Adventures in Game Emulation with a Raspberry Pi! Part 1

To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I ended up becoming obsessed with the Raspberry Pi over the past two weeks, but let’s just say, I’ve been busy.

I have a confession: I love playing classic video games and I mostly dislike the concept of playing new video games. It’s very difficult for me to get involved in something new, unless it comes with ringing endorsements from at least 1,000 people, or Amazon reviews. Of course, I’ll need to know how it plays compared to games from my childhood, be made aware of any deal-breakers like constant random encounters or spread-too-far-apart save points, and then maybe I’ll flip a coin and let that be the final deciding factor.

It’s this very reason, I assume, why the idea of having all of the classic games available at my disposal appealed to me. Enter: RetroPie.

I had read a little bit into Raspberry Pis over the past couple of years, and if you have been living under a rock and Googled them for the first time five seconds ago, you would think that they solely exist to play video games on. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, there is definitely a trend in shoving these tiny computers into all sorts of devices, and turning them into slaves to make video game magic happen virtually anywhere.

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And this is what it looked like! (in a dream I had). Source.

Years ago I came up with a plan to build an arcade cabinet. I had an old PC that I was going to strip and build into the cabinet itself, and I planned on writing software to launch different emulators, manage your ROMs, and do all of the dirty work for you. Well, that was then and this is now, and in the past few years a lot of very talented people with motivation and spare time have bundled the whole entire MAME package into a single downloadable operating system called RetroPie, that lives on an SD card and runs on a computer the size of a credit card.

To summarize my ramblings, building an arcade machine can now be as big a project as you want it to be, as what was formerly the hardest part, rigging up the buttons and software, is now practically done for you. Software that organizes your roms, scrubs the titles for cover art and ratings, binds your controllers, etc. All bundled up into a wonderful suite called RetroPie.

I went out and picked up a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B for the low price of $30, and after waiting three days to receive a power cord from Amazon when I realized the Pi didn’t come with one, I rigged up an SD card with RetroPie, and viola! I had a mini computer that played video games!

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With the vision in my head of having a little TV that played videogames like a little portable box of classic arcade-y love, I purchased a Pi case that mounted to VESA-ready televisions and strapped it to the back of a small TV I had in my possession.

Lots of impulse buys and a few mistakes later, I had everything working great and the machine was loaded with roms.

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To be fair, I never actually played this game as a child.

The performance in all of the emulators is stellar, with the exception of Nintendo 64. For the record, it has been regarded as “experimental” at this time, and I am using the most powerful Pi currently available. But it didn’t matter, baby! Cause I’ve got my childhood at my fingertips.

It wasn’t long before I started to get grander ideas. Turns out, this whole process only took the better part of two hours, and after the novelty wore off (almost immediately), I realized I was going to have to attempt something a little more challenging to get any sort of real “I built this” satisfaction.

One of the defining moments that solidified the Raspberry Pi as the very capable emulation machine that it is was a project that surfaced a few years ago, wherein the creator built one into a broken Gameboy. This jumpstarted a race to get the Raspberry Pi into the smallest shell possible, and soon enough we were seeing them pop up in Gameboy Colors, Advance SPs, and a plethora of custom cases, 3D printed and otherwise.

I decided that I needed to jump on this bandwagon, and since the advent of the super-mini Raspberry Pi Zero (which costs an unbelievable $5), it’s now easier than it’s ever been. Or so that was my thinking. I decided I was going to grab a Pi Zero and build a portable gaming system out of a Gameboy Advance. I never had one of those, and although I did have the SP, the Advance seemed perfect for a project of this scale (literally and figuratively), plus it fit my large hands better.

Now, worth mentioning. I’m not “classically trained” in electronics like I am in computer programming – as far as I know, short of building gaming computers and knowing what hardware does what, motherboards themselves are merely black boxes that take “stuff” and make “computer-language stuff” out of them. So soldering, wiring, cutting circuit boards with dremels – these things worry me. Warnings on outdated forum posts that ended with words like “may explode” were not promising to read when researching battery components. But I am eager to learn!

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Another very impressive mod. Source.

I got a little overexcited and spent a downright ridiculous amount of time over the past week exploring options for how I could possibly get this project running, and after much confusion and conflicting information, I concluded that it’s too grand a first project for someone like myself who doesn’t know the first thing about splicing together circuitry.

But something good came out of all that research, and that is the motivation to create something that I find personally satisfying, not too difficult, but most importantly, really damn cool. It was right then I noticed my broken Playstation 2 on the ground by my larger TV, and that’s when I realized what project I should take on as a sort of warm-up before attempting something way beyond my skill level with the portable Gameboy Advance Pi. The Playstation 2 Pi! I need to remember to think of a better name for it.

I’m going to keep building on to this periodically as I make progress on the project. At the time of this writing, spare time to Dremel a PS2 is not easy to come by, so I won’t even be revisiting this project for about a week. Stay tuned for future installments!

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