How to go about installing RetroPie on a Rasperry Pi is one of the most requested we’ve had in quite some time. If this is something you’ve been looking forward to then you’re in luck, because it’s time to go through this step by step!
In this blog post we’re going to focus on installing RetroPie on a Rasbperry Pi. It is important to understand that there are other options beyond this. RetroPie is based on RetroArch which runs on the PC. If you’re set on doing a PC build, you should be looking at RetroArch instead. Another thing to note is that RetroPie is a front end, not the actual emulator. For example, retro arcade games actually run under MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator). RetroPie simple launches MAME and the sends it the game you want to play, such as Pac-Man. When you exit the game, it simply closes MAME, and returns you to RetroPie.
Additionally, RetroPie does not include the game ROMs. You’ll need to obtain those from another source. Obtaining ROMs is beyond the scope of this article.
Installing RetroPie Video
Raspberry Pi Basics
Before we get into installing RetroPie, it is important to take a few minutes and understand the basics of what a Raspberry Pi is. Originally created for the education community at a target price of $35, the Rasbperry Pi is what is known as an SBC or Single Board Computer. It contains everything that a normal PC would contain: Process, graphics chip, memory, disk controller, networking, USB ports, etc. All integrated on a single board. This of course means that the Pi must be based on affordable versions of those. In this case, the Pi 3 runs on ARM chip. This is the same chip used in many smartphones and tablet computers.
When you compare performance of the Pi to other computers, you’re really comparing its performance to that of a smartphone. You’re not going to be playing the latest games like Destiny, or Skyrim on the Pi. It simply doesn’t have the power. It is perfect however, for emulating arcade games from decades ago! It’s hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful than those machines!
GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output)
One additional feature that the comes on the Raspberry Pi series of single board computers is GPIO. This again, was a feature aimed a the educational community allowing students to easily create software to control things in the physical world. The GPIO is a 32 pin header located on the top side of the board. These pins provide the ability to connect relays, motors, sensors, switches, and all sorts of other types of devices. You might think we’d use these to connect the joysticks and the buttons in our arcades, but that’s not the case. Those will plug in USB. GPIO does open another world of options though. Cabinet lighting and shakers. It is possible to connect lights and shakers to these GPIO pins that activate when something in game triggers it. One example would be flashing lights on a pinball machine.
Storage on the Raspberry Pi
Rather than using traditional hard disk drives used in PCs, the Raspberry Pi uses an SD Card for its storage. The Raspberry Pi actually boots and runs its operating system and all software on this same SD card. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it! Of course, there is nothing preventing you from plugging a USB hard disk into one of the ports if you need more space (or even a USB thumb drive).
One real bonus of this design is that you can keep multiple SD cards laying around with different images on them. For example you could have Raspberry Pi connected to your family room TV. 90% of the time you have the SD-Card with PLEX media server installed to watch movies and TV shows. A simple switch of the SD card and now your Pi is an old school RetroPie arcade emulator! Pretty cool!
A Little talk about RetroPie
One last thing before we move on to installing RetroPie. Let’s take just as second to understand what it actually does for us. 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), Amiga, Commodore 64, NES, Apple II, Atari, PlayStation and many, many, more. Out of the box, RetroPie is ready to go. You simply download it from the RetroPie site and copy the image onto the SD card. There’s no complex installs or configurations to do. It’s designed to let you go from downloading it to playing your old school favorite arcade games in just a few minutes. If you’re experience with computers it will go super fast and easy. For others, follow along and we’ll make it as easy as we can!
Go Buy a Raspberry Pi 3
To get started in all of this retro arcade greatness you’re going to need to acquire a Raspberry Pi 3. You can certainly get a Pi 2 or even a Pi Zero. But the truth is the Pi 3 simply makes it all easier and it works better. The Pi 3 has a faster processor and new HDMI versions. The fastest way to get one is to order it from Amazon. They offer free same delivery in most areas and have one of the best prices.
We recommend getting the CanaKit. It will come with everything you need in one box to get started. It includes the Pi, a USB charger to power it, optional heatsinks, HDMI cable, Pi case, SD card, card reader, and SD to microSD adapters. Of course, if you have all of those other things already then you can just buy the Pi board only.
Links to order on Amazon:
The CanaKit cases come in a variety of colors. Our favorite tends to be the clear cases that show all of the Raspberry Pi goodness on the inside.
Installing Retropie on a Raspberry Pi
Obtain the Latest RetroPie Image
On the RetroPie website, download the latest image to your PC or Mac. Unzip it and put it in an easy place to get to on your PC such as your desktop or documents folder.
Preparing the SD Card
The Raspberry Pi can be very finicky when it comes to SD cards. We highly recommend that you format the card using the SD Card Formatter (there’s both a Mac and PC version). This will insure that the Pi will be able to read the SD card. SD cards formatted with Windows are notorious for giving issues on boot. Just save yourself some trouble and do this. Trust us on this one. The SD Card Formatter was created specifically for cards using the SD/SDHC/SDXC standards. It makes all the difference.
Install the RetroPie Image onto the SD Card
Installing RetroPie onto the card requires another piece of software. If you do a lot of imaging, you might already have one of these or another similar utility. If not, you’ll need to install one of these on your computer. We’ll give options for both Mac and PC. If you’re running Linux you probably already know how this works!
Apple Pi Baker for the Mac
Our recommend best image software for the Mac is Apple Pi Baker. You can download a free copy from their website. It will ask for admin privileges during the install process. This is OK. It’s not a virus. It must have access to your disk devices to format the card. So go ahead and allow it.
Win32 Disk Imager for the PC
Our recommended best image software on Windows is Win32 Disk Imager. You can also download a free copy from their website. Just like on the Mac, you will need to give this software admin privileges. Right-click the executable and select Run As Administrator. This is required for the software to have access to format a file system.
Starting RetroPie for the First Time
If you haven’t already, its time to setup your Pi:
- Plug the Pi into a TV or monitor using the HDMI port and select that source in your TV’s input.
- Plug your controller into the USB port. We love this retro Nintendo USB controller.
- Insert the MicroSD card into the Rasbperry Pi 3’s MircroSD card slot.
- Plug the Pi into the USB power adapter or smartphone charger.
The Raspberry Pi will reboots several times as RetroPie installs and reconfigures the file system. This is normal and will only take a few minutes. Once it finishes you will see a screen for Emulation Station and eventually be asked to configure your gamepad(s). This step is beyond simple. Just press every button it asks you to press. If your gamepad doesn’t have the button, just hold down any button on the gamepad for a few seconds to skip that button. RetroPie will create a configuration file that the emulators can use so that you don’t have to configure every emulator installed manually.
Install the Game ROMs
You will need some legal copies of game ROMs. Obtaining those is beyond the scope of this article and is a legal grey area depending on which method you choose.
Installing from a USB Stick
The absolute easiest way to install the game ROMs is to use a USB stick (unless you’re pretty technically savvy, then use SMB or FTP).
Using any USB stick, you’ll want to format it or at least completely erase its contents and then follow these steps:
- Create a directory named retropie in the root of the USB stick.
- Plug the USB stick int your powered on Raspberry Pi with RetroPie running.
- Wait about one minute and then unplug the USB stick.
- Plug it back into your PC or Mac. You should now see:
- RetroPie emulation directories
- Game ROM directories
- Copies of your configuration files (for backup)
- In the retropie/ROMs folder add your game ROMs into folders
- Arcade ROMs go in the MAME folder
- Nintendo NES game ROMs go into the NES folder
- Eject the USB stick and place it back into the Raspberry Pi running RetroPie
- Wait about one minute
- Press Start and then select Quit using the GamePad.
- Select Restart Emulation Station.
- You should now see all of your games ready to play.
- Unplug and set aside the UBS stick for copying more games later.
All you need to do now is just select one of your games and play away!