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How to Build a Raspberry Pi Retro Game Console 

Thorin Klosowski Aug 16, 2017. 22 comments

Since its release, the $35 Raspberry Pi mini-computer has been hailed as the perfect all-in-one retro game console. Now, it’s easier to do than ever, and it doesn’t take any Linux knowledge whatsoever. Here’s how to make your own retro game console in under 10 minutes.

Update (2/9/2017): We’ve updated this guide to reflect the changes in the newest version of RetroPie (currently 4.1). This includes entirely new sections for setting up your card, system, and controllers. Thankfully, the whole process is considerably easier now! If you’re just looking to update an older installation of RetroPie to the most recent version, start up RetroPie and head to the RetroPie Menu > Update, or follow this guide for more detailed instructions.

We’ve walked you through all sorts of DIY projects for the Raspberry Pi, but this one might be the simplest. You’ll have your retro game console—complete with old-school controllers—up and running in less than 10 minutes. All you need to do is install the operating system on an SD card and do some simple file sharing from your PC.

Before we get started, let’s go over some basics. Emulating old-school video games requires two things: game ROMs and an emulator to play them. A ROM is a copy of a game that exists on your device. An emulator is an application that can play that ROM. The rule of emulator ethics is that you should have a physical copy of a game if you have a ROM (or you can create your own from your old cartridges). We’ll leave it to you to come up with the ROMs on your own. With that, let’s get the Raspberry Pi set up.

What You’ll Get

Your Raspberry Pi will boot automatically into EmulationStation. This is a program running off a custom SD card called RetroPie that allows you to use a controller to select an emulator and a game without ever touching a keyboard or mouse. After everything’s set up, you’ll be able to navigate and do everything you need to do on the Raspberry Pi from a controller.

Alongside the games, you’ll also get access to a full version of the media center software, Kodi (you’ll need to pop into some advanced settings to download Kodi). This means you can basically have an all-in-one entertainment center that runs classic games and your media center. It’s a pretty killer setup.

What systems can you emulate? A lot of them:

You’ll also get a number of special ports for specific games, including Quake, Minecraft Pi, Baldur’s Gate, and more.

What You Need

You don’t need much to get started here:

  • A Raspberry Pi (We recommend the Raspberry Pi 3 because you’ll get full game compatibly as well as built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. RetroPie will work on older versions of the Raspberry Pi though).
  • Micro USB power supply .
  • At least a 8GB Micro SD card .
  • USB Controllers (optional, but makes the whole thing a lot more fun. We like the Buffalo Classic USB ) RetroPie also natively supports PS 3/4 and Xbox 360/One controllers as well.
  • A USB keyboard (just for the initial setup and only if you want to set up Wi-Fi, you won’t need it afterwards. Of course, if you’re emulating PC games you can use a keyboard and mouse to control them).
  • TV/monitor, AV/HDMI cables (you can find a full list of compatible SD cards, power bricks, and everything else on the Raspberry Pi Wiki).
  • A Windows/Mac/Linux computer to set up your SD card and transfer your ROMs.

Step One: Download and Install RetroPie on a SD Card

Because of the work of RetroPie, the process of installing all of these emulators on your Raspberry Pi is incredibly easy:

  1. Download the RetroPie Project SD card image for your version of the Raspberry Pi (either 0/B/B+ or 2/3). For this guide, we’re using version 3.7. One warning though, this sucker can take a while to download depending on how busy their servers are, so give yourself plenty of time.
  2. Once it’s downloaded, extract the image to the SD card the same way you would a normal Raspbian image. Windows users can do this really easily with the Win32DiskImager, and Mac users can use the RPI-sd card builder. Linux users have to a pretty simple command line trick. Either way, check out our beginner’s guide to DIYing with the Raspberry Pi and follow the same instructions you would with Raspbian.
  3. When it’s done, remove the SD card and put it in your Raspberry Pi.

As far as the initial setup, that’s all you need to do. In fact, if you plan on using a keyboard and mouse instead of a controller you’re basically done and can skip to step five to transfer over your ROM files.

If you’d prefer to manually install the emulators, you can do that as well. The RetroPie Github page has a guide for doing it, but be warned: the manual process takes around six to nine hours to download and install everything. The benefit is that you get the newest versions of emulators and you can select what gets installed. For our purposes though, the above method works great and is incredibly simple.

Step Two: Boot Your Raspberry Pi and Set Up EmulationStation

Next up we’ll boot up your Raspberry Pi. Plug in one of your controllers and your keyboard to the Raspberry Pi. Insert the SD card you just burned, and turn the Raspberry Pi on. After a couple of minutes of automatic set up (it will expand the file system and prepare some other stuff), it will boot directly into EmulationStation, the interface wrapper with all your emulators on it. Here, you’ll set up your controller and do a few other tweaks to get the system set up.

On its first boot, follow the onscreen prompts with your controller to set it up (up, down, left, right, etc). If you’re using a Bluetooth controller, connect it with the USB cable during this step. You can set up Bluetooth later in the next step.

When you’re finished, you can navigate through your RetroPie with just your controller. These controls will work in both the emulators and in RetroPie itself. On top of controlling basic movement, you also get a number of “hot keys” so you can quickly do certain actions from inside games:

  • Select+Start: Exit a game
  • Select+Right Shoulder: Save
  • Select+Left Shoulder: Load
  • Select+Right: Input State Slot Increase
  • Select+Left: Input State Slot Decrease
  • Select+X: RGUI Menu
  • Select+B: Reset

Not all of these shortcuts are useful for everyone, but you should at least know how to exit a game, create a save, and load a save.

One other thing that’s worth noting, while RetroPie comes packed with a ton of emulators, it hides all the emulators that don’t have games installed. So when you’re first browsing RetroPie, you’ll notice that no emulators are available. Don’t worry! This is how it’s supposed to work. The other emulators will show up as you add games.

Step Three: Set Up Wi-Fi

The newest version of RetroPie has a built-in system where you can access all your Raspberry Pi settings, tweak your memory, and more right from EmulationStation. Most of these settings are for advanced users, but one pretty much everyone will want to set up is Wi-Fi:

  1. Scroll down to the Configure WiFi option and tap the A button.
  2. Select “Connect to WiFi Network” and choose your network. Type in your password and select okay.

That’s it for the base setup. If you want to tinker around some more, this is where you’ll do it. You can edit the theme of RetroPie, set up a Bluetooth controller for wireless (this varies a little based brand to brand, but the RetroPie GitHub page has guides for the most popular options), manage files, and much more in this area. Most of this stuff isn’t worth toying around until you’re a little more comfortable with the basics though. Check out our guide to RetroArch (the backbone of the RetroPie system) if you’re interested in how to tweak some of these advanced options.

Step Four (Optional): Transfer Your ROMs from Your Primary Computer

For this step, we’re going to assume you already have a bunch of ROMs on your primary computer that you want to transfer to your Raspberry Pi. This is super easy to do:

  1. Make sure your Raspberry Pi is on, and connected to your router.
  2. The RetroPi folder should appear automatically as a shared folder. If not, you can load it manually. From Windows open up the file manager and type \\retropie into the folder location. On Mac, open up finder and Select Go > Connect to Server. Type in smb://retropie and click connect.

From here on out, you’ll be able to easily copy ROMs to the Raspberry Pi remotely through this method, so don’t worry if you want to add more down the line. Once the file transfer is done, reboot the Raspberry Pi.

If you’d prefer to use a USB drive full of ROMs, you can do that too. Just dump them onto the USB drive in a folder with the name retropie and then plug it into your Pi.

Music in video by RoccoW.

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