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Joystiq presents

Confessions of A Homebrew Virgin

Write us something about homebrew, my overlords command me, and my heart skips a beat. You see, I have a dark secret that, until now, has remained private: you could write what I know about Nintendo DS homebrew on the back of a postage stamp. And not even one of those bigger special edition stamps they introduce at Christmas, but a regular tiny stamp.

A lot of you, I suspect, will be in the same boat as me, and this article is addressed to all of my fellow homebrew neophytes. Rather than simply pretend to know what I'm jabbering about, I thought I would be open about my newbie status, and write something about my first tentative steps into the world of homebrew.

For this exercise, I deliberately set aside three hours (spread over a few days) to learn about and download as much homebrew as possible. I had several questions I wanted to answer: Was getting into homebrew as difficult as I always imagined? What would I gain from it? How useful are current online resources to somebody who knows nothing on the subject? Is it worth the expense? Find out by heading past the break for a view of Nintendo DS homebrew through the eyes of a rookie!

Day 1

With my brand new R4 Revolution card in hand (as picked up at memorybits.co.uk, along with a 2GB MicroSD card, for just under £40), and all the necessary files transferred on to my MicroSD card (they all came on a CD-ROM supplied with my R4), my homebrew adventure starts here!

Like an excitable child, I immediately head to Google, begin searching for instructions on getting started, and instantly encounter my first problem: a complete lack of comprehensible homebrew guides (remember that this was before my good colleagues posted their easy-to-use guide and homebrew glossary earlier this week). Listen, internet: I'm a DS homebrew idiot, so when almost every guide out there immediately starts throwing acronyms at me without explaining them, it's quite unhelpful. Eventually, I find a guide that my bumbling brain can cope with, and obediently download something called a "R4 DLDI patch." With that, I am informed that I'm ready to download my first piece of homebrew! Woo!

I choose to download DSOrganize, primarily because it's one of the few homebrew apps I can recall from the top of my head. It downloads in seconds, and works first time -- success! Downloading my first homebrew application and seeing it in motion is exciting because it feels kind of wrongful and illicit. For the first time, I can make the DS function in a way that subverts Nintendo's original intentions, and this in turn means I'm somehow sticking it to "The Man" (in my head, at least). Which is absolute rubbish, of course, because it's all perfectly legal. But still, I can't help feeling like a complete rebel.

So far, it's been smooth sailing. Tomorrow: checking out more software!

Day 2

Download Pocket Physics. Actually, at first I download Crayon Physics, spend ten minutes dozily wondering why it doesn't work on my DS, realize that Crayon Physics is meant for PCs, and then download Pocket Physics. Anyway, after the slight disappointment of DSOrganize, this bowls me over. It's like Line Rider on 'roids. I'm not even sure Line Rider 2: Unbound will come close to this, and heck, this is freakin' free. It's way more absorbing than most regular games, an absolute time-killer.

When I finally drag myself away from playing dominoes in Pocket Physics, I go hunting for more software (and cheat a bit by using DS Fanboy's Homebrew category). From here, my software collection begins to grow at a rapid rate, and I'm suddenly like a kid in a candy shop, grabbing whatever freebie I fancy (and, because the files I'm downloading are so small, I get a decent number). They all work first time, and although some really aren't built for solo play (Laser Hockey DS, ChessNET), there's plenty to love: Colors and the two Game Melody Oratorio titles were amongst my favorites.

Other notable finds include Bubble Wrap DS (which is as pointless as it sounds) Return to Tyrian (a neat little shmup), and TickleGirl (yes, I got curious).

Tomorrow, I tackle emulation!

Day 3

Buoyed by my new stash of software from yesterday, I decide it's time to investigate how to run real games on my DS. A handheld console that could miraculously store and play a library of games from a wide range of platforms was the stuff of dreams back when I was 15 -- now it's a reality.

This was the stage where I actually had to start conducting some solid research -- sure enough, I spent the best part of twenty minutes Googling for a NES and SNES console emulator that worked with my card. Some emulators seemed to run just fine on my R4, while others would crash, covering my DS's screens in what looked like random numbers (but which no doubt meant something to somebody somewhere). The lesson here? Trial and error is sometimes the best way forward, I suppose. And persevere. Okay, two lessons.

Not long after getting my NES emulator set up (I ended up using something called "NESDS"), I had a fully operational Super Mario Bros. 3* on my DS. It feels fairly comfortable as well, though I can't for the life of me work out how to save my progress. Oh well. My goal for today achieved. Sort of.

* Before ELSPA consider kicking my door down, note that I do actually own an original copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. Remember, kids: piracy ain't cool. Stay in school.

Day 4

On my fourth and final day of homebrew self-initiation, I decided to try and get video running on my DS. This would prove to be an exercise in despair from beginning to end.

Yes, I had [popular video player] Moonshell already installed on my R4, but no, it turns out that watching movies on your DS isn't simply a matter of whacking standard .avi files on to your card -- they need to be converted to "DPG" files. The only problem, for me at least, was finding the tools for this job.

More than thirty minutes of dead links and non-responsive downloads later, during which hair was pulled and teeth gnashed, I find an encoder, BatchDPG, which does the trick. But get this: it doesn't really look like it's worth all the effort. Every video I try has a sort of "Impressionistic" quality, with smudges of color replacing previously sharp pixels. Bah. Still, mission accomplished -- in the least satisfying way imaginable.

In conclusion ...

And that's it: my first three hours of dabbling in Nintendo DS homebrew are up. Revisiting some of those questions I asked earlier feels appropriate at this stage:

Was getting into homebrew as difficult as I always imagined?

No ... and yes.

Getting started with some basic homebrew? Pretty much a breeze. Researching how to get video running? Stress-inducing enough to prompt a fair bit of head versus desk action. But one of my biggest bugbears throughout the entire process was how scattered the resources were -- from what I saw, there isn't much in the way of an all-encompassing guide out there ... until now, that is. Yep, all bias aside (no, really), I can genuinely say that the guides and glossary written by the rest of the team are both easy to follow and comprehensive. Seriously: if you're a wide-eyed newbie like me, there's nothing better out there.

What did I gain from it?

A heck of a lot of free software, ranging from the sublime to the useful to the completely useless-but-hilarious. A way to back up my modest NES and SNES collection and play it on the move. An alternative to my bulky, sub-par £12.99 MP3 player. The ability to confidently engage in one of the many DLDI-related conversations that crop up between the staff day in, day out. Lots of spare unicorn stickers.

Finally, is it worth the expense?

£40 granted me access to a ludicrous amount of free software (a surprising amount of which is superior to commercial alternatives), vast libraries of old games from systems as diverse as the Neo Geo and Commodore 64 (insert "must own original game" disclaimer here), and the kind of multimedia functions I'd never have imagined possible on my humble DS. It's worth it.

All this week on DS Fanboy, we're celebrating the vast, vibrant world of homebrew with guides to getting started, instructions on how to make your DS do things you never thought possible, and the lowdown on some of the best homebrew to emerge from Japan. Stay tuned for more later this week!

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