I have a cousin that I looked up to growing up. It was from he and his brother that I inherited a lot of hand-me-downs. Hockey equipment, clothes, toys, and on the best of days, video games. I played video games a lot growing up, in a lot of different settings, and the happiest of these was when I was sharing the experience with my cousins, who were until a certain age my best and closest friends. My cousin Mike, to whom I referred at the top there, is a few year older than me, so naturally to me more or less everything he ever did was cool. Fortunately for both of us it ended up that we had and have a lot of shared interests, one of which has always been video games. A year ago, maybe two, Mike told me about something he saw on the internet, and it gave him an idea. He had found some plans for building an old arcade-style game cabinet, but much more importantly, he had learned about a technology that would allow us to use this machine to play any and every game we had ever enjoyed from our earliest memories up through the turn of the millennium. Logistical concerns aside, I was on board.
The technologies Mike was talking about, as spoken about previously, are the Raspberry Pi (Model B) computer and the RetroPie software. The Raspberry Pi, pictured above, is not a computer as most people think of them. This little circuit board fits in the palm of the hand, and comes equipped with ports for power, audio, HDMI, (4) USB and an SD card reader. Much smaller than even the sleekest GameBoy I’ve ever had, the Pi can run all of my favorite childhood (and in fairness adolescent and possibly adult) games with nary a glitch and without ever needing a cool down break or a special touch or for somebody to blow on it. It must be said of the Raspberry Pi that this little computer has the versatility to be put to work on any number of projects, and can accomplish much nobler things for the world than letting me play Captain Skyhawk, but this is what I’m using the device for. To learn more about the Raspberry Pi and what it can do from the people behind it, go here. For our purposes, the USB ports are for connecting video game controllers, the HDMI port of course is used to connect the machine to a display (it’s amazing how good a 25 year old video game can look on a new HD TV), and the SD card slot holds the ever important brains of the operation: all the many 1000s of ROMs, and the operating system (OS) RetroPie.
The Raspberry Pi cannot operate without an SD card. The machine itself has processing power but no storage, so in order to use it, you must load an SD card with a compatible operating system of your choosing. In this case, RetroPie. RetroPie, the menu screen of which is seen above, is essentially a collection of emulators organized in a graphical interface. The emulators are presented on a side scrolling list, and when selected, each will offer the user the list of ROMs she has loaded onto the SD card that run through that particular emulator. In practice, it’s like having all of the game consoles you ever wanted available at the touch of a button, and every game you could ever think of ready to play at the touch of a second button. On a 32 gigabyte SD card, a user could load RetroPie alongside 800 Nintendo games, 700 Sega Genesis games, 900 Super Nintendo games, and hundreds of other games for other systems like Neo Geo, Atari, etc. and have access to all of them at any given time. As I believe I’m mentioned before, this is what 10 year old me would have called unlimited power. There are advertisements on the back of Nintendo Power magazine with a kid on a dark cyber mountain wearing a Power Glove while lightning strikes everything (or like, something like this) and as a little kid that seemed like that coolest thing in the world, and I imagine that having this machine is what being the kid in that advertisement scenario would have felt like.
So these are the components that make up this game-changing machine, and because this is kind of a maker project, assembly is required. Full disclosure- it was my cousin Mike who did all of the first and hardest work here. He more or less handed me a working device and gave me access to a simplified process of putting the pieces together and making it all go. Even so, I’m going to walk through the process of making one of these things from scratch as well as I can. Before anything else, you need the hardware. Mike made I list and I put in the order. He has been researching in his free time, so he figured out which power supply (essentially a cell phone charger) would be best, what size SD card we should use (32 GB to start) and picked a case (a simple black box). He also found the site that made retro console controllers (either refitted originals or REALLY good replicas) with USB plugs. We went with Super Nintendo controllers for our first round of testing. In truth, we had no idea if this project was going to work, and with two sets of everything this had already cost us like $90 each (I get paid minimum wage, don’t be snooty) so we didn’t want to buy a bunch of accessories that we might not be able to use. Spoiler alert: it worked great and we bought more controllers.
While we waited for the parts and for sometime before, Mike diligently googled the whole situation he had gotten us into to find out just how the machine worked, how to use the OS, and how to put the two together. A while before, we met and went down our greatest hits lists to make sure we downloaded all of our favorite games to put onto our SD cards. What we quickly found out after that was that our all time favorites list (excluding PS1 and N64 games both because of file size and functionality issues with the emulators) would take up just a few megabytes our 32 gigabyte cards. Our natural next step was to simply find the entire catalogue of games for all of the systems we played on as kids and just download them all. The ROM for the original Legend of Zelda is something like 14 KB. We could fit so many thousands upon thousands of copies of The Legend of Zelda on our new magic gaming computers that it was beyond comical. We started measuring later, larger games in terms of how many Zeldas could fit in their space. (A new PS4 game today? Like 200,000 Zeldas. Not joking.) The next task after downloading these entire libraries was to sift through them for the files we needed to move over to the Pi. Mike downloaded these huge batches of files that included things like foreign releases, fan-made games, read me files and things like that, so we had to find the actual game file for each ROM to put onto our SD cards. A great work of tedium, Mike compiled folders for each system and had them ready to go when we got the hardware. The next step, once we got our gear, was to get our SD cards loaded up with the OS and then filling them up with games. That took downloading a couple of programs to help us format the cards and get them ready for the Pi, again that Mike had to research online. The final step was to literally, physically put the pieces together, which entailed screwing our plastic cases into place around the tiny computers, sliding the SD cards into their tiny slots, plugging in all of the cords and seeing what would happen.
What happened was awesome. It worked exactly like it was supposed to. At first we only loaded some of the games, just to test it out, but there they all were. It was amazing. I forget which game we played the first night the Pis were working. I want to say it was a game called Monster in my Pocket, which was one of my childhood favorites but I had never owned it. As test cases go, this one was fantastic. The tension of a black screen broke as the game’s publisher’s information materialized and faded, and then with spooky 8 bit Nintendo music an image appears of a denim pocket on a black field, and something keeps trying to burst out of (I know, but we were children) when suddenly out from the top fly dozens of little monsters and the game’s logo. After that you’re a tiny vampire (or tiny Frankenstein[‘s monster I KNOW, GOD!] if you’re player two) running around suburban environments beating up other monsters to… some positive end. I know it’s ridiculous, and I can’t say why, but to this day I love that game. It was just so pleasing to play around with it again, like I’d done as a really little kid. This was a Nintendo game, so it came and went probably in the early nineties. By the time I was maybe ten Nintendo alone was already two major consoles beyond their original NES that I so enjoyed as a child. Lucky for me we weren’t rich, so I didn’t get the new consoles right away, if I got them at all. Still, it had been at least 15 years and probably a few more than that since I’d gotten my hand on this game and many like it. It was a happy reunion. And just like that, Mike and I were back to playing bizarre, 2D ridiculously hard games that we used to play together at birthday parties and after dark at family barbecues or when we’d get stuck at our grandmother’s house for too long and our parents took pity on us.
Now for like $70, after waiting 2 days for amazon I can make one of these things in about an hour. The files are saved and ready, I have the software- all I need is a place to plug in my computer. The fact that it has become so easy kind of takes away from the mystical quality the Pi once had. But in another way, learning more about this machine and how it works has brought me closer to a part of my childhood that was really important to me, and that otherwise I might not have been able to access in the same way maybe ever again. Right down to the feel of the controller in hand, this has been a genuine experience of revisiting a past that had for a time been off limits. It’s what I imagine it would be like if I could go back, now as an adult, to the house where I lived until i was 13 or so, and find it unchanged. Feel the texture of the plaster, see the coffee stain on that absurd salmon carpet, watch dust motes float through the sun beams cut up the the square panes of the window in my old bedroom. Smell the cold damp of the basement. That’s something that I’ll never get. Like unless the people who bought the house are real weird and have kept it exactly as we left it, that’s something I’ll never get. But I can hold a Nintendo controller and feel the plastic creak as I squeeze it, trying to urge Mega Man over a long jump, straining my own muscles and adrenaline to match, and I can remember how it was to sit in a group of my cousins and attack a game like that for an afternoon like our lives depended on it. So I feel like in a way, psychologically (I don’t know anything about psychology) by playing some of these old games, I can experience being back in that TV room with my cousins for a little while. At least I can remember how much fun we had. And in-game experiences call to mind real life circumstances, like who was there when we beat such and such a level, and things like that. If nothing else, the machine has helped me bond with my friend, and remember times when things were a little bit simpler for both of us, and I think that’s ok.