Explore gaming on the Lakka console

DIY Retro Console

© Lead Image © donatas1205, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © donatas1205, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 248/2021
Author(s):

The Lakka Linux distribution comes with everything you need to play retro games and lets you install games directly in the user interface. All you need is a Raspberry Pi and, ideally, a simple gamepad.

In the pandemic, its not just Netflix series that are booming, but computer games, too. However, state-of-the-art gaming consoles like Nintendo Switch or PS5 are expensive, which makes Linux distributions like Lakka [1] all the more worthwhile. It even runs on the Raspberry Pi 3, which currently retails for $35 (EUR35, £34). In other words, you only pay a fraction of what you would have to fork out for a high-end console from Nintendo or Sony for a retro console that you can build yourself.

DIY retro game consoles require very little manual work. You simply plug the Raspberry Pi into a suitable enclosure and connect it to the monitor or TV. With Lakka, you don't even need a keyboard and a mouse; input can be managed with a gamepad like the Logitech F310 [2]. However, you will not want to do without a keyboard for convenience sake. It not only makes it easier to enter text, but you can also assign additional functions to the keys.

Features

The Lakka distribution is based on the LibreELEC [3] media player. The operating system does not need much space on the hard disk, with a pleasingly compact ISO image of about 400MB. LibreELEC also ensures that all files, including the kernel, are made current during the update, removing the need for you to install individual packages. RetroArch [4] is used as the graphical user interface, which results in Lakka self-configuring thanks to RetroArch's autoconfig feature. Gamepads, for example, are ready for use straightaway.

Lakka supports various computers [5], including the different variants of the Raspberry Pi, from the Pi Zero to the current Raspberry Pi 4. According to Lakka, the Raspberry Pi 3 has good compatibility with Lakka. However, performance-hungry games, such as those for the PlayStation, do not play smoothly.

Installation

A download wizard on the project's website helps you choose the right image [6], which you then unpack for the Raspberry Pi before writing it to a memory card. Working as a Linux user, you then transfer the system to an SD card with the commands

$ gunzip Lakka.img.gz
# dd if=Lakka.img of=/dev/<sdc> status=progress; sync

The correct device identifier of the target drive can be determined with the lsblk command. Users of other operating systems turn to external tools such as Etcher [7].

After writing to the microSD card, you will find two partitions. For the monitor and audio settings, you might need to edit the config.txt file on the partition labeled LAKKA; that said, the display typically self-adjusts to suit the monitor in use. As soon as you boot the Raspberry Pi with the new image, Lakka automatically enlarges the partition with the user data and game ROMs (LAKKA_DISK), so you don't have to do this manually.

Configuration

Thanks to Lakka's automatic configuration, changes to the settings are largely unnecessary. However, some settings are worth adjusting. With the arrow keys on the keyboard or the D-pad on the game controller, you move from menu item to menu item. Pressing the Enter key jumps to the submenus or (de)activates settings.

With a gamepad, you input with the A switch; the B switch goes back one step. When "typing" text (e.g., a username) from the on-screen keyboard, finish typing by pressing Start. Lakka has also published a diagram of a prototype gamepad on its own website [8], which you can use as a template for configuring your own.

For the configuration, first enable the Settings | User Interface | Show Advanced Settings option. Not everyone likes the Electric Blue color that Lakka uses as its default color scheme (Figure 1). This aspect can be changed in Settings | Menu | Menu Color Theme. With so many settings, it is worth saving the configuration to a file. To do this, switch to Configuration | Save Current Configuration from the main menu.

Figure 1: You can navigate Lakka's menus with just a gamepad. With a PC keyboard, use the arrow keys, the Enter key, and the Backspace key.

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    With the right software, you can turn the Raspberry Pi into a versatile console for retro games.

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