is the best option here. Having said that, some of the emulation suites offer a browsable interface for uploading ROMs from your main PC.
When it comes to playing the games, meanwhile, your chosen retro gaming suite should come equipped with a user-friendly game library browser. All it takes is for you to navigate to the game you want (using the game controller) and launch it.
Controller Options: What Can You Use?
A wide selection of controllers is available for you to use with your Raspberry Pi retro gaming rig. Wired controllers will provide the best results, but some Bluetooth controllers — in particular the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and 4 controllers — should work. (The Xbox One wireless controller currently doesn’t play with the Raspberry Pi.)
Meanwhile, a large selection of USB controllers should work with your Raspberry Pi and chosen gaming suite. Configuration of controllers takes place when the Pi boots into RetroPie, RecalBox, etc., so you’ll quickly get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. If you’re looking to increase the retro atmosphere, meanwhile, old-style joysticks and console controllers with USB connectors are available.
Want a Great Retro-Themed Case?
Case options are considerable. My own preference is to use a standard Raspberry Pi 3 case and keep it out of sight. You might prefer a prouder approach, and display your Pi in a retro console-themed case. Plenty of these are available online — resembling mini SNES consoles, for instance.
There’s also 3D printing. A ton of retro-styled cases can be bought as digital files, ready for production in a 3D printer. If you don’t have your own 3D printer, don’t worry. Many services are available that will produce 3D projects on your behalf. All you need to do is select the case design you want, find a 3D printing service that can do the job, pay them, and wait for it to arrive in the mail!
Meanwhile, if you want to take a more hands-on approach to building a case, why not use a slick game station build as inspiration?
Retro Gaming with the Raspberry Pi: Easy Win!
You can accomplish a lot with a Raspberry Pi. It can be used as a media center, a desktop computer, or a music streaming device. And beyond acting as a teaching tool to get kids programming, it can do a whole lot more.
But perhaps the real killer application for a Raspberry Pi is as a retro gaming machine. As you’ve seen, it is straightforward to set up, and as long as you have a library of ROMs, you’ll have games to play.
Have you built a Raspberry Pi retro gaming center? Perhaps you went all-out and built a cabinet? Have you rediscovered any classic games? Tell us about it below in the comments!