Regular readers of bit-tech will know that games are more than just something I write about in order to pay rent on time. Games are an important part of my day-to-day life outside of work too and I play them pretty much non-stop, on consoles both old and new and on my woefully under-specced PC.
When I’m without a gaming platform then I take to other forms of gaming – I race people up and down stairs and challenge people to drinking competitions. I play poker or read Choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks. I flip coins and or have staring competitions with stray cats. Games, in short, aren’t just a past time for me but are an important part of how I experience the world around me and how I define myself as a person.
Handheld gaming then is something that instantly appeals to me. Thing is, though I’ve been known to dabble with the odd GameBoy title and like to fiddle around with an old Tapwave Zodiac which has been kicking around the office for a while, no handheld system ever really grabbed me and the budget limitations imposed by my obsession with gaming meant I rarely have money to burn.
The DS though, was the one that changed that. When I picked up a DS Lite after my graduation in 2006 I was finally able to play some high-quality games wherever I went thanks to Nintendo, undisputed king of the handheld market, coming through with another excellent piece of hardware.
Console mod-chips like these are illegal, but that doesn't mean all homebrew is...
Still, for someone like me (i.e. a stingy git), budget is still a major concern and dropping cash on full-price DS games which may not always give me the replayability isn’t really an option. So, there is only one place to turn to for a DS gamer on a budget and that is to the homebrew community.
Now, before you take one of the two normal reactions, which is either to skip to the next page and start looking for ROMs to download or to run screaming from a site which you think is now illegal and virus-filled, let’s examine what homebrew is and the legality behind it.
For the uninitiated, homebrew is the process of running software on a game system which is not usually designed for home-programmers to build for. It can be anything from running Fedora Core 5 on the PlayStation 3, to playing some weird little rhythm games on the DS. If you’ve read this far then you’ll probably be able to guess which we’re going to focus on in this article.
So, is homebrew legal? Well, it’s a bit of a grey area.
If the process require modifying the hardware of a console, such as putting a modchip into an Xbox to make it work as a media centre, then that is definitely illegal. The systems are protected by various copyright laws and end-user agreements, so cracking one open and having a tinker with its innards is definitely frowned upon.
Using homebrew software legally is similar to playing PC game modifications
If you’re only bypassing the software however, then that is technically legal. That’s what we’ll be talking about here.
However, legality is also called into question depending on what you want to do with the now homebrew-enabled software. You want to play some true homebrew apps, developed by bedroom programmers and distributed online as freeware? Sure, no problem – someone has made a game for you to play and is giving it away for free, so while the console maker may not like you fiddling with the amateur’s games instead of their official titles there isn’t actually anything they can do about it.
If you want to download cracked versions of the official games however (ROMs) and then run them without paying for them, that is definitely illegal. It’s software piracy, clear as day. Technically, you may be okay if you download a ROM of a game you have paid for, but it’s a big grey area and we’d suggest you didn’t bother unless you have a fetish for drawn out court cases.
So, now we’re clear on what homebrew development is and what you can legally do. Still, homebrew is a strange world out there for those who haven’t ventured in to it before, so let’s start by looking at some of the equipment you’re going to need to get your DS running the wealth of free homebrew apps for it.