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Retro Gaming Face-Off: Raspberry Pi vs PC vs Retro Minis – Tom's Hardware

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Whether you have fond memories of playing Banjo-Kazooie on the Nintendo 64 as a kid or are just curious about what it was like to use dusty, old 8-bit consoles from before you were born, there are many reasons to play games from retro consoles. And because of the exploding popularity of retro gaming, there are now four main ways to play. You can use emulation software that runs on a modern PC, use a different set of emulators on a Raspberry Pi, get your hands on a retro console mini like the NES Classic Edition or, if you can find one in good condition, buy an original console and cartridges / discs.

But just what is the best option for playing retro games? To find out, we compared these retro gaming platforms based on five key criteria: cost, game selection, controls, performance and accuracy, and overall play experience. Let’s see how well they stack up against each other. 

Testing

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Retro Gaming Face-Off

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)
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Retro Gaming Face-Off

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

For this face-off, I set up and gamed on the following devices:  

  • Raspberry Pi 4B with 4GB of RAM, running the popular RetroPie emulation platform (see how to set up RetroPie), which includes a UI and more than a dozen preloaded emulators for individual consoles. I installed RetroPie and configured its settings menu to display the frame and temp where possible (Note, this method does not work well for N64, Dreamcast or PS1, so I was unable to test the framerate for those). This test was mainly about eyeballing different games based on choppiness and frame rate latency. Also, I noticed the Pi would often run warm when running demanding games such as Super Mario 64, Doom 64, and specific fighting games. We’ll touch more on this topic later.
  • PC Emulators: Currently, I have a PC specced out with an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 CPU, AMD Radeon RX 5500 graphics, and 2x 8GB DDR4 Ballistix 3600 MHz. PC emulators provide one of the quintessential ways to play retro games, because of their ease of use, normally solid performance and tons of online support and information. You’ll easily be able to find, download, and play within a matter of seconds.

    For this category, I used 3 different PC emulators: ePXe for the PS1, Project 64 for the Nintendo 64 and Snes9X for the Super Nintendo. I tested the framerate using a frame rate and CPU counter tied to my motherboard’s BIOS.

  • Retro minis: There’s also official retro mini-consoles released by companies like Sega and Nintendo with collections of old games running on proprietary emulators. I tested this trend with the Super Nintendo Mini, Sega Genesis Mini and PlayStation Mini, three. For a preview: I used a standard flat screen monitor to compare the Super Nintendo Mini with the original SNES and found that the visual experience was very accurate and mirrored the original well. Button input was not an issue either, with each press being registered in a timely manner. The Sega Genesis Mini and PlayStation Mini had remarkably similar results.
  • Original consoles: I tested the Super Nintendo, Playstation 1, and Sega Genesis using a Panasonic CRT TV with AV out and a flat-screen Acer Predator monitor with an AVI to HDMI converter. I noticed that these consoles run better on an old school CRTV, due to the analog being a direct signal, as opposed to converting to a digital signal. I’ll cover this more in the performance section.
Video Game Platform Video Game
PlayStation 1 Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage
  Twisted Metal
  Tekken 2
Super NES Super Mario World
  Donkey Kong Country
  Killer Instinct
Sega Genesis Sonic The Hedgehog 3
  Street Fighter II Champion Edition
  Toejam and Earl

Cost

With this in mind, let’s break down the cost of gaming on each device. Out of all the devices we mentioned, the most expensive option is the original console, for both the cost of the system and the games. The games themselves will be the biggest barrier to entry. There are tons of games on the cheaper side that won’t cost you an arm and a leg to acquire, but most of the classic or sought-after titles can easily run between $50-$1000+. And that’s on the lighter side of pricing. 

Furthermore, the value of original systems themselves continues to fluctuate each year as prices increase. Each system will run anywhere between $80-$150. Not to mention, there are risks when purchasing older consoles. It’s usually hit or miss whether you can find a good working system; otherwise, you might need to fix a unit or pay for repairs.

For Retro console minis, the original MSRPs started at around $80 but have gone upwards in many cases to $200 or more. This price point can be quite steep compared to other ways to play older games. The Nintendo, Sega and PlayStation minis are no longer in production, but there are still plenty of Retro Console Minis available through sellers on Amazon, eBay and your local game store.  Beware of third parties or off markets that attempt to sell fake retro minis.

Using an emulator on Raspberry Pi is really cheap. We purchased a Raspberry Pi 4 emulator kit, complete with two controllers, a case that looks like an NES, a power supply, microSD card and all the trimmings for $99 on Amazon. Different kits have different price points and form factors, including some that look like Gameboys. You can also just go with a bare Raspberry Pi board for as little as $35 and bring your own controllers, microSD card, etc. 

As for PC emulators, they are free, provided you already own a modern PC.  I already own a recent-generation desktop, so the cost for me was $0. Keep in mind, though, that if you want to play on the living room TV, using a PC can be a hassle. 

Note that, whether you use a PC or a Raspberry Pi, the act of downloading ROMs from free sites is likely a copyright violation. And ripping ROMS from cartridges you own is a legal gray area.  

Quick Breakdown 

System PC Emulator Raspberry Pi Original Console Retro Mini
Cost $0 $35 – $100 $80-$150< $200<

Winner: PC Emulators 

Game Selection 

In theory, there are ways to play most retro games on any of these platforms, but some methods are much easier and cheaper than others. PC emulators will give you an endless amount of game options at your fingertips; however, finding the right emulator and ROMs to run can be time-consuming. Also, configuring the emulators to work with your hardware (ex: your controllers) will take some time as well, so keep that in mind.

The Raspberry Pi is essentially a less-powerful PC when it comes to emulation, so that may have some limitations depending on the types of games you want to play. For example, I installed 12 video game ROMs and ISOs onto the Raspberry Pi 4. Based on my experience, more demanding games from platforms like the Nintendo 64 and PS1 may have performance problems. For example, when playing Tekken 2 for the PS1, the video quality was very choppy and there were plenty of skipping frames. If you run into problems with a particular game, I recommend that you do additional research on tweaking settings, trying a different emulator or trying a different ROM. 

The retro mini would be the third choice. Each mini comes with a variety of built-in classic games that run and perform beautifully. In addition, the modding capabilities are endless, as you could pretty much add the entire platform library to it if you wanted to. I started with 32 built-in games for SNES, 20 built-in for PS1, and 42 built-in for Sega Genesis. Now, I have a plethora of games on each mini. Modding the mini to add more games is an amazingly simple process. All you have to do is find the ROMs for your specified mini and download them to add more games to its included library. The PS1 mini can go from 21 built-in games to more than 100 titles. Just remember, there’s a gray area when modding your mini, so please do your research before starting this process. 

Although the original console would be the definitive way to play your games, the biggest hurdle here is getting access to the physical games themselves. Some of the rarer games, such as Silent Hill, Chrono Trigger, and Streets of Rage 3, are either becoming impossible to come across or usually carry extremely high prices.

Personally speaking, there’s several games I would like to purchase for Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo 64, but it’s becoming a lot harder to find copies of these physical games that won’t break the bank. So, if you’re in the market to just play games and not collect, I would stay away from this option.

Quick Breakdown 

System PC Emulator Raspberry Pi Original Console Retro Mini
Game Selection Unlimited if you have ROMs  Unlimited IF you have ROMs that will run on it and would work properly.  $50-$1000+ Unlimited if you mod the system with ROMs

The clear winner is the PC emulator for having little to no entry cost, minus having access to the PC itself. With PC, you’ll be able to play pretty much any retro game, provided you have the ROM or ISO.

Winner: PC Emulators

Controls 

The controls for all 4 options had varying degrees of performance and accuracy in my tests.

The Retro minis and original systems controlled perfectly while the Raspberry Pi and PC emulators had different outcomes. The PC emulator worked fine with SNES and Sega Genesis games (I tried GBA and N64 games and those worked well too); however, I had the most problems with trying to run a traditional controller for PS1 games. As a result, I had to check different sites to download controller support function apps to get most of them to control adequately.

The Raspberry Pi worked well with the NES-style controller that came in our kit and an Xbox One controller, but configuring each button in RetroPie when you first set it up can be a bit of a hassle if you don’t know what you are doing. Controls on certain games worked decently, but other games could be slow or unresponsive. For example, I noticed when playing Street Fighter II that the frame rates dropped with each button press. I found myself playing against an opponent and experiencing slow motion gameplay with continuous frame rate skips. The delay in button presses was terrible compared to playing the same game on original hardware. I had the same experience in some emulated games on the PC as well, specifically for Playstation games like Mega Man 8 and Tekken 2.  

Quick Breakdown 

System PC Emulator Raspberry Pi Original Console Retro Mini
Game Selection Not all games are responsive with the controller Not all games are responsive with the controller Fully responsive Fully responsive

So, I would give the control options for the original system and the retro mini a tie due to their easy set up. No controller configurations, just start playing once the start screen lights up. Unfortunately, the PC and Raspberry Pi come in last due to having to set them up manually depending on which games you are playing.

Winner: Tie between original console and retro minis

Performance and Accuracy 

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

I encountered varying degrees of performance for the emulators. As stated previously, I used 3 different PC emulators: ePXe for PS1, Project 64 for Nintendo 64 and Snes9X for the Super Nintendo. Each emulator performed differently, with one being smooth sailing while others had hiccups.

For example, playing Nintendo 64 games in Project 64 ran even more smoothly than I expected. Each game rarely went under 50 FPS when I was playing retro classics such as Super Mario 64, Conker’s Bad Fur-day, And Turok. Also, I didn’t have any issues setting up my Xbox One, Switch, or PS4 controllers and configuring them to the precise controller methods used for N64 games, thanks to Project 64’s Robust controller config settings. All in all, the PC with Project 64 is definitely a great way to play emulated N64 games.

When I use ePXe on my PC, most PS1 games run simply fine, but others like Twisted Metal or Spyro had a few hiccups. I experienced a few framerate stutters and cutscenes that would sometimes fade to black in and out. I ended up using a different ISO for this game and got it to work slightly better, but it did have some slow down issues, so there wasn’t one that completely shined over the other in terms of performance.

As for the PC SNES emulator (Snes9X), this bad boy worked flawlessly! The emulator had a resolution scaler and full-screen support that allowed me to seamlessly play through any game I threw at it. It was an absolute joy to play Doom, Shadow Runner, Secret of Evermore, and DKC3 to name a few. This emulator supported all of my controller options with little to no input latency or lag. Although it had occasional dips when a lot of action was happening on screen, it wasn’t anything detrimental to the overall performance.

On the flip side, the Raspberry Pi performed quite favorably, especially when playing 8-bit and 16-bit titles. The color and sound detail were immaculate, but I did notice some input delay on some of the games. For example, I experienced some input delay for Mega Man 2, where the jump button didn’t feel quite as responsive, and there were a few frame stutters from time to time.

When I tried testing out more demanding games from the N64 ROMs on the Raspberry Pi, I started noticing more issues. Super Mario 64 ran quite poorly compared to the original console,as the frame rate would run anywhere from 15 to 26 FPS. Resolution and textures looked great, but certain games could barely go over 20 Frames performance-wise.

When testing out the retro minis, each was almost a one-to-one match to its original system. The minis allow you to play games in their original 4:3 aspect ratios (4:3), in a Pixel Perfect mode that offers smoother lines, but shrinks the overall game screen or with a CRT Filter that gives it a classic retro look that imitates a CRT TV. Also, I experienced little to no input lag, and every game played just as good as its original version.

For original systems, the results varied based on the television being used. I tested out each console on both a flat-screen TV and a CRT TV. The colors appeared to pop more when playing on older screens, because those consoles were made for those screens. I did notice that there was some input latency when going from an AV signal to a digital signal. For instance, I clocked each button press from the time it would display on the screen to match the exact millisecond the game would register each press, with extraordinarily few issues on game input; however, there was a slight delay when using the AV to HDMI component cables resulting in a 1.24 Millisecond delay from button press to on-screen results. This may not be entirely noticeable for the average gamer, but some enthusiasts may see the difference.

Another important note: PC emulators, Raspberry Pi, and Retro Minis all have varying forms of upscaling, adjusting the game speed, and save state features that allow you to save your games at any time. The overall graphic improvements do contribute to better gameplay and longer playtime compared to playing original games on the original system without those capabilities. However, having my very own checkpoints in hard games like The Lion King on SNES is a dream come true.

Quick Breakdown 

System PC Emulator Raspberry Pi Original Console Retro Mini
Performance and Accuracy Little to no input lag or latency Slow down issues and some input delay Little to no input lag or latency Little to no input lag or latency
Does have configure settings Does have configure settings No framerate drops and was consistent throughout play test No framerate drops and was consistent throughout play test
Consistent throughout the play test and little issues due to my PC specifications. Varies based on PC Hardware Framerate dropped as low as 15 FPS depending on which game played

Winner: PC Emulator

Runner Up: Original Console if you use a CRT TV

Overall Play Experience 

Each option has advantages and disadvantages. For some options, I have to configure the games and controls to work properly, while others let me just plug in the power cord and play right away. It really depends on how much time I am willing to spend to just play a game. Here are my final thoughts based on ease of use.

The Raspberry Pi requires beginner-to-intermediate technical know-how and may need additional research and tweaking to get certain games working properly. I appreciate the ability to use an assortment of different controllers to play games, and it’s a nice way to do away with having multiple devices to play my games on. On the other hand, installing programs and finding the games to download were a turn off, especially if the first ROM (or ISO) you try doesn’t work properly. 

Retro Minis provide the simplest way to play retro games, because they are plug and play devices in the most literal sense. I appreciate the save state feature that allows you to save your games at any time, and pick back up where you left off, which is a super convenient feature that I wished I had back in the day. Also, the modding capabilities allow me to add the entire SNES library, for example if I want to. If you have access to ROMs for that specific mini, it is a very easy process to flash your Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis Mini to add more games to its included library. So, games that may have been lacking from the built in library, such as Chrono Trigger and Turtles in Time, can be seamlessly added to make it look like it was a part of the original library. The downside is that, if you don’t mod your device, you’ll be stuck with a handful of awesome classics…and a lot of filler games.

As much as I love the original consoles, the biggest turn off is finding the games to play on the system. Now, granted, I personally have a plethora of games within my catalog to play, so my overall experience is neutral. However, when measured up against PC emulators that can play any SNES game, game availability on the original consoles is a far cry from the emulators.

I have a list of games I would like to purchase in physical form, but many of these games are $200+ or rare to find in person. I can’t commit myself to purchasing expensive titles unless it’s personal favorites like Dracula X or Chrono Trigger. Even then, those games are difficult to find.

PC emulators have unlimited access to a wide variety of emulators and game libraries with zero limitations on the ways you can access and play them. On the downside, it’s a bit challenging to find the right emulator for every retro platform. For example, getting a quality Nintendo 64 emulator is a lot simpler than setting up one for Sega Dreamcast or PlayStation 1. It’s fairly easy to emulate any console that is 8-bit or 16-bit, but you may run into a few more issues with 32-bit platforms.

Winner: Retro Mini

Bottom Line 

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Overall, the original consoles are the most authentic way to play retro video games, but the cost-per-game will be the biggest turn off for most people, unless you’re into collecting older games and consoles. If you own a retro mini and can mod it for a bigger game library, go for it! It’s a good way to get around this limitation, and the emulation is almost indistinguishable from modern hardware.

PC emulation is the most flexible and cheapest option, unless you want to play games in your living room; then the Raspberry Pi may be a better option because you can easily hook it up to and leave it next to your TV. Using a Raspberry Pi for emulation requires more work than a PC and it isn’t as easy to get everything working properly, particularly with games from more demanding platforms such as the PS1 and N64. Your experience may vary, but once a PC is configured and running perfectly, it’s a retro gamer’s dream!

Overall Winner: PC Emulators



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