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Jefklaks Codex

The DS X-Treme Cartridge: A First Look


Nearly a month ago, the first batch of completely new SLOT-1 based Nintendo DS flash cartridges shipped. Yes, it is finally here! Stop fiddling with PassMe and FlashMe, stop messing around with rom patching, and stop using special software to simply upload some software. The DS X-Treme (or DS Xtreme or rather DSX) offers a unified solution to all known SLOT-2 based problems. I already talked a bit about it but right now it’s time for a complete review. Again, if you have no clue whatever the heck is going on (huh? SLOT-what? What’s a DS?) I recommend you take a look at the excellent Beginners Guide to NDS Homebrew (PDF) guide.

Let’s start with the obvious facts. The DS X-treme flashcard (or cartridge) has got too much attention and overhyping lately. Most DS development websites give it a ridiculously high global score because they seem to be finally rid of the patching and messing around with passme solutions. That is completely true: the DSX is a SLOT-1 based flash card, which means it’s as big as a regular sized DS game. Nothing sticks out, and it sits completely flush. You do not need a GBA sized memory extention cartridge like most solutions (M3, Supercard, G6, …). You do not need any flashing either: the DS Xtreme automatically bypasses the Nintendo DS (or Lite) firmware to boot up your favourite homebrew applications. Of course this also brings us one of the biggest disadvantages: fixed memory available. The DSX comes with 4 gigaBIT (512 megaBYTE or let’s roughly say about one half gig) and there’s no possible way to extent it further. So what, more than enough, right?

Aha, the box. Quite small, really.
Aha, the box. Quite small, really.

The first thing you’ll notice once you plug the card into your computer is it acts exactly like a normal USB storage flash device: windows recognizes it as an external hard drive. Don’t panic, so does OS-X. You can simply mount it as a USB stick - in UNIX too. The standard firmware version is 1.0.1, you’ll want to upgrade to 1.0.2 to fully support homebrew software (some fatlib using applications have been fixed). The HDD contents looks like this:

/DS-X Settings.xml
/music/
/apps/
/skin/default/[some junk] 

Clearly the XML file is used to modify various DS Xtreme settings, like the LED intensity colors. What LEDs? The DS cartridge comes equipped with 2 tiny LEDs (left and right) on the back side which can “dance” on the rhythm of your music you’re playing. Nothing major, in fact quite gimmickly. I turned them off immediately, since you might want to optimize battery usage. If you are still interested in the LED details, watch this YouTube Video.

Next, the music directory. Dump a bunch of MP3 files in it and you can play them with your DS! Features ID3 tags and easy separating by artist/whatever. OK this feature is very nice but I did not buy this card for music, and Moonshell can do exact the same (but maybe a little less quality) - marked gimmickly too.

ScummVM DS running Monkey Island 1!
ScummVM DS running Monkey Island 1!
The text is quite small and blurry.
The text is quite small and blurry.

Aha, we’re progressing towards thé essence of this very review. The apps directory comes next. Wondering what it’s used for? Very simple! Drag all your .nds files into this dir and pop, they appear in the DS X-Treme menu. Neat! All files should work without any patching or trimming or something else, just copy them to your apps dir and run the desired application. Especially with firmware 1.0.2, most things “should” work.

Uh oh, there is only one huge caveat. There are actually two possibilities.

One—all executed programs result in the famous White screen of Death (WSOD). And you’re F*cked. Before you throw this junk right back to your reseller, you might want to try to reformat the cartridge in FAT16 using Swissknife, a tool mainly used for formatting removable media. After the program formatted your 500 MB, replug it and reupload all desired files. Don’t worry, the XML file will be created automatically. After executing this procedure a couple of times and then re-applying the firmware patch, I successfully managed to boot some things. Heh, who said no more trouble starting stuff? Booh!

Two—all executed programs work, but generate corrupt savegames. Once you try loading these, your whole DSX gets corrupted, random files change (ever heard of AutoruL.inf? I sure haven’t) or disappear. Even worse, some times I’ve had Windows claim the HDD is either not there or completely damaged. F*ck again. Right click on the DS X-treme HDD icon, browse to the tab “extra” and execute the disk error check program. Enable both options and press start. After this, the card may or may not start working. If it does not, repeat step 1 a random amounth of times. I needed 2 days to get saving with DS DOOM or ScummVM DS to work… What’s up with this?

DOOM! Even the Ultimate and DOOM II WAD files load. Fuzzy picture taken with camera of the DS screen.
DOOM! Even the Ultimate and DOOM II WAD files load. Fuzzy picture taken with camera of the DS screen.

The DS Xtreme cartridge seems to be very fragile and corrupt a lot. So be warned and take backups at regular intervals. Most crashing homebrew applications can completely screw up your entire DSX card: Don’t run DSOrganize too long. Suddenly, I found an unbrowsable directory called “,” (yes, semicolon): “The directory either does not exist or has been moved”. Great stuff! If you ignore the dir, your DS X-treme cartridge will not boot (hangs at the Loading… screen at startup). Jezus Christ, how unstable is this. Hopefully all faulty things will be resolved soon in v1.0.3. Many people are experiencing the same problems - read them at the Support Forum.

Well let’s talk about the good stuff - if there is any. I don’t know how I managed to “fix” it, but finally Monkey Island 1 and DS DOOM save and load correctly. I’m to afraid everything will get screwed up back again and don’t feel like installing too much experimental homebrew applications right now. Hopefully Day of the Tentacle saving will work too, since that’s the reason I bought it after all. Talking about adventure games anyway: ScummVM DS is a masterpiece. It’s not perfect: scaling the main screen results in nearly unreadable text, check out the monkey 2 screenshot. Well what to expect, it’s open source and it’s homebrew. Most games run fluidly and even CD soundtracks are supported once converted to low Khz mono WAV files.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

The biggest advantage of the DS X-treme is clearly the plug & play feature (if you don’t encounter any weird errors like I did). Commercial game roms work perfectly and do not require any sort of patching but that’s of course quite illegal. (It was just testing! Testing, really! Check, one, two.) Most homebrew applications also work right out of the box, at least so they claim. Yes they work, but saving and loading has not been properly tested and may result in total corruption. Even in the digital world things get corrupt, that’s sad!

Lastly, there’s the skin directory. This indicates the DS-Xtreme main layout is completely skinnable (using raw image files and some XML configuration files). There are some tutorials at the DS-Xtreme forums and only one other skin has been released, but the cartridge is of course recently released. Patience is the key, and if you lost the key just make your own. The applications list features game icons like the G6 Lite and the whole interface can be browsed using the stylus. That’s a plus, M3 and Supercard do not have a touch enabled interface.

Major advantages

  • No external software (and patching) required, works as an external USB HDD.
  • Finally, no passme device needed, no flashing of your DS needed!
  • Fully skinnable interface with game icons and stylus support.
  • Executing firmware updates is very easy.

Major disadvantages

  • Very unstable! Might crash and corrupt frequently - so still fiddling required…
  • No expandable memory - 4Gbit or nothing.
  • Some homebrew simply refuses to function correctly and causes stuff to disappear?

Simon the Sorcerer 2 on the DS.
Simon the Sorcerer 2 on the DS.

I’dd add Existence of official support forums as an advantage but the DS-Xtreme staff rarely responds to your problems and the forums can be easily described as 99% problems, 1% solutions. There’s also a Support Bug Tracker page (login first!). Don’t expect much though, the developers like to declare your tickets as “resolved” without spending much attention to the actual symptoms. Hopefully, all issues will be fixed during the new firmware upgrade release. For now, decide for yourself if it’s worth having an extremely (Ha! DSX - extreme - ha!) buggy SLOT-1 card or a working passme and SLOT-2.

There goes so much potential… Again, the DSX cartridge is far from bad, it simply needs time to deal with the corruption and crashing. If that disadvantage would disappear, I’d easily recommend the DS-Xtreme flash card to everyone!

(Originally written in 2006 on Jefklak.com)

Categorized under: hardware

Me!

I'm Jefklak, a level 35 Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about me here.

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