There’s Never Been A Better Time To Roll Your Own Emulation Console

Frustrated by the lack of virtual console options in Nintendo’s new online service, and emboldened by a bit of electronic know-how thanks to the DIY of keyboards, I finally decided to create my own RetroPie machine. I was surprised at the ease with which … and the number of options available.

The classic solution is simply to grab a Raspberry Pi unit and holster, to install it, to load a copy of RetroPie on an SD card, to plug in a controller and to boot. And it’s still a very good (and surprisingly cheap) solution, if all you want to do is play old games on your TV without having to look for classic consoles and blow on cartridge contacts . But it turns out that you can do a lot more things with hardware and software.


Take the world of portable gaming, for example. Independently designed gadgets, such as the PiGRRL (see what they did there), include a tiny Raspberry Pi computer, a screen, a battery, and a custom printed circuit board in a 3D printed case to create a completely customized Game Boy clone.

And even if it lacks some polish on Nintendo’s handhelds, it is much more powerful: the small, low power Pi Zero can handle most games to the Super NES level (early 1990s) and more classic models of Raspberry Pi PlayStation Emulation, while maintaining hundreds or thousands of game ROMs on a MicroSD card. There are dozens of vendors who will sell you a custom kit to make one yourself: just attach a Raspberry Pi to the kit, solder it according to the instructions provided, and load the ROMs.

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A Raspberry Pi with a case, a battery, a screen and buttons printed in 3D makes it possible to create a Game Boy clone.

But even that seemed a little too easy. I wanted the best of both worlds: Nintendo’s classic hardware and ergonomics, as well as the ability to load my old favorites from Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, SNES and Genesis.

Although he is now almost 20 years old, my favorite portable game machine will always be the original Game Boy Advance design: it perfectly combines size, layout and library. I’ve often thought that if Nintendo had added two extra buttons and a backlit display that later models of GBA and DS were provided, that would be perfect.

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The original Game Boy Advance had a fantastic design, but its hardware is limited to today’s standard.

It is now possible, with some modding and a hardware transplant. The design of FreeplayTech replaces the internal elements of the original GBA design with a custom printed circuit board, a new backlit display, two extra buttons for playing Super NES games, a rechargeable battery and a Raspberry Pi to make everything work. This is essentially the same as the above PiGRRL designs, plus a custom software to crop the screen to fit the GameBoy Advance shell viewing window.

The kit is available in two versions: the Freeplay Zero, which uses a Pi Zero ultra-low consumption, or the Pi Zero W, and the Freeplay CM3, which includes the compact module Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3 (essentially the Raspberry Pi 3 heaped in a DDR3 PCB, minus the wireless and USB options). The latter is more powerful and requires no soldering, so it’s the one I chose. Both options include charging via MicroUSB, a MicroSD card slot containing the RetroPie software image, a standard USB-A port for data transfer and even an HDMI port for playing your games on a TV.

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This kit will replace the inside of the Game Boy Advance by a new console powered by Raspberry Pi.

You can install your old Game Boy Advance to complete the project, but it’s easier to buy one of the many third-party GBA plastic shells on Amazon or eBay. (An interesting bonus: you can get colors for the holster and buttons that Nintendo has never made!) After getting a hull and a nice glass screen cover to replace the cache cheap plastic from the original, I ordered the Freeplay CM3 kit with an extra battery.

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The Freeplay CM3 kit and a replacement GBA plastic shell.

When all my pieces arrived, I had to spend several hours modifying the plastic shell so that it could hold the more powerful entrails of the Raspberry Pi CM3 and the custom circuit board, not to mention breaking new holes. holes for X and Y buttons so cruelly left. out of the original Game Boy Advance design.

Most of the time, in this construction, Dremeling devotes more space to the hull.

It was not that difficult or tedious: I had to carefully use my Dremel tool to sand the inner plastic, cut some of the larger pieces with cutting pliers, and drill the new buttonholes accurately.

The introduction of the new circuit board and the screen proved delicate and required several replacement seats. But FreeplayTech makes these kits and helps their customers assemble them for a while now, and the online build instructions and video guide were comprehensive.

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Having done some research, I was not completely sure of my ability to modify the Game Boy’s plastic shell on the first try. And while I was able to get everything together and run, and even run games without problems, the trial and error process approach left the assembly somewhat risky, especially where all the new ports were .

Once everything worked out, I went back and did the Dremel work on the secondary hull that I bought (they only represent about fifteen dollars) in order to make a more informed decision and precise, now that I know where everything is.

I’ve added a final piece to the project: a 3D printed top in the original cartridge slot. It is short enough not to interfere with the CM3 processor cooler, with holes drilled in the top to allow heat to escape.

Add the shell kit sticker and the Freeplay cosmetic sticker, and the project is complete.

Between the Freeplay kit, the plastic cases, the battery and the glass screen protector, I spent more than $ 200 for this project – it’s not really practical while I’m 39, could have gone out and buy an old game console for a fraction of the price. , or even bought a new 3DS instead. But if you like to tinker with electronics and old video games like me, it’s a rewarding experience, and there are much cheaper options if you need a more basic version.

In fact, you can get low-power Android phones or tiny computers that can run all these games without problems through emulation. Although buying retro games via digital console stores or Steam is a much simpler approach, your choices for doing it your way are almost limitless and often provide a lot of fun. And, what’s more, how will you get a Game Boy Advance that can play SNES games?

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