A hacked DS, as photographed by BAMCAT.

Homebrewed game music has an uneasy relationship with the mainstream game industry. Running or developing DIY music software isn’t possible on the Nintendo DS without special hardware – hardware that’s also favored by pirates. Nintendo is now suing the makers and sellers of that hardware, because they (correctly) point out it’s being used to pirate — but that could impact the homebrew music software scene, as well. And against that debate, we have a major leak of the Korg DS-10 cartridge, the one cartridge that is official and runs like a normal DS game. The twist: the "pirate" DS-10 music mix sounds fantastic, and should be a terrific argument to go buy a legitimate copy, right now. In fact, this should be a golden age for game music, provided the interests of developers large and small can be balanced. And, ahem, provided we all go buy that DS-10 cartridge so it isn’t the last legit game synth we ever see.

Nintendo Goes After Flash Loaders

For lovers of 8-bit music and mobile music, Nintendo DS flash cart loader hardware is all about the ability to run homebrew music software – seriously. Despite the snarky comments you might see on tech blogs, there really is an audience for whom running and/or developing home-built software, not piracy, is the primary reason to buy these gadgets. An entire music scene uses portable game systems exclusively, dating back ten years ago to the emergence of Nanoloop (and later LSDJ) on the original, 8-bit Game Boy. And it’s not just about piracy: because of the stringent requirements for developing for a game console, there’s simply no other way to write or run oddball music apps on the DS.

The appetite is certainly there. Running homebrew software on the DS is arguably more challenging than on any other mobile device, but paradoxically the DS has become the richest mobile platform for unusual, home-built music software. The DS is blessed with trackers, step sequencers, hacked hardware MIDI support, wireless communication with computers and other game systems, cellular automata synths, stylus scratching, and many other tools. All of this is possible because of the ready availability of flash loaders. The hardware tricks the DS into running homebrewed software by exploiting backwards compatibility features integrated with the device.

Nintendo themselves have been known to informally acknowledge the coolness of the chiptune scene, even as that same group of artists has used tools Nintendo identified with piracy. There’s never been any formal or official position, but the big N has weighed in on the occasional music events or written up artists in their Nintendo Power magazine.

Of course, I’d be naive if I pretended that homebrew software alone was the primary market for flash loader hardware. I do know gamers who use these tools to manage media on their device and backup cartridges so that they don’t have to carry a lot of carts around, people who truly do buy every game they run. (I personally love that feature.) But the main market for manufacturers and resellers of the gear is software pirates, because flash loaders so easily facilitate running pirated ROMs. (Desktop computer software, because it doesn’t use cartridges, has no such impediment to piracy.)

Flash tools for sale in Shanghai. Photo: Josh Bancroft.

So I was saddened to hear that Nintendo this week was suing the manufacturers and makers of this gear, because it comes at the moment flash loaders and DS homebrew software had become easier than ever to use. And while it first appeared this might impact only the Japanese market, Nintendo says it’s targeted some eleven countries, and hopes to block more. Meanwhile, sales have not surprisingly spiked sharply.

Some good coverage of what’s going on:

Nintendo no friend of homebrew market, sues DS cart makers [Ars Technica]

Nintendo Sues Piracy-Enabling R4 Cart, R4 Sales Predictably Skyrocket [Gizmodo]

Nintendo sues DS flash cart makers [Boing Boing Gadgets]

I don’t think this in itself poses a significant threat to game music – there are DIY solutions, though not as friendly or durable as some of the commercial products. (Whatever their motivation, the R4 and its ilk actually work wonderfully as products for non-pirates, too.)

But curiously, the Nintendo lawsuit came at the same time that the Korg DS-10 music cartridge we’ve been eagerly anticipating was leaked to the Web in the form of a pirate ROM.

The DS-10 Leak


The DS-10 is a rare exception to the rule of niche music making and mainstream gaming. It’s a real music app released on an official cartridge – not a toy or an art piece like ElectroPlankton or a music game like Guitar Hero (nothing against those things). Doing officially-sanctioned development and cartridge distribution is an expensive proposition, so sales are critical.

But the DS-10 wasn’t out for long before a leaked ROM was online, available outside Japan in advance of the official cartridge.

Then again, the situation isn’t as simple as it might appear. I heard unofficially via Korg Japan that they’ve sold tens of thousands of DS-10s in the opening days of its exclusive availability on Amazon.co.jp. Anecdotally, I know American buyers who bought the DS-10 via Amazon, but downloaded the pirated ROM while waiting for the official cart to ship. It’s impossible to tell what the ratio of pirates to would-be buyers to real buyers may be, though the one safe statement to make: this cartridge is ridiculously hot. It might not be Mario Kart popular, but it’s surprisingly successful for a vintage synth emulation that’s not a game.

…Makes Some Inspiring Music

In the meantime, chip musicians took the opportunity to use the first 24 hours of its availability, starting July 28, to make music with the DS-10 – albeit via the pirated ROM. I was all set to launch into a big rant about two trends I think can be negative: the online obsession with newness, and the danger that rampant piracy could destroy important development projects. Then I listened to the tracks, which sound, frankly, fantastic. And the artists include some of game music’s best artists:

xcen /// cornelius soul trader /// starpause /// white kundalini /// deep cuts from detroit /// submliminal labs /// aliceffekt /// evan morris /// rhinostrich /// nitro2k01 /// a_rival /// tibitekutyan

Links to the download are available here:

diplodocus / mp3death

So I’ll close by saying this. I think there is an easy solution here, and it’s to make sure that flash loaders support homebrew development, and that we support game developers doing great stuff by buying their software. The easy antidote to the potential damage of the leaked DS-10 ROM: going out and buying the DS-10, too, when it’s available. (You can even join those buying it from Amazon Japan.)

Piracy isn’t a problem so long as you also buy the darned cartridge. And please, if you can, go make inspiring music with the bought cartridge. Then everyone’s happy.

That doesn’t solve Nintendo’s problems, though. In terms of how the Nintendo flash loader lawsuit will impact the vibrant homebrew scene, all we can do is wait and watch. (And if you do have a chance to pick up a flash loader, you, um, might indeed want to do it now.)