June 25, 2020

Raspberry Pi and Retro Arcade Adventures – Part 2 – All the fun of the piCADE …

So in part one of this series I set the scene in regard to my love of computers from yesteryear and how what is regarded as “Retro Gaming“. Computer games are something that my son and I have in common (albeit I prefer the games from the past in comparison to the games that we have now). We also have a shared love of technology with a keen interest to understand more.

It’s important for me to try and nurture that wish to learn as a father, as well as be creative in finding things to do with him when he is with me so that the precious time that we have together is not wasted or becomes mundane.

As I explained in part 1 I thought that a project utilising the Raspberry Pi with the Pimoroni piCADE kit would be not just a learning opportunity for both he and I, but something fun that taps into a mutual interest with a result that we both could enjoy and expand upon going forward.

In this part I will go through a quick review of the piCADE and our experiences of building it.

I won’t lie I was a little worried about if he and I would survive the experience. My son and I have built things before – we did a lot of Start Wars Lego together (the more advanced kind) and that went well. But how well would I cope as a parent who was venturing out with his teenager building something that was my “thing” (e.g. technology).

Would my arrogant instincts kick in and try and subconsciously take over – therefore pissing him off? – or – would I be so bloody useless having to always refer to instructions and sit there scratching my head looking at YouTube videos?

The truth ended being up we had a blast – and whilst I did drop a massive clanger at the end of the Console build (more on that in a later part) – he and I had a great fathers day weekend putting together the tech. Well I say “we” built it – it turned out to be exactly what I wanted – he built it and I guided.

I was really, really impressed with how good he was as whilst the piCADE isn’t rocket science – it is a new thing for my lad and he did rather well!

“I will confess here, in the interests of being open – I purchased two piCADES – the full arcade machine (which includes either a 8 or 10 inch screen) which I built prior to the fathers day weekend and I also purchased the console version (minus the screen) to build with my son.

My rationale was that I would do a practice run (so I didn’t look like a complete tool in front of my lad if he needed support) and, once he had built the console I would give him the arcade piCADE to him as a present to take back to his mums – kind of like a “here’s one I did earlier“.

The piCADE – quick review …

Form Factors

With the piCADE you can choose from one of two kits (or like me, buy both – because I have been a little nuts on Internet shopping during lockdown).

The first (and more expensive) form factor is the piCADE arcade machine. This is a full case that includes either an 8 or 10 inch screen supplied in the kit. This kit provides a more “realistic – all in one” arcade experience for the user.

The second is the piCADE console – this has the same functionality as the arcade machine, but doesn’t include the screen.  The idea with the kit is that via HDMI  you plug the device directly into a TV or monitor that you have available.

It’s hard to choose between then in terms of a recommended purchase as the both bring so much to the table – the whole full arcade machine experience is a lot of fun (and a satisfying challenge to build), but the console only version can be a more comfortable experience from connecting it to your TV and playing from the sofa.

There is a definite difference in complexity of build between the two units and, unsurprisingly the console version is more straight forward – so that may be a deciding factor for people when making a purchasing choice. I have to say that the supplied instructions between the two kits differ in quality hugely (more on this later) – but as a summary the instructions with the console are easier to follow.

There is also a fairly large difference in price that will clearly be a factor in any decision making!

Speaking of pricing…

Below I have provided a pricing comparison between the two kits and included options around the two different screen sizes for the full arcade kits.

I have also factored in the additional components that you will need to complete the kit – e.g. the Raspberry Pi, MicroSD and power supply.

The numbers are in GBP and correct as of the 21st June 2020.

Kit form factor Pi Storage Power Supply HDMI Converter Total Cost

Arcade 8′ Raspberry Pi 4 Model B – 4 GB 64GB Micro SD Official USB Pi Supply
£165.00 £54.00 £18.00 £7.50 £244.50
Arcade 10′ Raspberry Pi 4 Model B – 4 GB 64GB Micro SD Official USB Pi Supply
£225.00 £54.00 £18.00 £7.50 £304.50
Console Raspberry Pi 4 Model B – 4 GB 64GB Micro SD Official USB Pi Supply Micro HDMI – HDMI Converter
£76.00 £54.00 £18.00 £7.50 £6.25 £161.75

 

You will notice from the table above that for the console form factor I have included the price for a Micro HDMI to HDMI converter – this is required if you use the Raspberry Pi 4 model B as that board has two micro HDMI display output ports which will not be compatible with most TV’s – this caught me out first time around!

As you can see, the console kit is significantly cheaper than either of the arcades – so if you are on a budget the console is a compelling option. I have also based all of the pricing around the 4GB Pi 4 model B which is in my view the sweet spot – the 2GB may not be able to handle some of the more demanding game ROMS and the 8GB Pi represents the powerhouse of the range which, whilst a lovely board is a little more expensive for power that may never be used.

piCADE – Arcade Build

First Impressions

So the Arcade build was pretty much my “test run” before working with my son. My first impressions were very good and despite some small issues – remain so!

I was very impressed and the layout does everything that it can at those initial stages to fill you with excitement. The outside of the box is colourful and appealing.

All the components presented in beautiful packaging.

Opening the box maintains that whole “wow” factor where you will find the poster / instructions on top of the really well organised sections of kit.

The instructions (which are on the back of the poster) for the Arcade kit are in my own personal view … crap. Confusing is perhaps the best word that I can come up to describe them. As you delve further into the box there is a scrappy bit of paper that contains “errata” – but that doesn’t really help being honest.

Now, normally you might think that such a situation would totally “sink a kit” – but, I have to say that in a perverse kind of way I liked it!

With the written instructions being wrong it forced me to really have to think about how the thing fitted together and there are some really good videos online that bridge the gap in the vagueness of the supplied guidance.

To be fair – the most useful videos were from Pimoroni themselves who have published a 11 part guide. It was amusing to find that in the videos, Matt Taylor got stuck and made mistakes a number of times too – and I admire the fact that they kept the mistakes in, although – I wish they would have flagged them BEFORE they let you do make them as well!

I have to say that Matt is a little more friendly in the videos than in real life. Don’t get me wrong – when I requested some support in regard to shipping he did answer me – but, he didn’t answer me praising the product when it finally arrived. It’s the little things with me – an answer would have been polite.

Lovely boxing and on top you can see the poster / instructions of doom!
Each section of the piCADE is separated out in the box and clearly labelled.

Getting your build freak on

You begin the build of the piCADE arcade by assembling half the machine frame (bottom, right hand side and the top) – there’s a logic to this as you need to be able to get the screen into place. This part of the build is very easy to follow.

I have to say that the finish on the panels (which are in essence black dusted MDF) is quite attractive – and the pieces are well labelled to allow for easy assembly.

Building the case is a process of teasing, you initially get to a point where you can see the bear bones of the case – but there’s a lot to do from here!

As mentioned, the next step is the build the screen. This I found to be a bit of a pain in the arse as there are over seven bits of the screen to assemble and the instructions I found disappear into utter confusion. However, that is where the online videos save the day and between those and the written instructions you will get there. There’s a few tips that I can give you here:

  • Push out the perforated holes in the cardboard surround before you install it within the perspex mount, also check around the finish of the card board to remove any of the dust from the manufacturing process.
  • When removing the protective covering from the perspex – remember to remove any finger prints from the side that will be pressed against the screen. Once you have installed it – it’s a major bastard to have to take it all out again to remove finger prints.
  • The same applies to the screen itself as above, try to ensure that you don’t install it with any marks on it into the perspex enclosure.
  • When working with the screen make sure that the surface that you are working on is clean, and does not have anything on it that could scratch the screen. Replacement screens are not cheap and they make up most of the cost of this kit!
Beautifully positioned on a new dish cloth! This piCADE screen, mount and HDMI display driver board.
Again, still on that dish cloth, the front side of the piCADE screen with the mount finished and the driver board installed.

After the screen is mounted you can fit the left hand panel of the piCADE after which – you are ready to install the remaining parts of the console!

Building the joystick enclosure for me was one of the best parts. It genuinely feels like an Arcade stick from the 90’s and when assembled is totally like the real thing – mainly because it actually is a genuine Arcade part!
Quick tip, don’t get creative with the buttons – in this image I reordered the colours – I can only say – don’t! Stick to the instructions and pay attention to the markings on the underside of the board which explain their function and the order that they should be wired.

The Raspberry Pi is mounted at the bottom of the piCADE  case. The piCADE HAT connects to the 40 pin GPIO interface at the top of the Pi. When mounted the HAT will take over the power management, cycling and the Raspberry Pi will act as the processing, RAM, storage, Graphics as well as linking up to power the display for the unit via one of the USB interfaces.

It is important to probably suggest at this point that during the build where you have the Pi in place to attach the Micro HDMI to HDMI converter to the first HDMI interface on the Pi board – if you wait to later it become exceptionally difficult to do! You can attach it and then tuck it away within the case until it is needed.

With the HAT mounted it was time to wire up the Joystick and buttons to the relevant terminals on the HAT.

With all the wiring done inside the unit it is time to put the finishing touches by linking up the the display’s power source to the Pi and installing the ribbon cable to the display control panel.

 

Observations about the physical build and some tips

  • When you open the piCADE packaging – separate everything out into sections. Pair up each nut and bolt, button, panel, bracket so you can identify what you will need at each step. This means that you will need to read the instructions or, indeed watch the videos a few times before you build it. Trust me – this will help!
  • The power switch is very poorly marked. It is very difficult to work out the polarity of the terminals for the pins and it is not very clear what is the LED light power or the on / off from the supplied instructions and the online videos and on the arcade version the instructions are just shite – whereas on the console version there is a wiring diagram that does help.
  • The power switch is also not great quality (which is a shame as the rest of the unit is very good). I managed to knacker the pins on mine with very little force having been applied – so needed a replacement.

Actually I need to be much stronger in my wording here. The power switches are in serious need of review in both kits. I have purchased both the piCADE Arcade and Console – on BOTH units the supplied power button needed to be replaced as it broke during installation (essentially the pins depress back into the button where it becomes impossible to get the Dupont on).

It wasn’t because how I installed them, I didn’t apply excessive force (if I was heavy handed there are loads of other components that I would have also broke during the builds) and, having worked on directly assembling servers worth over £90,000 during my career I think that I know what I am doing!

If anyone from Pimoroni reads this – seriously the power button supplied is pretty crap!

I ended up replacing them with this: https://thepihut.com/products/16mm-illuminated-pushbutton-white-latching-on-off-switch. Honestly guys – you can put out an otherwise perfect product but skimp on something that is fundamental!

  • With the above being the case, it is really hard to make changes to the wiring after you have completed all of the other button and joystick looms.
  • The wiring looms are great, I recommend splitting them into pairs (e.g. from the bunch of 12; separate them out into x 6 bunches of 2 and then do the wiring – you can then tidy up using cable ties).
  • On the arcade version of the piCADE – there is a button on the HAT located right next to the USB C power connector labelled “Switch” – this is another means to safely close down the piCADE. However, I have noticed that during use if you push the back MDF panel of the case in for any reason accidental or otherwise the unit will shutdown!
    It would make sense to move the mounts for the PI and HAT back into the case by just a few millimetres to stop this from happening.
  • Mounting the perspex panel with the  joystick and buttons to the case is bloody difficult (although not impossible)be prepared to swear a lot – and if you have big fingers; then it really will be a mission.
  • Have some masking tape to hand. This is useful when you need to hold screws in from the bottom and therefore evade the cruelness of gravity! There are some points during the build where using masking tape as a second pair of hands will save a lot of frustration!
  • Make sure that you have a USB keyboard to hand. You WILL need it to complete the piCADE driver installation for RetroPie (more on this later).

It’s built, so now what?

So, by this point I had a fresh piCADE – but needed to install the O/S. This is where things start really simple and then (again) become a little bit of a pain in the arse!

The recommended O/S to run on the piCADE is RetroPie.

RetroPie is a derivative of Raspbian lite and in my view is simply amazing. It’s really easy to install, comes with a number of emulators out of the box (more on these in a later part) and quite literally can be installed and up and running on the piCADE within 10 minutes.

In the next part I will cover off the O/S install as well as my son’s build of the piCADE console as well as an overview of “all things ROM“.

So how do I rate the piCADE then?

Rating Notes
Presentation Excellent The product presentation is beautiful. Attractive and serves a great purpose in helping you understand what goes where. The materials used are of a good quality.
Build Complexity High The build varies from really easy to down right evil. The instructions supplied are awful and the online videos are a life saver – but, again aren’t great – however between the two you can get there!

When you know what you what you are doing with both of the kits then they are quite straight forward – however, when it’s your first build and the instructions are unclear it can be a touch frustrating. I personally found the instructions for the Arcade really need to be supplemented with online videos.

That being said the instructions for the console version were much better. I don’t know if that was because I had the prior experience of of building the arcade – but they did seem easier to follow.

Build Quality Medium There’s lots about the build that is truly amazing – however there are some aspects such as the positioning of the Pi and HAT (in the Arcade version) being too close to the back panel that can result in random shutdowns; and the quality of the power button which brings the overall rating down.
Configuration Complexity Medium
Value for Money Good Despite the negative comments that I have made – the overall value that the varying forms of this kit represents is great. I will say that from experiencing both the Arcade and the console they represent many hours of fun both from a build and product perspective.
Overall 3.9. / 5 Despite some of the design, quality and presentation issues that I found with the product, when it is built and configured it is excellent and represents really good value for money and absolutely days of fun!

It also has to be said if you are looking for something that represents a satisfying challenge that yields something that is a massive amount of quality time with a like minded person – then I would totally recommend the piCADE as well as the Raspberry Pi to everyone, especially if you have a teenager that you want to build something with!

However, I cannot ignore the failings in the instructions and the quality of some of the design and parts which brought my review down from a 5 to a 3.9.

 
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