Make A Classic Video Game Emulator With Raspberry Pi and RetroPie

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Video games are great. Dads love them, kids love them. Sure, modern video games are incredible spectacles of graphical prowess. But, men in my generation will never forget the excitement of getting their first Nintendo (or Super Nintendo). Sitting down to play classic video games like Mario Kart, Contra or NBA Jam is hard to beat. Classic games are a fantastic blend of fun, nostalgia and relaxation. In the coming months, Nintendo is attempting to grab a piece of the emulator market by selling a “NES Classic Edition” console for $60. It will be pre-loaded with 30 games, but unfortunately additional games cannot be downloaded. For about the same price, you can build your own emulator and load it with dozens of games from multiple classic game systems!

Life Hacker and GitHub have each done a pretty good job outlining the process for building a Raspberry Pi based emulator. But, after building one myself, I think I can make an even cleaner and more complete tutorial that includes a few sticking points. I hope it’s helpful!

STEP 1: SHOPPING

To get the ball rolling, there is a small laundry list of parts and pieces required to make your very own Raspberry Pi video game emulator:

  • Raspberry Pi 3 motherboard
  • Hardware accessories: Power supply, HDMI cable, heat sinks and protective case
  • Micro SD card (8GB+) and adapter (most computers don’t accept straight Micro SD)
  • USB video game controllers (I chose SNES controllers)

Raspberry Pi 3 Starter Kit includes everything you need (except controllers).

OR… You could save yourself the hassle of filling an online shopping cart, and just buy this Raspberry Pi 3 Starter Kit. It includes all of the above (except controllers) and saves you a few bucks versus buying a la carte. The folks from CanaKit sell the highest quality starter kits around. There are a variety of game controllers available (NES, SNES, etc.). I tested two SNES controllers. One made by iNNext and one by Buffalo. The Buffalo controller costs a bit more but it has better weight, button feel and overall quality. Look below for a few Amazon links to get you going.

Lastly, here are a few things you need but probably already own:

  • Television (monitor)
  • USB Keyboard
  • Desktop or laptop computer for downloading files


STEP 2: RETROPIE

While, you’re waiting for your new toys to arrive, let’s use your desktop/laptop to start downloading software (there is quite a bit). As of this post, a new and improved RetroPie 4.0 has just been released. Hop on your computer and head over to RetroPie’s download center. Grab the “2/3” version. It will be called “retropie-4.0.2-rpi2_rpi3.img.gz” or something similar.

RetroPie must be unpacked using 7-Zip and installed using Win32 Disk Imager. So, download both of those programs. For now, let’s go ahead and unpack the RetroPie file. To unpack it, open 7-Zip, browse for the downloaded .gz file, and click “extract.” Move it to your desktop for easy access. Later, we’ll install the extracted file on our Micro SD card. (Mac users, use ApplePi-Baker instead of Win32.)

A few quick A/V notes… If you’re playing on a large living room TV or home theater TV, some USB cord extensions might be necessary for the controllers. Also, sound issues are somewhat common with HDMI, but help is out there. Also, the RPi’s analog 3.5mm audio port seems to be less problematic. (My setup uses a 3.5mm audio cable  connecting my RPi to a Miccus RTX Mini. (The RTX Mini will effortlessly transmit a Bluetooth signal to a Bluetooth speaker or some Bluetooth headphones.) Finally, an HDMI splitter is great for managing multiple HDMI devices – Roku, RPi, etc. But, I recommend plugging in the splitter later. Keep your connections “pure” during the initial set up. For some reason, my RPi did not play well with the splitter during the first boot (problem free since then).

Now, we just wait for the delivery man to ring the doorbell…

STEP 3: HARDWARE SETUP

Hopefully, while you were reading “Step 2” an Amazon drone flew by and dropped off your CanaKit starter kit and some game controllers! But, before we get into the hardware, let’s jump back to your computer. The starter kit includes a Micro SD card, and we need to format it. (It’s pre-loaded with the Raspbian OS, but we want a clean slate for RetroPie.) To format it, find the drive, right-click, choose “Format” and use the default settings. Here’s a screenshot:

emulator
Micro SD card formatting. (Screenshot by Heath Washburn/DadKingdom.com)

Our newly formatted Micro SD card needs the RetroPie .img file. Open Win32 Disk Imager. Find the .img file (earlier I suggested your desktop) and change the destination drive to match your Micro SD card. Once the file is finished writing, right-click and “Eject.” Then, insert the Micro SD card into the bottom of the RPi, contacts pointing up (It’s fragile, so be loving yet firm).

Finally, let’s get our RPi hardware fully connected! First, stick on the heat sinks and gently squeeze your RPi into its protective case. Then, connect the HDMI cord to your television/monitor. (If you have a crowded media cabinet, these velcro-esque 3M strips are awesome for mounting things vertically.) Plug in a game controller and keyboard; controller in your RPi’s upper-left USB port (closest to the ethernet port).

Also, you need to establish an internet connection. A direct ethernet cable from your router is the best option, but the RPi has built-in WiFi too. WiFi settings are at the bottom of all the RetroPie settings, and you need a keyboard to type in network credentials. Last but not least, connect the power supply. Your RPi should look like the photo below. It will boot up automatically once the power is connected.

raspberry pi emulator
Raspberry Pi connections. (Photo by Heath Washburn/DadKingdom.com)

STEP 4: FIRST BOOT

Time to plug in your RPi and get this show on the road! After a few moments, a controller configuration screen will pop up. It’s pretty straight forward, but check the GitHub page for specific button diagrams. (I don’t know why it matters, but my controller config. malfunctioned when I didn’t use the top left USB port.) If you want to use WiFi, this is the time to set it up (RetroPie settings, not to be confused with the start-button menu).

Speaking of RetroPie settings, the basic theme is pretty tame. You can spice it up by installing different themes, in the same settings menu. I like the “Simple” theme pictured below. (The menu will only show systems which have ROMs installed.)

emulator-screenshot
One of many RetroPie menu themes.

STEP 5: EMULATOR ROMS

Our RPi is finally up and running! But, we’re missing the most important part… The games! Emulator game files are called ROMs (short for “read-only memory”). Let’s go back to our computer, hopefully for the last time.

As far as acquiring files, Emuparadise is as good of a one-stop-shop as you will find. ROMs are organized by gaming system and can be sorted by popularity. Of course there are other sites too, so feel free to search. (Now is a good time to say that copyright law would dictate you need to own the physical game cartridge for each ROM file.)

An easy way to transfer ROMs (without removing the Micro SD card) is by using a server connection. With the RPi powered on and fully connected, go to your PC and press the Windows logo key + R. This brings up a “Run” command box. Type in “\\RETROPIE” and drop your files into the “roms” folder. Each gaming system emulator has its own sub-folder. You can also copy/move your ROMs using other methods, but I prefer using the server connection.



BONUS STEP: ELECTRONICS

That’s it! Have fun playing an endless selection of classic games! Oh, one more thing. The RPi doesn’t have a traditional shut down sequence, nor a power switch. So, when you’re all gamed out, hit the Start button on your controller, go to “Quit” and select “Shutdown.” Then, you can safely unplug your RPi’s power supply.

If you’re interested in going above and beyond the basic video game emulator, try the CanaKit Raspberry Pi Kit for Dummies. This kit includes everything from the starter kit, but also includes electronic parts like resistors and LEDs. There’s a vast world of RPi projects beyond the classic video game emulator we’ve described. You can do so many cool things with a little time and ambition. I’m willing to bet Dad Kingdom will feature more RPi posts in the future.

If you ever have serious bugs, come back to step 3, re-format the SD card, then re-install RetroPie. That will cure most ailments. Chime off in the comments section if you have any questions. Dad Kingdom is eager to help. Happy gaming!

Dad Kingdom was not paid for this article, however some free promotional product was received. Opinions expressed are purely that of Dad Kingdom and not the product’s manufacturer.
Dad Kingdom earns revenue through AdSense advertising and also receives a small commission percentage from purchases made through Amazon links. For details, read About Dad Kingdom.

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