Emulating video game systems and computers is one of the things that the Raspberry Pi has always been good at, right from the start. You can do this with your own Raspberry Pi using RetroPie emulators. RetroPie is easily one of the best all-in-one plug-in-play retro gaming solutions. Even with systems that don’t work flawlessly, it’s not too difficult to tweak them to work right.
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 4.7, 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, and Bluetooth configuration tweaks give you better support for the PS3 controller, along with many other functional improvements. It also adds support for Raspberry Pi 400.
While 4.7 had some frame rate issues, the updated 4.7.1 addresses this and a few other glitches for better performance.
Out of all the RetroPie emulators, this is the best one so far. But, how do you get started?
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 for the install: a Zero and original Pi, the Pi 2 and Pi 3, or Pi 4 and Pi 400. The installs for each type are coded differently, so choose carefully.
Save the file to disk and use an SD card burning utility like BalenaEtcher to copy the disk image to the correct SD card for your Pi.
Insert the card into your Pi, turn it on, and RetroPie should just run. It had 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 emulator on disk and lots of games that you don’t want to lose, 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 30 minutes.
If you run into any installation or update issues, the latest installation guidelines for RetroPie emulators are always available to help you out. These are also useful if you’re new to Raspberry Pi.
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 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 into 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 may 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.
Choose the default video mode. For example, we chose 1280 x 720. You can choose something 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-realized 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!
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