Playing games on Raspberry Pi is a common use for the small computer. For years, Retropie has been the most popular and undisputed operating system for retro-gaming on Raspberry Pi. But recently, other options seem to be gaining popularity in the community.
In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each distribution, and I’ll give you a recommendation depending on your needs.
As a whole, Batocera is now the best operating systems for gaming on Raspberry Pi, it’s excellent for beginners or players who don’t need a lot of customization options. For advanced users, Retropie remains the best option, with the largest community.
To be clear, if you are used to one system and happy with it, you don’t necessarily need to change. This is a general recommendation for a first try. We’ll now look at each challenger in details, and I’ll give you my recommendation depending on what you are looking for.
Retro-gaming on Raspberry Pi : 4 operating systems in competition
The first challenger is Retropie.
This is the system everyone knows and is the most popular way to play games on Raspberry Pi.
Retropie is based on Raspberry Pi OS and uses EmulationStation for the user interface.
There is an image available to install it like a standard operating system, but you can also install it on Raspberry Pi like any application.
You can find a tutorial here on how to install Retropie from scratch, or watcg this video to learn how to install Retropie over Raspberry Pi OS.
Either way, as you can see on this chart from Google Trends, Retropie has always been the most popular option:
We can see that the competition has become tighter over the last few years, but Retropie remains the leader in this field.
Anyway, aside from its popularity, what are the pros and cons of using Retropie?
For each operating system, I’ll give you the note I gave them in each category, and then explain why I scored them like that:
- Support: They have been very late to release the latest version compatible with the Raspberry Pi 4. But overall, having a solution running on Raspberry Pi OS is a good thing. This way, you can be almost certain that everything will work correctly in the background. If your devices are detected on RPI OS, they will work on Retropie.
- Interface: We won’t see major differences between all the interfaces, so Retropie is OK on this point. The only thing I dislike is the old menu, which you have to use every time you want to install or configure something (it looks like the raspi-config interface). It’s ok, but isn’t intuitive for beginners. Many themes are available to customize the default menu (my favorites here).
- Games support: Most of the ROMs will work directly on Retropie, but it’s not the best option among the four challengers. For some consoles, you’ll need to install additional emulators yourself, as not all of them are pre-installed. This is not ideal for beginners.
- Controllers support: All common controllers will work fine on Retropie. I don’t give a great score here because Retropie is the only operating system that doesn’t include an auto-configuration option. Each time you plug a controller, you have to configure all the keys manually with this menu:
- Performances: I tested all operating systems in this article for a few things: time to boot, time to play, and in-game. Retropie is by far the weakest competitor here. I know you can optimize many things to make it work better after the installation, but I tested it out-of-the-box and the other alternatives are way better.
- Additional features: I believe this is why Retropie remains popular. Yes, it’s a bit limited out of the box, and the Retropie script isn’t very good-looking. But it’s the ultimate tool to do almost anything to configure your system. You can use it to add a web interface, install Kodi, themes, etc. That’s good to have.
So, in short, Retropie is great for advanced features and hardware support. It’s average in the other categories. Let’s see how it competes with the other options we have.
Recalbox is the second challenger for retro-gaming on Raspberry Pi. It’s based on a custom OS (Recalbox OS) and also uses EmulationStation for the user interface.
The theme and menus are a bit different, but overall, you won’t be lost if you are used to Retropie.
On the Google Trends comparison, you can see that it’s the second most popular. In France (where I’m living), it’s the most used operating system for retro-gaming. Same thing in a few countries in Europe and South-America.
Anyway, popularity isn’t everything, let’s see how it competes with Retropie on the same categories:
- Support: You shouldn’t experience any hardware issue, no matter which Raspberry Pi model you use. The only issue might be if you want to use your Pi for something else. On Retropie, there is the Raspberry Pi OS layer, so you can always install any server or app you want in the background. Don’t choose Recalbox if this is your goal.
- Interface: One of the best interfaces you can find out-of-the-box. It’s really nice for beginners, as everything can be configured from the start menu. The default theme is great, so you don’t really need to change it. I like it.
- Games support: I tested this point with a bunch of games for different consoles. Almost all of them worked directly on Recalbox. So, if you stay on the most popular consoles, it should work fine.
- Controllers: All of my controllers worked perfectly. What’s nice on Recalbox, is that the controller is detected automatically. If you use a common model (like the 8Bitdo I recommend, or the PS4 controller) it should work directly, no configuration required!
- Performances: Not the best option, but very close. It’s faster than Retropie and the graphics in-game with the default options are fine. No performance issues for me on Recalbox.
- Additional features: Kodi is preinstalled, there is a web manager to upload your games too. There are also a few games included with the installation, which is a great experience. Only 4/5 because you don’t have as many options as with Retropie.
Overall, Recalbox is a great option for beginners. Want to try it? Check my step-by-step installation guide here.
I also have a few other articles that might be interesting for you, for example the differences with Retropie, and how to use a PS4 controller on Recalbox.
Batocera is a recent discovery for me (full story here), and I think it’s the most recent operating system in this selection.
The project started in 2016, with a former developer of Recalbox, so you’ll find many similarities between both solutions.
In short the base is the same as Recalbox, but they improved a few things in their last versions, especially the overall performances. Without further ado, here are my score for Batocera:
- Support: Same as Recalbox. I didn’t note any differences. They also use an independent OS, so it’s the same pros and cons as Recalbox.
- Interface: It offers a great user experience. Everything is in the start menu, including network and controller configuration. You can also pick a new theme here or download additional packages. I think I score it a bit lower than Recalbox because I prefer the default theme on Recalbox, but it’s really close, and you can change it at any time. Also, I like the “All Games” category in the main menu (you don’t need to scroll the consoles list to start a game).
- Games support: Same results as with Recalbox, almost all my games were working directly. So, no problem on this point.
- Controllers: Same. Controllers are detected automatically, you don’t need to configure them and can play directly.
- Performances: Wow! I was amazed by Batocera’s results on this point. This is the fastest distribution you can use for retro-gaming, they probably worked a lot on this. The time to boot and time to play is excellent, and the game graphics are way better than the other with the default options. You can look at it versus Retropie in this video (5:50).
- Additional features: I’m probably a bit harsh here. Kodi is preinstalled, a few games are present after installation, but there is no web interface and I had issues with the Wi-Fi configuration. They added a few interesting options in the start menu that might be interesting in the future. As I wrote previously, installing themes and additional packages from there is nice.
Batocera is now my top recommendation for beginners. If you just want to play a few games, without any additional configuration, that’s the best option currently. It’s not perfect, but it’s really close.
The last option, the less known in fact, is Lakka.
I discovered it before Batocera (you can read my guide here), and it’s one that’s easy to remember with the interface style like on the PlayStation:
Lakka is based on LibreElec and use RetroArch. So, it offers different technologies than the competitors.
Let’s see how it works :).
- Support: LibreElec is a well known operating system on Raspberry Pi (you can watch my tutorial here). Still, it’s limited. The goal of this distribution is to run one app (Kodi in general), not to do many other things. So, it’s fine to play games on it, but don’t expect to be able to run additional apps in the background. You will have to dedicate your Raspberry Pi to retro-gaming.
- Interface: If you like the PlayStation interface, you’ll love Lakka’s interface. I do think it’s prettier than the other options. The problem is that it’s not really intuitive. The default options are OK, but as soon as you are looking for something in the submenus, you’ll quickly get lost.
- Games support: Surprisingly, it was with Lakka that had the best results in this category. All my games were working directly out-of-the-box. On the paper it shouldn’t win, but with my game’s selection it was the case 🙂
- Controllers: Nothing to add here. I experienced the same results as with Recalbox and Batocera. Controllers are detected automatically and all of them work fine. You can even use Bluetooth controllers, as explained in this tutorial.
- Performances: Batocera and Recalbox are better than Lakka, but it’s still faster than Retropie in most tests. LibreElec is probably the reason for this, which is lighter and faster than Raspberry Pi OS.
- Additional features: That’s the big issue with Lakka. You can’t do anything that isn’t included by default. And there is no Kodi, no web manager preinstalled :/.
In short, it’s fine if you want the PlayStation interface to just play games. But it’s quickly limited if you want to configure or add anything else.
Also, I’m a bit concerned with the project activity. I didn’t see any news on their website for nearly 2 years. I’m not certain if the developers are still working on it.
Which OS is best for Retro-Gaming on Raspberry Pi?
If you’ve read the previous part, you should already have a good idea of what you can expect from each competitor.
But let’s summarize it here, so you can directly try the one that’s the best for you.
I think you have a choice to make between two options, depending on what you want to do exactly.
But first, let’s take a look at this survey I made among my YouTube subscribers:
64% of the Raspberry Pi users in this community are using Retropie instead of Recalbox, Batocera and Lakka.
In fact, it’s even 87% if you remove the last option, with the users who don’t play on Raspberry Pi.
We have seen pretty close competitors in the first part of this article, but in reality it seems there is only one option: Retropie.
Overall, Retropie is the best option for advanced users, or at least for users who want to have the possibility to add additional features to their system. It’s also a great choice to use the Raspberry Pi not only for retro-gaming, but also as a media player or any server (NAS, DNS, etc.).
But I told you that I would give you two options. I don’t think Retropie is the best choice for everyone.
The Retropie script is terrible, the user experience is not the best in terms of performances and interface, so you can try a better alternative.
Batocera is currently the best retro-gaming operating system for beginners, or for those who want to use their Raspberry Pi for gaming only. If the only goal is to play quickly games, you’ll love Batocera.
Your controller will work directly, you can customize the interface in one click, and it’s the distribution with the best performances overall. Yes, you might be limited by the built-in features, but it should be enough for most users.
Personally, I prefer Batocera. I’m not “scared” by the Retropie configuration menu, but I don’t need it.
Batocera will do everything I need out-of-the-box, and if I need to do anything else on Raspberry Pi, I will use another SD card or another Raspberry Pi. I prefer having software that does one thing great, than an alternative that does everything OK.
Recommended Accessories for Retro-Gaming
Here is a summary of the stuff I recommend to enjoy playing N64 games on Retropie even more:
- Retropie SD card: Save time and play directly to any game you want with this giant SD card preloaded with over 100k games.
- Raspberry Pi 4: Retropie is now available for Raspberry Pi 4, and it’s excellent Why would you stay on a slower device?
- 8bitdo controller: This is currently the best controller for retro gaming on Raspberry Pi. All the latest technologies in a retro design. But for N64 games specially, you can use the Nintendo version here.
- SSD drive: if you have thousands of games and want to improve performances, a SSD will help you a lot, check this one from SanDisk on Amazon.
Recommended Resources about Retro-Gaming on Raspberry Pi
- Where to download ROMs?
- 15 Best N64 Games you Need to Try (with links)
- How to Install Steam Link on Raspberry Pi (and play PC games)
And also, you can watch this video on the same topic, where you can see my results (especially the performances tests I made):