Tiny Cartridge 3DS

Flashcarts: More than ‘illegal game copiers’

The phrase “illegal game copiers” conjures specific images in my head: racks of disc recording drives copying dozens of CDs and DVDs at a time; or custom hardware burning data onto bootleg cartridges with slipshod labels.

Nintendo pictures a particular device with that term, though. Most consumers think of it as an R4 chip or simply “R4”, while those more familiar with the technology call it a flashcart. The gamers in Japan call it “Majicon”.

But to the company that’s trying to cope with plunging software sales and a growing attitude that games aren’t worth paying for, it’s an “illegal game copier”. Nintendo used those words yesterday in a press release celebrating its lawsuit against an online seller of these devices.

I won’t argue about the accuracy of the term. The majority of flashcart owners play copied ROMs of downloaded games with the hardware, and most cart manufacturers produce the devices with piracy as their primary function, producing regular updates to ensure compatibility with new, pirated releases. That’s the way it is.

But I believe calling them “game copiers” misrepresents the extent of their capabilities and prevents consumers from realizing the value these devices can add to DSes. Yes, their chief function is to play illegally copied games, but even if they couldn’t do that, they’d still be brilliant devices.

Here are a few examples of how flashcarts improve the Nintendo DS-owning experience:

  • Homemade games and applications (dozens of worthwhile homebrew DS releases exist, like Colors)
  • Homebrew media player Moonshell is arguably a MUCH better music application than the DSi’s built-in player
  • Play videos, view images, and display text tiles
  • Customize and create your own top-level menu interface (such as the Little Prince skin below)
  • For non-DSi owners, you can adjust the brightness and soft-reset without restarting your system

And while the legality of archival copies or back-ups of commercial DS games is disputed, flashcarts offer useful features for back-ups that even the Nintendo DSi XL fails to provide out of the box:

  • Store several back-up files on a single flashcart, so you don’t need to carry multiple carts with you
  • Apply translation patches to games you’ve imported but don’t understand (e.g. Mother 3)
  • Copy save files to your PC (valuable in a number of scenarios)
  • Play GBA games on a DSi or DSi XL
  • Apply codes or hacks, like this rad cheat that lets you play Mario Kart DS with a Taito paddle

Unfortunately, the ratio of people who use their flashcarts for these reasons to those who use the hardware to simply pirate games is likely very, very low. I recognize that to most people, these are secondary benefits to owning a cart that enables you to play DS games for free.

I am not an advocate for game piracy at all. I want to see game developers receiving the compensation they deserve for their talent and work, and flashcarts hamper that vision. So, I understand why Nintendo dismisses them as illegal game copiers and wants to erase them from the market.

I’m arguing that flashcarts offer value beyond playing illegal copies of games. I just wish there was a way for these devices to exist and provide these features, without stingy gamers abusing them for piracy and cutting studios off from their hard-earned paychecks.

[Note: In case it’s not obvious enough in this post, I do not condone pirating commercial games whatsoever. If anything, I blame pirates for Xseed’s hesitancy to localize Game Center CX 2. Seriously, you guys are dicks.]

Buy: Nintendo DSi XL (Burgundy and Bronze), Standard Nintendo DSi (White, Pink, Black and Blue)

See also: New anti-piracy features for Nintendo 3DS

[Images via Megwin from this hilarious video]

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