A Look At How Nintendo Mastered Dual Screens

When it was first announced, many people were skeptical of the Nintendo DS. Rather than pushing raw power, the unique dual screen handheld was designed to explore new styles of play. Compared to the more traditional handhelds like the Game Boy Advance (GBA) or even Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP), the DS seemed like huge gamble for the Japanese gaming giant.

But it paid off. The Nintendo DS ended up being one of the most successful gaming platforms of all time, and as [Modern Vintage Gamer] explains in a recent video, at least part of that was due to its surprising graphical prowess. While it was technically inferior to the PSP in almost every way, Nintendo’s decades of experience in pushing the limits of 2D graphics allowed them to squeeze more out of the hardware than many would have thought possible.

On one level, the Nintendo DS could be seen as a upgraded GBA. Developers who were already used to the 2D capabilities of that system would feel right at home when they made the switch to the DS. As with previous 2D consoles, the DS had several screen modes complete with hardware-accelerated support for moving, scaling, rotating, and reflecting up to four background layers. This made it easy and computationally efficient to pull off pseudo-3D effects such as having multiple backdrop images scrolling by at different speeds to convey a sense of depth.

On top of its GBA-inherited tile and sprite 2D engine, the DS also featured a rudimentary GPU responsible for handling 3D geometry and rendering. Hardware accelerated 3D could only used on one screen at a time, which meant most games would keep the closeup view of the action on one display, and used the second panel to show 2D imagery such as an overhead map. But developers did have the option of flipping between the displays on each frame to render 3D on both panels at a reduced frame rate. The hardware can also handle shadows and included integrated support for cell shading, which was a particularly popular graphical effect at the time.

By combining the 2D and 3D hardware capabilities of the Nintendo DS onto a single screen, developers could produce complex graphical effects. [Modern Vintage Gamer] uses the example of New Super Mario Bros, which places a detailed 3D model of Mario over several layers of moving 2D bitmaps. Ultimately the 3D capabilities of the DS were hindered by the limited resolution of its 256 x 192 LCD panels; but considering most people were still using flip phones when the DS came out, it was impressive for the time.

Compared to the Game Boy Advance, or even the original “brick” Game Boy, it doesn’t seem like hackers have had much luck coming up with ways to exploiting the capabilities of the Nintendo DS. But perhaps with more detailed retrospectives like this, the community will be inspired to take another look at this unique entry in gaming history.

24 thoughts on “A Look At How Nintendo Mastered Dual Screens

  1. Its always great to see what went behind the making of the videogames millions of people enjoyed, they truly are a new art form which emerged in the 20th century. It takes writers, music composers, 3D artists, programmers, voiceover artists etc to create a videogame single videogame!

    Its just sad that now handheld consoles have been mostly replaced by smartphones which are for the most part, black rectangles. I miss hardware buttons.

    Also I don’t play videogames now (did in the past, but oh well time happened). Does anyone remember those accelerometer based games from back when android smartphones were new? Those games where you had to guide a ball though a maze by tilting your phone. What happened to those? Are they still making games with motion based controls these days?

    1. One caveat is those motion-based control games aren’t playable on busses/trains/cars/planes … anything that moves.

      So you’re losing everyone who want to play during their commute which is a bit chunk of mobile game players.
      You’re left with the porcelain throne share of the market.

      1. Agreed, the only thing that for me stops the Switch being a proper handheld is I remember my earlier handhelds running for significantly longer doing the most intense games available back then.. Where the switch’s battery life is pretty good for what its doing it’s not that good, and not as convenient as say the older still Gameboys where you just chuck a new readily available battery in the back when it runs out.

        Definately the best mobile gaming platform available now IMO though. And actually a good home console experience too – sure even docked for max performance it doesn’t look as good as the newest console or gaming PC can make that game look, but its surprisingly close. The optimisations that are done for it, made easier with the dynamic resolution type stuff it does really does give a good experience.

        1. Honestly battery life isn’t so bad, depends on what you play really, small indie games and you get decent life, of course if you play Doom battery like is like… 2 hours, but come on, being able to play doom just about anywhere is kind of amazing already!

          In the era where an outlet is never too far, I think it’s a small price to pay, although your mileage may vary if you’re more of the countryside variety.

          1. No argument from me there, just my definition of a handheld has always had in the back of my mind that comparison to handhelds of the past, and those either had easy swap alkaline/rechargeable batteries (and pretty impressive battery life) or way more 2 hours of life playing the top titles on the platform..

            You can indeed get some reasonable life out of the platform on some games, but its never seemed as long as I remember the old systems lasting. Which puts me off thinking of it as a ‘real’ handheld. Entirely psychological really, nothing against the system, I quite enjoy it (though better ergonomics for bigger hands would be nice) its just to me because of the batter life its a ‘Home Console’ with bonus travelling mode – a bit like a gaming laptop vs gaming PC/real laptop its that middle ground of being almost a real gaming PC in performance or almost a real mobile laptop in battery life and portability but never really both.

  2. One thing was missed in the video is the DS’ ability to have 16 palettes of 16 colors AND another set of 16 palettes of 256 colors, per 2D engine / PPU, all at the same time in some VRAM configuration.

    I can’t remember if the 16×256 were separate sets for sprites and backgrounds or shared.

    As far as tile-based graphic hardware goes it was extremely flexible short of going with a full software 15bits color 2D engine, which is doable as well: the machine had the RAM and CPU to handle it if you wanted to.

      1. It’s an amazing system to make 2D pixel games that beats even the Neo Geo hardware when you throw in the 3D engine’s triangle & quad sprites capability to add effects and blows “Mode7” tricks out of the water (which you can have two of per screen).

        The 3D is made of 3D sprites, no frame buffer, but a scan-line buffer instead.

        The mad lads used 2D sprite hardware principles to do 3D.

        So you’re guaranteed a smooth 60fps (tradeoff is dropped sprites/poly on object-heavy scanlines) as long as the CPU side keeps up.

        Which with a 33Mhz ARM CPU is easily doable with a very tiny bit of assembly thrown in.

        Too bad the marketing heads where I worked only wanted to do full 3D games back then.

  3. Saying that ‘it doesn’t seem like hackers have had much luck coming up with ways to exploiting the capabilities of the Nintendo DS” is imho a bit short-sighted. There has been jumbotron, ds wifi tool, homebrew launchers, editors, midi controllers and so much more!

  4. The DS enjoyed quite the homebrew scene for a while, with less pushback from Nintendo than the PSP scene saw at the start with Sony pushing firmware updates for every little exploit. Nintendo didn’t do OTA updates on the original DS, and wasting ROM space in carts was not going to go over well with game publishers.

    The first two DS models even had GBA slots which we exploited for attaching custom hardware, and Natrium42’s DSerial interface had quite a following as well.

    What held the DS back was also what allowed it to sell for half the price of the PSP. By going with simpler less powerful hardware and backwards compatibility, Nintendo was able to put more systems (and games) in people’s hands.

    1. IIRC the bios on the DS was not user updatable so not like Nintendo could push a firmware update either via cart or online. This is why flashcarts like R4 are still necessary to this day to run unsigned code on a DS. The DSi however does have flashable firmware which is why it can be permanently flashed with twilight cfw.

      1. Parts of it were user updatable as the same chip stored the firmware and the wifi settings, a region of it was locked with hardware write protect (you had to jumper two contacts in the battery compartment) There were some nasty bricker malware that would make your DS stop functioning even without it overwriting the bootloader, and a tool called flashme that you had to jumper the contacts for. Flashme got rid of the stupid health & safety screen, and made your unit somewhat brickproof in addition to opening the unit to unsigned booting.
        One of the reasons Nintendo didn’t do OTA is they didn’t have a robust failsafe boot mechanism, didn’t want to store the system firmware on *every* game cart (just in case the system has been bricked, this would allow recovery), and didn’t want to spend money on a large enough flash chip to have two partitions.

  5. Except the Wii U was the first dual screen system that failed to sell 1 million pieces of hardware. For those who said it’s not dual screen, try playing Splatoon without a television!

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