This week I took the plunge into the world of Raspberry Pi. Pulled in by the promise of having it running in 10 minutes with RetroPie fulfilling all my retro among needs, I forked our €70 for a kit that included the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, a plastic case, power supply and a cheap no-brand 16gb SD card with NOOBS pre-installed. NOOBS is a boot manager that makes it easier for… noobs… to install the OS/OSes of their choice to the SD card.
The first thing I did was to ditch the SD card before it failed on me, and download RetroPie for myself. I put it on a 32gb Samsung SD card using a piece of software called ApplePi Baker (that allows you to restore a .img file to a USB card) and installed the Pi in its case. Plugged in the HDMI cable, inserted the SD card, and finally inserted the micro USB plug from the 2.5A power supply – this powers on the system which otherwise has no power button.
A nice rainbow image appeared on my screen, not unlike the colour picker in your favourite art software, accompanied by a lightning symbol. The system hung there for some time and Google didn’t help much, except some quiet suggestions that I had too weak a power supply. I ignored those comments, as I was using the official 2.5A supply.
NOOBS comes not as a .img file but as a selection of files and folders that are copied directly to the SD card. I formatted the SD, copied the NOOBS files over, and tried again with the Pi. Success! Seconds after I inserted the power lead, an almost familiar screen appeared – Linux apparently borrows a lot of its look from earlier versions of Windows. Or maybe it was the other way round… and Linux has stayed there.
Installing Raspbian (a Linux distribution optimised for Raspberry Pi and very popular) was as simple as selecting it in the menu, clicking install, and waiting a few minutes while it did it’s thing. As simple as any operating system install these days.
I should note I controlled the system with a Logitech K400 mouse with integrated trackpad. It uses a proprietary wireless dongle with Windows drivers, but it worked outright on the Pi (after I’d used the Logitech software on my Mac to link the keyboard and dongle). My ultimate goal, RetroPie, includes a front end that enables you to browse all menus with a controller, no keyboard or mouse required.
The RetroPie installation includes Raspbian Lite and the emulator software it needs to run your old games, but as this did not work and I’d installed the full Raspbian version, I followed instructions on RetroPie’s website to manually install the software. It was easy enough. I had to use Rasbian’s terminal which I was not at all familiar with (though it’s essentially the same as Mac’s) but the instructions were clear online, and any ape can copy text really.
Soon enough I had RetroPie installed, along with EmulationStation which handles the real world, and various cores of Retroarch emulators. My spare DualShock4 paired easily via Bluetooth (you can also use the official Wireless dongle for older Pis without Bluetooth) and controls perfectly with no latency issues. The only thing I had to change was to disable Overscan, as there was a thick black border all round the edge. It’s gone now, filling my tv with its full 1080p worth of pixels.
I’ve tried various emulators – NES, SNES, GameBoy, GameBoy Advance, N64, Master System, Mega Drive, and PlayStation. They all run more or less flawlessly with two exceptions. GBA games run with some choppy sound and slowdown, and N64 is basically a no go. Super Mario 64 ran ok, but most games I tried couldn’t maintain a stable frame rate, and surprisingly without Nintendo’s patented fog machine N64 games look worse.
The only thing I had to change was to copy the PlayStation BIOS to its relevant folder. Without it the games I tried worked ok, but memory cards didn’t work at all. PlayStation emulation is the happiest surprise. I wasn’t sure the Pi would have the power to do it, but it runs smooth as silk, and using a DualShock4 gives as authentic an experience as you’ll find without Sony hardware.
Various shortcuts are possible from the controller. My hotkey button is the PS button on my controller. PS and start exits a game, with B (set to X) it resets the game, and with R1 and L1 it saves and loads your state. Simple and intuitive.
There are two small faults with the Raspberry Pi as I’m using it. One is probably software based – the screen sometimes goes blank when loading or exiting a game and doesn’t respond to controller shortcuts, initially causing me to pull the power plug and reinsert it to reset the machine. It happened again and I pressed escape on the keyboard, which then caused a menu to pop up. I think what was happening was I was hitting X twice when I loaded a game. Hitting a button while any game loads takes you to a customisation menu in which you can set emulator options for the selected ROM image. For some reason the Linux text menus don’t always display (including RetroPie’s own configuration menu), but hitting the keyboard makes them display properly.
The second niggle has been mentioned above – there is no power switch of any kind! I’m not comfortable removing and replugging the USB cable every time I want to reset (even after shutdown there is no better method to turn it on) and this seems a strange oversight. I’ve since discovered that there are two points on the board to which you can wire a momentary switch, which will shutdown or turn on the system, depending on its state. This will be the first mod I’ll make to my Pi – a quick bit of soldering and drilling a little hole in the case.
Speaking of the case, I’ll probably buy a bigger one and install a cooling fan. The system is reassuringly warm when idle, as you might expect it to be, but it gets very hot when running the emulators. The case it came with is a simple plastic shell just big enough to house the USB and Ethernet ports, with no form of active cooling. This is presumably considered ok for the most part, but I’d be happier to have some forced air in there.
One last thing I’d like to mention is the other side of Raspbian. Exiting RetroPie, you can get back to Rasbian’s desktop (or you can change the configuration to boot to desktop), which is your standard Linux fare – not dissimilar to Windows or Mac OSes. The web browser (based on Chrome) isn’t all that, but there is a full productivity suite included, as well as several development tools including a game development suite called Scratch which purports to be aimed at children and beginners with its graphic interface. I’m going to be giving that a go soon.
All in all I’m impressed with the Raspberry Pi. It does everything I bought it for and more, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the internet to find plenty of interesting and exciting projects that use the computer.
My plans are simple though. Restore an old arcade cabinet and install this with a full arcade joystick. Oh yeah.