My eldest son, Jamie, is now six and I’m keen for him to start exploring a wide range of pursuits. He’s very active, enjoying soccer training, weekly gymnastics sessions and swimming but he (and his younger brother) adore watching retro gaming videos on YouTube Kids.
The opportunity to combine this love of retro gaming with Jamie’s first computer build project was too good to miss! So, we set about researching simple and cheap options for building a retro gaming PC that could play the classics I remember from my youth. The Raspberry Pi 3 looked like an ideal choice. A self-assembly kit that’ll help the kids understand some of the inner workings of computers and networks with oodles of open source software available for this and future projects.
Selecting Your Raspberry Pi Kit
If you’ve yet to be introduced to Raspberry Pi then it’s time to find out more! It’s a low-cost, small and simple Linux PC developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Their mission is to support and promote computer education in schools and other organisations. Or, in their words, “We provide low-cost, high-performance computers that people use to learn, solve problems and have fun.”
The barebones Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Motherboard can be purchased standalone for as little as $35 while you’ll also find a range of bundles available from third parties that include cases, SD cards, cables and so on.
From a specifications perspective, the Raspberry Pi 3 is surprisingly capable – a 1.2 GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 handles the processing with 1 GB RAM shared between the CPU and an integrated GPU. The latter supports OpenGL, MPEG-2, H.264/MPEG-4 and VC1 enc0ding/decoding with 1080p high-definition playback, so it can serve as a mini HTPC as well as a retro gaming system.
Storage is handled via a microSDHC slot so you can define the capacity you need, while there’s also support for HDMI (1.3), USB 2.0, Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11n Wi-Fi. As far as retro gaming goes, there’s more than enough horespower for classic 8-bit computers like the ZX Spectrum through 16-bit consoles like the Sega Megadrive/Genesis and SNES to 64-bit consoles like the Nintendo 64. We’ll see from there whether the Raspberry Pi can handle more complex challenges.
I opted for the $74.99 CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit. It bundles the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B motherboard with a range of accessories that includes everything you need to get the PC up and running. They include:
- Raspberry Pi 3 (RPi3) Model B Quad-Core 1.2 GHz 1 GB RAM
- On-board WiFi and Bluetooth Connectivity
- 32 GB MicroSD Card (Class 10) – Raspberry Pi Recommended MicroSD Card with NOOBS
- USB MicroSD Card Reader
- CanaKit 2.5A Micro USB Power Supply with Noise Filter (UL Listed) specially designed for the Raspberry Pi 3 (5-foot cable)
- High Quality Raspberry Pi 3 Case
- Premium Quality HDMI Cable with CEC support (6-foot cable)
- 2 x Heat Sinks
- GPIO Quick Reference Card
- CanaKit Full Color Quick-Start Guide
In truth, if I was a little less lazy, I could pull together a similar kit of parts from individual suppliers and scrabble around at home for a few components we have here for testing. But this kit is comprehensive and convenient!
The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the Starter Pack doesn’t include everything you need to get up and running. Obviously, you’ll need a HDMI monitor – but a modern TV also works well. Also required are some input devices! In terms of a mouse and keyboard, four USB ports mean that standard USB mice and keyboards are really cost-effective options. I wanted something a little more compact, so opted for the $16.99 CanaKit Mini Wireless Keyboard With Touchpad.
This cute little battery-powered device serves as both mouse (via the touchpad) and keyboard. It connects to the Raspberry Pi over 2.4 GHz wireless or via a USB cable, recharging itself when tethered.
For gaming, you’ll also need some controllers. Modern emulators support a varied selection of controllers – both wired and wireless – usually including standard Xbox 360, PS3 and, in some cases PS4 controllers. So, if you have existing consoles at home, check your emulator software documentation to see if these can be used.
However, we were keen to maintain a retro feel and so I selected two Classic USB Gamepads from Buffalo.
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Priced around $12 each, they’re almost carbon copies of the original Super Nintendo controller. The downside is that they have to be tethered to the PC, but I figured we could start there rather than splash out on more extravagant options.
My final purchase was a high-capacity microSD storage card. The 32 GB card enclosed in the CanaKit Starter Kit would be absolutely fine for general use, but for loading up a large library of games, you may well need something larger. The good news is that the Raspberry Pi 3 works well with high capacity cards (although, as we’ll discuss shortly, you’ll need to format them correctly). I went with a $40 high-speed Class 10 128 GB Samsung EVO+ SDXC card, which offers a relative wealth of storage for a retro games library.
Handily, it also ships with an SD Adapter ensuring it can slot into PCs and Macs with a standard SD Card slot.
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So, my full shopping list read as follows:
- CanaKit Complete Raspberry Pi Starter Kit ($74.99)
- CanaKit Mini Wireless Keyboard With Touchpad ($16.99)
- 2 x Buffalo Classic USB Gamepads ($12.37)
- 128 GB Samsung EVO+ micro SDXC card ($40.33)
Total cost: $157.05. I think it’s certainly possible, with additional research and sourcing, to get up and running for less but for convenience, this worked for us.
Assembling the Raspberry Pi 3
If you’ve ever assembled a PC (or made a sandwich) then you’ll make short work of assembling the Raspberry Pi 3, but the barebones nature of the kit means that it’s great for talking kids through the basics of hardware. The supplied case pulls apart allowing you to slide in the motherboard (no screws required). As we’re using the case, it’s important to remember to install the supplied heatsinks, which simply stick to the CPU and Network Controller chips. You then reassemble the case, which snaps back together.
Assembly is super simple and can be handled by a child with some guidance. I mainly had to remind Jamie that computer components aren’t as robust as toys and require careful handling! I was a little nervous about him lining up the heatsinks with the chips (the thought of ripping them off and reseating them didn’t thrill me) but, with a little help, he found the mark.
During the process, we talked through some of the components on the motherboard, like the CPU, the different ports (trying out some cables as we went along), different ways that the computer could send and receive information and so on. Even the basics of how to hold the motherboard, keeping fingers (and static) away from components and discussing the differences between wired and wireless networks (in terms of speed and reliability) were useful to share.
Preparing the Storage Card
Once the Raspberry Pi is assembled, you can move on to the next task. Obviously, you’ll need to install an operating system at some point, but before you can do this, you’ll need to prepare the storage card to receive the software. The process to format the microSD card varies slightly depending on its capacity. The video tutorials on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website advocates the use of the official SD Formatter tool, which works really well for microSD cards with a capacity of 32 GB or less.
However, the tool formats cards 64 GB or larger in the exFAT format, which cannot be used to boot the Raspberry Pi with the NOOBS OS installer (more on this shortly). According to the Foundation’s website:
The Raspberry Pi’s bootloader, built into the GPU and non-updateable, only has support for reading from FAT filesystems (both FAT16 and FAT32), and is unable to boot from an exFAT filesystem. So if you want to use NOOBS on a card that is 64GB or larger, you need to reformat it as FAT32 first before copying the NOOBS files to it.
If you’re using a Linux PC or a Mac to prepare the storage card, you can simply use the onboard formatting tools (I used Disk Utility on the Mac) to format the card with a FAT 32 partition (they might also be labelled as FAT or MS-DOS).
You’ll know if you’ve got the formatting wrong, as when you connect and power on the Raspberry Pi, it’ll simply sit there. No BIOS error messages will appear – in fact, your screen will be blank. As no data can load, the PC simply can’t boot! So, wipe the card and try again.