How to Build MiSTer, the Ultimate Retro Game Box

From the humble RetroPie setup to the pricey Analogue Pocket, retro game boxes are big business these days. The current line-up of game 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 old quality — especially compared to standalone emulators. As such, if you’re looking to revisit the past on your TV, creating a custom retro box is probably the right move.

If you care about this sort of thing, you’re probably familiar with RetroPie, the Raspberry Pi-powered software that allows you to play generations of old games on a cheap build. In fact, even the most popular Pi-based builds will likely run you in the $100 neighborhood, making it a great option for gamers on a budget. However, if you’re looking to build a top-notch machine – and don’t mind spending a little money on it – then you should consider assembling a MiSTer FPGA. Although it is a powerful machine, even the least technically inclined players can put it together.

The magic of MiSTer

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 small bugs and errors that experts can detect, MiSTer uses FPGA technology (Programmable Gate Arrays) to mimic the controller at the level of each cycle. That makes it essentially identical to the real console—it’s as if your mom never sold a SNES to this big retailer for $25.

As a DIY, each MiSTer design looks a little different. Cases like this can be found on Etsy and other retailers.

Thus, if you’re the kind of hard-core fundamentalist who rejects emulators in favor of original hardware, MiSTer is probably a good investment. However, it is an investment, with supply chain problems causing the cost of construction to rise to about $400. And that doesn’t include fancy extras you might want to throw in, like a stylish bag. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if that’s a reasonable price for nostalgia, or perhaps curiosity. For me, it definitely was.

Before embarking on the MiSTer journey, it is important to note that the main board on which the device is based, the DE10-Nano, is often recently ordered or completely out of stock. As such, if you’re unlucky, you may have to wait weeks (or even months) for the plate to arrive. Most of the other components can be found in specialty storefronts like MiSTer Add-Ons without much hassle, but you should make sure everything is in stock before ordering.

The two main parts to build the base MiSTer are the DE10-Nano and the additional SDRAM board. Although MiSTer can work without the additional RAM, it is necessary for the many “cores” (controllers) you want to run, so we highly recommend using it. Personally, I would suggest buying the DE10-Nano directly from the manufacturer Terasic, as they tend to offer the largest volume of stock at the best price. You can purchase an additional SDRAM board from storefronts such as MiSTer Add-Ons, as we did.

Setting up MiSTer requires a small pile of tech items that you may have lying around your house, especially if you are 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 32GB or even 64GB for game space.

Since the DE10-Nano was not designed as a primary gaming device, it only has one micro-USB slot. As such, you will need a powered USB hub and a micro-USB-to-USB adapter to connect it. Trust us, it’s really annoying having to rely on one small slot for all your inputs, so do yourself a favor and buy these items from Amazon before you order the board itself.

The small pile of tech items you need to build a MiSTer might seem intimidating, but you likely have most of them already in place.
The small pile of tech items you need to build a MiSTer might seem intimidating, but you likely have most of them already in place.

There are a number of optional add-ons that may enhance your MiSTer build, depending on your preferences and goals. For example, many MiSTer users recommend getting a heatsink and a fan to cool the device. While the heatsink is easy to set up—just peel and attach the sticky tip—the fan is a little trickier, and ultimately unnecessary if you plan to run your machine in a well-ventilated area. Additionally, if you plan to use the MiSTer with a CRT TV, you will need a separate add-on to connect the correct inputs.

put everything together

The actual work of assembling MiSTer is very simple. All you have to do is unscrew the DE10-Nano’s top plate, stick the SDRAM into the top slot (the power port should be facing your left), then swap the default 8GB microSD card with a larger version. You need to connect the HDMI cable, USB keyboard and USB WiFi adapter. If you choose a heatsink, just stick it on the chip itself, and you’re good to go.

Before running MiSTer, you must install Mr. Fusion on an SD card using disk imaging software such as Rufus. This is basically the brains of MiSTer. Once you turn it on, you will see the Mr. screen. Black Fusion appears on the TV, where it will be installed automatically.

After installing Mr. Fusion, you will need to turn on the ‘Wi-Fi’ and ‘Update’ scripts to get the MiSTer up and running. To do this, press Escape on the USB keyboard, go to Scripts, and keep selecting Yes. In the end, you should be able to set up the internet via WiFi adapter or Ethernet cable. From there, you simply need to connect and set up your USB controller through the settings, which is a fairly self-explanatory process.

Getting the games on your MiSTer is similarly straightforward. As usual, the only legal way to play ROM games on a device like MiSTer is to dump the physical games you own using certain tools developed for the process. If you already have a set, we recommend simply placing the files on your MiSTer’s microSD card. You can also use an SFTP client like FileZilla to log into your MiSTer remotely, but this is a bit more complicated. You will need your MiSTer IP address to do this – the username is root and the password is “1.” Leave the port at default, or enter “22”. Once you’re in, you can simply drag and drop files, and presto, you’re done. If you’re having trouble with this, we recommend James Mackenzie’s guide.

Overall, I highly recommend getting a controller with a suitable D-pad for your MiSTer, as most of the games you’ll be playing on have been designed with this input in mind. 8BitDo consoles tend to offer good D-pads for a fair price. Once you set up MiSTer, it is possible that you will notice input lag. If so, check this console latency repository to determine if you’re using a particularly “slow” board. Also, make sure your TV is set to Game Mode if it has one, as that can make a big difference. And that’s really all it takes to set up a retro game box that can run everything as well as a real console.

The products discussed here were independently selected by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

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