One of the reasons I like the Raspberry Pi is that it lets you take hardware and turn it into a dedicated purpose based appliance. Cheaply! And one of those uses is to make a retro game system. I've used the Raspberry Pi Zero before but I was hampered by the fact that it lacks network and Bluetooth access. To get that you need to purchase a USB hub, wifi dongle and if you want it an Bluetooth fob.
Here's how I did it with an 8Bitdo Bluetooth SNES style controller.
Download Retropie for the Zero onto another Pi Zero (non-wireless one, I have a few). I could not get the image to boot on the new device so I setup a hub with a wifi dongle and keyboard on an old version.
After the image reboots to resize the file system then F4 to get out of Emulationstation and on the command line run this command.
That will take a while to run and you will need to read part of the upgrade and press Q at a point. That annoys me as those commands should run unattended. Meh.
The purpose of this is to get the underlying Raspbian OS up-to-date.
When you’re done run sudo shutdown -h now and swap the old Pi Zero for the Pi Zero W. Unplug the wifi dongle, you don’t need it anymore. Boot up the Pi Zero W with the keyboard attached via the USB adapter.
Once it boots up press F4 to get back to the CLI and run these commands.
cd RetroPie-Setup sudo ./retropie_setup.sh
And select "U Update all installed packages" with your arrow keys. I don't know if that step is necessary but I do it out of habit. I like making sure I have the latest updates. That will take a long while too and reboot when it's finally done.
I already had the cables and power supply but I'm trying to be complete. Not counting the case it's ~$70 for this one player setup.
It's not a Raspberry Pi 3
The overall experience is good and if you limit your retrogames to the older 8bit systems then you'll like it. But the Pi Zero W doesn't have all the CPUs and RAM of the bigger Raspberry Pi 3. The good Neogeo games won't play well. Sometimes sound suffers due to CPU use. Lag is a thing.
But if you have the technical know how this beats the Nintendo Classic by a mile.
One of my recent hobbies (aside from breaking my WordPress site) is anything related to the Raspberry Pi. I use it as a network media player in my living room, USB computer on a stick and as a retrogaming console.
Nintendo recently released the NES Classic Edition which comes with 30 built in games. This holiday season it will be a big hit and it sold out almost as quickly as it was released. With a Raspberry Pi 3 running Retropie you can accomplish almost the same thing. It just takes a little geeky work and some parts.
Here’s the parts and links. I usually just drive out to Micro Center in Westbury and get it in person.
Borrow a USB keyboard from your PC or Mac so you can enter your wifi key. You won’t need it afterwards. I do all my Linux admin via ssh from my PC or Mac.
Your Raspberry Pi 3 running Retropie is a Linux server. It’s running a Debian based distribution called Raspbian. If you’ve spent time administering an Ubuntu LTS VPS then this will feel very similar if not downright identical.
The reason for getting your Retropie on the network is simple: once you do you will find a new Windows share at \\RETROPIE and you can deposit the NES ROMs you obtain in \\RETROPIE\roms\nes as easy as drag-n-drop. You’ll have to do some research where to get them yourself. They’re not hard to find.
When you do obtain NES ROMs make sure you keep them in individual ZIP archive files. Don’t extract them, just from them as is into your nes directory. Once you’ve gotten your roms onto your new system, press the “start” button on your controller and restart emulationstation.
So many emulators to use
Retropie supports many retro arcade systems. My favorite are MAME, SNES, NEO GEO and of course NES. I don’t play a lot of Atari 2600 games though I should. That’s one of the systems I had as a kid.
The emulators are easy to use. Generally you just drag the ROM zip file into it’s directory. Use \\RETROPIE\roms\nes and \\RETROPIE\roms\snes for the right one. You’ll see many more directories there but for now ignore them. You can explorer them later.
This is not a game system for everyone
If you are just looking for the classic NES games and can get your hands on one even with the small controller cables, then do so.
This illustrative YouTube video can explain the mindset of people who do this sort of thing.
You’ll either immediately understand where I’m coming from or you wont. That’s OK, some people just enjoy the nerdy aspects of things.
Using a Raspberry Pi 3 with Retropie is purely a geeky exercise. It works, it works well. It’s easy to maintain provided you are willing to learn the Zen of the Debian Based Linux Server™
Part of the appeal of the Raspberry Pi 3 is that it is a server with a quad core ARM CPU running at 1GHz. It has 1 GB of RAM built in. With a 32GB microSD card, case, and A/C adapter it’s a full on Linux server for less than $70.
Setting up a small PC with similiar stats will run you at least $200. The small size of the Raspberry Pi 3 shouldn’t take away from the fact that it is a Linux server. It has a default user ID and password. You should change that if you’re concerned.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Yesterday I did the following.
Ran cd Retropie-Setup then sudo ./retropie_setup.sh
Selected “Update all installed packages” and skipped the OS ones because I already did those.
Had coffee. See illustrative video above.
Ran sudo reboot to reboot box.
If you read that, stopped at step 2 and said “Are you kidding me?” then it’s alright. You’re OK. The NES Classic Edition is for you, it’s $60 and it is fire and forget. It does not have any network capabilities, it will never be updated. And there’s no legal question about using one either.
If you want to roll your own and don’t mind getting up to your neck in Geeky Nerdy things then maybe the Raspberry Pi 3 is for you.