Single board computers like the Raspberry Pi have become extremely popular for building DIY retro gaming emulation rigs. Their low cost, small size, and open ecosystem make them perfect for emulating classic console and arcade games.
In this guide, we’ll recommend the best single board computers (SBCs) for retro emulation. We’ll look at factors like performance, software compatibility, connectivity, form factor, and more to suggest top options at various price points. Read on to pick the right SBC for your emulation needs!
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Single board computers provide an affordable and customizable platform for emulating classic video game systems. By installing emulation software like RetroPie, Recalbox, Lakka, and Batocera, you can build a DIY emulation console for playing thousands of retro titles.
When choosing an SBC for emulation, key factors to consider include:
- Performance – More powerful boards with faster processors and more RAM provide better emulation capabilities.
- Software – Make sure the board supports the emulation front-end software and platforms you want to use.
- Connectivity – Look for built-in WiFi, Bluetooth, and ample USB ports for controllers.
- Form factor – Smaller boards allow for more compact builds. Some systems are handheld or console sized.
- Features – HDMI output and mounting options are useful. Audio capability is a must have.
We’ll cover SBC options at a range of price points suitable for NES, SNES, Genesis, PS1, MAME, and even some higher end emulation projects. Let’s dive in!
- Raspberry Pi boards are the most popular for retro emulation thanks to software support and community.
- For NES, SNES, and simple arcade emulation, even basic Pi models like the Pi Zero will suffice.
- Look to the Pi 3 or Pi 4 for robust multi-system emulation including PlayStation 1.
- ODROID boards offer more power for higher-end emulation like GameCube and PS2.
- N64 emulation requires at least a Pi 3 or ODROID-XU4 due to more intensive requirements.
- Opt for boards with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for easier connectivity with wireless controllers.
- Many great emulation software options exist including RetroPie, Recalbox, Lakka, Batocera, and more.
Recommended Single Board Computers for Retro Gaming Emulation
Raspberry Pi Zero – Budget Pick
Processor: 1GHz single-core ARM11
Video: Mini HDMI
Connectivity: Micro USB OTG, Bluetooth (no WiFi)
Features: Ultra compact form factor, GPIO header
The ultra compact Pi Zero provides enough performance for basic NES, SNES, Genesis, and arcade emulation in a low cost, minimal form factor. Integrated Bluetooth allows for wireless controllers. Lack of WiFi means you’ll need a USB adapter for initial setup. But for basic retro emulation on a budget, the Pi Zero is hard to beat!
Raspberry Pi 3 Model B – Best Overall Pick
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Broadcom
Video: HDMI, MIPI DSI
Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet, BLE, WiFi
Features: Solid performance, extensive OS support
With its quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, and excellent software support, the Pi 3 Model B is the go-to choice for many retro emulation projects. It provides enough power for NES, SNES, Genesis, MAME, PS1 and even some N64 and PSP emulation. The Pi 3’s price, performance, and community support make it the best overall SBC option for retro gaming.
Processor: 2GHz octa-core Exynos5422
Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0, Bluetooth 4.0
Features: Fan expansion, more powerful performance
For more demanding emulation up to Dreamcast, N64, PSP and even GameCube/PS2, the ODROID-XU4 is a top choice. Its octa-core processor and 2GB of RAM provide excellent performance for high-end emulation. Large heat sink and fan expansion allow it to handle intensive emulation. If you need more power than a Pi, consider the XU4.
RetroFlag GPi Case
Board: Raspberry Pi Zero (not included)
Display: 3.5″ 320×240 touchscreen
Controls: D-pad, buttons
Features: Handheld form factor, speakers, rechargeable battery
For an all-in-one handheld emulation console, check out the GPi case from RetroFlag. Designed for the Pi Zero, it includes a compact 3.5″ display, integrated controls, speakers, and rechargeable battery for retro gaming on the go! Just add your own Pi Zero.
Retro Gaming Emulation Software Platforms
The software you choose to run on your single board computer is key to building your DIY emulation rig. Some top options include:
- Linux-based, open source emulation software
- Supports tons of systems including NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, MAME, PS1, and more
- Robust controller configuration
- Scrapers for game metadata and box art
- Popular platform with big community
- Build on Linux retro gaming OS
- Large library of system emulators included
- Auto-configuration for controllers
- Kodi support for media center integration
- Turnkey setup, great for beginners
- Linux distro built on RetroArch frontend
- Lean and optimized for SBC performance
- Supports many systems and arcade platforms
- Clean and simple interface
- Active development community
- Another Linux-based emulation OS
- Support for x86 PCs and SBCs
- Intuitive GUI and interface
- Broad system compatibility
- Active forum community for support
All of these software platforms are great options that work well on devices like the Raspberry Pi. Try a few to see which interface and experience you prefer.
Building Your Retro Emulation Rig
Here are some tips for putting together your emulation console after selecting your single board computer and software:
- Install software – Burn RetroPie or other OS image to MicroSD card. Certain boards like ODROID may have special images.
- Controllers – USB gamepads, wireless Bluetooth controllers, and adapters for original controllers. Configure in software.
- Power supply – Use adequate power supply for your board. Smart power switches help with safe shutdowns.
- Storage – Fast MicroSD card for the OS, large USB drives for game libraries.
- Case – Optional case for clean enclosed build. Many DIY and 3D printed options.
- Heat sinks – Heatsinks and/or small fans to prevent SBC from overheating in some builds.
- External speakers – Or HDMI audio out to home theater receiver.
Take your time assembling the electronics and software components into a complete emulation console or portable gaming handheld. The result is an awesome customized retro gaming machine!
Tips for Smoother Emulation
Here are some tips to help your games run more smoothly during emulation:
- Overclock for older systems – Safely overclocking the CPU can provide performance gains.
- Use proper BIOS files – Having the right BIOS is key for stability in some systems.
- Adjust video resolution – Lower resolutions like 640×480 often run faster than 720p or 1080p.
- Enable speed throttling – Can help keep FPS and game speed steady.
- Tweak emulator settings – Changing emulator configs can improve or fix issues in games.
- Update emulator software and firmware – Developer improvements over time enhances compatibility and speed.
Don’t hesitate to tweak configurations and settings in your emulator front-end to achieve better performance and accuracy. The community forums are also a great resource if you run into specific issues with certain games.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the best Raspberry Pi for retro gaming emulation?
For most emulation needs, the Raspberry Pi 3 or Pi 4 provides an excellent combination of power, software support, and value. Together they can emulate a wide range of classic systems up to PlayStation 1 era consoles.
Can you emulate GameCube or PS2 games on a Raspberry Pi?
The GameCube and PS2 push the emulation limits of current Pi boards. Some very light GC/PS2 emulation may work, but an ODROID board will provide far better performance for running these demanding platforms smoothly.
Is a heatsink or fan needed for the Raspberry Pi?
The Pi 3 and Pi 4 can get fairly warm under load. A small heatsink is recommended to keep temperatures in check. For extended gaming sessions, a fan may be needed depending on ambient conditions and overclocking. Proper cooling prevents thermal throttling.
What controller options are best for emulation?
For a classic feel, original controllers with USB adapters work great. Wireless Bluetooth controllers are convenient for playing from your couch. And wired USB gamepads give a good balance of cost, connectivity, and compatibility.
Can you play online multiplayer games through emulators?
Some emulators like RetroArch support online connectivity and multiplayer through services like Parsec. But compatibility and latency is hit or miss. Couch multiplayer with friends is recommended for the best experience.
The world of retro gaming is now more accessible than ever thanks to inexpensive single board computers like the Raspberry Pi. With a bit of technical know-how, anyone can build their own customized emulation console or handheld to enjoy thousands of classic games.
For most projects, the Raspberry Pi 3 or 4 will provide an excellent combination of power, compatibility, features, and value to emulate a broad range of retro computers and consoles. Pair it with RetroPie or Batocera software for a turnkey emulation station.
Doing proper research, setting realistic expectations, and utilizing the active emulation communities will help ensure success in your DIY retro emulation pursuit. Before you know it, you’ll be reliving your favorite childhood classics with your own emulation rig built with a capable single board computer. Game on!