MiSTer vs Raspberry Pi
I’ve been gaming for almost 30 years now! Wow, I feel old. Over those many years, I have played many a game, some good, some bad and some complete garbage and even though I love modern gaming I always find myself being drawn back to retro games, the sounds, the level design and the limitations of older hardware all offer a certain amount of charm, mostly lost today.
These days, you could argue that we are living in the golden age for retro game enthusiasts, many of us grew up in the 80s, 90s and some, even in the 00s. Now we are all a little older we year for some nostalgia and technology has finally caught up and demand for retro games are higher than they have ever been. That’s where MiSTer and the Raspberry Pi come in, sure you can pick up a SNES Classic, or Genesis Mini, but these do not provide a ton of features and in the case of the PlayStation Classic, the games are poorly emulated.
What is MiSTer?
The MiSTer project is software which runs on a DE-10 Nano development board. The DE-10 Nano dev board is subsidized by Intel as they want more people developing with FPGAs, so you end up with a board that is probably worth at least double the price. This development board is quite small coming in at 11cm x 7cm
So, what makes this different from a Raspberry Pi? MiSTer is open-source software that utilizes the FPGA of the DE-10 Nano board to recreate the hardware of past consoles. FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array and the one on the DE-10 Nano can be used to simulate real hardware.
This makes for extremely authentic, lag-free emulation. For all intents and purposes, cores on MiSTer are the actual hardware and will run like the real deal, warts and all.
MiSTer is a community-driven project with a lot of different and very talented people working hard to make Cores. Each of these cores gives the FPGA the instructions to simulate the hardware of another machine. You load up your core and from there you’ll be able to select your Rom files, configure video and input settings etc.
With MiSTer being so malleable, this even lets developers implement console different console revisions. For example, the Genesis/MegaDrive Core allows you to select what model console you would like to emulate and even the type of FM Sound chip. This is impressive as Genesis sound emulation has always proven tricky via traditional methods.
Here is a rough list of the current cores of MiSTer, with new ones being added all the time: –
Astrocade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, AY-3-8500, ColecoVision, SG-1000, Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, Genesis/Megadrive, SMS, Game Gear, MegaCD, NeoGeo, NES, Odyssey2, SNES, TurboGrafx 16 / PC Engine, PC Engine-CD & Vectrex
And that is just some of the cores currently available, MiSTer can also replicate numerous Arcade machines including classics like Donkey Kong & CPS1 Ghouls n Ghosts. If that wasn’t enough MiSTer also has plenty of computer cores from the BBC Micro, Apple II+ and even the Amiga.
What is Raspberry Pi?
Raspberry Pi is a credit card-based computer capable of many things. First released back in 2012, they have since been used in a ton of projects due to their small size (even smaller than MiSTer), cost and programmability. There have been a few revisions including Raspberry Pi Zero, a smaller, less feature-rich version as well as the main Pi itself which current sits at version 4, or Raspberry Pi 4.
I am going to be focusing on Raspberry Pi’s use for gaming, specifically a piece of software called Retropie. As you can probably guess from the name, Retropie is designed to emulate numerous retro gaming machines. Unlike the MiSTer, the Raspberry Pi does this through software emulation running on top of a stripped-down Linux based operating system.
The Raspberry Pi is more affordable than a DE-10 Nano, coming it at around a third the price depending on what revision you go for. This has no doubt helped it gain popularity over the years with over 30 million units sold.
A Raspberry Pi running Retropie is cable of emulating everything from the NES all the way up the PSP & Dreamcast, however, currently, anything over the PS1 I seems to drop frames and in my opinion is not playable (Yet!).
FPGA vs Regular emulation (MiSTer vs Raspberry Pi)
As I said earlier, MiSTer’s FPGA allows for low lag, highly accurate simulation of its target hardware. You may have heard of companies like Analogue and Terraonion who use FPGA in there hardware to essentially recreate an accurate, modernized version of older hardware. For example, with the Analogue NT, you can plug in your SNES cartridge and it is read just like it would be in an original Super Nintendo, only this time it outputs in glorious HD.
Traditional emulators timings are not perfect, which can create lag. Lag is one of the biggest culprits for emulation not feeling right, as with a lot of things in life, the trick is all in the timing. With an FPGA you will get accurate timing with almost non-existent lag. In theory, if you loaded up the Pac-Man core and left in attract mode, the demonstration mode used to ‘Attract’ people to play it in arcades, alongside a real arcade cabinet they should be 100% synced, forever. If you did the same with regular emulation things would eventually drift ever slightly. This is one of the main reasons people like me get so excited over the MiSTer project compared to traditional emulation.
Why Choose MiSTer over PI?
The main reason you should choose MiSTer over the Raspberry Pi is the accuracy. MiSTer plays your games how they were intended to be played, offering fantastic built-in scaling options and some nice internal filters with no impact performance. These range from CRT Style Scanlines to LCD style Dot-matrix filters and look great!
For the real enthusiasts out there, you can even connect to an old school CRT TV and results are great! You could effectively replace most consoles in a retro collector’s games room and hook up a MiSTer to the TV and you wouldn’t know any different!
Redeeming features of the Pi
While I would recommend MiSTer purely for gaming, Raspberry Pi does have its benefits. Having a much larger install base means there are a variety of applications for a Raspberry Pi, with a simple flash of an SD card you can be running a full version Linux OS, learning how to program with software’s such as Scratch and even a full-featured version of Minecraft can run comfortably on the Raspberry Pi. I personally, use an older Raspberry Pi 3 to run an installation of KODI turning my Pi into a comprehensive media player and streaming device.
Addons for MiSTer
The MiSTer can be enjoyed right out of the box. All you will need is the DE-10 Nano, an OTG USB hub and a USB keyboard. This will allow you to enjoy most of the cores on offer from MiSTer, however, there are several Addons which should be considered if you want to get the best experience out of your MiSTer.
You can grab these Addons from the following places: –
SDRAM Board: Even though the DE-10 Nano has some RAM built-in; it is basically useless to MiSTer. We need a slightly faster RAM board. Now RAM is optional but will allow most cores to run better. And some of the Neo-Geo ROMs demand a larger SDRAM, a very small percentage at that. I would get a 128MB SDRAM module to future proof yourself if possible, but at the very least I would get a 64MB board.
The IO board: is designed to sit on top of your DE-10 Nano and adds a few things that a lot of gaming enthusiasts will enjoy. First up is a VGA connector, this allows your MiSTer to output to RGB, YPbPr and VGA. This means you can get an extremely authentic experience by connecting you MiSTer to CRT TV and outputting 240p.
A 3.5mm Audio jack which allows for a nice alternative to the usual HDMI option.
3 buttons and LEDs to easily access the MiSTer on-screen display menu without using a USB keyboard.
An option to install a fan which will help cool your FPGA and an additional Micro SD slot which can be handy if you are constantly changing your SD cards.
SNAC Boards: Serial Native Accessory Converter or SNAC boards allow for a system’s original controller to be connected, depending on the core. This means that if you are using the correct controller with its corresponding core you will have ZERO LAG.
You will be able to use your SNES, MegaDrive, NES controllers and more.
USB HUB: The USB Hub sits on the bottom of your MiSTer set up and as you can probably guess, adds additional USB ports. This will give you an additional 7 USB ports and means you don’t have to buy an eternal OTG USB Hub.
Raspberry Pi projects Zero
With a Raspberry Pi Zero, you can make the famous Game Boy Zero, which is an impressive device. The Game Boy Zero is essentially a Raspberry Pi Zero running inside a Game Boy shell. This will let you have a nice backlit screen and run a version of Retropie. With the addition of a couple of additional buttons and a battery pack, you have one of the most competent ways to play emulated games on the go. If you would like me to put together a guide on making your own, please let me know. It’s a fun project and has fantastic results. Retromodding have everything you need over at their site to make a Game Boy Zero, they even stock Raspberry Pi Zero’s
Which is easier to set up and use?
In terms of MiSTer vs Raspberry Pi, the setup of a Raspberry Pi is much more user friendly in my opinion. You download the latest release of Retropie, load your ROMs to USB and away you go!
You will, of course, need a USB keyboard to help you set up each, I use a cheap Victsing keyboard but once set up you will rarely have to use it as everything can be accessed via your controller.
Controllers are the next thing we should talk about, both MiSTer and the Pi can recognize a wide variety of controllers and will probably work with any you have one hand. I would recommend the excellent Sega Saturn 2.4ghz controller by Retro-bit or a PS4 controller, either can be fully mapped.
In terms of GUI, I would say both are relatively user friendly, menu navigation is straight forward, as is button mappings etc. You may argue that Retropie has a slight edge on MiSTer here as it has been actively developed over the years with plenty of options for customizing the look of your setup etc.
If you are after a more ‘Plug and Play’ solution I would recommend the Raspberry Pi over MiSTer, or I would suggest picking up one of the mini consoles like the MegaDrive Mini, SNES classic etc. You can think of MiSTer more as an ongoing project as opposed to a finished product, new cores are being added all the time and older cores are constantly being updated with new features. If you are not afraid to tinker around with settings you will have a much nicer experience overall with MiSTer but if that isn’t for you, you should probably get the Raspberry Pi.
In summary, when it comes to the MiSTer vs Raspberry Pi the MiSTer wins hands down if you are after cycle-accurate, authentic gaming experience MiSTer may take a little longer to set up, but once you have it ‘dialled in’ to your preferences you have something special. If you are more interested in ‘dabbling’ into retro gaming, the Pi becomes a close second place contender to MiSTer with each revision adding faster clock speeds and more ram.