The Raspberry Pi Arcade Project, Part 2: The Essential Gear

The first thing you need when building your Raspberry Pi Arcade is… well… a Raspberry Pi. When they were first released, they were hard to come by, but now they’re readily available in the U.S., for about $45, on

Unfortunately the Raspberry Pi, by itself, is completely useless. Fortunately, the other stuff you need to make a Raspberry Pi work is also fairly inexpensive and readily available on Amazon, so with an expenditure of about $150 and a few days’ wait for UPS to drop everything at your door (and a TV, which I’ll assume you have), you’ll have your complete Raspberry Pi set-up.

While this blog series is focused specifically on building an arcade cabinet powered by the Raspberry Pi, this post will serve well as a general introduction to the basics you’ll need (or at least want) to put together a core Raspberry Pi setup for any purpose.

The bare minimum you need to use a Raspberry Pi is:

  • Raspberry Pi
  • 5V 700mA (or greater) Micro USB power supply
  • HDMI (or RCA video and 1/8-inch stereo audio) cable
  • 4 GB or larger SD card
  • USB keyboard and mouse
  • Ethernet cable

Practically speaking, however, you’re going to also need the following:

  • TV or monitor with HDMI or RCA audio/video input
  • PC or Mac with an SD card slot (or get your SD card with Raspbian Linux preinstalled)
  • USB WiFi adapter (instead of Ethernet)
  • USB wireless all-in-one keyboard/trackpad (instead of separate keyboard and mouse)
  • USB hub (at least 3 ports; powered is better)
  • A case

I strongly recommend HDMI instead of RCA video if possible, as HDMI delivers an all-digital signal for a much clearer picture. I have not tested the Raspberry Pi with RCA video output, so from here on out we’ll just assume you’re using HDMI.

While you don’t need a case for the Raspberry Pi, it sure looks nicer (and will be better protected from damage) inside one.

Get the Goods

As noted above, everything you need is available on Amazon, which is where I got all of my components. My preferred options for each are shown below, but bear in mind that a lot of these exact parts and suppliers come and go, so the links may not continue to work in the future. Where this is especially a concern, I have included general notes on what to look for when picking an alternative.

This list cuts to the chase, and includes the things I think you need, including the WiFi adapter, wireless keyboard/trackpad combo, and USB hub.

TV not included.

(All images shown here are from the respective Amazon product pages. And, full disclosure, all of the Amazon links herein include my affiliate code. It won’t cost you any more, but if you use these links Amazon will throw a few pennies my way. Thanks!)

raspberrypiRaspberry Pi
There are a few different options for the Raspberry Pi itself, but don’t mess around: get Model B Rev. 2.0, which adds Ethernet and a second USB port missing from Model A, resolves a couple of technical issues with the first versions, and bumps up the built-in RAM from 256 MB to 512 MB.

power5V 700mA Micro USB Power Supply
There are lots of different options for these power supplies, many of which seem to come and go quickly on Amazon. But don’t sweat it. This is a de facto standard charger for many cell phones these days. As long as the charger is 5 volts with at least 700 milliamps and a Micro USB connector, it will power the Raspberry Pi, regardless of the brand or what devices it is advertised as working with.

hdmiHDMI Cable
Don’t get me started on HDMI cables. An HDMI cable is an HDMI cable. The only thing you need to concern yourself with is how long it is and whether or not your Raspberry Pi will be that close to your TV. Well, that and whether or not you’re dealing with a reputable seller. That’s why I like to go with the Amazon Basics cable. It’s cheap, it works, and it’s direct from Amazon.

sdcardSanDisk Extreme 16GB SD Card
Unlike HDMI cables, there is a difference between SD cards. You want one that’s fast, reliable, and spacious. 4 GB is considered the minimum for a Raspberry Pi, but I like to go with 16 GB, since it seems to be today’s best balance between size and affordability. (Translation: the price difference between an 8 GB and a 16 GB SD card is much smaller than the price difference between a 16 GB and a 32 GB.)

wifiEdimax EW-7811Un USB WiFi Adapter
There are a few options here as well, but I love this particular adapter because it’s cheap (about ten bucks) and tiny… which is essential for the Raspberry Pi. Don’t worry about software. It just works… or at least, it will once you get Raspbian installed (see my next blog post for that) and run the included WiFi setup app.

keyboardLogitech K400 Wireless Keyboard/Trackpad
OR FAVI Entertainment SmartStick Wireless Keyboard/Trackpad

It didn’t take long after I got my Raspberry Pi to realize two things: 1) I want as few wires connected to it as possible, and 2) two USB ports get filled quickly. The second is mitigated somewhat by using a USB hub, which you’ll eventually need for the X-Arcade Tankstick in the MAME cabinet project, but even if you’re not doing that, without a USB hub, the only way to use a Raspberry Pi with WiFi is to get an all-in-one keyboard and trackpad.

For practical purposes, the full-size keyboard of the Logitech K400 is the only way to go. The K400 is cheap plastic, but hey… it’s only about $35, and it works. I love it.

On the other hand, if you’re really trying to stay true to the micro-sized spirit of the Raspberry Pi, the FAVI SmartStick or something similar may be the only way to go. About the size of a TV remote control, the SmartStick includes a reasonably usable thumb keyboard and built-in mini trackpad, with the added bonus of a laser pointer so you can mess with your cat when not playing with the Raspberry Pi. In practice I’ve found the SmartStick is a bit touchy… thumb typing on it often requires looking down, and sometimes key presses infuriatingly don’t register. But it’s still fun to have.

hubBelkin USB 2.0 4-Port Powered Ultra-mini Hub
This is the one item on the list that I don’t actually own, as I am relying on an older USB hub I already had lying around. But if I were to buy a new hub specifically for this project, this is probably the one I’d choose. In practice, so far I have been able to do what I need to do with an unpowered hub, but a lot of what I’ve read on the subject suggests a powered USB hub is preferable for use with the Raspberry Pi, to keep the Pi itself from overheating.

caseSB Raspberry Pi Case (assorted colors)
There are a ton of Raspberry Pi cases out there, but this one is my favorite, because it’s nearly indestructible, it’s super-tiny, the Raspberry Pi snaps snugly into it with no tools, it includes slots for all connectors plus two mounting screw slots, and best of all comes in a variety of translucent colors, plus black and white.

I currently own two Raspberry Pi’s, and I have one of these cases for each, one in pink and one in orange.

The Bottom Line

So, how much is all of this going to cost you? I created an Amazon “Listmania!” list (with only the Logitech keyboard, not both), and the subtotal is $143.86. Not bad for all of the essentials (except a display) you need to run a reasonably capable general-purpose Linux computer.

Next time we’ll take a closer look at the SD card, or more specifically, what’s going to go on it: Raspbian, a modified version of the popular Debian Linux distribution that’s been tailored for an optimal experience on the Raspberry Pi.

Update: It’s come to my attention that the Belkin USB hub I have recommended actually is not powered. I will update this post in the near future with an alternate, powered hub recommendation.

The Raspberry Pi Arcade Project, Part 1: Introduction

If you’re bothering to read this, I probably don’t need to explain either the Raspberry Pi or emulators (specifically, MAME and Stella), but for the sake of completeness, I will.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny, inexpensive Linux-based computer that, after years of anticipation, was finally released to the public last year. It’s designed to be versatile and to encourage creative, educational programming and electronics projects.

Emulation Software

Emulators are software programs designed to run on modern computers that emulate the physical hardware of older, simpler video game and computer systems. When combined with ROM files, the programs that ran on those old systems, it is possible to play near-perfect recreations of those classic games on modern equipment.

Of course, while the emulators themselves are (usually) perfectly legal, there is a (charcoal) gray area of legality regarding the distribution and even the possession of these ROM files. Legally, you should only possess ROM files for games you physically own. In the case of home video game consoles, that would be the original cartridges or disks. For arcade games, that would be the actual hardware cabinet with all of its electronic guts… or, at least, the ROM chip from said cabinet that contains the actual game program. (I do actually own an original Asteroids arcade cocktail table, and a very large collection of original game cartridges for the Atari 2600, 5200 and 7800; the Intellivision; the Nintendo Entertainment System [NES] and others. These will be the focus of my efforts with this project.)

There are numerous emulation programs, representing dozens of arcade and home video game systems, and most have been ported to a variety of different modern platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. My interest primarily lies with the classic games of the late 1970s and early 1980s; specifically, arcade coin-op games which are emulated by the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) project, and the Atari 2600 which is emulated by the Stella project.

One of the dreams of many aficionados of early arcade games is to own a “MAME cabinet” — a real arcade game cabinet (or modern recreation thereof) with a modern PC and display inside, programmed to work with an arcade-style control panel, and loaded with emulation software.

The Project

I’ve wanted to build a MAME cabinet for years. The biggest hurdle for me has been a willingness to dedicate an expensive (or even semi-expensive) and significantly overpowered PC to use solely as the “brains” of such a cabinet.

I’ve also been interested in the Raspberry Pi ever since I first heard of it. The idea of a credit card-sized Linux computer that could be embedded in a creative electronics project sounded amazing! But possessing a woeful lack of knowledge of the circuit board-level details about electronics, and being equally woefully inept at either soldering or construction, I wasn’t sure what I could really do with it.

But then it hit me… I could build a MAME cabinet! What’s really great about attempting a project like this today is that you don’t really need to solder or build anything. The X-Arcade Tankstick is an (almost) plug-and-play, arcade-quality control panel, and the Xtension Arcade Cabinet is a prefabricated arcade-style cabinet designed to work perfectly with the Tankstick, the PC of your choice, and a 22-inch TV or LCD monitor to create a MAME cabinet that’s still a fun DIY project without requiring the same levels of skill that have previously made this kind of thing unapproachable for me.

The Road Map

I am already well underway with this project, but from the beginning it has been my intention to create a series of blog posts detailing the process, so others who, like me, have an intermediate-or-better level of knowledge of command line Linux; a rudimentary understanding of electronics — at least, which plugs go into which ports; and above all a deep and abiding love of classic ’80s video games, can make this kind of thing happen.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Shea Silverman, who is several steps ahead of me in working with and blogging about using the Raspberry Pi for emulation, but whose blog posts come with a tad steeper of a learning curve than what I am hoping to lay out for the readers of these posts. I’ll tell you what I think you need to know to make this stuff work, but for a more in-depth exploration of the details, please check out his blog.

Now then, here’s an outline of the posts I intend to include in this series. (I’ll update this page to make each a clickable link as the posts get published.)

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Essential Gear
Part 3: Get Raspian
An Interlude
Part 4: Up and Running with Raspbian
Part 5: Emulator Set-up — Stella
Part 6: Emulator Set-up — MAME
Part 7: Configuring the X-Arcade Tankstick
Part 8: Polishing Your User Experience
Part 9: Preparing the Cabinet
Part 10: The Finished Product

It’s good to be “Downcast”

One really cool thing about participating in the RPM Challenge, beside forcing myself to record a new album and get it out there in just a month’s time, was getting to discover so much great talent out there amongst my fellow home-recorders. One of the most interesting people I’ve been introduced to through this process is a Chicago-based artist and musician named Joshua Wentz. And Josh was kind enough to invite me to be featured on his B-Sides podcast. Check it out!

While you’re there, be sure to check out all of Josh’s great graphic design work, not to mention his own music. I especially recommend the latest in his series of improvised tracks known as the Winchester Sessions.

Damn Cords!

I love technology. Someone could call me a technophile and I would accept it as a compliment. But despite my love for all varieties of electronic gadgetry, you may be surprised to discover that I hate cords! In fact, I DESPISE them. They are always getting in the way, they always get tangled together, and if you leave a cord to its own devices (ha ha), it will, I guarantee, find a way to tie itself in a knot.

Not just any ordinary kind of knot, mind you, but a knot of such terrible complexity as to make the Gordian knot unravel itself in fear of a competing knot of such incomprehensible madness.

Solutions are on the way. The technology Apple markets as “AirPort” (and Apple’s name for it is all I care about) promises wireless networking anywhere in the home, and the new “Bluetooth” technology promises to allow us one day soon to connect peripheral devices to a computer merely by placing them in its vicinity.

That’s all well and good, but at the moment I still sit at my desk nervously, wondering if today is the day that the mad cord monster will animate and eat my legs. Today I still have several hundred feet worth of Cat-5 Ethernet cable strung all around my house, tucked into corners as neatly as it will tolerate, aggressively making its presence known in my living room, bedroom and basement.