Getting Started With MiSTer FPGA
Over a year ago I started to pick up on the excitement around MiSTer FPGA. For those not familiar with MiSTer, it is an open-source project that attempts to recreate all sorts of older computers, arcade machines, and game consoles using modern hardware. For those who have run emulators, this might sound familiar, but the key difference is the use of the word hardware.
Instead of running software to emulate the original machine, it instead has the MiSTer (pictured above) act just like the original hardware. This allows you to run games, software, and use controllers as you would on that vintage hardware.
This might be an oversimplification, but I think this summary from Wikipedia captures the idea well enough.
In computing, an emulator is hardware or software that enables one computer system to behave like another computer system. An emulator typically enables the host system to run software or use peripheral devices designed for the guest system.
Imagine having an ever-growing inventory of retro consoles and computers all in one compact little machine? Now imagine that machine worked exactly the same as those retro consoles and machines. That is what MiSTer delivers. All the retro fun and nostalgia in a space-saving gadget you can build yourself.
How I finally got into MiSTer
I had been a fan of RetroPie for emulation and own several older consoles and computers, so the idea of getting into something new seemed unnecessary and redundant. But slowly through the enthusiasm of people I follow online, like Rob “Flack” O’Hara and Eric Nelson, I was won over.
It was Eric’s retro wedge computer case that finally pushed me to jump into this amazing hobby. It is the type of inspiring throwback magic that inspires people to leap with both feet into a new pastime I have seen more wedges and other inspiring cases since this, but his Wedge project is what gave me that last push inMiSTer.
I reached out to Eric on Twitter afterward and he walked me through what I would need for a basic setup and directed me to some resources about getting setup.
I cannot overstate this enough. If you see someone who is passionate about something, they will most likely try to help you get into what they are into. It will save you time and also act as a doorway into a larger community.
What you need to get Started with MiSTer
One key bit of terminology you should try and get a grasp on is the use of the word “Cores.” Cores are the systems, computers, and arcade games that are supported on MiSTer. Here is the full list of cores (in the sidebar), this list continues to grow, so check back regularly.
All those things you see there? Those are all the systems that will run on your MiSTermazing.
What you will need to get started (with options)
You can get by with cheaper options around USB and depending on your RAM, display, and storage needs, you can get by with a lot less. Here is a video by Amigos Retro Gaming that discusses building a system on a budget.
Here is my shopping list along with my reasons for why I bought each component. It differs just slightly from the advice that Eric sent me. Mostly because I started to get curious and wanted to try out new stuff.
Terasic DE-10 Nano Kit
This is the key component that you will need for your MiSTer. Prices will vary from site to site but expect to pay between $160 and $200 depending on shipping, supply, and your academic status.
MiSTer FPGA USB Hub
You need a USB Hub to use a keyboard or controllers on your MiSTer, you could go with a cheaper option here, but I like the one that stacks to keep things neat. Assembled, it would also fit well into the case I was interested in using.
MiSTer SD Ram (128 MB)
You do not need SD RAM to get started with MiSTer, but to use ALL of the cores you will need to expand. Here is a list of cores that require SD Ram. If you want to use any of them, you should order some SD RAM.
MiSTer I/O Board (Standard) or MiSTer I/O Board (Digital)
You do not need an I/O Board to get started, the Nano Kit comes with an HDMI output. So you can hook your MiSTer up to any display that takes HDMI. If you want to expand upon that capability, say hook up to a VGA display, then you will want to look at the MiSTer I/O Board (Standard).
I started out without the I/O Board, but decided I liked the option of using an older display for authenticity and also liked the headphone jack option. As it turns out, I hardly use the VGA output now, but its nice to have the option in the future.
Another good thing about the I/O Board is that they come with a fan and heatsink. I have seen some debate about if MiSTers really needs this sort of cooling. Mine has gotten pretty warm, so I was happy to have it.
All of your files for MiSTer, including cores, games, software, etc, need to live on an SD Card. So I would suggest buying or using the largest one that fits into your budget. I went with 512 GB
USB Keyboard and Mouse
You can use any wired or wireless USB keyboard and mouse on your MiSTer. If you plan on using it for retro computing, I suggest you get yourself one that you are comfortable using for long periods of time.
If you are going to be most console or arcade gaming, I would look into something like the Rii i4.
You will want to keep your MiSTer connected to the internet for updates. You can either use the ethernet port on the DE-10 or will need a USB dongle. I ordered two that I needed to return and eventually turned to the ASUS USB-AC53 AC1200. It has a slim profile and worked as advertised.
Every USB controller I have thrown at this system has worked fine. They also have components you can add to your MiSTer to support original controllers and peripherals. It is easy to go a little crazy here, I ordered 3 USB controllers, but find I am using one mostly. I like the Retro-Bit Official Sega Saturn USB Controller Pad.
It is a high-quality build and the responsiveness is very snappy. I prefer the wired controllers, but wireless controllers will also work but expect some latency.
If you want some data about latency and controllers on MiSTer, Porkchop Express put together this amazing spreadsheet testing various controllers. It should help you make a more informed choice when shopping for a controller.
Cases for MiSTer come in all shapes and sizes. They can be utilitarian or an expression of your creativity. I would start the search at dependable dealers like MiSTer Addons or MiSTer FPGA. If you don’t see anything that you like maybe branch out to eBay and Etsy.
Just make sure you match the case size to the specs of your setup. If you have a USB hub, you will want the case to accommodate the ports properly.
If you do not feel like building your own MiSTer, the prices at MiSTer Addons for a complete assembled system is very reasonable and the quality of their builds is high.
Assembly and Setup
Once you have all of your components, you will need to assemble and set up your MiSTer. Fortunately, they have made it very easy to do so. I have two videos that should get you through the process. I watched each video twice before my MiSTer arrived and didn’t even need to reference them to do the build afterward.
As for tools, you will just need a Phillips-head screwdriver.
If video is not your thing, you should reference the official Setup Guide.
The retrobits video I posted above has a great build and setup section. Clicking the video below will jump your right up to the build and configuration parts of video.
And Amigos Retro Gaming has a great short Quick St guide.
Your MiSTer cores will not include any of the Roms you need to play games. You will need to do some searching online to find solid sources, but they are plentiful. I started my search at the Internet Archive and moved to the open web as my needs grew.
Once you get things set up, you will probably want to follow along with the ever-growing community. The official project Wiki is great, but you will also want to follow them on Twitter for immediate updates, join the forum and follow them on Reddit and Discord. You will not only learn new things there but also be able to ask questions and meet the people who are enjoying this great hobby.
I also like to follow various individuals on Twitter who are plugged into what is going on with MiSTer and/or are just enjoyable to follow. I am sure this list will grow over time, but here are a few.
If you have any questions, thoughts, or corrections, feel free to comment below (no registration needed).