Buying a PC that plays and streams Melee flawlessly does not have to be expensive. In this guide, I present the cheapest options that support good netplay – with minimal input lag and no slowdowns.
Currently, many PC components are quite expensive – partly due to pandemic shortages and slower production and partly due to overly high market demand. Thus, building a PC from all new parts is more expensive now than in the entire last decade.
If you want to get the most value for your money, your best option is to buy a secondhand office PC. Many offices frequently upgrade their PCs after a few years and sell the old ones for very low prices.
Models that are strong enough for netplay can usually be had for 100-150 USD / EUR. That typically includes the mainboard, CPU, case, power supply unit, RAM and an HDD.
If you were to buy these parts as new with similar performance, you have to expect to pay 60 (mainboard) + 100 (CPU) + 40 (case) +40 (PSU)+ 25 (RAM) + 25 (SSD / HDD), for a total of 290. So you can save quite a lot of money as well as time (and risk) spent assembling the parts by going for a used PC.
Office PC specifications
While there are plenty of suitable decommissioned office PCs out there, not just about any office PC will do. The most important part is the CPU, and here you want to make sure it’s an Intel i5 or i7 of generation 2 (“Sandy Bridge”) or newer.
For example, all of these CPUs are suitable:
i5 2300, i5 2400, i7 2600
i5 3450, i5 3470, i7 3770
i5 4440, i5 4570, i7 4770, i7 4790
Similarly-named models are also okay. There is not a big difference in netplay performance between these generations, so there’s no need to be overly picky by default.
If you intend to use a dedicated GPU anyway, PCs with Xeon CPUs (for example Xeon E3 1231-i3) are also suitable. These CPUs are basically i7s without an integrated GPU, so you will need a GPU to connect any displays to.
Brand name and price range
For an i5 office PC, I’d set a budget of 100-120, while for an i7 120-150 is a good price range. If you live in a remote region with few offers or buy from a reselling company rather than from a private seller, even up to around 180 can be an acceptable price and you’ll still save quite a bit compared to buying all new parts.
Good terms to search for are “Dell Optiplex i5/i7/Xeon” or “HP Compaq i5/i7/Xeon”.
Office PCs come in four form factors: MT (mini tower), DT (desktop), SFF (small form factor) and USFF (ultra small form factor), sorted from largest to smallest.
If you are content with not having a dedicated GPU, any of these will do. If you need to use a GPU, only MT is suitable. USFF doesn’t fit any GPUs at all and DT as well as SFF only support low-profile ones, of which the GT 1030 is the only recent option currently.
In case you want to stream netplay on Windows, I strongly recommend an MT PC that still has a PCI slot available, so that you can record game audio and mix in music yet have minimal audio lag (see later section).
Do I need a GPU?
Not necessarily. Intel integrated graphics are not very powerful, but they are easily strong enough for Melee. The older ones can typically support 1-2x internal resolution while the newer ones can do up to 3x.
Playing at 1x IR looks less sharp than at higher resolutions, but it will still look noticeably better than typical console setups at tournaments.
If you only intend to use the PC for Melee and don’t play modern games, you likely won’t need a GPU.
However, if you intend to stream your gameplay, encoding the video is quite a demanding task. All the CPU options listed above are strong enough to handle x264 (encoding using the CPU only) while playing netplay without slowdowns, however if you also have other programs like a music player and a browser running in the background, there’s a possibility of occasional short slowdowns when those extra programs get more busy.
If you want to stay on the safe side, it’s best to go for hardware encoding using an NVidia card (“NVenc”).
Even the weakest NVidia cards are much stronger than what Melee emulation needs at the most, and their encoding chips are just as good as in the most expensive cards of the same line. So if you only need performance for Melee netplay and encoding, you get the best value with these cards:
GTX 750 / 750 Ti: Best value option as these have very affordable prices on the secondhand market. Expect 50-60 USD / EUR.
GTX 960: Newest card that still supports CRT monitors natively. Used ones typically sell for around 100 USD / EUR.
GT 1030: Low-power card that encodes as well as the 1050. Most of these are low profile and thus can fit in SFF PCs. They are quite affordable as new at around 90.
GTX 1050: Slightly more efficient and better encoding than GTX 960, but doesn’t support CRT monitors natively. Typically around 120 currently (used).
GTX 1650: Newest generation with even better encoding. New ones are usually 180-200.
It’s not a given that a specific GPU of these will fit in any PC case. If you intend to go with a GTX card, preferably go for a smaller model and a larger PC (for example, Dell Optiplex 9010 MT or 7010 MT).
Memory and storage
If you can, get a PC with 8 or even 16 GB RAM. However, if there are none available or if they are much more expensive, 4 GB will also do well enough for Melee and a few programs in the background. In case you like having lots of programs and tabs running at the same time, you should go with at least 8 GB though.
When not going with a dedicated GPU, it’s recommended to go with dual-channel RAM (two physical blocks of the same model and size inserted) for better integrated graphics performance. Expect to pay about 25 for 8 GB / 50 for 16 GB.
For storage I strongly recommend going with an SSD. If you can find a PC that already includes one, great. If not, currently SSDs with 200-250 GB are just around 25 USD / EUR. They make your PC as well as its programs start up much more quickly. In the long run that makes for a much better, less frustrating experience.
If the office PC came with an HDD, installing an SSD is not difficult to do. In case you don’t want to learn how to physically install an SSD, followed by installing Windows / Linux on it, it can be worth spending a bit more for a PC that already has an SSD ready.
If you only use the PC for Melee, even a 40 GB SSD can be sufficient, but if you use it for other things at well, 120 GB should be the very minimum.
Monitors and video connectors
Office PCs that have integrated graphics typically have VGA and DP (DisplayPort). If your monitor does not support DP, adapters from that to HDMI / DVI are cheap (below 5 USD on AliExpress) and work reliably without lag.
If you have the space for it, don’t mind their weight and if they are available in your region, CRT monitors are altogether the best option for Melee netplay. When set to 120hz, they have a very clear, precise picture and display Melee with an accuracy and speed that LCDs still cannot deliver.
While the newest GPUs don’t support VGA natively any longer, HDMI or DP to VGA adapters are very cheap and lagless. As a minor limitation, they don’t support very high refresh rate / resolution combinations, however most CRT monitors can’t go much higher than 640×480 at 120hz anyway, so that’s only the bottleneck with some high-end CRT monitors (for example Sony GDM-F520, Mitsubishi DiamondTron 2070 / LaCie Blue IV, Iiyama Vision Master Pro 514), which can do up to around 1424×1068 at 120hz.
For setting the highest resolution on a given CRT monitor, I have a spreadsheet here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1pWc_RgiYZscP3qEjzJ2-0Rd6Qw2_cRIfxzoeIjOGgy8/edit?usp=sharing
Usage: find out the maximum horizontal scan rate of your monitor, then find a monitor listed in the spreadsheet with the same value (or slightly less). The 120hz resolutions given in the same row are what you’ll use.
For example, if you have a CRT monitor with 85 khz horizontal scan, the best 120hz resolution it can do for Melee is 832×624.
Prices for CRT monitors vary wildly depending on your region. For high-end models (>120 khz) in good condition, 50-100 USD can be acceptable, while low-end models (<90 khz) should not be more than 20 USD or so, even if they are relatively rare where you live.
By now, there are plenty of gaming monitors that support 120hz and some even 240hz and more. Compared to a CRT, at the same refresh rate LCDs have about 4-6 ms more input lag, even if the manufacturer claims “1ms response time”. (Read more about that here if interested: http://planetbanatt.net/articles/lagless.html)
To minimize the effect of LCD lag, I strongly recommend getting an LCD that supports at least 120hz, preferably 240hz.
I personally tested the Asus VG248QE. Even though it was the fastest measured monitor at the time (by prad.de), I found its performance quite disappointing compared to my CRT monitors. Since then, the LCD technology has not changed fundamentally, so I have not found it worthwhile to do further tests on newer models. Thus, I can’t give recommendations for specific models.
So far, we have an estimated 120 USD for the PC, 25 USD for the SSD (if it came without one), 60 USD for a used GTX 750 and around 40 USD for a CRT monitor, for a total of ~245 USD, not including peripherals.
LCD monitors with 120hz+ start at about 150 USD, so if you go with an LCD, setup cost is around 355 USD.
The audio lag problem on Windows
On netplay (and Melee emulation in general), by default you have 50 ms of extra audio input lag. In other words, even if you play offline, relative to your controller inputs, it takes 3 Melee frames longer for an in-game sound to play than on console. That’s easily enough to throw off timings based on Audio reaction. Falco’s side-B is the most prominent case – Falco’s movement starts so quickly that reacting based on visual input is too slow for most attacks and players, so you’d prefer to rely on the sound effect that plays when intending to react with a semi-quick move like Marth’s jab (hitbox starts on frame 4).
Slippi Dolphin defaults to the Cubeb backend, which is the fastest backend that doesn’t break the audio output of all other applications (music player, browser etc.) and still allows you to record your in-game audio in OBS.
This 50 ms delay is caused by the Windows Audio Mixer.
One option to get rid of this delay is by using Linux instead. With Linux’s Pulse Audio, I recorded audio input lag measurements of only 4-17 ms above console, which is much better.
However, Linux is not an option for everybody. On Windows, you can get rid of the 50 ms delay by setting the audio backend to exclusive WASAPI. As that completely skips the Windows Audio Mixer, with Dolphin taking exclusive control of your output device, all other applications that output to the same device are muted.
That’s problematic for if you want to listen to music on the side or stream your gameplay – skipping the mixer also makes it impossible for OBS to pick up your in-game audio.
The two solutions for non-laggy mixed audio
One solution is very cheap but somewhat more messy, while the other one is expensive to very expensive, but much tidier and more powerful with much better sound quality.
Separate audio output devices
The cheap solution is to use two different audio output devices: headphones for in-game audio and speakers for everything else. You set the speakers to be your Windows desktop audio and the headphones to be your Dolphin audio device (using exclusive WASAPI).
If you also want to record your in-game audio (for live streaming), that’s also possible at least when using 3.5mm analog headphones. You buy a 3.5mm splitter, with the male port in your headphones output port on the PC. In the two female ports, you put the headphones and a 3.5mm cable that connects to your line in jack on the back of your PC (blue color, typically). In case your PC doesn’t have a line-in port, you can use the microphone port (typically red) instead.
Once that is done, you can set OBS to pick up in-game audio from the line-in / microphone port.
I strongly recommend using wired headphones for in-game audio. Bluetooth is extremely laggy (usually 200 ms+), and even speakers are measurably slower: if your speakers are 2.5 meters away from your ears, the delay from the speed of sound is 8 ms.
Downsides of this method are possible noise in the in-game audio and reduced flexibility (unable to play music as well as in-game audio on your headphones while on Windows without increasing audio lag by 50 ms).
RME audio cards
RME is a manufacturer of professional audio equipment, mainly high-end sound cards. They are famous in the professional audio and music world for making extremely reliable interface cards that have the very lowest audio latency possible.
Three of their cards are perfect for our needs: the RME HDSP 9632, the RME HDSPe AiO and the RME HDSPe AiO Pro. The former is a PCI card and can usually be bought on Ebay etc. for around 100-150 USD. The HDSPe cards are for PCIe slots as PCI has been phased out for the most part. With 700 USD and more, they are much more expensive than the PCI version, which is why I recommend going with a PC that still has a PCI slot so that you have the option of installing an RME HDSP 9632.
Unlike regular sound cards, RME interfaces don’t just support a couple of inputs and outputs, but allow you to mix them together in hardware with a latency of only 4 ms (and less). (4ms measured by me at buffer size 32¹)
The bundled software RME TotalMix FX in Matrix view allows you to mix the audio streams of any hardware inputs and software playbacks to any hardware outputs.
For us, however, a key necessity is mixing something the other way around: we need to mix our hardware output carrying the in-game audio to a hardware input, so that it can be picked up by OBS.
There are multiple ways to make an audio loop. One way is to physically connect a cable from an output to an input, as I have done in the past. However, RME have recently informed me that they actually have a feature for precisely this use case: Loopback. With this feature, we can use unused extra audio channels for the loop – this way we don’t occupy ports with cable loops that we might need for actual output (speakers, headphones)
Software loopback configuration
In the TotalMix FX software bundled with the card, you can toggle between Mixer view and Matrix view through the Function tab, or by pressing M / X on the keyboard.
In the Mixer view, we need to set one channel to be our loopback channel. You do so by clicking on the tool icon next to a hardware output and enabling loopback.
In the example on the right, I’m using ADAT 7/8 for the loopback. So I also need to set the OBS Mic/Aux device to “RME ADAT 7/8” in the settings and configure Dolphin to use exclusive WASAPI on RME ADAT 7/8.
This way any audio that’s set to play on that output is also sent to the input of the same name.
Audio routing on TotalMix FX Matrix view
The Matrix view can overwhelm at first, but once you grasp the concept it’s a very powerful tool that you can make very quick adjustments with.
In the screenshot below, the hardware output “Main” (analog audio) on the very bottom corresponds to the headphones while SPDIF is the optical output that I’ve connected to my speakers.
Windows audio is routed to ADAT 3/4 (by setting ADAT 3/4 as the default audio playback device in Windows).
The software playback is routed to both the Main and SPDIF outputs. You can toggle output connections by double-clicking on the respective cell.
Same for ADAT 7/8, which is the in-game audio. If I wanted the in-game audio to no longer be output to my speakers, but to remain active on my headphones, I’d simply double-click the highlighted cell on the bottom to instantly mute that connection. The speakers would then continue to play back Windows audio from ADAT 3/4.
Is it worth the money?
Sure, these RME cards are expensive – even 100+ USD for the 9632 PCI card is not exactly cheap. Spending 100-150 or even >700 USD just for less audio lag when the entire PC was just around 250 USD definitely seems steep.
I personally never regretted buying my RME HDSP 9632, and if you at all care about sound quality, I think you’ll also feel happy about the purchase when experiencing perfectly consistent, minimal lag Melee audio that never crackles or stutters.
If you go with a used MT system (almost all if not all of these still have PCI slots, which on current consumer mainboards are very rare) your total setup cost is only about 350-400 USD for PC, CRT monitor and the audio interface. That’s much cheaper than what most people pay for their new Ryzen systems and will likely perform considerably better, altogether.
Also, RME cards retain their value for a very long time. RME keep their drivers updated for many decades, and as these cards are reference cards in the musician industry, there is always demand for them.
The 9632 card was released in 2003 and the drivers are still updated, as an example. Its price only dropped from an initial price of 450€ new to a current ~150 USD used on Ebay over the course of 18 years, and that’s mostly just due to the PCI interface being mostly phased out in favor of PCIe by now.
If you buy an RME HDSPe AiO Pro now, you are likely to be able to resell it without a loss within the next five years or so. For US buyers, this is the cheapest option I was able to find: https://www.rme-shop.com/acatalog/RME—HDSPe-AIO-2113.html
¹Those 4 ms were also using hardware loopback – it’s likely that with digital software loopback, mixing back audio takes less long. Right now that’s only speculation though as I’ve only done empirical measurements for hardware loopback.
Why not just buy a laptop?
Don’t. Seriously, just don’t buy a laptop if you can find the space for a proper desktop somehow. I’ve tested input lag on laptops and it was considerably higher – laptop screens are really sluggish.
There are 120hz+ gaming laptops around, however those are typically 1000 USD or more and their performance will usually be worse than that of a 250 USD PC as outlined here for Melee.
If you need the mobility and don’t mind the price, laptops can perform well enough to emulate Melee, there’s no doubt about that. But compared to value PC builds, they are much, much more expensive relative to performance and due to their worse airflow will develop problems much more quickly.
Why only Intel and NVidia?
Many AMD Ryzen mainboards / CPUs have unresolved problems with USB devices, particularly with Gamecube controller adapters. I’ve heard from many people that they tried to resolve the issue for months without success, which is very frustrating.
Used Intel PCs are so much cheaper and I’ve never heard of any of them having this kind of problem. I’ve used my main PC with an i7-2600K for many years now and netplay has always been flawless.
The newest generation of AMD CPUs (Ryzen 5000) seems to no longer have USB problems, so if you have the budget for them (>300 USD / EUR just for the CPU), those are valid choices too. For Melee itself, they won’t perform better than the cheap option listed here, but if you do heavy side tasks they will definitely have much more resources for that.
When I measured effective input lag on different graphics cards a few years ago, all NVidia cards I tested performed fine (equal to or faster than integrated Intel video) while almost all the AMD cards I tested had considerable input lag regardless of settings. AMD cards at least up to R7 370 generation have a consistent ~10 ms (vsync off) / ~32 ms (vsync on) more input lag than NVidia cards.
The only confirmed exception so far has been a Vega 64 card that Munich smasher Jules kindly measured, which performed in line with NVidia cards. Whether main line AMD cards perform more like the older mainline cards or like the Vega cards is not confirmed yet by empirical testing. Until someone delivers proof of them being as low-lag as NVidia, I recommend sticking with NVidia cards just to be on the safe side.
Which controller adapter should I buy?
Official Nintendo 4-port ones are preferable, and you should have your controller in port 2 with port 1 also connected. For more details, please check out Arte’s excellent thread and guide on the subject that includes instructions and software for overclocking the poll rate to 1000hz: https://twitter.com/SSBM_Arte/status/1313616578571837440
Other problems / help needed
If you need personal consultation in building a PC like described here, maybe from getting stuck at setting up an RME card, or help with checking which used PCs are suitable, you can send me an email. I charge 40€ per hour of consultation and can assist either by email instructions or by remote control (TeamViewer).
Please understand that I can’t offer free support beyond what I’ve written in this document. I’ll only reply to emails concerning this subject that state that they agree with my consultation pricing.
Email address: david.schmid1992(-at-)gmail.com