Getting into DS homebrew

Enjoy a drop of the good stuff, by stepping aside from the traditional games market and heading into the underground

Getting into DS homebrew

Homebrew's been popular with Pocket Gamer writers ever since Simon Parkin snuck five gallons of his special recipe stout into the 2006 summer company barbecue.

It was a wild evening, and one we've been excited about recreating on the DS ever since we got hold of some flashcarts.

Oops! While our sobriety will attest to it not meaning quite what we thought, DS Homebrew is nevertheless an exciting, potent concept – with the right kit, fans at home can now make code that runs on the DS. Including your DS, if you buy the hardware.

The implications are massive. Linux, emulators, mp3 players: the same community who made all those available on PCs are focussing on your console. Games are being made without time or licensing constraints. Obscure Japanese role-playing games on the Game Boy have been hacked and translated.

In fact, the giddy feeling's actually not too dissimilar to the one we had that July evening. And neither is the headache. If an infinite number of monkeys can reproduce the works of Shakespeare, then that leaves a lot of rubbish to wade through. It's no different with homebrew.

But we're tough. We're up to the challenge. Stick with us while we begin to scratch the surface.

Nintendo, like all the major console manufacturers, does its best to make sure you can only run the games it approves (and is renumerated for) on your DS. This is done by putting a digital signature into licensed code, which your console then looks for before booting any software. No signature and the machine won't boot.

DS hackers have got round this with various techniques, the most popular of which (though not the easiest to use) is called FlashMe, which enables you to overwrite the machine's firmware with code created by hackers.

With this alternative firmware, you can get rid of the health and safety screen, fade the backlight and run unsigned code – well done, Neo: you made it.

Alternatively, read our How To Homebrew for an alternative, arguably safer step-by-step method on getting going with homebrew. And then come back.

Note, the homebrew scene can sometimes overlap with software piracy. It's illegal in most countries, for example, to download and play full copies of full-price DS games that have been cracked and distributed on the internet. Not buying games also deprives hard-working games developers (erm, and publisher's shareholders) of an income, which hardly encourages them to make more games.

So, what sort of games can you enjoy once you're tanked up and ready to receive them?

Point and tap adventures
Fans of Phoenix Wright will already appreciate the joy interactive picturebooks can bring to your touch screen. Point-and-click adventures – the games that created the adventure genre – can now be played on the way to work with the DS Homebrew port of SCUMMVM.

DS Homebrew Monkey Island Monkey Island on your DS. For peanuts.

These games look gorgeous on the console's small screen, the pixelated images shrunk down enough to make hand-drawn games such as Day Of The Tentacle appear in a sort of pseudo hi-resolution.

Therein, however, lies a big problem: it can be nearly impossible to see some of the smaller items you come across required to make progress in the story, and even harder to select them.

It is not quite a game breaking problem, but it does add even more frustration to a genre that many will argue is frustrating enough already. Our advice is to throw your hardcore credentials out the window and keep a FAQ guide with you at all times, just in case.

New games
It's incredibly impressive the amount of work people have put in out of love alone. But don't think that necessarily means making excuses for poor quality: a number of these games rival professional releases. Quality, professional titles.

Indeed, a tour of the better DS homebrew games would incorporate everything from role-playing games to music games.

Amplituds is based on Harmonix's wonderful Amplitude, a PlayStation 2 game. You manouver a ship down a long musical highway, tapping out rhythms with your controls. The current DS version includes music from Mario, which is a classic example of homebrew overcoming (well, ignoring) licensing issues to breathe new life into old ideas.

Explosive Gas is essentially multiplayer Bomberman, stripped of any story mode and distributed for free. Read the last few paragraphs of our Bomberman DS review to get an idea of how much fun that is.

Worth its weight in gold coins: Tales of Dagur. Tales of Dagur is an incredibly professional-feeling RPG. It doesn't really add anything new to the genre, but should be saluted as an example of what's possible from the scene, and as an inspiration to those who think it'd be impossible to produce a full, dense game on next to no budget.

Finally, our favourite of the homebrew DS games, Touch Me I'm Famous. Using Mario's sprites and Dr Kawashima's tilt, you tap enemies according to a beat in order to attack them with bombs. It's a wonderful, creative game, welding together a host of old ideas in order to create something completely fresh. You should rush to download it.

It's pronounced linnuks
The scene is growing stronger and stronger all the time. We've only looked at games for this primer, but you should also be aware of the vast array of applications that are being made available: media players, PDAs, weather forecasters and MSN Messenger to name a few, along with the ubiquitous Linux and its free internet browser.


Stand aside, PSP: Moonshell is a cracking homebrew media player for DS

Anything that isn't perfect will be updated, anything not yet planned can be made possible. And all of it available for free.

It's a massive, overwhelming concept, but try not to be intimidated. Your inquisitiveness will be repaid many, many times over. Below we've listed some fabulous if rather hardcore DS homebrew sites, or else check out the Wikipedia DS homebrew entry and come back to Pocket Gamer for more on DS and PSP homebrew in the coming weeks.

A few DS homebrew resources DS homebrew articles on Pocket Gamer
DS Emulation
gbadev forum
NDS Homebrew
ScummVM DS
Drunken Coders