Project: Home Arcade v2 – A Living Room RetroPie System for Retro MAME & Console Gaming

MAME - Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator

MAME – Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator

A few years ago, I wrote two articles about my experiences setting up a small, quiet, PC in my living room for retro gaming.  The goal was to buy and outfit a system to play classic MAME and console games, at a cost that was no more than a current-generation video game console.  The project was a major success, and my friends and I have had a blast playing those old-school games.  But, time goes by and things change.

RetroPie Logo

RetroPie Logo

One of the most exciting developments in retro gaming has been the release of RetroPie.  Simply put, RetroPie is specialized distribution of the Raspbian Operating System, packed with a host of emulators and reasonably polished front-end UI.  Raspbian is a fork of Debian, a popular distribution of Linux, which is designed to run on Raspberry Pi hardware.  Raspberry Pi is a series of very small computers, running on ARM mobile CPU’s, like in a smartphone.  The latest design, Raspberry Pi 3, comes with a 1.2GHz quad-core ARM CPU, 1GB of RAM, built-in Bluetooth and Wifi.  It also includes a Broadcom GPU which fully supports OpenGL 3D standards and provides 1080P output.  The Raspberry Pi 3 has more than enough horsepower to seamlessly emulate complex classic computer systems, like the Amiga, as well as video game consoles as recent as Nintendo 64.  If you are looking to build a MAME console for class 80’s arcade retro gaming, Raspberry Pi is the perfect system hardware.

The old Asus system I had been using for retro gaming had been showing its age for a while, in spite of upgrading the RAM and swapping a SSD in for the 5400-RPM hard drive.  After some research, I decided it was a great time to jump on the RetorPie bandwagon, and I am very pleased with the results.  For the Raspberry Pi system, I ended up choosing the CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit1.  This bundle comes with everything that you will need to get started, including the HDMI cable, MicroSD card and USB reader, case, power supply and a couple of heat-sinks.

CanaKit RaspberryPi 3 Complete Starter Kit

CanaKit RaspberryPi 3 Complete Starter Kit

The only downside to the CanaKit package is the case that the Raspberry Pi is supposed to go in.  It is made of thin plastic, and it feels cheap and flimsy – just snapping together.  For me, one of the problems I have with almost all Raspberry Pi cases has to do with esthetics.  If you have it sitting sitting with the USB ports facing out, a standard for controller ports on consoles, then the HDMI and power cables are sticking out of the left side of the case.  Simply put, it’s ugly.  Fortunately, I found a Raspberry Pi case that has the perfect look for retro gaming console, while solving the ugly-cables problem.

The box for the NESPI Raspberry Pi case.

The box for the NESPi CASE Raspberry Pi case.

The NESPi CASE by RetroFlag2 is utterly brilliant.  I know that it has some Amazon reviews claiming fried boards and other issues, but my experience has been the complete opposite.  For me, it’s shocking that this case is only $25.  It’s made of quality injection-molded plastic, which has a nice heft and weight to it.  But, inside is where this case is special.  To fix the ugly-cable issues, the NESPi CASE comes with, basically, a four-port USB hub and Ethernet pass-through cables.  The Raspberry Pi board sits inside perfectly, turned 90 degrees from most cases, and can be screwed onto the case itself for stabilization.

Inside the NESPI case, with the Raspberry Pi board.

Inside the NESPi case, with the Raspberry Pi board.

The USB hub means that your system will have 7 functional USB ports, although 3 of them will be closed up inside.  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve taken advantage of this by plugging in a Logitech universal receiver, so that I can continue to use the Logitech K400 keyboard3 from version 1 of this project.  The NESPi CASE also includes a built-in daughterboard, which plugs into the Raspberry Pi’s expansion port.  Doing that enables the cases power and reset buttons, as well as the power light.  It’s awesome.

Up close with the NESPI CASE.

Up close with the NESPi CASE.

The top of the NESPi CASE slides in nicely, and is secured with six screws, which are included.  It is a top-notch product all around.  The power button even has a classic NES-esque ‘click’ feel and sound.

Accessing the other two USB ports, and Ethernet, is easy.

Accessing the other two USB ports, and Ethernet, is easy.

Flipping up the ‘cartridge cover’ flap reveals the Ethernet port and the other two USB connectors.

Easy access to the MicroSD reader.

Easy access to the MicroSD reader.

Pretty much every aspect of the NESPi CASE oozes quality.  Turn it and on the left side is quick access to the Raspberry Pi’s MicroSD card reader.  If your collection gets too big, you can just swap out cards.  There’s even a handy storage nook for extra cards on the bottom of the case, which snaps open and closed.  It is very thoughtfully designed.

The back of the NESPI CASE.

The back of the NESPi CASE.

Even the back of the case looks authentic, while providing easy and stable plugs for HDMI, power and composite-out.

The NESPI CASE next to a SteamLink.

The NESPi CASE next to a SteamLink.

The NESPi CASE is larger than most Raspberry Pi cases, it needs to be due to the added functionality.  But, it is still quite small, measuring only 1.75in tall by 4.75in wide and 3.75in deep.  There is enough space inside for a small fan, but I’ve found that the system runs cool enough you shouldn’t need one.  One important note about the NESPi CASE is that the power button is a straight on/off switch.  It will not trigger a script to run the shutdown sequence for your Raspberry Pi system.  As mentioned, Raspbian is a fork of a Linux distribution, and, like all modern operating systems, it doesn’t like being switched off without a proper shutdown.  So, always remember to shut the system down before turning your NESPi CASE off.

RetroPie's ROM selection UI from a RetroPie system, displaying 'scraped' box-art and ROM description.

RetroPie’s ROM selection UI from a RetroPie system, displaying ‘scraped’ box-art and ROM description.

Both LifeHacker and RetroPie’s own site have excellent guides on installing and setting up your RetroPie system, so I won’t go over that.  There are some tricks and tips that I’d share, however.

  1. Under the “RetroPie Setup” menu, there is an option to “Manage Packages”.  This is where you can install, or remove, emulators.  Depending on the size of your MicroSD card, it may be a good idea to go through these and remove any you know you won’t be using.
    1. Under “Manage Packages”, in “Optional Packages”, install the “Scraper”.  This will allow you do use an automated system to grab box/cabinet art for your ROMs, as well as some open-sourced ratings and description of the game, such as in the screenshot above.  Going through scraping for the first time can be a pain, and will probably take longer than you’d like.  But, over time, having the scraped data adds to the richness of the overall experience, and is well worth the effort.
    2. Tempor your expectations for the performance of emulators under the “Experimental Packages” menu, they are likely to be very, very beta – if that – and unstable.
    3. When choosing packages to install, I like to use the “Install From Binary” option, as it is much faster than having your RetroPie compile the emulators from their source-code.
  2. Themes can be installed under the “ES Themes” menu, but there is no real ‘gallery’ to view them.  Your best bet is to view Themes here, find one you like, and install it.  Theme selection is done back at the main RetroPie screen by pressing “Start” on your controller, and selecting “UI Settings”.
  3. The Scraper is accessed from the main RetroPie screen, by pressing “Start” on your controller, and selecting “Scraper”.  When using the Scraper, have a keyboard handy.  When the Scraper does not find a match for one of your ROMs, select “Input” and enter the name of the ROM and search again.  Often this second-search will find a match, but not always.
  4. MAME will not, by default, have a key or button bound to “Insert Coin”.  When you first start MAME, be sure to have a keyboard plugged into your RetroPie system and press the “Tab” key to bring up the MAME configuration menu.  From there you can go to Global Settings and bind a key for “Insert Coin”.
RetroPie System-Selection UI.

RetroPie’s System-Selection UI.

All-in-all, I think that RetroPie is a great solution for retro-gamers.  That said, it isn’t as user-friendly as a Windows or Mac system could be.  For friends and family using RetroPie, the UI will be fantastic and simple, with a few quirks.  For those setting up and maintaining RetroPie systems, be prepared to navigate some text-menus as you go through configurations, updates and installing new emulators.  The folks who have put RetroPie together should be applauded for the work they have done to make their system as easy as possible to get working.  Even still, it’s not something that many non-geek/technical folks will be able to just plug in and go.

The best part of going with Raspberry Pi and RetroPie is the price-of-entry. Version 1 of Project: Home Arcade came in at just under $400 in 2014.

Cost breakdown from the original Project Home Arcade.

Cost breakdown from the original Project Home Arcade.

RetroPie and Raspberry Pi, together, have brought down the price of the project dramatically.

PriceItem
$70CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit4
$25NESPi CASE by RetroFlag5
$43X-Box 360 Wireless Controller6
$25Logitech K400 keyboard7
$0RetroPie software
$163Grand Total

X-Arcade no longer manufacturers their Solo Joystick, but even if they did, the entire package would be only $233, $160 less than before. As with the previous version of Project: Home Arcade, this experiment has been a lot of fun.  I’m looking forward to several years of retro-gaming with friends and family on this new system.

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.Amazon Referral Link

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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