Budget time travel for the gaming enthusiast

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 27, 2016


A guide to using the Raspberry Pi and RetroPie combo to resurrect long lost games

The world of gaming has changed significantly since the turn of the millennium. Graphics have gotten far better, gameplay has gotten more complex and layered and diversity of the content on offer has simply exploded. However, these advancements haven’t come without a host of attendant tradeoffs. Games have gotten a lot more expensive and a lot more restrictive in recent times. As the industry realised how lucrative gaming could be, they moved aggressively to restrict any kind of threat to their profits. The result – complex DRM schemes, games that require an always-on internet connection and hardware lock-ins. But as we stand on the verge of the next revolution in gaming, powered by virtual and augmented reality, the moment also appears to be opportune for gamers who long for a return to the simpler times.

The vast library of titles from the early days of gaming have been liberated in recent times by software emulators that are capable of running older games on new hardware. Names such as Amiga, Atari, Dreamcast, Sega and Commodore have all been resurrected in virtual space minus the original consoles. And while emulators have been around for a while now and run just fine on most PCs, the level of software and hardware support that has been achieved in recent times means that a new class of gaming machine has been born out of the ashes of the bygone ones.

With the Raspberry Pi, an incredibly versatile barebones computer and RetroPie, an operating system specifically designed to run console emulators on it, it is now possible to create a Frankenstein’s monster of retro video games. It will support games that were originally intended for over 50 different consoles and cost a fraction of what a modern gaming console would.

And it doesn’t take a genius to setup either. The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is available for order in various configurations on Amazon for as little as ₹2800. You’ll also need a power adaptor for the device, a microSD card for storage and an HDMI cable. Of course, a pair of gaming controllers will also be required unless you’re okay with slumming it on a keyboard. Apart from the Pi, we had most of the required components lying around the house and spent less than ₹3500 on the entire project.

Once you have all the components required, download the appropriate copy of RetroPie from the flash it on to the microSD card using the simple instructions on the website. Plug the card as well as the HDMI cable, controller and keyboard into the Pi and flip the power switch. The device will boot straight into the emulation station frontend of the RetroPie OS. Before doing anything with the OS, you will be prompted to configure your input device. This is a fairly straightforward process that involves a list of configurable keys you can scroll through and press the required button to map it to that key. A keyboard might be required if you intend to tinker around with advanced settings later in the day, but for the basics, a controller with Start, Select and A-B buttons is more than enough. Once your input method is configured, hit Start and go into the Raspberry Pi Configuration Tool to adjust video settings. Play around with the setting until you figure out what works for your display setup.

Now, you are nearly ready to get your game on. The final step is to copy some games over to the Pi. The overwhelming majority of games for these old systems have been made available on the Internet in the form of ROMs. Since most of them are not available for sale anymore and are long past their best before date, downloading them from the Internet is a grey area that most game publishers aren’t particularly concerned about policing. But for the sake of you conscience, you can make sure you only download games which you already own physical copies of. Before copying the ROMs over to your Pi, you will have to plug it into your computer and create a folder called retropie. Then plug it into your Pi and allow it to configure the filesystem for a minute before connecting it back to your computer. Now copy your ROMs over to the appropriate system folder from the list that has automatically appeared. The Pi will automatically detect these ROMs and copy them over on contact. Reboot the system and your retro gaming machine is ready to go.

Before you get excited and start dreaming of mutant mushrooms from the world of Mario, a word of caution. The Raspberry Pi, and the RetroPie, which is a Linux-based OS, are not intended for everybody. They are enthusiast technologies, built by enthusiasts for other enthusiasts. While basic setup is straightforward, running into a hiccup or two is also common. In the event of a problem arising, remember that no error is unique and other users have encountered them before. Solutions are always a Google search away. The flipside of the coin is the immense power and customisability that the hobbyist nature of these technologies offers. The Internet is chockfull of users who have successfully used the Pi and RetroPie to build 80s style arcade gaming machines straight out of the video game parlours of their childhood, complete with flashing lights and garish artwork. As far as video games goes, time travel is now well and truly possible. Your enthusiasm is the only barrier.

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Published on July 27, 2016
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