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Building a retro-gaming super-console with $100 and a Raspberry Pi: 2022 edition

Raspberry Pi cases like the Argon One won't look out of place underneath your TV or next to your gaming PC.
Enlarge / Raspberry Pi cases like the Argon One won’t look out of place underneath your TV or next to your gaming PC.

Andrew Cunningham

Years ago, in the heyday of the NES Classic Edition, we put together a guide to building a retro emulation box with a Raspberry Pi board, the RetroPie operating system, and a few other fun accessories. We’ve updated that guide a couple of times over the years, and a lot of the advice in it is still useful. But enough has changed in the last few years—the Pi’s hardware, the accessory ecosystem, the operating system, and even the emulators themselves—that we’re totally overhauling that guide with new product recommendations and pointers.

If you enjoy retro gaming and are looking for a winter project, building your own mini-console—or sprucing up one you built years ago with a new case and different software—is still a great way to spend a little money and time.

The essentials

Raspberry Pi console bill of materials
Raspberry Pi 4 2GB $45-60, depending on shipping
Case $5-40
Power adapter $10
microSD card $12 for 64GB, $20 for 128GB
HDMI-to-micro-HDMI cable or adapter $9
Controller $0 to use one you have, $15 for a SNES-style pad, or $60ish for a new console controller
Total $81 and up

When putting together our emulation box in 2016, we tried to stick as close to the $60 asking price of the NES Classic Edition as possible. Shortages of chips and other factors will make that nearly impossible in 2022, but we’ll try to keep the bill of materials under $100.

The heart of your retro console—and likely the biggest expense, especially given the ongoing worldwide chip shortage—will be a Raspberry Pi board. A good default option is the $45 2 GB Raspberry Pi 4, which seems to enjoy slightly better (albeit not great) availability than the other iterations as of this writing, and smaller retailers like CanaKit charge a ton for shipping. But none of the emulators that will run well on a Pi require a ton of RAM, so if you can find it, the 1GB $35 Pi 4 is a fine choice, too. If you want a more future-proof Pi board that you can do other things with, that’s when it’s worth stepping up to the 4GB or 8GB Pi 4 models, but the extra memory won’t make a difference for a dedicated emulation box.

A Pi 4’s extra performance gets you a few benefits compared to an old Pi 3 or 3B+, including more consistent (but not universally problem-free) emulation speed for the Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and Sony PSP and the ability to turn on some lag-reducing features that we’ll talk about in a bit. That said, depending on the consoles you want to emulate, there are still circumstances in which an old Pi 3B+ or a Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W will work just as well—if you don’t plan to emulate anything newer than the first PlayStation, for example, or if you’re trying to build an ultra-cheap or ultra-small (or even handheld) emulation system.

Raspberry Pi boards are often sold as part of a kit that includes a power adapter, a case, a microSD card, and other accessories, but at this point, we’d advise you to ignore them. The kits that are easiest to buy right now are the more expensive ones that come with too many accessories or ones that most people won’t actually use, and for the sake of your storage performance, it’s best to hand-pick your microSD card rather than getting a cheap, no-name bundled version.

At a bare minimum, you’ll need a USB-C or microUSB power adapter (for the Pi 4 and the Pi 3B+/Zero 2 W, respectively), plus a microSD card big enough to hold your games. We’d recommend one of these 128GB cards from Samsung or SanDisk since they offer respectable performance from an established brand, cost $20 or less, and are large enough to repurpose for plenty of other tasks later on if you need them. But if minimizing costs is important, a 64GB card should be sufficient for a large selection of games, including tiny NES ROMs, multi-disc PlayStation and Dreamcast games, and your favorite arcade titles.

If you buy a Pi 4, a micro-HDMI-to-HDMI cable or adapter is a good idea, too, if you don’t buy a case that includes its own full-size HDMI port.

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