Emulating video game systems and computers is one of the things that the Raspberry Pi has always been good at, right from the start. In this article we will explain how to get set up with Retropie, one of the best all-in-one plug ‘n play retro gaming solutions, and how to work around systems that don’t work flawlessly.
Juicy Slice of Pi
Initially, Retropie was just a concept of how simple an all-in-one retro gaming platform could be, so it took a while for the specs to match this cool idea. The plan was to make a simple front end for all the best emulators for Raspberry Pi and bundle them together in one install. All the emulators were preconfigured with their default options, but you could also wade in and tweak them afterwards, adjusting things like screen filters which emulate fuzzy old CRT screens.
Fast forward to today, and we have version 4.3 which comes with many improvements. It has improved ways of cataloging and sorting your games, all the bundled emulator packages are now updated to the latest versions, Bluetooth configuration tweaks give you better support for the PS3 controller and many other functional improvements.
This is the best Retropie we’ve ever had. So how do you join the party?
Starting with Retropie
Getting Retropie on your Pi is easy. Go to the download link and click the “Download” button.
You must choose the target Pi you want to install on, either a Zero and original Pi, or the Pi2 and Pi3. The installs for each type are coded differently, so choose carefully.
Insert the card in your Pi and turn it on, and Retropie should just run. It has no games on it initially, but we can fix that in a second.
Upgrading from Previous Versions
Incidentally, if you already have a previous version of Retropie on disk and lots of games that you don’t want to lose by overwriting the disk, then you should upgrade via the Retropie Setup menu.
First, backup your Retropie SD card before upgrading in case anything goes wrong. Next, if you are updating from version 3.x and earlier, you may have to first select “Update RetroPie-Setup Script” and then “Update All Installed Packages.” If you are updating from 4.x and later, it’s easier: just use “Update All Installed Packages.” The process takes about thirty minutes.
Getting games into Retropie is very easy, too. Copy all your game ROMs onto a USB stick and plug it into the Pi. (If you have a Zero, you may need a USB hub.) Next, go to the Retropie menu and select “File Manager.” There you have a DOS-style two-sided file manager. Use Tab on a USB keyboard and use the Function keys to copy files from one side to the other.
The USB stick can be found under the “/media” folder. The ROMs need to go into the directory “/home/pi/RetroPie/roms/” and then in the folder for each machine.
Most systems work flawlessly out of the box on Retropie, depending on two factors: the processor in your Pi and the age and complexity of the game system you are emulating.
For example, 80s arcade games and first-generation consoles like the NES and Sega Master System work at full speed right out of the box. As you move into the 90s, things get a bit more tricky. Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1/PSX games can run very slowly with audio stutters. This lack of power is not the Pi’s fault, as machines like the N64 had graphics processors and sound chips which took the load off the CPU. The Pi has no such support, so it has to do it all with sheer brute force.
To get better RetroPie performance from the higher-level retro consoles, you need to make a few tweaks. First, make sure your power supply is strong enough (5v and 2.5A, regular USB plugs are just 2A and not quite enough), and if you overclock, add cooling in the form of heatsinks or a fan. You might also need to adjust the rendering engine and drop the screen resolution.
Take N64, for example. To configure, start any N64 game and press a button on your gamepad when prompted before the game runs to enter settings mode. Select the emulator to use, either Glide or Gles2.
Then choose the default video mode. For example, we chose 1280 x 720. You can choose lower like 720 x 576, but stay within the bounds of what your monitor can display. Ours can’t do 640 x 480, for example.
Go back to the previous menu and choose the frame buffer size, as low as possible. Choose the one that works best for you.
Retropie is now a fully-realised turnkey retro gaming system, and as it goes through new revisions, it’s getting better and better. Mostly, it works great out of the box, but you can improve the quality on newer consoles by tweaking the settings. Good luck!
If you have any comments or questions about Retropie, leave them in the comments below.
This article was first published in October 2015 and was updated in January 2018.