The Raspberry Pi is a small, low cost, USB powered computer that’s become popular with DIY enthusiasts, programmers, and increasingly more often, gamers. Even the Pi, a computer with a fraction of the processing power of today’s smart phones is capable of running games through the fourth generation of consoles, and from personal computers of the same period. For some, emulation is nothing new. There are many programs for emulating games on virtually anything with a CPU available today. It’s a hobby that can require a bit of technical skill and willingness to dig around in the guts of the games and software, and patience to try and play these games using a keyboard interface or to configure a controller for each emulator you wish to run. On top of all that, there’s just something that’s not the same about trying to play a SNES game on a computer monitor.
For myself, a lot of the caveats to playing games on an emulator were mitigated by using home brew programs on the Wii. They were ready to use with a controller, could be easily played on your TV and were all tuned to work perfectly with the Wii hardware. But the Wii is outdated hardware that will soon require emulation to be run itself. And it also required a hack to even begin running home brew software. To be a bit of a nit-picker, it was also kind of a pain to have to jump through so many menus to start playing a game. For some, it’s still a viable route to enjoying games that either don’t have a modern platform to replay on or are prohibitively priced. There are a ton of great games out there that may not be on the radar for the companies who own the IP, or are unable to re-release them due to licensing issues. There’s no reason why today’s gamers shouldn’t be able to access and preserve these games in a way that most closely approximates their original form. The RetroPie project makes this real in a way that’s low-cost and accessible.
Lifehacker has put together a step by step guide on how to load and configure the software on a Raspberry Pi. While there’s still some need for technical know-how and patience in configuring the controller and ROMs, the end result is something that looks and feels like the real thing. Not in the sense that a NES game is represented exactly as it was on the NES, but that firing it up and playing that game felt like it did back when I actually kept a NES console connected to a TV. The USB SNES controller that Lifehacker recommends feels right as well. There are certainly other controllers that will work with the RetroPie project (I have a PSOne controller with a USB adapter as well) but the USB SNES controller works well with all of the emulators I’ve tested. So what exactly makes this different from other emulation solutions?
- One uniform piece of hardware: RetroPie and the embedded emulators are all designed to work with the same hardware. There’s no guess work factoring in the operating system, other programs running at the same time, video cards, sound cards, etc. It provides the same advantage that early consoles did: one architecture that everyone worked around.
- The emulators are baked in: This was one of my chief complaints regarding the Wii home brew solution. It required installation of each emulator, individually. And while the end result worked, having them all ready to roll with RetroPie is even better. Just copy over your games and you’re ready to play.
- It boots into a game selection screen: This is probably my favorite feature of the project. When you boot the Raspberry Pi, you don’t have to start emulators from a desktop or command line interface. It immediate boots into a screen that allows you to select games with the controller. Once the system is configured, you’ve got a console, not a computer.
- Configure the controller for everything: The controller is configured once on the first run in order to use it to browse menus, and then another time to configure it for every emulator on the system. Then your done. Or you can simply copy someone else’s controller config file and use it as your own.
- The entire system can be redistributed: One thing that I love about the Raspberry Pi is that the operating system is housed on an SD card. Just swap in the one you want and it boots up straight away. You can easily copy that SD card, give it to someone else, and everything will run exactly the same way as it did on your Pi.
I’ve been able to test out games running on the NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Genesis, all without any problems. It’s capable of running consoles from later generations, but I’ve not attempted this myself, but I feel safe saying that running a PSOne game on the Pi is going to stretch its resources pretty thin. For the fourth generation and earlier though, it’s great way for you to be able to preserve and share the experience of playing these earlier games. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get all the high scores in Kirby’s Pinball Land.