You've hacked your Nintendo DS for easy backups and single-cartridge playback. Now it's time to install some awesome homebrew software, capable of playing back music and video, organising to-dos, playing emulated and homebrew games and a lot more.
Why put homebrew on the Nintendo DS? It's portable, has dual screens including a touchscreen, and it's as powerful as any previous-generation smartphone or PDA. If you already have a DS, homebrewing is a great way to get more out of your device than just fun and portable game play.
What do you need to dabble in DS homebrew? If you followed our guide to easy Nintendo DS backups, you've already got everything you need for Nintendo DS homebrew: a DS unit, a flash cart, a microSD card and a card reader. If you don't have those things, make sure to check out our previous guide and refer to the "Why Back Up And What You'll Need" section. Even if you're not interested in backing up your games and just want to run homebrew, read over the first half of the backup guide and you'll be up to speed on how flash carts work and which one you should consider buying.
A small note before we continue further. The point of this guide is to highlight great homebrew applications that can make your Nintendo DS do more than simply play games. The point of DS homebrew is to expand the utility of your Nintendo DS, not to replace other bigger, more expensive and more capable devices.
Installing Homebrew Applications
Installing homebrew applications is easy-peasy. Unless the readme file or the website for the homebrew app in question provides specific instructions on how folders should be organised and arranged, you can just dump it. As long as all the files that came in the package you downloaded stay together in the /whatever-homebrew-app/ folder, you shouldn't have any issues. Make sure to read the readme.txt, if included, to double check!
For being such a tiny and single-purpose device the Nintendo DS has a surprisingly diverse homebrew community. DS homebrewers love pushing the limits of the device and coming up with new ways to squeeze a little extra life out of it. Though you may need to do some heavy searching in Google you can find NDS applications for nearly any task you can think of — though many of the homebrew apps are highly experimental. We've collected the following homebrew applications to showcase their utility, novelty or both.
Colors!: One of the most polished homebrew applications for the DS is Colors! a homebrew application that has been ported to nearly every portable device around. The video above is a demonstration of the sketchbook capabilities of Colors! Not only can you create images in Colors! but you can replay the entire process as a video. If you're only going to play around with one homebrew application on the DS this is a great one to show off how great homebrew can be.
MoonShell: MoonShell is a fantastic multimedia player for the DS. It supports MP3, WMA, OGG, MIDI and low-bit rate ACC among other audio formats, JPG, BMP, PNG and GIF image files and video files. Unfortunately you can't just plop your AVI files on a microSD card and be done with it, you'll need to convert any movie files you want to watch on your DS into the native DPG format it supports. MoonShell includes a basic converter, DPGenc, or you can download third-party tools like BatchDPG. Since the official MoonShell page is in Japanese, you'll probably want to read up on it at Wikipedia and DS-Extra.
DSOrganize: DSOrganize is an ambitious DS-based organiser and collection of tools. It has a web browser, file browser, address book, to-do list, notepad, calculator, a database of homebrew applications — a perpetual work in progress — and an image/audio player that supports popular formats like JPG, PNG, MP3, WAV and more. If Colors! is the most polished homebrew application out there then DSOrganize is by far the most feature packed.
Instant Messaging and Social Networking: You'll find no shortage of homebrew tools for connecting to social networks and sending instant messages. The following list will take you to the instruction manuals for the applications courtesy of the homebrew site DS-Extra, when available.
- DSTwitter - If tiny Twitter updates aren't a perfect match for the little DS, what is?
- Fb4nds - Simple Facebook browsing and updates on the DS.
- Beup Live - Access MSN Messenger on your DS.
- CIIRC - Old school IRC chat on your DS.
- JabberDS - Chat using Jabber-based server, like Gchat.
DS Weather Report: DS Weather Report is a little weather reporting application for the DS that downloads weather data via Wi-Fi. It supports over 40,000 locations worldwide and gives a current detailed report — including sunrise and sunset times — and an overview of the next five days.
DSWiki: What homebrew community worth its salt would skip over porting the entire Wikipedia library to their device? DSWiki requires a microSD card with 4GB free to store the copy of Wikipedia, but once you've got it on there you can search, bookmark and browse links and sub-pages just like you can from your computer.
Remote Touch: Remote Touch allows you to control your PC from your NDS. As the video above demonstrates it isn't a remote VNC tool, it's more like the popular phone-as-touchpad applications for iOS and Android phones. You can control your interface, media players and even games.
AirScan: AirScan is a small homebrew app that turns your NDS into a Wi-Fi sniffer. Don't expect a pretty GUI like many phone-based sniffers have, but do expect lots of great information like what type of security the access point has, latency and other useful tidbits.
Building emulators for the Nintendo DS, already a gaming system with a comfy directional pad and buttons built in, was a no brainer. You can find emulation apps for most older consoles and even some novel — but not very practical — emulators for old computer systems like the MacOS.
Although we're sure you'll have fun with all the emulators available, we sorted the following list in order of how smoothly the emulators loaded on our test system — in fairness, however, they all worked remarkably well. As with any kind of emulation you should expect odd quirks like strange sounding background music or sprites that layer or fill in oddly.
- NesDS: If you're craving some old-school Mario Brothers action, NesDS turns your Nintendo DS into 1980s era NES.
- Lameboy: Why limit yourself to the stable of current generation portable Nintendo games? Lameboy emulates the Gameboy and Gameboy colour on your NDS so you can finally catch all those Pokemon.
- SNEmulDS: SNES emulation on the NDS isn't perfect but it's pretty darn good. Expect occasional issues like weird music playback and background textures that don't fill in all the way.
- jEnesisDS: Playing Sega Genesis games on your Nintendo portable? It might have been sacrilege back in the day but things have mellowed out between the two rivals lately.
- NeoDS: No way you could have ever afforded a Neo Geo system in its prime? Now's your chance to take it for a spin.
If you'd prefer to skip over the legal murkiness of playing emulated games on your Nintendo DS you'll find no shortage of great homebrew games. The NDS homebrew gaming community is actually more bustling than the application community, a natural extension of the NDS's primary function as a gaming platform. We hardly have the room to highlight all the great homebrew games out there but we've rounded up a few of our favourites to share with you.
- QuakeDS: A well done port — seen in the screenshot above — of Quake.
- MegaETK-TD: Fun Mega Man clone for the DS.
- 15th Floor:A mystery game in the vein of Myst and Hotel Dusk. Compelling gameplay, hard to believe it's homebrew.
- Jelly Blocks: Remake of popular flash games like Bejewled and other touch-the-colours type games.
- Super Smash Bros Rumble:
- A homebrew version of the popular Super Smash Bros franchise. Plays like an SNES version of Super Smash Bros.
- DS DOOM: Can any homebrew-enabled platform be considered serious without a port of DOOM? Relive the classic on the DS.
There are so many great homebrew applications and games for the NDS we've likely overlooked quite a few gems. Sound off in the comments with your favourite homebrew applications and help your fellow readers get more out of their Nintendo DS units.