Dear Lifehacker, I want to build an emulation station for retro gaming, but there are so many options! Custom PC, Raspberry Pi, Android tablet... Which is the best? What are the pros and cons of each? Sincerely, Nintendon't
There are a billion devices out there, and if there's a screen on it, there's probably a video game emulator for it. But a few choice options exist, each with their pros and cons, so let's run through some of the best. Which is "best" depends on your budget, what you want to play and what hardware you already have. Here are three solutions that are great for three different types of players.
The Low-Cost, Low-Power Solution Best for Game from the '80s: Raspberry Pi
What I like about the Raspberry Pi is it's cost ($US35), the fact it takes a variety of inputs, and the fact it hooks up to a TV without any special cables. It's also tiny, which means it doesn't waste much space around my TV, and if I want to I can pack it up and bring it to a friend's house. You can also pack that Raspberry Pi into all kinds of cool cases to fit your needs.
That said, the Raspberry Pi is still a DIY option. So, you'll likely have to put up with some setup woes, as well as the basic amount of time it takes to get everything installed and working. You also get what you pay for. For $US35 you're restricted to emulating older systems and you won't be able to play anything newer than a Super Nintendo game. For me, that's perfect, but if you're looking to emulate newer systems (even just a Nintendo 64), the Raspberry Pi won't cut it.
If you're looking for something like the Raspberry Pi without the DIY aspect, the $US99 OUYA is a solid alternative. You'll still need to do some basic setup, and controller support is a bit sporadic, but it's one of the cheapest plug-and-play solutions.
The Mid-Cost, Mid-Powered Solution for Portable Gaming: A Tablet
If you want a little more power than a Raspberry Pi, but you don't want to buy an actual computer, a tablet — either Android or iPad — is a fantastic way to play old games. A tablet can be a portable gaming system or get hooked up to a TV, and they can emulate a lot of systems.
For Android, we like RetroArch because it packs in a bunch of emulators, from the Nintendo Entertainment System all the way up to the PlayStation 1. Once that's set up, you can hook up a controller, connect it to your TV and have a portable media centre with you all the time. iPad users can also use RetroArch, but you need to jailbreak to use it. With the iPad, you can use a controller with all your games, not just your emulators, so you can turn it into a powerful gaming machine with a little hacking. It's possible to run emulators on a non-jailbroken iPad, but you'll want to jailbreak if you're using it primarily for emulation.
Of course, tablets aren't exactly cost-effective. If you don't plan on using it for something other than emulation, it's probably not worth the money. They're also not that powerful, and while they emulate more systems than a Raspberry Pi, they still stop at around the first Playstation era. While a tablet is fully portable, playing games using touchscreen buttons is never fun, so chances are you'll always want to pack a controller with you wherever you go. If you want something truly portable, a hacked PSP can emulate just about everything a tablet can, and they can be found inexpensively on ebay.
The High-Powered, Future-Proof Solution for Almost Every Game: A PC or Mac
Low-cost choices are great and all, but if you want a full-blown emulation station, a PC or Mac is your best choice. You can emulate a lot more systems and even add special mods to older games to make them play better.
You can use any computer you have around the house for emulation or make your own media centre to do emulation and a lot more. Once you're set up, you just need to get the software. Mac users can download OpenEmu to get all the classic emulators in your app. Windows users need to download each individually. All that said, emulators almost always launch on PC and Mac first, and other platforms later, so you'll always be on the cutting edge with a computer.
No matter how you cut it, building a PC just for emulation is more expensive than most of the other options. If you already have a computer you want to use, that cuts down on the cost, but you probably don't want to leave it connected to your TV all day as a dedicated system.
It comes down to this: usually, the "best" platform for a emulation is the one you already own (as long as it plays the systems you want). If you have a computer made in the last five or six years, it will run every emulator perfectly. If you have a tablet you can emulate most classic systems. If you don't have either, the Raspberry Pi is cheap and easy to start with. No matter what, you can build a dedicated emulation machine pretty cheaply, and you won't have to worry about having 20 old-school consoles hooked up to the TV anymore.
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