How To Play Nintendo DS on Android with an Emulator
One of the great things about Android over other mobile operating systems is a reduced amount of control over the apps that are allowed to be uploaded and offered on the Play Store. Though Google does manually approve and publish apps onto their store, Android apps don’t fall under the same level of scrutiny and restriction as their iOS counterparts. On occasion, this can lead to dangerous apps being allowed into the store, but more often than not it means that some applications are destined to remain Android-only due to Apple’s guidelines for certain types of apps. One genre of applications you’ll never see on iOS: emulators. If you’re unfamiliar, an emulator allows one piece of hardware or software to behave like an entirely different system. Though there are all sorts of emulators for running older computer applications or operating systems, emulators truly rose to popularity through the gaming community. Console emulators allow you to load and play digital video games through dumping the software off a cartridge onto your computer or Android phone.
There are dozens of emulators available for download or purchase on the Play Store, for systems like the NES and SNES, Game Boy Advance, and much more. One of the best emulators available on the platform is Exophase’s DraStic, a Nintendo DS emulator available for download for a cool $4.99. For that five dollar entry fee, you’ll gain access to one of the most full-featured emulators on the market. Five dollars isn’t cheap in comparison to most free, ad-supported applications, so let’s take a closer look at what you’re getting for your money, and how well DraStic performs on Android.
Setting DraStic Up
DraStic is one of my favorite emulators available on the Play Store. It has a clean, good-looking interface, and plenty of settings to customize how you play. I’m playing on a Galaxy S7 edge, along side a Bluetooth controller that will allow me to avoid having to use on-screen controls, though we’ll be talking a bit about those later for folks who don’t have access to a controller for their device. First, though, let’s look at some of the visual options you can change to make your system look and feel great while playing.
Let’s start under video settings. You’re going to want to tweak these while considering how powerful your phone or tablet is, but if you have a recent flagship device, you can probably increase some of the base settings without risking poor performance. As with most apps, if you don’t know what something does, it’s best to leave it alone. If you change something and your device or the application itself starts freaking out, it’s best to leave the device be.
Some emulators have tons of custom options like buffered rendering and specific frame rate limits, but DraStic actually keeps its video settings fairly clean, simple, and straightforward. All I recommend changing here is the fast-forward speed and your custom filter. For your fast-forward speed, I do recommend leaving this at 200 percent, or double the standard speed of a DS game. Why do I recommend keeping this at 200 percent? Playing a game at speeds above 200 percent tend to become unmanageable and difficult to play. Fast-forwarding is off in-game by default, and you toggle it on and off as needed. This is really useful for slow cut-scenes or quickly running through games you’ve already played. As for the filter settings, I recommend you try using the default setting, linear, first. It worked best for me, and helped games retained the pixel-styled look of the low-res DS while still being displayed on a 1440p screen.
Diving into general settings now, it’s here where you can change the default screen layout for the emulator. If you don’t like one of their offerings, don’t stress too much: each can be customized both per game and per global settings once you’re actually playing a game. More on that in a bit. General settings also contain options to show FPS settings (useful to some but not most people), to set the emulator to landscape or portrait mode (I highly recommend landscape), the ability to autosave your game states, and the option to disable the back button while in-game. Back in the main settings display, you’ll also find the option to upload your game saves to Google Drive, in case something happens to your device. This is something I haven’t seen in any other emulator, and it’s a fantastic feature. You’ll also note that, on the launch screen once you open the app, DraStic supports multiple users, so if you’re playing on a tablet, each user can find their own sweet spot for settings.
Most users are probably going to be playing with on-screen controls, and how well these function really depend on your game choice. For my testing, I’m using a copy of Pokemon HeartGold I dumped from my own personal cartridge (see my note on legality issues at the bottom of this article), and because this game doesn’t require much use of the DS’s touchscreen, it’s really easy to play with virtual controls. However, some games, due to their play style, are going to be difficult or impossible to play. The World Ends With You is one of the best RPGs Square Enix ever made, but because the game’s combat requires both physical controls and touchscreen controls to be used at the same time, you aren’t going to be playing it on an emulator (luckily, a version made for smartphones and tablets is available for purchase on the Play Store—you should buy it). To a lesser extent, the same is true with the Zelda games available on the DS. Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks require Link to be controlled with a stylus, and unless your device supports stylus control (like Samsung’s Note series), you probably aren’t going to want to bother with that one.
But for something like Pokemon, where the bottom screen is mostly used as a display for your menu and your battle commands, emulation and on-screen controls work fine. They’re easy to control, and turning on haptic feedback in settings makes the buttons feel a little more real than they are. Opacity is set to 45 percent by default, but this is also available to be changed inside settings if you find them to be either too-visible or not visible enough. Overall, the virtual buttons work well enough for most users, and you can customize them too—though we’ll cover that in a bit.
As good as virtual buttons can be, nothing beats the feel of tactile buttons while you’re gaming. If you happen to be the owner of a Bluetooth Android gamepad, you’ll be pleased to know it almost certainly works with DraStic without any configuration on your part.
If you are having any issues, you can check your control mappings under “external gamepad” in settings. Pressing and holding on each will show you what every button is mapped to; unfortunately, most gamepads using the Xbox layout, which reverses B and A and X and Y. This can be a bit confusing if you’re playing a game in which you’re told to click X to open a menu, because the corresponding button on your gamepad is most likely Y. Despite this minor control issue, I didn’t have any major issues using my gamepad while playing Pokemon to test out DraStic. You can also custom map your controls if you’d rather have your corresponding buttons match, which means most users should find a satisfying way to use their gamepad alongside DraStic. If you decide to use a gamepad and you want to turn off virtual controls, you can do so through the in-game menu very easily.
Of course, all of this is moot if the emulator isn’t good at playing games. Luckily, DraStic is not just good—it’s one of the most stable, well-supported emulators on the market. I ran into virtually no slowdown while playing the opening section of Pokemon HeartGold, and I found both the on-screen controls and my physical controller to work well, although unsurprisingly I preferred the latter. When you first open the app and select “load games,” the app will scan your device’s storage to find supported game files. Reopening a recent game is as easy as clicking “continue” on the emulator’s main menu, and typically, the game will pick up exactly where you previously left it. You can also create a shortcut on your homescreen to load directly into any game of your choice.
The in-game menu system is easily accessible from a small menu button at the bottom of DraStic’s display, and it opens a circular display feature most options you’d need access to while playing. In the direct center of the menu is the fast-forward option; remember, you can set your custom speed inside settings. In the outer circle, you’ll find most of your controls. We’ll rotate around this like a clock as I describe these settings. At noon position, you have the ability to close your “DS.” Believe it or not, there were a couple games (ahem, Zelda) that required you to close your DS to complete an in-game task, like a puzzle. If you need this option, it’s there for you. To the right, we have the ability to disable stylus control on the bottom display. This is especially useful if you’re trying to use virtual buttons and you don’t need your touch screen.
A save state option is next, followed by a shortcut to switch the top and bottom screens—useful if you’re playing in a mode where one screen is constantly larger than the other instead of in 1:1 mode. At the six o’clock position, there’s an option to go further into menu settings; we’ll come back to this in a moment. There’s an option to make the top display the only display, so if you don’t need your touchscreen at a specific moment, you can turn it off to display a much large screen. Next, you’ll find the ability to load save states, and finally, the toggle for turning on and off virtual buttons. This is a far better option than just turning down opacity in settings to zero, because it allows you to keep the menu key to open these toggles—and it’s faster.
Finally, around the circle you’ll find four additional quick-setting toggles. Starting in the top left and working clockwise, you’ll find a mute option, an option to activate and use your mic (good for games like Phantom Hourglass and Nintendogs, where using the mic is essential in-game), and virtual shortcuts for both select and start. Each of these four buttons are also mapped to physical controls on a controller.
Finally, if you dive deeper into settings, you’ll find the ability to customize your screen and virtual gamepad controls. Each of the five settings is able to be customized and controlled to your liking. The main screen allows you to resize your displays as you’d like. If you need to change your controller layout, you’ll find the option under menu. As I mentioned earlier, each of these settings can be changed globally (for every game) or for specific games. You can even change the background image behind the game images, though I left mine as default gray. Also of note: those top three buttons can be set to any action of your choosing, though they are disabled by default.
All of this is a long preamble to being able to customize and play your emulated games the way you want to play them. The ability to be able to change all these settings is one of the best parts of playing games on emulated systems, and once all of this setup is complete, you’ll be kicking back and enjoying your games with the added portability and custom features provided by an app like DraStic.
Emulation will never replace the feeling of holding a gamepad or handheld console in your hands, but if you want to carry around your old games in your pocket to be able to play them at any time, it’s a pretty great way to emulate the experience. Though there are free alternatives for DS emulators on the Play Store, none of them have the support and stability that DraStic offers to users. If you’re looking for a way to play all of your old DS games while commuting to work or on a long road trip, this emulator is absolutely worth the cost of entry. DraStic is not just the best Nintendo DS emulator available for Android. It’s one of the best emulators in general.
A Note about Legality
Though emulation is perfectly legal in the United States, don’t think that all emulation is without controversy. Emulation has been the subject of several lawsuits in North America, including lawsuits involving Sega, Sony, and Nintendo. According to all legal precedent, emulation is legal; downloading illegally-distributed dumps of copyrighted games online is not, as the latter falls under piracy and copyright laws both locally and internationally. Using copies of the original machines BIOS and using the ROMs from games you’ve purchased through legal means is allowed, according to fair use laws in the United States. For this article, I used software ROMs which I dumped from cartridges purchased through my local game store; you can look up how to do this online, but I won’t be linking to those guides here.