Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nintendo DS: More powerful than you realized, with this chip:

You might have heard of the wonders of the modchip. A chip that is usually sautered onto a game console's mainboard, in order to add functionality - typically, to play imports. Sony's Playstation systems are only designed to play games made for and released in the same region where it was purchased - North America, Europe, Japan, etc. Oh, a North American Playstation 3 can handle a Japanese Playstation 3 game, that's not a problem. It's just that Sony wants to control prices and demand. It's exactly the same with DVDs, and the Xbox. Nintendo always had a simpler solution. Make the Famicom and Nintendo cartridges different shapes. You simply can't shove one in the other, it won't fit, the contacts won't reach. The modchip has always offered fringe benefits as well as playing imports. The first Playstation did not have a DVD drive and thus could not be made to play DVDs, but with a modchip, it could play Video CDs, a format not released in North America, but popular worldwide, and easily convertible from DVD with little loss in quality. (As far as quality goes, DVD > VCD > VHS.) The Playstation 2, modded, could play movies from other countries, and had less problems with burned CDs and DVDs. The Xbox could host a Linux operating environment or all kinds of applications, including all the emulators, a media center, and an application to copy DVDs and Xbox games to the hard drive. Lastly the modchips let you play downloaded or copied games, as the protection which prevents you from playing foreign games also makes sure the disc is authentic.

But I'm something of an idealist. While I don't have a direct problem with people playing downloaded or copied games, I'd like to think that the purpose of a modchip is not to get one over on the Man, not to get things without paying for them, but merely to expand the power of your hardware.

For the longest time, I had no idea there was a modchip available for the Nintendo DS. I had no idea that there was a modchip you didn't have to sauter in or otherwise alter your hardware. The DS' modchip isn't a modchip, per se. It's what's termed a Flashcart. It's a cartridge sharing the exact same form factor of a commerical game, so it plugs in the same way. But it has a slot in the back for a memory card. Put music on the card, the DS becomes an Mp3 player. Put text on the card, it becomes an eBook reader. Put videos on the card, it becomes a portable media player. Put all those and some homebrew (homemade) applications up there, and you basically have a super PDA.

Oddly enough, I did not learn about the Flashcart from the Internet communities I post on. People are generally tight-lipped about this thing online, then much more so than now. Anyways, I'm at work and this guy comes in, takes out a Nintendo DS, and selects what appears to be a song from a long list. I stop him and ask him how he got music to play on his DS, that I thought PSP was the only handheld that could do that stuff. He happily stops, shuts it off, and introduces me to the M3 Simply, shows me how it works, starts it back up and shows off a couple features, then goes about his business. I didn't even have a DS at that point, but had wanted one for a while.

So I go asking about it on GameFAQs - I mean, where else are you going to talk about games online? I come back the next day, and the topic's deleted, gone - and I have a moderation notice. It cites the TOS, citing illegal activities. I challenge the moderation, of course. I say I wasn't asking for anything illegal, just more information on an accessory. The moderation is upheld, the lead mod leaves a note saying they don't even allow discussion of flashcart technology. They do now, though, so I guess when it was newer they were trying to figure out their stance on it.

Finally, come to a point where we have a couple extra bucks, and I ask Jen - sure enough, I get my DS. Onyx Black, of course, was the only correct choice for color (versus white or pink). Picked out a few games, too. The newest Castlevania, the New Super Mario Bros, a stupid puzzle game, and Spider-Man 2. I found a place that would sell the R4 through for $40, but money got tight and Jen basically told me to save my change (to turn in at Coinstar for an gift code, no coin counting fee). So I saved my coins. Shamelessly cheated, too. Changed a buck or two for quarters here and there, help the "R4 Fund" grow faster. When I got around $35, Jen just let me do that. So I change the coins for the code, go back to Amazon - seems there's a shortage with the R4s (still is, matter of fact) so the price is now $55. Well, our code was good only at Amazon, so that's who we bought it through. Couple weeks later it arrives. Can't complain though, being as it was shipped from Hong Kong! Let's see what we got...

As always, click to make these bigger. We got the box it came in, we got a clamshell case to keep it in, in the rare event something else is in the DS, we got the actual R4 on the right, Castlevania on the left (facedown), the memory card reader above the R4, and the memory card to its right. The R4 does not come with a memory card, but you can find bundles that include them. The R4 exclusively uses microSD memory (which is also known as Transflash - they're the same thing) and the one I have, I bought for my phone. However, any multimedia function my phone can do, my DS can do better, with the help of the R4, but we'll get to that. The card reader lets me mount the memory card as a drive in Windows, so I can copy files right to and from it. Now, let's put this together, shall we?

The memory card goes in the R4, contacts up (face down), which is real back asswards if you ask me, but hey, that's how it works. It won't fit right side up. And then you slide the R4 into the DS, exactly the same way as you would any DS game. (No, my serial isn't rubbed off in the right picture, I did that to the picture to remove personally identifiable information from the image - it's just something I do. Same thing with license plates, things like that.) OK, let's turn it on. Normally when you turn a DS on, it displays a health warning, which you bypass by touching the touch screen (that's the bottom one - if you didn't know by now, a Nintendo DS has two screens, one above the other), and then it has its own menu. With an R4 in there, it's a little different:

Please be advised this uber-sexy theme 1) looks MUCH better in person, and 2) doesn't come with the R4. There are sites that have more that you can get. I have about 5 custom themes. We have three buttons on the touch screen. Games, Multimedia, and Slot-2. Games lets us run, well games, yeah, but really any program. While programs on your PC use EXE, programs on a DS use NDS as the extension. Commercial (read: illegal to own) ROMs use NDS, but so do homebrew applications, so NDS files are not bad. Multimedia opens a program called Moonshell which can view images, read text files, play music, and watch videos. I know I should have some pics on my DS, but I don't. Coming soon. And Slot-2 boots a Slot-2 Flashcart. Or, I guess, a Game Boy Advance game plugged in down there. The DS can (natively, without the R4) run those too, just not the old Game Boy or GB Color games. Let's go to Multimedia first.

Here the DS is displaying a text file. This is just a joke file, a bunch of crazy facts about animals. Stuff like this is nice to have on the go, real conversation starters, I guess. Well, they make me smile. Up and down move up and down one line. Left and right move up and down one page. The left trigger button (see the picture of the R4 in the DS to get a look at the triggers) I think loads a bookmark and the right one saves - that or it's the other way around. Not necessary really, because if you quit out, it remembers where you were, even if you turn the DS off or open other text files. Great if you want to read a book on the DS, maybe some long instructions, a long letter you were emailed, something like that. If you're relgious, you can put your faith's holy texts up there for quick access.

Now the DS is no iPod, even with an R4, but hey, it gets the job done. Basic start, stop, volume changing, skip ahead or back, and fast play features. I don't think it really has playlists, but you can put music in subdirectories, so that's kind of a playlist. Here we're playing some Nightwish, one of my favorite bands. If you zoom in, you can see some other music that I deem worthy to carry around despite limited space. Yes, most of it is Nightwish. Check them out, you might see some of what I do in them...

If you haven't seen the little girl who can kick the monster's ass, you're missing out on the funniest YouTube has to offer. Everyone I show this video to loves this little brat, and she always makes me smile. "He would come out of the movie... he would come out and kick my ass... And I can kick HIS ass!" I also have a video clip from the movie "Chasing Amy" where a black guy goes on about Star Wars being racist. It's pure gold.

One of the more popular features of the R4 is that it lets the DS owner play games from other systems. Nintendo works great, such as this title here, "Marble Madness". A classic, my father owned it on the Amiga computer. Never could get past the 6th or 7th level, wonder how many it actually has? One thing I've never seen another NES emulator do (save for the one on my brother's Xbox, it did it too) is you can rewind your game. You make a mistake, you hold the left trigger to rewind to a safe point and play on from there! Reportedly Game Boy and GB Color games emulate nicely, and arcade games. It has problems with Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, but some games can be played.

Take a quick step back, we'll check out the homebrew application DS Organize. Basically a PDA program, you can keep appointments in the calendar, maintain a contact list (just not call them, it's not a phone), do stuff like that. It has a basic paint program, but I can't get much use out of it. What I really dig is the text editor. On-screen keyboard on the touch screen, the output above. Great for blogging on the go - I've even done one so far a couple days back.

What I didn't and won't cover about the R4 is its ability to play commercial games. Such technology exists to copy commercial games, and if you know where to look, you can download them fairly easily. Playing them is just as easy as putting them on the card and loading them up under Games. But that's not something I can talk about. It's awful conveneient to assume freedom of speech is bulletproof, but it isn't. Talking about how to do this anonymously is one thing, but to put one's name on it - one must stick to the legal uses of the technology.

As you can imagine, this is a pretty controversial little device. Of course it draws fire from game publishers, worried that people who could afford to buy their games will instead download them and run them on the R4 or the M3 or devices like them. It's nothing to worry about though, as the percentage of DS users who use a flashcart is very low - easily below 5%. And those who have a flashcart and do something illegal with it - not too many. Maybe most of the flashcart users, but not all, not nearly all. There are a lot of people who use the R4 and the DS for multimedia, for reading books on the go, and homebrew applications. They're not a majority, but they're out there. If I had to guess, I would say 2% or less of DS owners pirate games, and even then, I think that figure includes those who pirate all their games and those who pirate only a few games, and still buy games. So Nintendo and other gaming publishers are still making money, make no mistake. They are getting paid for their efforts, many times over - and if a game fails, flashcarts can hardly be to blame - like with music, it's the popular games that get pirated the most. I'm sure the most downloaded game is a Mario game, or at least one of the top 10 sellers. Even obscure games are bought far more often than they are downloaded (unless they're homebrew, but those are free anyway).

It also draws some fire from PSP (Portable Playstation) owners. When they were both new, PSP owners really didn't take the DS too seriously. It was just another Game Boy, and the PSP was the elite handheld. It was the first (and so far only, as far as I know) handheld to use optical discs, and as such it has amazing graphics. It also has a built in memory card reader, and the latest PSP, the Slim, can be hooked up to a TV. The PSP is really a cool thing to have - if you like Sony's gaming. I don't really care for it myself. Then there's Custom Firmware - you can swap out the firmware in the PSP to be able to play downloaded games and run custom applications. Despite not having the touch screen, it's supposed to be pretty good. But then the DS comes along with the R4, and all of a sudden us Nintendorks can do basically the same thing (though not as good looking) as a PSP, but for much less. Naturally they're furious. I'm not sure what, but the DS with the R4 must have something besides a lower price that just rubs them the wrong way. Tell a PSP owner you have a DS, they laugh. Tell them you also have an R4, they cry - or they get mad about it. Well, not all of them... Most DS and PSP owners get along, it's just a few who make it their own little war.

So is this thing legal or not? That's the million dollar question for some, but it's fairly easy. The R4 is not illegal. It's not illegal unless you run copyrighted media on it that you do not have the rights to. Technically, if you have 5 games, you can aquire the ROMs to those games and put them on your R4. Nintendo doesn't approve, the gaming companies don't approve, but they don't write the laws. They have to abide by them same as anybody. They can challenge them, but so far Fair Use means you can port stuff around. It's the same with music. You have a CD, you can put that music on an Mp3 player, your computer, you can make a copy to play in the car (since car CD players wear out discs fast). You have a movie, you can put it on your DS - the only problem now is, it's illegal to bypass copy protection. That's the DMCA - Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The Big Brother of the Internet that nobody who works for a living cares much for. The entertainment companies' one big victory over the little guy. DVDs being copy protected, you technically can't bypass that. But you get yourself a copy somehow, technically it's fair use. So the two contradict one another, but not really. Once you have the copy, you're in the clear. If you get caught bypassing the copy protection, you're in violation of the DMCA.

A lot of people have something to say about this and similar cases. Nintendo of course doesn't want you sticking anything in their console they didn't get a kickback from. Nintendo makes no money from R4 sales, so they're gonna tell you you can't do it. However they have no legal right to enforce that, and as it stands, if you send your DS in for repairs but take the R4 out, they can't tell it was in there. The DS doesn't keep a log, as it were. Game publishers tell you that you don't need a copy, but just see if they will replace yours if it becomes damaged. (Hint: They won't.) That's what fair use was created for. They can preach, but they can't enforce. To this date nobody has been convicted of copyright violation in relation to using a flashcart in a Nintendo DS (or custom firmware in a PSP). Naturally, if you have ROMs on your flashcart and you go to sell it, you need to remove them (and all copyrighted works) or you have distributed copyrighted works, a big no-no they can get you for. A guy got busted selling modded Xboxes with dozens of games on them. That is something else entirely.

All that said, if you do get an R4 or M3, don't be an idiot. Don't go in EB Games or Gamestop or whatever it's called and say "Hey look what my DS can do, I have a dozen games on it!" Don't worry about playing music on it in public, but if you have commercial games on it, be careful who you show them to. I don't think too many people are going to report you (why bother? nothing in it for them) but still. On the other hand, don't be afraid to show off the cool things it can do. Play a video on it for someone. Play some music. Read a joke. Get someone's phone number and write it down in your DS. Take notes with it. Because that's what it's really about, making the most of your portable device.


Anonymous said...

hey, i've just read your post. i just want to get myself a DS and i find your article enlightening, and it is well-written peace. so yeah i know what R4 or M3 actually is.

David Wang said...

Aww, I came here from a google search result...I wanted to find out how to bypass the health/safety warning when you turn on the DS! Nice article though, I have an R4DS and use it pretty much every day...

Nathan Jolly said...

To bypass the health and safety warning, you need to flash your DS, but flashing isn't necessary for anything else. It used to be you needed to flash the DS from a GBA flashcart in order to make Slot-1 devices work (if I read it right) but now it's a thing of the past. But that is one thing flashing can do for you. My advice is to not worry about the health and safety screen. At least, with an R4, you don't have to touch the screen to continue, as it loads the menu automatically. For more information on flashing, I must refer you to GBATEMP.NET, the home of GBA/DS modding, as I've posted all that I know about flashing.