There was a frenzy of interest and pre-orders when Nintendo announced the NES Classic, an affordable little gadget that would allow us all to play 1980s video games like the old days. But Nintendo pooped the bed when it came to production and distribution. Now the SNES Classic is showing more of the same issues, making it hard to get a hold of one at retail price even as a pre-order.
But what if I told you that you could build your own retro-gaming console for cheap, and that it could hold and run games for NES, SNES … and Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Game Boy, Game Boy color, Game Boy Advance, Famicom Disk System, Master System, Megadrive (Genesis), Gamegear, Game and Watch, Lynx, NeoGeo, NeoGeo Pocket, PCEngine, Supergrafx, Amstrad CPC, PSX, Sega Cd, Sega 32X, Sega SG1000, Playstation, ScummVM, Vectrex, VirtualBoy, Wonderswan, and more? It’s not expensive, nor does it require extensive computer know-how.
My Mom’s church recently worked to help make a young boy’s life a little brighter on his birthday. He didn’t have his own television and never had video games in his life. (I won’t get into it here, but this kid’s early years sucked in ways that guys like me could never truly understand.) My son Xander and I pitched in to help. Instead of dumping money into a modern console and maybe one or two games, we could make something infinitely cooler with hundreds of hours of gameplay. We built him a Recalbox.
Important Note: I’m going to tell you how to build the machine, not where and how to obtain the game files that run on it. Before you start grabbing even “abandonware” games from now-defunct companies you should understand the legal and ethical issues involved and make your own choices.
What do you need? A computer or an adapter for a computer that can read and write to SD cards. And a TV that has an HDMI input. And that’s about it. You don’t even need so much as a screwdriver to put this thing together. To run updates and install games you’ll need a local wifi connection.
Step One: Buy Stuff!
The heart of our Recalbox is a miniature computer called a Raspberry Pi—a gadget originally invented to teach computer science to students but has since become beloved of DIY nerds everywhere because of its cheap price and versatility. It can potentially be the brain behind hundreds of neat projects! And while you could theoretically purchase every component a la carte, for something as basic as our Recalbox it’s easier just to buy a kit that has all the main components bundled together: the motherboard, cooling sinks, micro SD card & adapter, case, power cable, and HDMI video cable that can hook to any HD television. Click here for an Amazon link to the kit I purchased, though in theory you could go for an even cheaper one using an older Raspberry Pi type 2 since it will run the software just fine. You’ll also want a USB gamepad—two if you wanna enjoy some multiplayer action. I went for a pair of controllers in the style of the SNES. But if you already own USB plug-in XBox or Playstation controllers those can work just fine. (You can actually use your phone or tablet over wifi to create a virtual gamepad for your Recalbox, but it’s really wonky—only use in a pinch.)
Step Two: Build Stuff!
I’d love to tell you I’m an electronics genius—that I used a soldering gun and salvaged wires and electrical tape to MacGyver this thing together. Truthfully you just take the Pi out of the box…and stick on the heat sinks just like the little pamphlet shows you.
Then you gently snap it into the plastic case using the studs and holes in the motherboard. It’s like they were built for each other!
Make sure your case is secure and nothing is rattling around. You just built a computer!
But right now your Raspberry Pi is a brain with no memory. Time to bust out your micro-SD card and the adapter so you can install the back-end software that’ll run this thing.
Step Three: Install Stuff!
Get online on the computer of your choice and download the latest version of the Recalbox OS. If your memory card hasn’t been pre-formatted for use with your Pi, you’ll need a utility to do that. Put the micro-SD card in the adapter and then put that into your computer so it’ll read as a “drive”—similar to popping in a USB thumb drive. Make sure the card is formatted but otherwise blank.
Uncompress the Recalbox OS archive (which should be as simple as double-clicking it). Then copy the contents of the folder into the root directory of the SD card. That’s it! Remove the adapter from your computer, remove the micro-SD card from the adapter, and slide it into its waiting home on the bottom of your Pi. It’s a working computer, but not yet fully set up!
Step Four: Finish Stuff!
Take your newborn Pi over to your television, hook up the HDMI cable, and plug in the power. Note that the Raspberry Pi doesn’t have an on/off switch so you’ll need to manually unplug it when not in use, though you can buy a switch that uses one of the USB ports built into it. The goods news is once it’s plugged up you don’t have to do anything but wait. (Watching in slack-jawed amazement is optional.)
You can use your USB controller or gamepad to go into the menus once it’s set up, though if you have a USB keyboard handy that might be easier. You’ll want to go through the menus to properly setup your chosen gamepads and link to your home WiFi network—all steps very easy to understand through intuitive menus. Once hooked up to WiFi, it’ll likely detect an update that it’ll download and reset itself. And just like that—boom!—you now have your very own working retro game console.
You’ll find some legal freeware games already installed, allowing you to take your new device for a spin with no extra work! And now that it’s connected to your WiFi network it’s drag-and-drop simple to add any other games—just use a computer and go to share -> roms and drag your files to whichever system matches. Some types of games (like SCUMMVM for point-and-click adventure games) require a little more work but a trip to Google can answer all of your questions.
And that’s it! The little boy loves his little box and we really enjoy the one we’ve had here at home. Let me know if you end up building your own Recalbox or other sweet Raspberry Pi projects. And if you liked this I Made A Thing article let me know in the comments and I’ll do more along this vein.