Build your own Retro Console using a Raspberry Pi

There are a number of online vendors selling a “Retro Console” and for the price it looks like you get a lot for your money. The going rate here in the UK seems to be around £100 to £120 and the description usually offers a very vague claim that it includes thousands of games from various retro video game consoles. In this post I’ll confirm what it is that you are paying for and then go onto how you can build your own higher quality item for half the cost.

The first thing to let you know is that almost all of these items are the same, it’s a Raspberry Pi computer running emulators via RetroPie. There are various models of the Raspberry Pi but the latest model at the time of writing is the Raspberry Pi 3, released in Feburary 2016 this model is a popular choice because it has built in WiFi and Bluetooth which provides us the following benefits; easy transfer of games to the console, easy download of box artwork for each game and the ability to use bluetooth controllers without the need to supply and configure a third party dongle.

The next thing is that the Raspberry Pi does not come with a case, it was intended to be inexpensive so the extras are excluded but don’t worry I’ll point you towards a bundle of inexpensive genuine accessories that includes everything you need. The range of cases for the Raspberry Pi are huge, I keep mines in our media unit so I don’t need anything fancy but there are fancy options available. Many of the vendors selling Retro Consoles use cases that look like Retro Consoles – like this Nintendo (NES) one.

Now I wanted to call out that many claim that these Retro Consoles include thousands of games, it is true but what is often overlooked is many of the games are duplicates or variants of each other. When the vendors create these consoles they are simply using a bundle of ROMs (In emulation, a ROM is a game – example Sonic the Hedgehog is a ROM). In these bundles there are different versions of each game, have a look at the example below which is strictly speaking only four games. Creating a console with thousands of games is easy as these bundles of ROMs are easily sourced but as a user of my own console I think you get a much better experience selecting and loading only the games that you intend to play.

So what do you need to get started?

  • Raspberry Pi 3 Model B *
  • Micro USB Power Supply – 2.0A *
  • Micro SD Card *
  • Case for Raspberry Pi *
  • HDMI Cable *
  • Bluetooth or USB Game Controller
  • USB Keyboard for Initial Setup
  • Computer for preparing SD Card (Any will do!)

You’ll notice that I’ve added a red star next to the top five items, this is because these are available as genuine parts in an inexpensive kit from Amazon. At the time of writing it is £45.99 which in my opinion is great value – you’ll find the kit here.

I don’t think the USB Keyboard requires any explanation but the game controller is up to you. If available to you, you can use a Wired Xbox 360 Controller, Playstation 3 Controller or Playstation 4 Controller. Don’t have these? You can buy a USB Controller on eBay for less than £5 or spend a little more for a quality item. My personal choice is the 8Bitdo SFC30 which looks and feels like an original Super Nintendo controller and works with a variety of devices over Bluetooth or USB.

Oh.. if you wanted to use a USB Keyboard for gaming instead of a controller – that is OK too!

Finding ROMs (Games) and BIOS

One item I’ll not cover on this post is how to find ROMs and BIOS (More on BIOS later!). They are not hidden and can be easily found by searching online.

Let’s start the Build

In this first step, we’ll get the Raspberry Pi itself ready. You won’t need the Micro SD card at this stage.

  1. Start first of all by assembling your Raspberry Pi into it’s case. If using the genuine case this is quick and easy requiring no tools.
  2. Connect the HDMI to your TV and Raspberry Pi.
  3. Connect the Power Supply to the mains but not to the Raspberry Pi yet.
  4. Connect the USB keyboard to the Raspberry Pi.
  5. Connect the USB controller to the Raspberry Pi if using one.
  6. If you have a bluetooth controller, ensure it is charged.

With these done, the Raspberry Pi is ready and we’ll switch to your computer now.

Let’s prepare the Micro SD Card

Here we’ll prepare the software on the Micro SD Card ready for the Raspberry Pi.

  1. Visit the download section of the RetroPie website and download the latest image for Raspberry Pi 3.
  2. While that is downloading, download and install Win32DiskImager.
  3. Once the RetroPie image is downloaded, insert the SD Card and open Win32DiskImager.
  4. Select the RetroPie image as the Image File and ensure your SD Card is selected in the Device field.
  5. Press the Write button.
  6. Once the write completes, remove the SD Card from your computer.

With these done, the SD Card is ready for the Raspberry Pi.

Let’s boot the Raspberry Pi and RetroPie

Here we will start the Raspberry Pi and boot into RetroPie.

  1. Insert the SD Card into the Raspberry Pi.
  2. Connect the power supply (Micro USB) to the Raspberry Pi.
  3. Change your TV Input to the correct HDMI that the Raspberry Pi is connected to.
    By default the Raspberry Pi uses HDMI-CEC, if enabled on your TV this may happen automatically.
  4. At this step the Raspberry Pi will boot RetroPie.
  5. When booted into RetroPie you’ll be prompted to set up your controller, if using a USB controller proceed to do this and if not you can temporarily set up using the keyboard. If you wish to skip a button simply press and hold any other button – this is clearer in the video.

With these done, RetroPie is set up on the Raspberry Pi. Don’t be alarmed that no consoles/games show at this time as consoles will only show when a ROM has been loaded – we’ll get to that shortly.

Let’s connect to WiFi and the Bluetooth Controller

At this step we’ll get our Raspberry Pi online and operational using a bluetooth controller. If you have connected your Raspberry Pi directly to your router using ethernet then you can skip the WiFi step, and if you have configured a wired controller already you can skip the bluetooth step.

Connecting to WiFi

  1. Select the RetroPie option from the main screen.
  2. Select the WiFi option from the RetroPie menu.
    The screen will change to a low resolution text-based display.
  3. Select the first option, Connect to WiFi network.
  4. Select your wireless router/access point and enter your password.
  5. You’ll return to the initial screen and all being well, will see the router/access point name and IP address at the top.
  6. Select Exit to return to the RetroPie menu.

Pairing a bluetooth controller

  1. From the RetroPie menu select Bluetooth.
  2. Put your controller into pairing mode. (Refer to controller manual for this)
  3. Select the first option, Register and Connect to Bluetooth Device.
  4. Select your device from the list.
  5. When prompted for a security mode, select “DisplayYesNo” and await connection confirmation.
  6. Select option M – “Configure bluetooth connect mode” and change to “background”.
  7. Select the Cancel option to return to the Retropie menu.
  8. Go back to the main menu and press Start for the Main Menu.
  9. Select Configure Input and confirm.
  10. Press and hold a button on the bluetooth controller to select.
  11. Press the buttons as prompted, if requested for a button you don’t have simply press and hold another button to skip.

Once done here, the console is online and will have a game controller configured for use. Keep it online for now so we can load some games in the next step!

Let’s load some games to the Retro Console

There are a number of ways to transfer ROMs onto RetroPie but my favourite is by Samba/Network share. If these instructions don’t work for you, you’ll find them on the RetroPie website. Please let me know if this is the case and I’ll extend my guide.

  1. Open a new explorer window in Windows and in the address bar, type \\RETROPIE then press enter.
  2. Await for folders to show, or
  3. If prompted for a login, enter “pi” as the username and password.
  4. Open the ROMS folder.
  5. Open the folder of the console you wish to load roms for, example “megadrive”.
  6. Drag and drop your ROMs into the folder.
  7. Repeat for other ROMs or consoles.

Don’t worry if the filename of your ROM looks a little off, like Sonic The Hedgehog (JEU).bin – this is OK as when we download the game metadata it’ll clean this up.

I think it’s time to launch a game!

Okay, we’re almost there! Press the start button to bring up the main menu and select Quit followed by Restart System. Once restarted you’ll see that the consoles for games you’ve loaded will now become available on the main menu. Let’s launch a game, select a console and then select a game. If all has gone well so far, we should be in business and everything should be working pretty well! This is a good time to take a break and have some fun with the console after your hard work so far, take some time to add other ROMs you may have.

Once ready, we’ll polish the setup of our own Retro Console off with the game metadata in the next step.

Downloading the game metadata – what is that anyways?

Metadata is a term that I appreciate not everyone will be familiar with, basically it means we’ll download (scrape) some game information. This information is a description of the game and more importantly the picture from the box. Not everyone does this when they create their own Retro Console but I think for the little effort it takes, is a worthwhile investment. The good news is that RetroPie does this for all consoles and games in a single operation – let’s give it a go.

  1. Select one of the consoles to see the game list and press start.
  2. Select the “Scraper” option.
  3. Leave the options at default and select Start.
  4. When the scraper finds a game that may have multiple options, you’ll be asked to select the closest option.
  5. For any strange/hack games you can select Skip.
  6. You’ll receive a confirmation message like “X Games Successfully Scraped”.

If you select OK and go back to the game list, you’ll see a description and album artwork for all of your games.

Conclusion

At this point you are done! Enjoy many hours of fun playing back old games from your childhood – if you have children it can be fun getting their thoughts on some older games compared to modern equivalents. If you feel like reading more – I’ve added some additional notes below!

Additional Notes

  • Some consoles will require a BIOS (Eg. Amiga, Sega CD, Sony Playstation) and like ROMs I can’t provide a link to these. Remember when we transferred our games into the ROMS folder? Adding a BIOS is the same, they go into the BIOS folder.
  • RetroPie has support for Save States out of the box for all consoles. To change a save state slot, hold select and press Left/Right to toggle the slot. To save state, hold Select and press L and to load a state hold Select and press R.
  • You may find out of the box the audio is a little quiet compared to other devices connected to your TV. To toggle this, press Start to access the Main Menu and increase the volume to 100% or another value to your liking.
  • Do take the time to explore other RetroPie themes and find something you like – there are some really cool ones out there and some developers have great ideas, like the one below!

Resources

Raspberry Pi Website
RetroPie Website
RetroPie 3 Kit on Amazon
Win32DiskImager

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