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How To Turn Your Nintendo DS Into a Retro Game Machine

dsheaderIf you have a Nintendo DS there’s no need to limit yourself to just modern game releases. Read on as we show you how to turn your NDS into a retro-gaming marvel that plays old NES, Gameboy, and even Arcade games.

The Nintendo DS might not be the most powerful handheld gaming system on the market but it’s plenty powerful to emulate many arcade games and console systems of yesteryear. If you’re willing to invest a small amount of money and a small amount of time, you can easily turn your Nintendo DS into a veritable Swiss Army knife of gaming goodness.

What Do I Need?

As much as we love free-as-in-beer projects, this project will require a small cash outlay to get things rolling. You’ll need the following things:

  • 1 Nintendo DS (works with the DS Lite, DSi, DSiXL, and 3DS units)
  • 1 Flash Cart ($15-40; we’ll take a detailed look at flash carts in a moment)
  • 1 MicroSD Card (We recommend a cheap 16GB to provide room for growth)
  • NDS-compatible Emulators (free; we’ll review them individually later in the tutorial)
  • ROMs for aformentioned emulators

Assuming you already have a Nintendo DS, your cash outlay for the whole project will be $25-50 or so depending on the flash cart you pick to build your project on. Let’s take a look at flash carts to help you pick the best one.

A note on ROMs: Availability and legality of ROMs is subject to local laws and regulations. As such we cannot directly link to ROM sources here and suggest you turn to your favorite search engine for guidance.

What’s a Flash Cart and Why Do I Need One?

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Using a flash cart is the foundation of today’s tutorial. A flash cart is simply a custom USB adapter that has been designed to allow you to interface a common microSD storage card with your Nintendo DS. It is, if you will, a storage adapter masquerading as a legitimate Nintendo cartridge. Without a flash cart to sneak us past the authorization module in the DS, there’s no way we’ll be able to launch the homebrew software required to play homebrew and emulated games.

Because the whole market that supports homebrew/jailbreaking/modding of game consoles is frowned upon by the console industry, you can’t just walk into Game Stop and buy an adapter. You’ll most likely need to order from a foreign electronics supply house and you’ll need to be careful to avoid getting burned by fly-by-night web sites and counterfeit/dud flash carts.

In order to help you avoid getting burned we highly suggest you purchase one of the following two flash carts from a a reputable retailer. We’ve been using ModChipCentral out of Canada  for all our console modding needs over the last five years and have been quite pleased with the service, product quality, and speedy shipping.

Acekard2i ($22): If you’re looking for a rock solid flash cart produced by developers with a good history of updates and support, the Acekard2i is tough to beat. It doesn’t sport a lot of bells and whistles but it gets the job done. While this is not the flash cart will be using for the tutorial, we have several years of experience with the Acekard brand and highly recommend the model for budget-conscious modders.

Supercard DSTwo ($38): The DSTwo costs nearly twice as much as the more economical flash carts such as the Acekard, but it packs more than enough extras in to make it worth paying the extra $16. The DSTwo flash cart includes an additional onboard CPU and RAM module that greatly increase the quality of game emulation. The flash cart also includes custom GameBoy Advance and Super NES emulators designed by the flash cart maker to take full advantage of the onboard processing power. We’ll be using this brand flash cart for the tutorial.

If you opt to use the Acekard2i, please reference the Acekard web site for initial setup instructions as they will vary from the DSTwo.

Setting Up the DSTwo Operating System

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Once you have received the DSTwo in the mail, you’ll notice that it doesn’t come packaged with a MicroSD card and, if you put the flash card in your DS before completing the following steps, the DS won’t even register the empty flash cart.

The very first step is to properly format your MicroSD card. Yes, you can get away with simply using your operating system’s format command but we highly recommend using Panasonic’s industry recognizes SD formatting tool, SD Formatter. Doing so ensures your SD card is formatted strictly to industry standards and decreases the chance you’ll run into difficult-to-troubleshoot errors later on.

In order to enable your flash cart to work properly you’ll need to install the base operating system, known as DSTWO EOS, from the DSTwo web site. Make sure to grab a copy of the operating system and not the firmware updater (the only time the firmware updater is necessary is if a major NDS software change rolled out by Nintendo requires you to update the firmware in the physical flash cart).

Once you have downloaded the DSTWO_v.(someversionhere).ZIP, extract the contents of the folder within the ZIP file onto your SD card. The root of your SD card should now look like:

\_dstwo\

ds2boot.dat

readme_eng.txt

At this point you could safely eject the SD card, put it into the DSTwo flash cart, and boot it up in your DS, but there wouldn’t be much to do besides admire the pretty DSTWO EOS interface. Let’s take a moment to load up some emulators and other goodies onto the flash cart.

Populating the DSTwo with Emulators2012-07-17_153124

While it’s cool to have a functional flash cart, so far it doesn’t do much. In order to get the good times rolling, we need some emulators. The following section is structured to show you the best choice for the DSTwo as well as alternative choices that will work both on the DSTwo and on other flash carts that don’t have the CPU/RAM boost the DSTwo does. While we’re inclined to install all the emulators for maximum fun, we’ve divided them  by console/source so you can easily pick and choose.

Note: We’ll be using the following directory structure to keep the card tidy, unless otherwise specified you can customize the directory structure as you wish:

\_dstwo\

\EmulatorName\

\ROMS – PlatformName\

ds2boot.dat

readme_eng.txt

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

nesDS: Because NES emulation doesn’t require much horse power, there is no specific plugin for the DSTwo. We suggest all users check out nesDS, a more than capable NES emulator for the DS.

Download the latest version at the link above and extract the contents of the zip file to \nesDS\ on the root directory of your card. Create a companion folder for the ROMs, \ROMs – NES\

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Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

DSTwo SNES Emulator:  DSTwo has its own custom SNES emulator with a pile of bells and whistles including real-time saving which allows you to effectively pause a game anywhere in the action and resume when you wish.

Download the latest version at the above link and extract it to the root of your SD card. It will dump files into two separate folders \NDSSFC\ and \_dstwoplug\. Create a companion folder for the ROMs, \ROMs – SNES\. Do not change the folder name for the emulator.

SNEmulDS: For non-DSTwo users, the best alternative to the native plugin is SNEmulDS. Compared to the native DSTwo plugin, SNEmulDS is a much rougher emulator, but through no fault of the development team behind it. Emulating the SNES without the additional CPU boost DSTwo provides introduces little hiccups like poor audio rendering and poor sprite layering. To use SNEmulDS, simply extract to \SNEmulDS\ on the root of your card. Create a companion folder for the ROMs, \ROMs – SNES\

SEGA Genesis

jEnesisDS: Both DSTwo users and other flashcart users who want to play Genesis games should turn to jEnesisDS, a solid genesis emulator. Download it from the Zophar mirror and extract to the \jEnesisDS\ on the root of your SD card. Create a companion folder for the ROMs, \ROMs – SEGA\

Nintendo GameBoy

Lameboy DS: Like the NES, the GameBoy is easy enough to emulate that there is no suped up DSTwo plugin for it. Simply download the latest version, extract it to \LameboyDS\ on the root of your SD card and create a companion folder \ROMs – GB\.

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Nintendo GameBoy Advance

DSTwo GBA Plugin: Again, this is an arena where the DSTwo shines. Emulating the GameBoy Advance on the DS is a complicated task because the DS/DS Lite have a hardware GBA slot and the later models don’t have a GBA slot at all. Most emulators require an extra flash cart to emulate the GBA. DSTwo uses onboard hardware to pull it off in a way that other flash carts simply can’t (and require third-party hardware add-ons with dicey compatibility problems).

Download the latest version at the above link and extract it to the root of your SD card. It will dump files into two separate folders \NDSGBA\ and \_dstwoplug\. Create a companion folder for the ROMs, \ROMs – GBA\. Do not change the folder name for the emulator.

MAME Arcade Emulation

DSTwo MAME Plugin: MAME is another emulation that requires a fair amount of horse power for more complex games. The DSTwo has its own plugin specifically for MAME 0.37b5 games (if you’re curious about the specificity of that number, MAME emulators are extremely picky about version numbers and require you acquire the specific ROM release packs).  Download it (hosted by PortableDev) here. Download the latest version, and extract it to \MAME\ and \_dstwoplug\ on the root of your SD card; create a companion folder \ROMs – MAME\. Do not change the folder name for the emulator.

MarcasDS: For alternative cards, MarcasDS offers limited MAME support. Without the extra CPU power it can’t play as many games, but it can crunch through some early simple arcade releases (see the included readme file and games list for more information on which games it can handle). Download the latest version, extract it to \MarcasDS\ on the root of your SD card and create a companion folder \ROMs – MAME\.

When you’re done configuring the emulators, you should have a neatly organized set of


The above emulators just begin to scratch the surface of the available Nintendo DS system emulators. For a full overview of the emulation tools available—including bundles for early systems like the Atari and Colecovision—check out the awesome selection at emulation archive Zophar’s Domain.

Have a piece of Nintendo DS homebrew software, emulator or otherwise, you’d like to give a nod to? Sound off in the comments to share the wealth with your fellow readers.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 07/17/12

Comments (7)

  1. TheClaus

    Does this work if the DS has been updated firmware wise. My kids updated the DS and things I read said that it doesn’t work with the latest firmware update.

  2. Dark Reality

    This was cool 4 years ago when I had my DS Lite. I was using the R4 adapter back then, back when it was considered the best. I had some kind of productivity suite that let it play music, and I was writing simple text files on it. Cool stuff.

    And firmware updates can block flashcarts, but actively developed flashcarts can get updates, too, so it’s possible they can be unblocked that way.

    Flashcarts can run DS games, too, but many games have copy protection; you won’t be able to play them without a patch. Never did figure that out. Then the right shoulder button on my Lite went out. Shoulda just stuck with the GBA. Now that was an awesome handheld. The SP version with the clamshell design, its own backlight, and rechargeable battery, of course.

  3. Jason Fitzpatrick

    @TheClaus: It should; I’d double check the details at ModChipCentral and the developer’s page to make sure.

    @Dark Reality: The R4 used to be king, for sure… alas the original development team seems to have rode off into the sunset and the majority of new R4 chips on the market are bad clones.

  4. Mac

    I swear by the Supercard DSTwo

    I bought one for my mother, who loved my R4 cartridge and wanted one of her own. Because the Supercard actually tricks the DS in to believing its a genuine game (fish tycoon or something) the copy protection is a non issue. Ive put so many games onto that card, from obscure titles to AAA games, and theyve all run perfectly.

    Splash the cash. Go with Supercard. It’s the best by far.

  5. SatoMew

    Any tips for someone who still has a CycloDS Evolution v2 and cannot afford a new flashcart in the meantime? I have a DS Lite, btw.

  6. gifi4

    The R4 is 2nd currently, simply due to Yellowwoodgoblin, he made a firmware “Wood R4″ that’s way ahead of Akaio and anything apart from the DStwo as that has onboard RAM and a ton of other features.

  7. Amber

    There is another flash cart called R4i. I used it and pretty good (but I haven’t been doing much with DS lately, so I must be pretty outdated… since 2010 lol).

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