Unmasking The Identity Of An Unusual Nintendo DS

The Nintendo DS family encompasses a dizzying array of portable game systems released over a span of 17 years. The original DS received several refreshes and special editions, and when the next generation 3DS came along, it spawned a whole new collection of spin-offs. But even among all those machines there’s a name that even Mario himself would never have heard of: the Nintendo DS ML.

In a recent video, [The Retro Future] says he discovered this oddball system selling for around $25 USD on Chinese shopping site Taobao and bought one so he could get a closer look at it. Externally the system looks quite a bit like the refreshed DS Lite, but it’s notably larger and the screens look quite dated. That was already a strong hint to its true identity, as was the placement of its various buttons and controls.

Note the conspicuous absence of Nintendo’s name.

But it wasn’t until [The Retro Future] cracked the system open that he could truly confirm what he had on his hands. This was an original Nintendo DS, potentially a new old stock unit that had never been distributed, which was transplanted into a custom enclosure designed to look like one of the later upgraded models. As for what this seller meant by calling this chimera the DS ML is anyone’s guess, though one of the commenters on the video thought “Maybe Legal” had a nice ring to it.

Now assuming these really are brand new systems that were simply installed in fresh cases, $25 is arguably a good deal. So long as you aren’t concerned with playing the latest titles, anyway. But at the same time its a reminder that you get what you pay for when dealing with shady overseas sellers. It’s just as likely, perhaps even more so, that these were used systems that got spruced up to make a quick buck.

Fake components are everywhere. In fact there’s an excellent chance most of the people reading this site have received some fake parts over the years, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. When there’s fly by night companies willing to refurbish a nearly 20 year old Nintendo handheld for $25, what are the chances that Bosch actually made that $2 temperature sensor you just ordered on eBay?

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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.

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Repairs You Can Print: Nintendo DS Lite With New Battery And Case

The problem with hanging on to old consumer products is that the original batteries no longer hold a charge. To make matters worse, replacement batteries ordered online have likely been sitting on a warehouse shelf for years and are no better. [Larry G] faced this issue with his old Nintendo DS Lite. Luckily he remembered a hack from his youth where a friend’s Dad had duct-taped a massive alkaline D-cell battery pack to the back of a Gameboy to give it a longer life. And so [Larry] gave new life to his Nintendo DS Lite by designing and 3D printing a case for a battery with an even larger capacity than the original.

He first obtained a 2400 mAh 18650 lithium-ion cell, one with over voltage and under voltage protection. With that as a guide, he designed and 3D printed a case for it made up of four printed parts. The case was needed because the 18650 doesn’t fit in the NDS Lite’s battery compartment. Instead, one of the parts, which he calls the fake battery, fits in the compartment and has copper strips glued to it for connecting to the NDS Lite. From there, wires go to another part wherein sits the 18650. The remaining parts secure it all in place.  Charging is done using the NDS Lite’s built-in charger. Even though the new case adds significant bulk, it actually fits well in the hand.

No doubt many of you have your own old NDS Lite sitting around that can benefit from this repair. The project details and STL files can be found on his Hackaday.io page using the above link.

This is also [Larry]’s entry for our Repairs You Can Print contest which puts him in the running for one of two Prusa i3 Mk3s plus the multi-material upgrade.

Fix A Broken DS By Removing A Screen

There are apparently a lot of broken Nintendo DS Lites out and about on eBay, and [Fede] has gotten his hands on one. His idea was to essentially turn one of these DS Lites into a SS (single screen?) (.es, Google translate) by modding the case, and he’s done it with pretty spectacular results.

If you’re going to do a case mod, you should go all out. To that end, [Fede] started by taking everything out of the DS and tossing the original 1000 mAh battery in favor of a 4000 mAh battery. From there he is able to shoehorn the two PCBs into the case with the speaker in between, which he notes doesn’t sound as nice as the original but works well enough.

After reshaping the plastic case in a few subtle ways and putting a few layers of paint on it, [Fede] now has a single-screen Nintendo DS for €2 plus parts and paint. While we’ve seen similar mods before, we’d be interested to see this one in action; some DS games don’t utilize the second screen as much as others, so perhaps this wouldn’t play every DS game perfectly, but for the price it can’t be beat.

Running Nintendo DS Unsigned Code With Audio

Even if you haven’t ripped off the top screen of your original DS to create an even better Game Boy Advance yet, there still might be some life left in that old bit of hardware. [Smea] is running unsigned code on the Nintendo DS, using only a bargain-bin game and an audio file.

The exploit this time comes in a form that might be familiar to anyone who has ever installed the homebrew channel on a Wii. Like SmashStack, this exploit uses a level editor/transfer feature in a game, this time with a 6 year old DS game Bangai-O Spirits.

[smea] is using the sound-based level transfer feature to load unsigned code into the DS. This level-transfer feature works by sending a single period sine wave at 1024Hz with a given amplitude; a binary 1 is a few dB louder than a binary 0, and with a buffer overrun it’s possible to load code into a DS and jump into that code. There’s no redundancy, error correction, and is not the thing you want when loading unsigned code onto a DS. It does, however, work.

The code to generate the audio payload for this exploit is available on github and if you have a copy of Bangai-O Spirits, you can try it out for yourself by playing this file (headphone warning).

Thanks [gudenau] for the tip

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3DS Homebrew Channel And Custom Firmware

Nintendo has always been very wary about allowing independent and homebrew developers making games for their consoles, and the 3DS is no exception. It’s locked down, and a few 3DS and console hackers have spent years searching for a method that will easily allow anyone to run unsigned code. That day is finally here. The exploit is called NINJHAX, and it allows anyone to install the Homebrew Channel, the repository for everything awesome in the world of 3DS homebrew development.

The latest exploit relies on a bit of code in a retail game – Cubic Ninja – to run unsigned code. This game includes a level editor that allows players to share different levels by QR codes and 3DS’ camera. By carefully crafting one of these QR codes, the 3DS gains the ability to run the Homebrew Channel

If this exploit sounds familiar, you’re right. The most common way to open up a Wii for homebrew development is Smash Stack, an exploit found in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. This exploit also works by modifying custom stages, and opened the door to a wealth of homebrew development for the Wii.

In the video below, [smea] shows off his exploit by starting Cubic Ninja, going to the QR code level editor, then loading up homebrew games. A copy of the game that enables this exploit, Cubic Ninja, is required for this exploit. Last week, you could buy Cubic Ninja for a few dollars on eBay and Amazon. Today, the price has settled around $50, with a few very dumb or very eager people paying up to $300. If you already have the game, you’ll only need to get the homebrew starter kit, generate a QR code, and start installing unsigned code. All the instructions are available on [smeal]’s site.

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Hair Thin Wires Save A 3DS From The Landfill

Broken Nintendo 3DS

[Anton] recently acquired a broken Nintendo 3DS. When the power button was pressed, the device would start booting up only to shut back down after flashing a blue light and making a popping sound. It turns out this problem is pretty common with the 3DS.

[Anton] could have tossed this device into the landfill, but where’s the fun in that?  Instead, he cracked the device open like any self-respecting hacker would. It didn’t take him long to discover two broken flex ribbon cables. [Anton] could have then searched for replacement cables, but his inner hacker told him he could repair this himself. He carefully scraped the insulation off of the broken traces and then soldered on some hair thin wires to bridge the gap.

All that was left to do was to glue the wires securely in place and feed them back through the hinges. This project is a great example of how a little determination and know-how can keep a useful device from the landfill. If you attempt this repair yourself, you may find this 3DS teardown to be a helpful reference. What devices have you been able to save from an untimely demise?