Monday, October 17, 2016

TableTop Arcade - Raspberry Pi 3 & RetroPie Setup, Part 1

Project Index

I have been using emulators to play old school arcade and NES games since the late 90s, as my original Nintendo Entertainment System (which I received for Christmas in 1988... when I was SIX!) only lasted a few years. Fast-forward almost 2 decades and emulation of older games is now extremity easy to do, all while using very inexpensive hardware, via the Raspberry Pi.

Over the next few weeks, I will be working on setting up a Raspberry Pi 3 as an emulator, and building a TableTop Arcade cabinet to house the micro-computer, screen, and controls.   The first series of posts will be a step by step guide on assembling the various components for the Pi, and installing / setting up RetroPie as the Emulator Front-end. 

Key Terms / Glossary

Before we begin, here is a list of basic terms you should familiarize yourself with if you want to tackle a project like this on your own. 
  • Emulator - In computing, an emulator is hardware or software that enables one computer system (called the host) to behave like another computer system (called the guest). An emulator typically enables the host system to run software or use peripheral devices designed for the guest system.  In this case, the "Host" (Raspberry Pi) will be emulating the "guest" systems of various arcade and game consoles (NES, SEGA, Neo-Geo, etc). 
  • ROM - A game file.  You can copy these files from physical medium (game cartridges, Disks, etc), but they are more commonly sourced from the interwebs. 
  • Raspberry Pi 3 (RPi3) - The latest version of a $35 micro computer with built in Bluetooth & wifi. You will need to source (or may already have) a 5v @ 2.5A MicroUSB power supply and a MicroSD card as well, and I will go over that in more detail in the hardware section.
  • RetroArch - The underlying workhorse software that contains the emulators and configuration files necessary to play games
  • EmulationStation - The front-end software included with RetroPie.  Essentially the pretty, organizational face of how you select your systems and games
  • RetroPie - an image file that you can flash on your sd card that has all the necessary software components to create a retro gaming machine (including both RetroArch & EmulationStation).  As of October 2016, the current version is v4.0
  • Image - A copy of a retropie installation that you can put on your MicroSD card so you do not have to manually configure the majority of the options on your own.
  • SSH - Secure Shell; just a way for you to access your RPI3 with a computer via a wireless network to change settings or add games
  • Scraping - The way to get metadata and boxart for your games from the internet. The scrapers RetroPie uses pull primarily from
  • MAME - Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator 

Hardware List - Raspberry Pi Setup

This list is only the components needed to play emulated games on the Raspberry Pi.  The full list of materials for the TableTop arcade cabinet will be in a future post.
  • Raspberry Pi 3 Kit
    • Although the Pi 3 alone is only $35, I suggest the following kit as it has most of what you need to get started
      • Vilros Raspberry Pi 3 Basic Starter Kit, Black Case - $49
        • Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
        • 5v @ 2.5A Power MicroUSB Power Supply (The one with your phone is probably only 2.1A, so I suggest this one to ensure enough power for your Pi.)
        • Set of 2 Heatsinks
        • Black Enclosure Case
  • 16GB Class 10 MicroSD Card
  • USB Gamepad Controller
    • For a basic yet very functional setup, I suggest this wired USB controller that is very similar to the SNES controllers of yore. 
    • If you want to step it up to wireless, analog sticks, and trigger buttons, I am currently using these Bluetooth controllers, and they work very well.   
  • HDMI Cable
    • You will need to plug the Pi into a display.  The Pi has an HDMI output for both video and sound. If your display doesn't have built-in speakers, there is a 3.5mm jack as well. 
    • Type and length of cable will vary depending on individual needs.  
So there is the basic hardware list for the Emulator Setup.  For roughly $70 you can set up a simple gaming platform, capable of emulating thousands of console and arcade games.


Truth be told, there really doesn't need to be a "step" for this (super easy and straightforward), but going to post a few pictures anyways.

Here is a quick rundown of specs for the Pi 3, and a diagram showing the component layout

  • Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
    • SoC: Broadcom BCM2837
    • CPU: 4× ARM Cortex-A53, 1.2GHz
    • GPU: Broadcom VideoCore IV
    • RAM: 1GB LPDDR2 (900 MHz)
    • Networking: 10/100 Ethernet, 2.4GHz 802.11n wireless
    • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.1 Classic, Bluetooth Low Energy
    • Storage: microSD
    • GPIO: 40-pin header, populated
    • Ports: HDMI, 3.5mm analogue audio-video jack, 4× USB 2.0, Ethernet, Camera Serial Interface (CSI), Display Serial Interface (DSI)

Here is my Pi 3, after adding 2 heatsinks to the CPU and USB controller.  I also added an additional to the chip-set on the bottom of the Pi.  These heatsinks may not really be necessary unless you are doing CPU intensive tasks (like BitCoin mining), but since they come with the Kit, might as well use them.

  • Quick note, I am using a different case than what came in the kit.  The kit case works fine, I just liked the look of the one in these pictures a lot more. 

As far as the Raspberry Pi specific "Hardware" part is concerned, we are done.  In the next post I will cover installing the RetroPie image, and any configuration that needs to happen to work with the selected ROMs and Controllers.

Here is a sneak peak of the setup. Stay tuned!

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