A couple of years ago I decided I needed to be playing more video games, and picked up the just-released Nintendo DS Lite. I played with it intermittently, finished all of the Sudoku levels on Brain Age, but it wasn’t till I got Anno 1701 (sort of a cross between Sim City and Sid Meier’s Civilization) that I really got hooked on a game. (No, I haven’t yet picked up the recently released actual Sid Meier’s Civilization DS game.) That got me carrying my DS around with me all the time, which in turn got me looking for other interesting things I could do with it.
Which gets you this column about world of DS homebrew games written by hobbyists, outside of the official Nintendo-approved distribution channel. Instead of being released on cartridges (“carts”, in gamer parlance), these are released on the net as downloadable software. To use them, you need some kind of cart-like system with user-accessible storage, generally called a flash cart.
The market has provided, and how. Nintendo has sold over 70 million DS and DS Lite systems, and since flash carts can be used to load pirated commercial games, the market for such devices is very active, especially in South Korea. The demand for flash carts is high enough that the most popular brand has attracted its own market for counterfeit units. Welcome to the brave new global marketplace.
But enough about the pirates; I’m here to talk about legit uses. DS Fanboy reviewed some of the more popular flash carts a few months back, which should help winnow down the bewildering variety of choices. They’ve also got a glossary to help you parse the hobby jargon. I got a CycloDS Evolution with a 2-gig microSD card. Two gigs ought to be more than enough for games, but you might want more storage if you’re going to use your DS as a music or video player (about which see below). On to the games (and other programs):
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Developer Mia is someone to pay attention to. For one thing, she’s created half a dozen or so games, in a field where most home-brewers struggle to create one. Her games are simple, attractive, and addictive. And sometimes frustrating. Everlasting Love is a rhythm-based monochromatic platformer of elegant simplicity, where you make a monkey jump around obstacles while music plays. On-rhythm jumps go farther than off-rhythm, and you need both kinds to get around the obstacles. Touch Me (I’m Famous) is even simpler. The two screens of your DS, held sideways, show a landscape. Enemy soldiers run in from the left side, trying get somewhere off to the right edge. As they cross the touchscreen, you tap them to knock them out of action. As with Everlasting Love, music is playing. Tapping enemies on-rhythm hits them with bombs, and is worth more points. Negative Space is a clever black-and-white puzzle game, in which you try to guide a white blob and a black blob to their respective goals. The black blob can move through white space, but black space is an obstacle to it; the reverse is true for the white blob. You have a limited number of pixels you can use to redraw their environment. Mia has also written two more DS games and a couple of games for the PSP, one of which is Tetris with a realistic physics engine. Oh, and both of the images in this article are cropped screenshots from Mia’s website. Getting screenshots off a DS is tremendously difficult.
Speaking of physics engines, Pocket Physics is a DS port of Crayon Physics. (Actually more feature-filled than the original Crayon Physics, but not as much as Crayon Physics Deluxe looks like it’s going to be.)
SetDS is a DS version of the card game Set. Probably not authorized. It’s in French, but if you’re familiar with the original card game, you ought to be able to figure out the minimal controls. It supports group play over wifi, but I’ve only played the solo version so far. It seems to re-deal out a new field of cards after every set, which disappoints me.
DiceWars DS is a port of the Flash game DiceWars, which is a simple game reminiscent of Risk. You can play it solo against AIs, or multiplayer either on multiple DS units over wifi, or by taking turns with a single DS unit.
Plundr looks intriguing, but it’s still in development. It’s a pirate adventure game which uses wifi to generate islands based on your real-world surroundings. The PC/Mac version has been out for a while, but they’re still working on the DS port.
There are efforts underway to port Doom, Quake, and Quake II over to the DS, some of them requiring RAM expansion packs. I haven’t tried any of them yet. I have tried Still Alive, an adaptation of Valve’s Portal, but wasn’t able to get it to work (though I see a few new versions have come out since then).
Colors! is a painting program with transparency and pressure-sensitive brushes. I’m still struggling to get the hang of it. Rob Beschizza wrote a post about it on BoingBoing Gadgets recently. The interface is cleverly designed so that, with a little practice, you can work all of the painting-related controls with whatever hand you’re using to hold the DS, while you paint with the stylus in your other hand.
Moonshell is the music/video program I mentioned above. It plays a variety of audio and video formats, as well as displaying still images and text files. It’s popular enough to be bundled as the default multimedia app on many high-end flash carts.
In addition to playing music files, you can create music with DS homebrew. I haven’t used any of these programs, but these linked YouTube videos show them in use. Putting these together with some kind of recording device (perhaps an iPod with a recording attachment) could get you a highly portable, if a bit crude, music studio: AXE is a simple touch-based electronic music instrument. DSDrummy is a simulated drum kit. The developer’s web page is in Italian. Protein[DS] is an audio manipulation program for DJ-style scratching and cross-fading.
Of course someone’s ported Linux to the DS. In the future, everything will run Linux (and crash after fifteen minutes). Wikipedia has a list of DS homebrew that covers ebook readers, comic viewers, web browsers, IM clients, voice-over-IP programs, and other useful apps. Including emulators for other, older, game consoles, so you can play your old SNES and Atari games on your DS.