The Ideal: Adafruit’s PiTFT displays are razor sharp. Whereas small composite screens on the Raspberry Pi usually require some video scaling (resulting in blurriness), PiTFT uses the GPIO header, digitally controlled pixel-by-pixel for a rock steady image. Though not a lot of pixels, it works great for retro gaming (and the display neatly stacks above the board, no side protuberances for video cables).

The Downside: this GPIO link entirely bypasses the Pi’s video hardware, including the graphics accelerator. Many games and emulators depend on the GPU for performance gains. So the PiTFT has traditionally been limited to just a subset of specially-compiled emulators that can work and run well enough without the GPU.

The Solution: our latest PiTFT drivers, along with a tool called fbcp (framebuffer copy), careful system configuration, and (optionally) the more potent Raspberry Pi 2 board open the doors to many more gaming options. Existing emulator packages (such as RetroPie, with dozens of high-performance emulators and ports) — previously off-limits to the PiTFT — can run quite effectively now!

The Plan

You’ll need:

  • Most any model of Raspberry Pi computer (Model A, B, A+, B+, Pi 2 or Zero).
  • A 320x240 pixel PiTFT display (2.8" resistive, 2.8" capacitive, 2.2" HAT). For gaming we won’t be using the touchscreen features, but still need to distinguish among the various models. The 3.5" PiTFT (480x320) can work but is NOT recommended for this project — more pixels means slower refresh.
  • A 4GB or larger microSD card (or a full-size SD card for “classic” Model A or B).
  • An HDMI monitor and USB keyboard are used temporarily during installation and setup.

Emulators require game ROM files. These are not included. Native, non-emulated ports of Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake and Quake 3 are available (explained on next page) that don’t require additional ROM files.

Steps will include:

  1. Download and setup RetroPie using the temporary HDMI monitor.
  2. Download and setup additional Adafruit software “on top of” RetroPie.
  3. Configuration to redirect game output to the PiTFT screen; HDMI screen is then no longer needed.

Though we focus on RetroPie, some of these steps should be applicable to other software.

This is not a guide for first-timers. Some prior familiarity with Raspberry Pi (SD card prep, network configuration, etc.) is assumed.

Current Cupcade or PiGRRL users…

If you’d like to try this, we suggest using a separate SD card…don’t upset your working Cupcade installation. Set your original card aside for safekeeping! This guide is still experimental. If it all works out well, we’d like to make this our “official” method for gaming with the PiTFT, but not yet…it might not work for everyone, configuration may be troublesome, or the performance might not feel as snappy on some systems.

Any MAME ROMs you’re currently using with Cupcade or PiGRRL might not work with RetroPie — they’re based on different versions of MAME, and the ROM file format they used changed along the way. You may need to convert or acquire new ones.

This guide was first published on Mar 12, 2015. It was last updated on Mar 08, 2024.

This page (Overview) was last updated on Mar 08, 2024.

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