How to build a MiSTer, the ultimate retro game box
From humble RetroPie setups to expensive analog handhelds, retro game boxes are big business these days. The current generation of gaming consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X are great machines in their own right, but they don’t offer much in the way of retro goodness, especially compared to standalone emulators. As such, if you’re looking to revisit the past on your TV, building a dedicated retro box is probably the right move.
If you pay attention to this stuff, you’re probably familiar with RetroPie, the Raspberry Pi supported software that lets you play generations of retro games with a cheap version. Indeed, even the most sophisticated Pi-based version will likely set you back around $100, making it a great option for gamers on a budget. However, if you’re looking to build a really passionate machine – and don’t mind spending a bit of money on it – you should consider putting together a MiSTer FPGA. Although this is a hardcore machine, even the least technically inclined gamer can put it together.
Strictly speaking, MiSTer is an open source project that breathes new life into classic consoles on modern hardware, as well as arcade machines. However, while software emulators have tiny inaccuracies and errors that experts can spot, a MiSTer uses FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) technology to mimic the console at the cycle level. That makes it essentially identical to the real console – it’s like your mom never sold your SNES to that big box retailer for $25.
So if you’re the kind of hardcore purist who rejects emulators in favor of stock hardware, a MiSTer is probably a good investment. However, it is an investment, as supply chain issues drove the cost of construction up to around $400. And that’s not including the fancy extras you might want to add, like a sleek case. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether it’s reasonably priced for nostalgia, or perhaps curiosity. For me, it definitely was.
Before embarking on your MiSTer journey, it is important to note that the base board on which the device is based, the DE10-Nano, is often out of stock or completely out of stock. As such, if you’re unlucky, you may have to wait weeks (or even months) for the painting to arrive. Most of the other components can be found on specialist storefronts like MiSTer Add-Ons without too much trouble, but you should make sure everything is in stock before ordering.
The two main parts of a basic version of MiSTer are the DE10-Nano and the SDRAM expansion card. Although the MiSTer can work without the extra RAM, it is required for many “cores” (consoles) that you will want to play, so we highly recommend it. Personally, I would suggest buying the DE10-Nano directly from the manufacturer Terasic, as they tend to carry the largest volume of stock at the best price. You can buy the SDRAM expansion card from storefronts like MiSTer Add-Ons, like we did.
Setting up a MiSTer requires a small bunch of tech items you might have around your house, especially if you’re a PC gamer. You will need a USB Wi-Fi adapter, a microSD card reader and a USB keyboard. You’ll also need a microSD card – the DE10-Nano comes with an 8GB card, but we recommend 32 or even 64GB for gaming space.
Since the DE10-Nano is not designed as a primary gaming device, it only has one micro-USB slot. As such, you’ll need a powered USB hub and a micro-USB-to-USB converter to plug it into. Trust us, it’s really annoying to have to rely on one little slot for all your inputs, so do yourself a favor and buy those items from Amazon before ordering the board itself.
There are a number of optional add-ons that could enhance your version of MiSTer, depending on your preferences and goals. For example, many MiSTer users recommend getting a heatsink and fan to cool the device. While the heatsink is easy to install – just peel off the sticky end and attach – the fan is a little trickier and ultimately useless if you plan to use your device in a well-ventilated space. Also, if you plan to use your MiSTer with a CRT TV, you will need a separate add-on to connect the correct inputs.
put it all together
The actual act of putting together a MiSTer is incredibly simple. All you have to do is unscrew the DE10-Nano’s top plate, stick the SDRAM in the top slot (the power port should face your left), then swap out the 8GB microSD card default with your larger version. Next, you need to connect your HDMI cable, USB keyboard, and USB Wi-Fi adapter. If you’ve opted for a heatsink, just stick it on the chip itself and you’re good to go.
Before turning on your MiSTer, you need to install Mr. Fusion on the SD card with disk imaging software like Rufus. It is essentially the software brain of the MiSTer. Once you turn it on, you should see a Mr. Fusion black screen appear on your TV, where it will automatically install.
After installing Mr. Fusion, you will need to run the “Wi-Fi” and “update” scripts to get your MiSTer up and running. To do this, press Esc on your USB keyboard, go to Scripts and keep selecting “yes”. Eventually, you should be able to set up the internet through your WiFi adapter or Ethernet cable. From there, you just need to connect and configure your USB controller through settings, which is a pretty self-explanatory process.
Getting games on your MiSTer is just as easy. As usual, the only legal way to play game ROMs on a device like the MiSTer is to dump the physical games you own using some tools developed for the process. If you already have a collection, we recommend that you simply put the files on the MiSTer’s microSD card. You can also use an SFTP client like FileZilla to connect to your MiSTer remotely, but that’s a bit more complicated. You will need the MiSTer’s IP address to do this – the username is root and the password is “1”. Leave the default port or enter “22”. Once you’re there, you can simply drag and drop the files, and presto, you’re done. If you’re having trouble with this, we recommend James Mackenzie’s guide.
In general, I highly recommend getting a controller with a decent D-pad for your MiSTer, since most games you’ll play were designed with that input in mind. 8BitDo controllers tend to offer good D-Pads at a fair price. Once you have configured the MiSTer, you may notice input lag. If so, check out this controller latency benchmark to determine if you’re using a particularly “slow” pad. Also, be sure to set your TV to “game mode” if it has one, as it can make a huge difference. And that’s really all it takes to put together a retro gaming box that can play just as well as a real console.
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