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Sailing the seven seas of Nintendo DS piracy

Shiver me timbers
Product: DS Lite | Publisher: Nintendo | Format: DS
DS Lite DS, thumbnail 1
"Nothing of any value comes easily." Take a moment to ponder that piece of sagely advice, because we’re about to hit upon quite a controversial subject - a topic that has concerned video gamers (not to mentioned fans of practically every other medium of entertainment) for decades, if not centuries: piracy.

It’s a sad fact of human nature that people tend to want things for as low a price as possible. Video game piracy takes this to a new level – thanks to modern technology and nefarious underground distribution channels it’s possible to enjoy the latest games for nothing.

Given the remit of our site it’s probably wise if we narrow down out investigation to the console that is currently sitting pretty atop the world portable gaming throne: the DS.

Although Nintendo’s handheld is something of a cash-cow for the industry veteran, its success has resulted in one particularly unwelcome side-effect. The distribution of pirate DS games is rife, thanks to two vital factors: the proliferation of cheap ‘pass-through’ cartridges and the evolution of the internet.

Anyone that remembers the days of the Amiga and ST will no doubt fondly recall turning up to school each morning to be greeted with the sight of a crowd amassing around one child – the kid with a satchel packed to the brim with floppy discs containing the latest titles.

The cheapness of the 3.5-inch floppy format coupled with the relative ease of reproduction and distribution resulted in a playground phenomenon, and it wasn’t unusual to come across some Amiga or ST gamers who had literally never purchased a game for the machine at all - what need was there to do so when pirate copies were so abundant and readily available?

Of course, console gamers of the same era had it different. Cartridges were notoriously difficult (but not impossible) to copy and this kept the vast majority of Game Boy, SNES and Mega Drive fans on the straight and narrow.

Indeed, it was Nintendo’s fear of piracy that contributed to the company’s decision to make the N64 a cartridge-based system, and although this move proved to be foolhardy in hindsight (the CD-ROM-based PlayStation effortlessly trounced the N64 and a significant factor in this victory was the Sony machine's choice of storage format), it wasn’t totally misguided – towards the end of its life, Sony’s 32-bit champion was also suffering from widespread piracy. (In fact, some argue PlayStation's success was a direct result of the relative ease of pirating its games.)

However, the playing field is different now. Nintendo again chose cartridges as the format of choice for the DS, but the rapid development of the internet has turned this strategy against the company.

Physical distribution has given way to digital downloads. Rather than putting pirate games onto carts, they are merely shared online, downloaded and then copied over to a memory card before being inserted into a ‘pass-through’ cart.

With the average DS game weighing in at about 30-60MB (well within the reach of anyone with a half-decent broadband connection) gamers now have an alarmingly easy route to free games – a fact that Nintendo is all too aware of.

Not too long ago the Japanese giant attempted to crack down on the sale of pass-through cartridges, a move which momentarily resulted in these shady devices skyrocketing in value, but doesn’t seem to have had any long-term effect as they can still be obtained fairly easily.

More recently Nintendo has ensured that the shiny new DSi is incompatible with such devices. Granted, resourceful homebrew fans will find a way around this (let’s not forget that many people who use pass-through carts are actually doing so because they wish to experiment with the system and not play pirated games) but if Nintendo takes Sony’s lead and insists on periodic firmware updates, then it will make things a lot harder.

If you happen to own the standard DS though, you’re faced with a tantalizing moral dilemma. To pirate or not to pirate?

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there’s no denying that video gaming is a seriously expensive hobby. Even with a machine like the DS – which, when compared to the likes of the 360 and PS3, is seen as having ‘budget’ range software – your average game is going to cost you £20-£25. That’s about twice the price of a CD or DVD.

With the looming possibility of purchasing a stinker (that’s assuming you’re one of these wackos who doesn’t consult Pocket Gamer's excellent DS reviews first, of course) it’s hardly surprising that many people feel inclined to shun legal commercial channels in order to score their gaming fix. There’s no risk when you’re not actually exchanging money, right?

Also, it could be argued that video gaming is merely entering into the same era of technological liberation that has recently been experienced by the music industry. File-sharing and naughty-type online distribution has forced record companies to look at how they run their business and restructure - maybe the same thing will happen to our hobby?

Of course, these viewpoints fail to counter the fact that video game piracy is fundamentally wrong.

Games may cost a lot of money but they also cost a lot to produce, and when you pirate a game you might otherwise have purchased you’re essentially robbing the publisher and developer of potential reward for their hard work. Just because it’s easy to do doesn’t make it any less illegal or immoral.

It’s also fair to say that when you acquire things with little to no effort you fail to truly appreciate them. During our investigation we spoke to a gamer who readily admitted that he pirated DS games. Surprisingly, rather than feeling like a kid in a candy store, he revealed that such a wealth of choice ironically resulted in him enjoying his hobby less.

“Because I have access to so many games I only play them for maybe five minutes before loading up something else,” commented our mystery gamer (we can’t reveal his true identity because if his mum reads this she’ll stop his pocket money for a week).

“Whereas previously I would spend £30 on a game and play it to destruction to ensure I got my money’s worth form it, now I just discard games – regardless of their quality – because they mean nothing to me in terms of value.”

Nothing of any value comes easily, as the saying goes…

This is clearly a hot topic, so why not let us know what you think about piracy on the DS by leaving a comment?

Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran 13 January 2009
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