Nintendo 3DS

How Nintendo DS Games Will Work on the 3DS

The 3DS will be backwards-compatible with the DS’s esteemed library. There are some potential issues with this, though. How exactly will this functionality work?

How Nintendo DS Games Will Work on the Nintendo 3DS

Since the Nintendo 3DS was first announced in that cryptic press release back in March, it has been known that Nintendo’s latest handheld will feature backwards compatibility with legacy Nintendo DS games. It is clear from photos of the 3DS that this compatibility is achieved by means of a slot on the system that accepts both the 3DS’s tabbed cartridges as well as the older DS ones. However, nothing of this functionality is known besides the fact that it exists. How, in detail, will this feature work?

Nintendo 3DS Cartridge

A 3DS will easily accept its proprietary tabbed cartridges, as seen above, but it has no problem dealing with the DS's untabbed cartridges, either.

The “Givens”

Nintendo DS Easy Piano - single-octave piano keyboard GBA slot accesory

Peripherals are out...

First off, it has to be clarified that any DS game that relies on an external peripheral that plugs into the GameBoy Advance slot is out, no matter what. If the slot doesn’t exist, there will be no way to plug in accessories like Guitar Hero: On Tour‘s Guitar Grip or Tony Hawk Motion‘s Motion Pack. The Rumble Pak, which is supported in a number of games, won’t be supported either, but unlike game-specific add-ons, it’s entirely optional and may even turn out to be replaced by an integrated rumble function in the 3DS, if the rumours concerning that turn out to be true.

WiFi wireless network - Nintendo DS wireless communication

...but WiFi's in.

However, one thing we can count on on is WiFi support; right from the beginning, WiFi was considered one of the original DS’s greatest selling points besides the touchscreen and the dual-screen design. Many games use it to fantastic effect—Mario Kart DSMetroid Prime Hunters, and the Pokémon games are all prime examples—and it would be a shame for this functionality to be cut. Whatever the technical workings of the 3DS are when it comes to playing DS games (more on that further down), it is very probable that Nintendo has gone the extra mile and invested the additional effort that is necessary to support WiFi-based functions in DS games.

Fitting it to the screens

Arguably the hardest problem Nintendo will have to address with running DS games on the 3DS is the difference in screen resolution between the two devices. Both screens on all DS models feature resolutions of 256×192 pixels. The 3DS’s screens’ resolutions are 400×240 and 320×240, for the top and bottom screen, respectively. Consider both of them 320×240 for the sake of this article, though, as it is very unlikely that DS games will be stretched from their native 4:3 aspect ratio to fill the 3DS’s top screen.

Nintendo DS screen size and resolution compared to Nintendo 3DS screen size and resolution
Comparison of DS and 3DS screen resolutions

Since the 3DS’s resolution is not double that of the DS’s, it’s impossible for it to simply “double the size” of every pixel of a DS game and cleanly fit it to the 3DS’s screens. This leaves Nintendo with two options for displaying DS games.

One option is for them to simply display the game’s image 1:1, at its original 256×192 resolution. On the 3DS’s screens, the neatest way to do this would look as follows:

Nintendo DS games on the Nintendo 3DS: Yoshi's Island DS (simulated image)
Here I am, talking about image fidelity. Please click the image above to see it displayed 1:1.

As you can see, the image from the DS game is surrounded by black bars and pillars on all sides. This may look a little ugly, but it’s unavoidable if the 3DS is to display DS games as faithfully as possible. Note that on an actual 3DS, the image will appear to be smaller and crisper than on a DS; this is due to the 3DS’s higher pixel density.

A Nintendo DS game, Yoshi's Island DS, displayed on a Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo DSi overlaid for screen resolution comparison.
If DS games are displayed 1:1 on the 3DS, they will appear to be noticeably smaller.

Nintendo’s only other option is to scale the games up a bit to fit to 3DS’s higher-resolution screens. This will remove the black border on the bottom screen entirely and only pillarbox the upper screen, at the expense of image clarity.

Nintendo DS game, Yoshi's Island DS, running on a Nintendo 3DS. Simulated image; stretched to fit the screens of the Nintendo 3DS
One pixel in this image is equal to one pixel on the 3DS. Again, please click the picture.

The image will appear to be a bit blurry, but it should satisfy most of the people out there who want to play their DS games with neither black bars nor an insignificantly small image.

If you look at the two images side-by-side, you’ll notice that each has its distinct advantages and disadvantages. Which one you prefer is really a personal choice; neither I nor Nintendo can tell you which method of displaying DS games on the 3DS is the “right” way because it really depends on whether you want a “full” image or a crisper one.

Nintendo 3DS screenshot - simulated image of Yoshi's Island DS running on a Nintendo 3DS - comparison shot of 1:1 version and scaled-to-fit version
Click the image for a full-resolution comparison of the 3DS’s two display methods.

I think that Nintendo will ultimately give users the choice between the two, like they did with the GameBoy Advance and its backwards compatibility with GameBoy Color games. If anyone remembers, you could choose between stretching the GBC games to the GBA’s higher-resolution screen or displaying them as-is in the middle of the screen.

Mapping the controls

Since the 3DS’s button layout differs somewhat from the DS’s, it’s important to also consider how DS games will be mapped to it. It is a given that the A, B, X, and Y buttons will stay the same (their positions haven’t changed) and the Start and Select buttons will function as before, but at their new position under the touchscreen. It also goes without saying that the touchscreen will function exactly as before; the aforementioned scaling dilemma aside, DS games that used it will continue to do so exactly the same way on the 3DS.

Left side of a red Nintendo 3DS handheld system; displaying the slide pad and D-pad

Will the new slide pad work with DS games?

However, the D-pad is a point of special interest. On the 3DS, it has been moved down, closer to the bottom edge of the system, to make room for the much-loved slide pad. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll still be able to use the D-pad for DS games, but its new position may make usage a little awkward. The slide pad is clearly the star of the show in Nintendo’s new handheld, and, having taken the DS’s D-pad’s position, brings up the question of whether we’ll be able to use it when playing DS games that weren’t originally designed for it.

If the 3DS plays DS games by means of software-based emulation (which will be discussed in detail further on), it won’t be difficult for Nintendo to remap the D-pad to the slide pad. It’s been done before with certain systems on the Wii’s Virtual Console, like the SNES and SEGA Genesis. When playing a game for one of those systems, you can use the GameCube or Classic Controller’s left analog stick instead of the controller’s D-pad. Control is not analog (meaning, pressure-sensitive) as the games were never designed for that, but it’s still a convenient option nonetheless, especially in games like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars that involve a lot of diagonal movement.

This is possible because the Virtual Console is a software-based emulator. There is a layer of Wii software running over the emulated game; this layer of software interprets button presses from the variety of controllers supported by the Wii and translates them into the corresponding button actions for the game that is being played. This software is also able to interpret analog stick movements and pass them on to the game as if they were D-pad presses.

It’s very probable that the 3DS will use software-based emulation to run DS games, so there is nothing stopping Nintendo from adding slide pad support to the older games. Keep in mind, though, that even if this is so, DS games will remain insensitive to how far you push the slide pad. For example, in analog stick-controlled games, pushing the stick slightly will make a character walk slowly while pushing it to its edge will have the character break into a run. On the 3DS, this gradation will not exist for DS games; pushing the slide pad further or closer will have no in-game effect.

Technical details

To play DS games, the 3DS will need to emulate them. Two types of emulation currently exist, one of which the 3DS will use: hardware- and software-based emulation. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages when used in a gaming environment; I’ve summarized them in the table below.

Hardware-based emulation Software-based emulation
maximum game compatibility possible compatibility issues
controls must be mapped to a fixed set of buttons possible to remap controls
more difficult to overlay system menus, etc. emulated game can be “enhanced” by 3DS system features

The 3DS will most likely be using software-based emulation to play DS games mainly out of cost issues; to employ hardware-based emulation, Nintendo will need to include the DS’s CPU and GPU in the 3DS, raising the price. I’ve written an accompanying article to this one that details the differences between these two methods of emulation as well as the reasoning behind my choice; you may read it here if you’re curious.

If Nintendo can overcome the potential compatibility issues that software-based emulation typically introduces, they’ll be able to use one of its greatest advantages: namely, the relative ease in overlaying the 3DS’s operating system and some of its features over DS games.  The Home button, for example, has been a topic of discussion for some; I believe it will serve a function akin to the Xbox 360’s equivalent button, which allows a player to access a variety of system-wide features like the buddy system and media player in-game. If, for example, there is a persistent system-wide online system on the 3DS, while you won’t be able to use your account for DS games, you may at least be able to chat with your friends while playing them in addition to possibly playing your own music in the background. Conveniences like these would be limited only to 3DS titles if the system relies on hardware-based emulation to play DS games.

A black Nintendo DSi displayed on a Nintendo 3DS screen

Closing Thoughts

To sum everything up again, here’s a list of what we can expect when playing DS games on a 3DS:

  • No peripherals and games that require the GBA slot will be supported.
  • WiFi will be supported in DS games.
  • Players will have the option of displaying DS games 1:1 or scaling them to fit the 3DS’s screens.
  • It may be possible to use the slide pad in DS games instead of the D-pad.
  • Some system-wide 3DS features may still be usable while playing DS games. Ex.: media player, tag mode, etc.
  • Software-based emulation will be used to achieve DS game compatibility and enable the two points above this one to function; there is a possibility that not all DS games will be playable at the 3DS’s launch.

While it may sound like a trivial feature at first, in reality, it turns out that there are a surprising number of intricacies involved in achieving backwards compatibility with DS games on the 3DS. One has to appreciate the effort Nintendo has put into not making our old libraries of DS games obsolete just yet; it would be a shame to lose the ability to experience its wonders as the DS has often been heralded as having one of the most diverse and satisfying game libraries in history. Let’s just hope they don’t redesign the 3DS and choose to remove this sure-to-be-loved feature, as Nintendo did when they axed GBA compatibility on the DSi…

By on 16 September 2010

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  1. […] more about how Nintendo DS games will work on the 3DS here. By Peter D. on 16 September 2010 We can send 3DS updates to your email – Just add your […]

  2. James Bond says:

    i think its more likely the second settings the bottom screen would fill up with no letterboxing and the top screen will have the ds image fill it top to bottom but letterbox the sides i would imagine.

    i would imagine there may be some way to remap the controlls to use the slidepad instead of the directional pad as an option too!

  3. james braselton says:

    hi there james bond watch it do magic stuff turn 4:3 in too 16:9 ration or they could have picture in piture means you can watch movies while playing games at the same time becuase nintendo useing realy fast flash drives on a website showing 36 videos at the same time on the nintendo 3ds and 3,000 hd dvd movies on a 50 inch tv with just 1 ssd flash drive 4 servers called io-fusio it is on youtube if you want too watch the video

  4. theEvilJohn says:

    Its also worth noting that the parallax barrier is not something that can be switched off at will. A game running on the 3DS in 2D mode will in fact render the image once and then copy it to both top "screens", one for each eye. A DS game running on the 3DS would have to do the same thing. While it could be hard-wired into the DS hardware if it were included on the 3DS it would be much simpler, and cheaper to use software emulation.

  5. theEvilJohn says:

    @james braselton

    Would it kill you to use punctuation. I've seen several of your posts on this site and it ranges between absolutely no punctuation and a period every three words. Its like your purposely trying to make your comments hard to read.

  6. starrgrl24 says:

    Good to hear that 3DS will be compatible with DS games. I'm not entirely surprised about it though, but that was really good details regarding that. I'll still be playing Yoshi's Island DS when I get the 3DS!! xD Nice choice of screen shot. 😉

  7. kallumsmart says:

    i think they should reender it to 3ds screens so it keeps graphics and with 3ds having better can improve it alittle bit more cause it hasnt got any smooth edges on them

  8. Peter D. says:

    Yes, that’s true. Parallax barriers are always active, regardless of whether they are actually showing stereoscopic imagery or not. It’s not really worth mentioning in the article, though, because to most people, what you said can simply be summed up as “the screen working in 2D mode”. Still, it’s a good thing for the more technically oriented ones among us to keep in mind!

    You mean, try and render DS games at the higher resolution instead of scaling the output image (some punctuation would be very helpful)? I think I know what you mean; console emulators on the PC do it, but it’s really only useful for 3D graphics; 2D graphics are made at a certain resolution and will look bad when not displayed at it no matter what kind of trickery you can come up with. 2D graphics are very, very common in DS games and really wouldn’t look that different than if the final 256×192 image was simply scaled up a bit.

  9. Stuart Young says:

    These are great, in depth, carefully researched articles and a really interesting read. Thanks Peter!

  10. Al says:

    Something to remember, the upscaling option was used on the DS when playing GBA games. Also, if the 3DS is really super powerful, then they may be able to use accurate software emulation without any problems, and with options for scaling, like choice of screens was on the DS for GBA, or GBA for GB(C) with the L and R buttons

  11. wiiboy101 says:

    software only emulation SO THIS THING HAS A 3GHZ 4XCORE CPU i dout that very much DS emulation takes a lot of power that is 100% not happening

    option 1, total back play of DS DSi code by chip-set as it capable of running it…

    option 2,as above with part emulation via hardwired emu hardware…

    option 3, DSi soc is simply included

    100% software emu it aint happening..

    as for display il vote for upcale and fit screen id like that over boarders…

  12. Peter D. says:

    @Stuart Young

    Haha, 'twas lots of fun writing them. 😛 Thanks for reading 'em, Stuart!


    Did the DS allow you to stretch GBA games? I can't remember that being in there, but I did mention the GBA and its compatibility with GBC games. I'm quite sure the 3DS would give you the option between scaling and 1:1; if the games are played through software emulation (and honestly, considering the DS is only 67 MHz, it's quite probable that it can be pulled off nicely) it wouldn't be a problem to give users the choice through the "Home" menu.

    • Gilberto says:

      I called it from the very bgniening. I knew we wouldn’t see any handheld stages, and what do you know, they still haven’t shown a single handheld stage. There are those who think that the 3DS version will have Sonic Rush stages, but I still have the firm belief that we won’t see any. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t love to see stages from the Advance or Rush series, but I highly doubt we will. Especially this late in the game

  13. Peter says:

    Not only did the DSi drop GBA compatibility, the GB Micro and the first DS before it dropped GB / GB Color support, abandoning fifteen years of games.

  14. MM says:


    THANK YOU! This James guy posts on so many sites I visit, and I'm not sure whether he is purposely trying to come across as a retard.

  15. garrett stephensis c says:

    @theEvilJohn and @MM


  16. Someone says:

    @Peter D. (The problem with the reply button is only with your posts for some reason. o.O)

    Speaking of emulation, I'm glad Nintendo really cut down on piracy and emulation! Go Nintendo, their self-destructing Wiis and anti-piracy 3DSs!

  17. Someone says:

    @Peter D.

    I was thinking the EXACT same thing as you were! If it had a Home menu, what things would be on it? It obviously would have a "Return to Main Menu" option (and for DS games, a "Scale" option probably), does anyone have any ideas what else it would have?

  18. Supper says:

    What about the touch screen? Some games on the DS used the touch screen on the top, and now the 3DS doesn't have a top touch screen! I wonder how that will be solved……

  19. Someone says:

    3 Days Until the Announcement

    Actually, no. There is only one touch screen (the bottom screen) on the DS/DS Lite/DSi/DSi XL, so that’s not a problem. If only they’d find a loophole in the multi-touch screen copyright!

    What if someone cut off that little tab and put it in the game slot of a DS/DS Lite/DSi? Would it work? If it showed up as something when you booted the game, what would it display? Those are my questions about the 3DS cartridges.

  20. Justjohn123 says:

    You know it seems logical that the system will allow regular ds games, cause when you think about it only so many 3ds games will come out. All I really want to see Is a super smash bros combat come out on the 3ds… Name doesn't have to be that though

  21. Bryan says:

    either way il get it i alreadypreordered it.
    if it is backwards compatible now super mario 64 for ds will be playable.

  22. bruni says:

    I dont like the 3DS I wish they would still make the old DS games so people who cant afford to go buy loads of other DS games and another DS for like 300 pounds/dollars can actually still play DS. FUTURE SUCKS!! 2D ALL THE WAY!!

  23. The Guy From Down the Street says:

    I’m not so sure I agree with you, If Nintendo didn’t do that then what would they do after their older console got old or stopped selling like it did? The wii was in extremely high demand but over time there were shelves filled with unsold ones and changing the colors went very productive.

  24. baby v says:

    The Guy From Down the Street :
    I’m not so sure I agree with you, If Nintendo didn’t do that then what would they do after their older console got old or stopped selling like it did? The wii was in extremely high demand but over time there were shelves filled with unsold ones and changing the colors went very productive.

  25. baby v says:

    i am a big fan of this game its awsome!!

  26. magen says:

    man i hate this i think ds chips should work on 3ds’s right

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