No NES Classic Mini? Try a Pi

So your plug-in mini console can play 30 games, huh? What if I told you that mine can play over 3,000 across multiple systems including the NES?

Scalpers and artificial scarcity have been the bane of many a gamer/collector, but I decided to stick it to everyone involved and create my own emulator/capture box with a Raspberry Pi! Hit Play and find out, but only if you promise to keep reading the story on how I built this amazing system below!

How it All Started

As it goes, just like many of us, I wasn’t able to get my hands on an NES Classic Mini before it was discontinued by The Big N.

Sure, its $60 MSRP and amazing 30 game library were too good to ignore, but after researching the tiny console in the months before its release, I predicted that it wouldn’t last long in stores and that even if someone were able to hack it to add more games, there was no apparent way to add additional storage if needed. Even worse, after the Mini was taken apart, it was widely disseminated that it was nothing more than a Linux box with a measly 2GB of storage space, thus confirming my fears. It’s so little though!

There’s a lot that can be said about a man who can laugh at himself.

After some discussion with my good buddy and fellow Rebel Derik Moore, I discovered that the Mini would be able to play zipped versions of whatever ROMs were loaded onto it. This plays nicely into how Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony allow their older games to be played on newer systems: good, old-fashioned emulation.

Yeah, I know. Scary, right? The laws regarding emulation and ROMs haven’t changed much over the course of time: 1) emulators themselves are not illegal, 2) the official BIOS that power some emulators like the Playstation 1 are proprietary and therefore, illegal to download, and 3) creating digital backups of games you own is legal, while downloading ROMs from the Internet is not. And finally, it’s illegal and morally repugnant to sell or otherwise profit from the intellectual property of a third party, i.e. don’t attempt to sell ROMs that you don’t legally own.

That’s right…don’t be a dick, lady.

As for myself, I’ve always held a long-burning hatred for predatory scalpers who swoop in with money that they had conveniently stuffed up their ass, only to resell these already precious products online at a 200% or even 300% markup! For hardcore collectors, this can put them in a bit of a rough spot. To buy, or not to buy.

For me personally, I’d rather quit gaming entirely and close up shop before I give these shitheads one cent of my hard-earned money. But oh, does the video game bug still burn. As I looked more and more into the NES Classic Mini, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there would be a low-cost alternative to own a system that could output in HD, support expanded memory, as well as effectively run all of the retro emulators that I care about the most.

The occasional snarky tweet that lambasted console snobs would go something like “Try a Pi!”. Just like anyone else who encounters random Internet snark, I’d peruse the conversation, shake my head, and go on about my clowny way. However, I was left wondering exactly what the hell a “Pi” was.

This? If so, make mine pecan.

After some cursory research, I discovered that a Raspberry Pi is a small-factor computer that uses an SD card in place of a hard drive, and has both HDMI and AV outputs. Even more curious, I would later find out that a certain program called RetroPie already included multiple emulators along with their respective configurations right out of the box. All I would literally have to do was add ROMs.

After downloading the base image for RetroPie for my specific model, I then burned it onto my SD card with Pi Baker (the recommended Windows equivalent can be found here). There are more detailed instructions on setting up your own Raspberry Pi right on RetroPie’s official website, and is fairly painless.

Once my card was loaded up, I plugged it into the Pi and powered it on. After a nominal bootup, I was looking at the main menu for RetroPie. From here, you can elect to add optional packages that also include some free-source games, but I wanted to get to the heart of the matter: will it play old school games faithfully?

Too much faith!

To help facilitate file transfer, I installed the PIXEL desktop from the RetroPie setup menu, and after a LONG download and stacks and stacks of perfunctory Linux text later, I had a working GUI that also included a Chromium browser. From there, it was a matter of moving my games into their respective emulator’s root folder. After getting the first batch in, I logged back into RetroPie’s Emulation Station and crossed my fingers.

Success! The simple act of adding the ROMs into the folder made the emulator in question appear in the main menu, and selecting it would display the names of all the ROMs I had previously added!

After a month, the emulators that I have up and running 100% include:

  • Atari 2600
  • Sega Master System
  • Sega Genesis/Mega-Drive
  • Sega 32X
  • Sega Game Gear
  • Famicom Disk System
  • Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Nintendo 64
  • Gameboy
  • Gameboy Color
  • Gameboy Advance
  • Arcade (MAME)
  • PC-Engine
  • ScummVM (90’s MS-DOS point-and-click adventures), and ports, which includes some PC games and free-source games

Across all systems, I currently have over 3,000 ROMs, but that number will drop considerably once I par down my Arcade ROM list. In multiple previous articles right here on Gaming Rebellion, I discussed in-depth the rigmarole that comes with setting up emulators such as fiddling with XML files and renaming files and box art. The best part about RetroPie is that it already does all this stuff for you!

Thanks for being a bro, man…

And that box art? RetroPie’s built-in scraper will trawl for matches to ROMs, and recommend the box art that matches the ROM name the best. Some of this is lengthy, hit or miss, and the site has been known to go down from time to time, but for the most part, it has worked wonders for me. The result? Beautifully rendered box art, along with release date, developer name, and description per successfully scraped game!

And what about disk space? The kit that I purchased on Amazon also suggested an add-on for a 32GB SD card, which is perfect for those who only want to add a couple different emulators. With that killer list above, 32GB simply wasn’t going to cut it, so I made the trek to my local Walmart and threw down for a 128GB PNY SD card. Even with my insanely large Arcade ROM list, I still have over 100GB of storage remaining.

Granted, the current model (Raspberry Pi 3 Model B) can only accurately emulate up to Sony Playstation, so that may knock out your dreams of running Dolphin or PS2 emulator right out of the saddle, but that’s not to say that future models won’t be able to. At least I can say that when that day comes, I’ll definitely have the room to house all of it!

For example, the difference between a Pi 1 and Pi 3 is that the latter has four CPU cores and 1 GB of RAM compared to the Pi 1’s single core and 256MB of RAM. That’s a considerable jump when you’re considering the power necessary to accurately emulate video game systems. At that rate, it’s entirely possible that in 4 more years, current technology will become affordable enough to justify the Pi’s low price point and make emulating more complex systems possible.

All your technology are belong to us!

For someone who has played in the trenches of emulation for many years, along with the correct notion that the NES Classic Mini would be here and gone before I could even see one, the Raspberry Pi couldn’t have come at a better time. Plus, it gave me a ready solution for video game capture that takes the strain off my PC when it’s time to stream or record.

If anything, the NES Classic Mini has inspired me to create something bigger. Plus, I not only learned a lot about Linux, but have also come to appreciate when an awesome piece of software like RetroPie eliminates a lot of the mind-numbing minutia that I had to endure when creating emulation machines in the past. It literally shaved hours off of a process that would’ve taken me two months or more instead of the one that I put in this time around.

So, if you’re like me and were not able to get your hands on an NES Classic Mini, or if you own one and can’t bring yourself to hack it, I highly suggest that you check out the Raspberry Pi and RetroPie. My total investment is $70-$80 so far for a system that is literally built for customization and expansion, going miles beyond what the Mini is capable of. You can even buy a mini NES case for it if you’re inclined to do so!

At the end of the day, it’s all about the game, am I right? Thanks for stopping by, and Lumpz the Clown OUT!

Lumpz the Clown, clowning over games on Twitter and Facebook!