Retro Gaming on Raspberry Pi

Those of you old enough to recall the golden era of the home computer, the 80s, will have fond memories of playing on a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, and the countless wonderful arcade machines that consumed far more than their share of our pocket money. Hold on, because you’re in luck.

Going Retro

The Raspberry Pi makes for an amazing retro gaming computer. With it you’re able to emulate and play the classic home computers, consoles and arcade machines that brought us so much joy back in the day.

Thankfully, the processing power of most of the systems of the past is well within the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi’s processor. There are a few examples that don’t run too well, such as a PS2, or those systems that utilised a specialised 3D component, but on the whole, there’s likely to be a fully working emulator, available for the Pi, that covers the home computer, console, or arcade that you remember playing.


RetroPie is the foremost retro gaming project available for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a set of modules that are built upon Raspbian, an older project called EmulationStation, and Linus distribution called RetroArch. It contains built-in emulation that covers dozens of systems, from an Amiga through to an Atari 2600, Amstrad CPC to SEGA Dreamcast, ZX Spectrum to an Apple II; and the list is continually growing thanks to the contributions from the community.

RetroPie can work as an installation on top of an existing operating system, such as Raspbian, or you can install RetroPie to an SD card and boot the Pi directly into it, choosing to add further software later if you want. Once installed, you’re able to connect USB controllers, or even a PS4 controller via Bluetooth, and if you’re feeling up to it, there’s also support for original controllers when connected to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins.

If you don’t want to go down the RetroPie route and instead you only want one or two systems emulated, then Raspbian has a wealth of individual emulators available for you to install. You can search for the system via Google, or if you already know the name of it, simply install it to Raspbian through the Terminal. It’s worth mentioning that there will often be multiple emulators designed for the same system.

While one may work perfectly with the vast majority of games, it may struggle with some of the better games available for that particular system. On the other hand, another emulator may play all the games for a system almost perfectly, with perhaps a loss of sound in some parts, or a slow down in others. It’s therefore up to you what you want. You can have multiple emulators installed for a single system and use them depending on which game you want to play, based on how well the emulator supports them, or you can find the single emulator that works reasonably well with everything. It’s trial and error, finding the perfect setup.

There are further options you can pursue when building a Raspberry Pi retro gaming system. You can encase your Pi inside one of the many retro-themed cases, such as the Mega-Pi SEGA Megadrive case, or you can build your Raspberry Pi into the Picade desktop arcade machine.

Picade is a great project, featuring authentic sticks and buttons, and an external speaker. There’s artwork available for the arcade cabinet setup, along with full instructions on how to set up the Pi and connect everything to the GPIO pins. The 8-inch display is perfect for old-school gaming, and you can improve on the visuals by adding extra stickers, a different acrylic marquee, and posters. This, combined with a RetroPie installation, is an excellent project idea that’ll keep you entertained for hours.

About ROMs

A ROM is the actual contents of a game, or the BIOS of an old system, be that a home computer or a console. These ROMs are often ripped from the original tape, cartridge, or chip, and are available to download from the Internet.

However, the use of ROMs is a continual legal headache. Most ROMs are illegal, meaning that they are available to download without the permission of the developer who created the game, the publishing house that released the game, and the company that owns the rights to the system on which the game is intended to be played.

There’s a school of thought that if you own the original tape, cartridge and so on, of the game then you’re legally allowed to obtain a ROM of the same game and play it on an emulator, but that’s not always correct. In the example of music, it is technically illegal to copy music from a CD you own to playback on a media device; and in some ways the same applies to a ROM.

There are however, some examples of a situation when a title, or a system, has fallen out of copyright, or has been abandoned. In these instances, it is perfectly legal for someone to generate a ROM from the game and distribute it on the Internet. Sometimes, another developer improves the original game, adding extra levels, effects, and so on. Some original developers of older games have allowed the use of their game to be distributed as a ROM, and therefore it is legal for you to download and play it.

In short, if you download a ROM from the Internet, and it doesn’t specify that it’s abandonware or allowed by the developer, publishing house, or company, then you’re doing so illegally. It’s highly unlikely that the police will drop in through your bedroom window and arrest you on the spot – unless you actively host illegal content on a website you own – so it’s purely down to your own conscious.

Remember, even if the game is over thirty years old, somewhere out there is a developer who spent the time creating it, so by playing a pirated version of it – an illegal ROM, you’re taking something away from the individual or team that programmed the game in the first place.

Legal Emulation

Interestingly, while it’s illegal to download most ROMs, it is not illegal to install and use an emulator. In fact there are emulators available for the PS4 that allow you play old SEGA Megadrive games, so while Sony, or whoever released the emulator for the PS4, have paid for the rights to use the ROMs in their emulator, it isn’t illegal for them to develop and use the SEGA Megadrive emulator.

In the same respect, it’s not illegal for you to download an emulator for any of the systems, you will just need to find legal ROMs to play on it.

David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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