Retroflag GPi is the Ultimate Portable Retro Gaming Console
This straightforward retro-style portable gaming case for the Raspberry Pi is easy to assemble, with a collection of retro gaming platforms and extra buttons on the back, useful power switching avoids unplanned shutdowns. It's the best Gameboy-like Raspberry Pi gaming project around.
With the explosion of retro gaming, many gamers looking for a shot of nostalgia have turned to the Raspberry Pi. Compatible with most emulation systems, it is as ideal for playing Nintendo 64 games as it is with Atari 2600 titles.
But it lacks portability, which is where the Raspberry Pi Zero comes in. Half the size of the standard Raspberry Pi boards, the Zero is the hub of many portable retro kits, mostly based on the Nintendo Gameboy.
We’re looking at one such kit, the Retroflag GPi Case from AKNES. How does it improve over similar kits and 3D printed DIY builds?
What You Get in the Retroflag GPi Case
Cracking open the box, you’ll find a GPi Case, the Gameboy-like handheld console with a built-in display.
There’s also a tote bag, heatsink, USB power cable, a screwdriver with reversible heads, and two sets of four screws. A larger case is also included for carrying the GPi Case and any additional bits and pieces. Oh, and there’s a free GPi Case-keyring, and detailed instructions.
Note that this kit ships without a Raspberry Pi Zero. You’ll need to provide your own.
The GPi Case itself features a D-pad, ABXY buttons, and Select and Start. Two additional buttons have been added to the back of the case. A headphone port is found at the bottom of the console, while an Off/On switch is at the top. A volume wheel is on the right side; the power jack plugs in on the left, alongside the brightness wheel.
Around the back, the GPi Case has a battery hatch, supporting 3xAA batteries. Hidden in here is a Safe Shutdown switch; above this, a micro-USB port for firmware upgrades.
Finally, you’ll find a removable “cartridge” on the back of the GPi Case. Not quite as big as a Gameboy cartridge, this device holds your Pi Zero. An operating system can be installed on a microSD card. A small door covers the card slot on your Raspberry Pi Zero, devised to prevent the card getting lost.
While powered by a Raspberry Pi Zero, the GPi Case has its own hardware inside. Weighing 183g and measuring 135x81x32mm, the GPi Case also includes a 2.8-inch color IPS display.
Assembly is solderless, and supposedly simple—all you need to do is insert a Raspberry Pi Zero.
You’ll Need Your Own Raspberry Pi Zero—But Which One?
Several versions of the Raspberry Pi Zero have been released. The Zero is a slimline Raspberry Pi, half the size of the main version, with a 32-bit 1Ghz CPU and 512MB of memory. Along with a micro-USB power input, the card features a micro-USB port and microSD slot for booting an operating system.
The original version launched for just $5, although later versions are twice this much. Since first launching in November 2015, three main iterations have been issued:
- Raspberry Pi Zero 1.2: the basic model, with only USB connectivity. A 1.3 revision appeared in May 2016.
- Raspberry Pi Zero W: released February 2017 with an MPI camera interface, Bluetooth 4.1 BLE, and b/g/n single band 2.4GHz Wi-Fi.
- Raspberry Pi Zero WH: another wireless version, this time with GPIO pins.
Sadly, the Raspberry Pi Zero WH isn’t compatible with the GPi Case. However, the original Pi Zero models and the main W board will all fit.
A Choice of Retro Gaming Platforms
The build starts by flashing your preferred retro gaming platform to the Pi Zero’s microSD card. Four systems have been prepared for the GPi Case:
- Recalbox: perhaps the most popular retro gaming platform for Raspberry Pi.
- Lakka: basic retro gaming front end that can be customized with themes.
- Batocera: popular Linux retro gaming platform.
- Supreme Retro Gaming: a vast bundle of front ends (EmulationStation, AttractMode, Pegasus), support for 101 systems, 96 game collections, 42 system tweaks, and 27 display themes. Use this if you just want a quick start with games already provided.
These are dedicated builds available from download.retroflag.com/.
Some customization scripts are also available from the same source.
- GPi Case Patch: routes display output through GPIO for Recalbox
- Safe Shutdown and Safe Reset: this script can be used in conjunction with the Safe Shutdown switch
Assembling the GPi Case With a Raspberry Pi Zero
Putting the GPi together is stunningly straightforward and quick. Everything is perfectly designed so that you can effectively slot in a Pi Zero, boot up, and play.
Most of the GPi case comes ready-assembled. However, you’ll need to insert your Raspberry Pi Zero. This is housed in the removable “cartridge” which is fitted with an adaptor board. A micro-USB power connector is attached to the adaptor, along with a row of 40 GPIO pogo pins. These contact the Pi Zero’s GPIO array, for full power and integration with the main GPi Case.
Installing the Pi Zero requires first opening the cartridge section, flipping the adaptor board out of the way, and plugging the micro-USB power connector into the PCB. After placing the heatsink on the Pi’s SoC, place the Pi in the cartridge. As a guide, the microSD slot lines up with the door in the side of the cartridge.
Four screws secure the Pi Zero. Once fastened, flip the adaptor board over, lining up the holes with the mounting points. The back of the cartridge can then be attached—this snaps into place with some well-situated catches.
Finish by screwing the back onto the cartridge, then insert it into the GPi Case. You’re ready to power up and start gaming. Note that when the power is switched to “On”, the cartridge is locked in place. This precaution prevents the Pi Zero being removed while the GPi is powered up, protecting the PCB and microSD card.
Powering the GPi
With the case assembled, it’s a good idea to stick some batteries in. You can use the DC power input, although the USB-to-DC cable is short so motion is restricted. Note that the DC in is not connected to the battery compartment; rechargeable batteries won’t be charged in this device, although you can still use them.
Just be sure to stick to batteries with lower voltages as per standard shop bought R6 AA batteries. The device requires 5V so don’t exceed this.
Retro Gaming With the GPi Case
Most of our testing was with Lakka. While it offers a more basic, menu-driven experience, Lakka is tried and tested, and gives good results with this setup.
We also tried the Supreme Retro Gaming bundle, which perhaps offered too much choice. Presentation is slick, however, offering a modern console-like experience—quite a contrast to Lakka, While SRG is easier to use, it’s a large download requiring at least a 16GB microSD card to be usable.
With games up and running, you’re reliant on the D-pad and ABXY controls. R and L trigger buttons are also provided for extra control.
Regardless of which platform you choose, there is a more satisfying experience with console games than those intended for computers. Nintendo Gameboy and Gameboy Advance (GBA) titles in particular play really well—hardly a surprise.
There is some advantage to using the Pi Zero W, namely in easily copying new game ROMs to the device. Just make sure it’s connected to your wireless network and there’s no need to remove the SD card.
Setting up a secure SSH FTP connection (SFTP) in a tool like FileZilla lets you easily add and remote ROMs. You just need to be sure you’re using the right username and password for the retro platform of choice. SSH can be enabled within the software settings.
Unless you’re reinstalling or installing a different OS, you shouldn’t need to eject the microSD card.
The GPi Is Moddable, Too
Since its release several cool modifications have been released for the GPi.
For example, you can find hacks online that add built-in battery charging to the GPi. Meanwhile, a particularly impressive addition to the GPi is the GPiMate. Rather than use a Raspberry Pi Zero for your GPi, this module is designed to house a Raspberry Pi Compute 3+. Slightly larger than a Pi Zero (the cartridge is correspondingly large), this brings quad-core processing to the console.
The Best Gameboy-Like Raspberry Pi Case Available
We’ve seen a few portable retro gaming systems based on or inspired by the Raspberry Pi. The Retroflag GPi Case stands out in the way it relies on the popular board. Plenty of devices start off with a Pi as proof off concept, then move onto dedicated boards.
The GPi Case retains the Pi Zero as an integral part of the design and build. Meanwhile, the assembly is simple enough that anyone from around 11 and above could build it.
While there is an argument for a better power solution, the same could be said of the original Gameboy. Fortunately, the power scripts and hidden switch make power issues manageable, avoiding the data loss and corruption seen with other portable Raspberry Pi projects.
The display is surprisingly clear and crisp for its size, the buttons responsive, and the select of retro gaming platforms encouraging. If you’re looking for a Raspberry Pi-based retro gaming kit you can take anywhere, start with the Retroflag GPi Case.