There are several ways to go about setting up an arcade’s internals. The first is to find the original boards from the 1970/80/90s and install them into a homemade cabinet. This really limits what games the cabinet can play, and is very costly. The second way is to use a PC to emulate all of the games. That’s great because you can literally play thousands of games on your arcade. The third way is my favorite. Use a Raspberry Pi 3 running RetroPie!
Watch my Video on Installing RetroPie
Retropie and the Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a $35 computer that was created for the education community. It’s an incredible device that is incredibly affordable. The Pi is a full blown computer, running on an ARM chip similar two what modern smart phones and devices use. It has wired and wireless networking, 4 USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, speaker port, SD Card slot, camera connector, touch screen connector, and lastly, GPIO! It runs on a variant of Debian Linux called Raspbian. The last thing, the gooey filling so to speak, is RetroPie, the emulation system that runs the arcade. The combination of RetroPie with the Raspberry Pi is a dream for many retro gamers.
General Purpose Input/Output
The Raspberry Pi has very cool 32 pin header on it called GPIO. These pins allow the Raspberry Pi to control the physical world and take input from it. You can connect, relays, motors, switched, LEDs, and all kinds of other sensors to these pins. They’re not required for arcade machines, but that can be used in certain situations. The GPIO could control a coin mech for example. If you were emulating a race-car game, the GPIO could fire the shaker motor in the seat. If your character dies it could flash the marquee lights. Possibilities are endless. Again, not necessary, but opens neat possibilities that would require additional hardware with a PC.
SD Cards vs Hard Drives
The Raspberry Pi does not use a hard drive. The entire computer is based on an SD card. You can certainly plug in a USB hard drive if you needed one, but the system is designed to operate without one. This has pros and cons. SD Cards can be slow, and prone to corrupting under heavy usage. With an arcade cabinet it shouldn’t be an issue since we’re not doing much writing to the card. A big pro is that you can change images in the Pi and test new configurations by simply putting in a new card, or a copy of a card, without making any changes to your normal card. If something goes wrong, just pop the original back in and you’re back in business.
RetroPie along with Emulation Station are the front ends that connect all of the emulators for each system into one clean finished product. RetroPie has built in emulators for MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), Commodore 64, NES, Atari, Amiga, Apple II, PlayStation and many, many, more. In addition RetroPie comes completely configured on an SD Card image that you simply download from the RetroPie website. There is little to no configuration needed, depending on how complex of a system you are looking to build. In many builds, you’ll just load Retropie on your SD Card and be playing games in a few minutes. In other cases a little tinkering may be required. Regardless, it is the simplest solution available for most gamers.
Where to Buy the Raspberry Pi 3
If you’re going to build an arcade cabinet with RetroPie, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is buy a Raspberry Pi 3. You can use a RPi 2, but the emulation won’t be as good, so get the RPi 3 if you can. I really like the kits from CanaKit (CanaKit is not a sponsor, though they should be). CanaKit makes kits that contain the Pi 3, a case, power supply, and other optional components such as HDMI cables, SD Cards, card readers, breadboards, etc. These kits make it super easy to get started. If you plan to do more than just arcades and gaming, you’ll want to definitely consider the Ultimate Kit.
You can also buy the CanaKits on Amazon.com They qualify for Prime Same Day delivery in many areas for the same price as CanaKit’s site, which is a bonus for some of us.
The cases come in many colors. Black, white, red, etc. I really like the clear case as shown in the photo to the right. It’s awesome to see the circuitry of the Pi through the case. I’ve even considered the possibility of lighting the case on the inside to make it glow.
Get the Latest Image of RetroPie
Head over to the RetroPie website and grab a copy of the latest image. Drop a copy on your PC and unzip the file somewhere. Hang on to this file. We’re going to need it in a minute.
Format the SD Card with SD Card Formatter
Next, grab a copy of the SD Card Formatter for Mac or Windows, depending on your platform. Install it on your system and use it to format the SD card. Do not format the card using Windows! The SD Formatter was created specifically for memory cards using the SD/SDHC/SDXC standards and will give you higher performance from your card that the OS format utility will.
Install the Image onto the SD Card
Using a MacOS (OSX) to Create a RetroPie Image
My favorite tool for imaging any Raspberry Pi image using MacOS (OSX) is Apple Pi Baker. Grab a copy from their website and install it on your Mac. It will ask for admin privileges. Allow it. This is required for the software to have access to format a file system.
Using Windows to Create a RetroPie Image
My favorite tool for imaging any Raspberry Pi image on Windows is Win32 Disk Imager. Grab a copy from their website and install it on your Windows PC. To run Win32 Disk Imager, right-click the executable (after you unzip it) and select Run As Administrator. This is required for the software to have access to format a file system.
Booting up RetroPie
The next step is to install the SD Card into the Raspberry Pi, plug in the HDMI and power and boot it up. The Raspberry Pi will go through a couple of reboots as it installs itself and reconfigures the file system. This is perfectly normal and will take a few minutes.
You’ll eventually see a splash screen for emulation station and land on a screen asking you to configure a game controller. All you need to do is attach your game controller to the USB port and press each button as it asks you. This will map the buttons on your game controller to the configuration files in RetroPie.
Install the Game ROMs
Installing the game ROMs is incredibly simple. Don’t ask me where to obtain them, I can not tell you. If you don’t understand why, I am sorry. The easiest and fastest way is to install them via a USB stick.
USB Stick ROM Install Method
Find a USB stick and format or erase it. Create a directory on the USB stick called “retropie” without quotes. Plug it into your Raspberry Pi while RetroPie is up and running. Wait about one minute and then unplug it. Plug it back into your PC or Mac and you will see an entire directory structure has been created. You’ll want to open the retropie –> ROMs folder. Place your ROM (game) files into the corresponding folder. If you were installing Super Mario Bros, you would copy the ROM file to retropie –> ROMs –> NES.
Eject the USB stick and place it back into the Raspberry Pi. RetroPie will copy all of your game ROMs over to emulation station. No simply press START and then QUIT. Select RESTART EMULATION STATION. Emulation Station will refresh and all of your games will be available. Just select one and start playing!