With computer chip famine stretching into the future, it's growing increasingly expensive to source parts for numerous electronics. This is affecting every sector of technology as I've reported previously in MiSTerland updates. The most crucial component, the DE-10 Nano FPGA board from Terasic has seen recent price hikes and will not be coming down as things slowly return to normal in the years to come. This can be discouraging for those that have been watching this project develop and mature but still haven't decided on if they should take the plunge.
Let's take a look at one other option that can still serve the same purpose of preserving classic gaming collections and replicating them for enjoyment for decades to come. If you want to experience it with an analog display, scanned line by line on a similarly vintage CRT, then this project might be more affordable and available.
Raspberry Pi with RGB-Pi
One option that always comes up when discussing FPGA gaming solutions and their cost over traditional software emulation is the Raspberry Pi. "Why not get a Raspberry Pi and be done with it?" "A Raspberry Pi would play more games and is way cheaper." "I already have a Raspberry Pi and it plays games just fine."
These are all common responses and they're all valid! The Raspberry Pi is arguably the most famous and ubiquitous single-board computer that, like some FPGA boards, was designed to help foster computer science education. The Raspberry Pi is a powerful chipset in a very small package and retro gaming has been a common usage for the project for enthusiasts and tinkerers for many years. Software emulation, however, routinely requires far more processing power than the systems they are replicating but the current 3b+ and 4 versions of the Pi tackle pretty much anything up to and including early 3D systems like the PlayStation with ease.
Pairing one of these boards with packages like RetroPie that can be flashed to an SD card makes building a retro gaming system just as easy or complicated as the MiSTer FPGA. It's relatively painless to flash an image to your media, install it to the hardware, and then start adding games from your collection. These setups can get as involved as you like though, with many options and configurations at your disposal. One option that isn't normally available to Raspberry Pi retro systems that MiSTer FPGA enthusiasts like to bring up is the ability to play games on a CRT.
If you're like me and you're still holding on to a heaping lump of plastic, metal, glass, and lead in order to play classic games, one version of Raspberry Pi images designed for retro gaming might just do the trick. RGB-Pi is a fork of the open-source Raspbian OS designed to allow the Raspberry Pi 2B and all Raspberry Pi 3 variants to not only emulate a wide range of classic consoles, arcade boards, and some computer systems, but also output to an analog display at 240p.
The RGB-Pi website can also point you in the direction of purchasing either a SCART to GPIO cable or JAMMA adapter for use on either a CRT TV or arcade monitor. SCART to component adapters can be found for those outside of Europe and Japan and don't have access to TVs using that connector. I recommend RetroTINK's RGB2COMP adapter that performs flawlessly for North American CRTs. For the ultimate DIY-ers and those unafraid to do a little soldering, a DIY pin-out board called the RGB-Pi Plus is available that allows you to implement your setup into a bartop or consolized manner with perfect control mapping in every game, no USB encoders needed.
Unfortunately, the RGB-Pi project does not support the Raspberry Pi 4 board, but hopefully that will be addressed soon. The added power of the RaspPi 4 over the 3b+ would make a very noticeable difference in the performance of some MAME arcade cores and especially anything with polygons involved. The cost benefit over these single-board computers versus current FPGA offerings is perhaps the most desirable aspect.
A Raspberry Pi 3b+ can be purchased from Amazon in the US for just under $50, with RGB-Pi cables and adapters running about $30-50 depending on shipping (they ship from EU). If you already had a SCART capable CRT, you could be up and running classic gaming on it for just around $100. Compared to the $175 of the De-10 Nano FPGA board, and it's already far more cost effective, and we haven't started totaling the analog I/O board and add-on RAM the MiSTer would need to reach parity with an RGB-Pi setup.
If you've been sitting on the fence about a retro gaming setup or eyeing the MiSTer FPGA but haven't been able to stomach the $300-$400 commitment, the RGB-Pi might just be the alternative that could get you started for a much more reasonable cost investment. This article doesn't go into the specifics of hardware versus software emulation, my Cortex post on Analog Frontiers Part 3 is a better place to start on that subject. My closing thought is a reiteration of what I said in that piece. However you choose to play, if you're helping preserve and replicate classic games for yourself or future generations, there's no wrong way as long as you're having fun.