If supply chain bottlenecks let you down, you can always redesign an older Pi.
Years ago, in the heyday of the NES Classic Edition, we put together a guide to building a retro emulation box using a Raspberry Pi board, RetroPie OS, and a few other fun accessories. We have updated this guide several times over the years and many of the tips it contains are still useful. But enough has changed in the last few years—the Pi hardware, the accessory ecosystem, the operating system, and even the emulators themselves—that we're completely revamping this guide with new product tips and recommendations.
If you're into retro gaming and looking for a winter project, building your own mini-console, or upgrading one built years ago with a new case and different software, is still a great way to invest a little money and time.
RASPBERRY PI CONSOLE BOM LIST
Raspberry Pi 4 2GB - $45-60 depending on shipping
Box - $5-40
AC adapter - $10
microSD card - $12 for 64GB, $20 for 128GB
HDMI to Micro HDMI cable or adapter - $9
When we built our emulation box in 2016, we tried to stay as close to the starting price of $60 for the NES Classic Edition as possible. Chip shortages and other factors will make this almost impossible in 2022, but we'll try to keep the BOM below $100.
The heart of your retro console, and probably your biggest expense, especially given the current global chip shortage, will be a Raspberry Pi board. A good standard option is the $45 Raspberry Pi 4 2GB, which at the time of writing seems to be enjoying slightly better (if not great) availability than the other iterations, and smaller retailers like CanaKit are charging a ton per shipment. But none of the emulators that work well on a Pi require a lot of RAM, so the $35 1GB Pi 4 is also a good option if you can find it. If you want a more future-proof Pi board that you can use to do other things, it's worth upgrading to the 4GB or 8GB Pi 4 models, but the extra memory doesn't make a difference for a dedicated emulation box.
The extra power of a Pi 4 gives you a few benefits over an earlier Pi 3 or 3B+, including more consistent (but not universally problem-free) emulation speed for Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and Sony PSP, and the ability to turn into some of those lag reduction features, which we're about to talk about. However, depending on what consoles you want to emulate, there are still circumstances where an older Pi 3B+ or Raspberry Pi Zero 2W will work just as well, if you don't plan on emulating something newer than the first PlayStation, for example, or if you're trying to create an ultra-cheap or ultra-small (or even portable) emulation system.
Raspberry Pi boards are often sold as part of a kit that includes a power supply, case, microSD card, and other accessories, but for now we recommend you ignore those. The kits that are currently the easiest to buy are the most expensive ones that come with too many accessories or that most people won't really use, and for the sake of your storage performance, it's better to pick your microSD card by hand than to get one. cheap version with no name included.
At a minimum, you'll need a USB-C or microUSB power adapter (for the Pi 4 or Pi 3B+/Zero 2W respectively) and a microSD card big enough to store your games. We recommend one of these 128GB cards from Samsung or SanDisk, as they offer respectable performance from an established brand, cost $20 or less, and are big enough to reuse for plenty of other tasks later when you need them. But if minimizing costs is important, a 64GB card should suffice for a wide range of games, including small NES ROMs, multi-disc PlayStation and Dreamcast games, and your favorite arcade titles.
If you're buying a Pi 4, a micro-HDMI to HDMI cable or adapter is also a good idea if you're not buying a case that has its own full-size HDMI port.