How to Turn a Raspberry Pi Into a Game Console

382 01/10/2021

Photo: Andrew Cunningham

Any Raspberry Pi 4 case will work, but we like this one that's shaped like a Nintendo Entertainment System, comes with a power cable, fan, and has a functional power button. The SSD enclosure is a bit overkill for most, but it's a fun extra. If you don't care about it looking like an old console, this case has excellent cooling and a power button. You'll also need an HDMI cable and access to a Mac or Windows computer for the setup process. I also keep a mini wireless keyboard like this one around to help deal with any troubleshooting, but that's optional.

An emulator is software that makes a computer work like another computer. There are emulators to make your Raspberry Pi work like a video game console, such as a Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, PlayStation, or even a DOS-based PC. Most games come in the form of individual files called ROMs, named for the read-only memory chip of the game cartridge they were originally copied from.

ROMs are usually copyrighted material; making a digital copy of your own cartridges for use on these emulators is a legal gray area and usually requires specialized hardware, but companies like Nintendo have made it clear that they consider using emulators for games without permission from the copyright holder illegal. Some independent developers make original games, referred to as "homebrew," for classic consoles, and this is completely legal. Popular homebrew games include D-Pad Hero, Alter Ego, and Blade Buster. If you're curious about the homebrew scene, ROMhacking is a great site to start with. Some companies do offer ROMs for purchase, including the ROMs in the Atari Vault collection, Neo Geo games from GOG, and the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis Classics packages, though you'll still have to manually transfer the games from your computer to your Raspberry Pi.

Using a Raspberry Pi as a game emulation machine is such a popular project that several operating systems exist for this sole purpose.

RetroPie was the first operating system like this, but others have followed, including Recalbox, Batocera, and Lakka. For this guide, we'll use Recalbox, which is the easiest to set up and maintain.

As with any Raspberry Pi operating system, the first step is downloading and burning (writing) a file to a microSD card:

On your Windows or Mac computer, download the newest version of Recalbox for your Raspberry Pi model.Download and install Etcher, free software used to copy Pi operating system images to SD cards.Insert your microSD card into your computer. If you don't have a built-in SD card reader, you'll need to buy one.Open Etcher. Click Select Image and find the Recalbox file you downloaded in step one.Click Select Drive and click on your microSD card. Then click Flash! and wait for Etcher to copy the image.

When it's done, take out the SD card, insert it into your Raspberry Pi, plug in your controllers, then plug the Pi into the power supply and your TV or monitor.

Most Bluetooth controllers, including the Sony DualShock 4 and Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, are compatible with Recalbox.

Once you set up Wi-Fi, you can access your Raspberry Pi remotely from your home computer.

Shaders are visual effects that simulate old displays, like CRT TVs, so classic games look correct even on modern TVs.

When you first boot up Recalbox, it will automatically run through a few setup steps, so let it do its thing until the main menu pops up.

Configure your controllers: The buttons on most popular wired controllers, including the Buffalo USB controller, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers, and the Sony DualShock 4 all work out of the box, but you can remap buttons if needed, press Start, then select Controller Settings. If you need to remap buttons on a wired controller, select Configure a Controller, then select OK, and follow the on-screen instructions. To set up a Bluetooth controller, press Start and then Pair a Bluetooth Controller; put your controller into pairing mode, and then select the controller's name when it pops up on the screen.Connect to your wireless network: If your Raspberry Pi is connected to your router with an Ethernet cable, you can skip this step, but if you want to use Wi-Fi you need to enter your wireless credentials. Press Start and click on Network Settings. Enter your Wi-Fi's SSID and password using the keyboard on the screen. Once that's all set up, you will be able to access your Raspberry Pi over your network from your computer to transfer files and change basic settings (we'll detail how this works in the next section).Pick your shaders: Older games can look odd on a modern television. To account for this, emulators can use shaders, which mimic the image appearance of old TVs and LCD screens. Recalbox includes two options for this: scanlines, which adds horizontal lines to the screen like a tube television, and retro, which automatically picks a different shader style based on the console. For example, an NES game will have scanlines, while a GameBoy Advance game mimics the grid you would see on the original handheld's LCD screen. To choose a shader, press Start, then Games Settings, then Shader Set. Most people can set it to Retro and leave it there. You can add your own custom shaders, but it's a bit complicated.

Once you're done with the setup, scroll through the included games and give a few of them a try to make sure everything is working as expected.

Recalbox includes a basic file and configuration manager you can access within your home network via a Web interface in your browser. Using this Web interface, you can copy ROMs over to your Raspberry Pi, manage basic settings, and more. To show how to transfer a ROM from your computer to the Pi, we'll use a copy of D-Pad Hero, a free homebrew NES ROM.

Download the D-Pad Hero file.From your computer's Web browser, head to http://recalbox/ if you're on a Windows computer or http://recalbox.local/ if you're on a Mac computer.On the Recalbox manager page, click the ROMs button on the sidebar.Click the Nintendo Entertainment System folder. You need to put your ROM files in the folder for the console it's on.Click Upload ROMs then drag and drop the D-Pad Hero file you downloaded in step one into the box in your browser. When it's done copying the file, click Restart ES and you can head over to your Raspberry Pi to play it. You can select and upload multiple ROMs at once.

The Recalbox manager can do other things, too. You can access a variety of settings from the Web manager, including wireless network settings and shaders. You can even press a button to take a screenshot when you're playing games. If you don't like the browser-based manager, you can also access your Raspberry Pi in Windows Explorer or Finder on Mac, similar to how you'd use a network-attached storage device.

Emulators allow you to save games, even in old ones that don't have a built-in save system. These are called "save states," and they saves the exact moment you're at in a game. In order to save, load, and exit games on Recalbox, you use hotkeys by tapping two buttons on your controller at once.

Hotkey + Start: Quit a gameHotkey + Y: Save stateHotkey + X: Load stateHotkey + A: Reset game

Further reading

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Most Bluetooth controllers, including the Sony DualShock 4 and Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, are compatible with Recalbox.

Once you set up Wi-Fi, you can access your Raspberry Pi remotely from your home computer.

Shaders are visual effects that simulate old displays, like CRT TVs, so classic games look correct even on modern TVs.

by Thorin Klosowski

by Andrew Cunningham

by Marguerite Preston

by Grant Clauser

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