When Nintendo officially ended production of the 3DS in September 2020, it wasn’t much of a surprise. On the one hand, some variants of the portable system have been on the market since 2011. Which isn’t to say that the product line has become stagnant: the system has received a considerable mid-generation refresh, and a more affordable variant has. even been introduced. discontinued the eponymous stereoscopic 3D effect, but nearly a decade is still quite a long life in the video game industry. Of course, Nintendo’s focus on the Switch, a hybrid device that blurs the line between console and handheld gaming, undoubtedly played a role in the decision to remove what could effectively be considered a competitor product.
While putting the 3DS to the pasture might have been the logical business decision, a quick check on eBay seems to tell a different story. Whether it’s COVID keeping people indoors and increasing the demand for home entertainment, or the incredible library of classic and modern games the system has access to, the fact is that a 3DS of used in good condition is worth more today than it was when it was brand new on the shelf around this time last year.
In short, it was the worse possible time for me to decide that I finally wanted to buy a 3DS. Then one day I noticed that the average price of a Japanese model was much lower than its American counterpart. I knew the hardware was the same, but could the firmware be changed?
An evening of research taught me that the exchange was indeed possible, but not recommended due to the difficulty and the potential for unexpected behavior. Of course, this has never stopped me before.
So after waiting almost a month for my pristine 3DS to arrive from the land of the rising sun, I set out to explore the vast and wonderful world of Nintendo 3DS hacking.
Join the fun
Here’s the best part about the 3DS homebrew: Every version of hardware, no matter what region it is or what firmware version it is running, can be hacked with just an SD card and open source software. Plus, given that Nintendo has now moved on to bigger and better things, it’s fair to assume that the community has won. There’s no new hardware overhaul coming up, and while Nintendo felt inclined to release another firmware update just to baffle anyone running unofficial software on their 3DS, there’s no way they can. ‘it can force you to install it. It’s a party, and everyone is invited.
There are various exploits that can be used depending on the current firmware of your 3DS, but the easiest and fastest way to get your 3DS to work with non-Nintendo software is to use a vulnerability in the system’s internet browser. With the appropriate files on the SD card, you just need to point the 3DS browser to a specific URL to trigger the exploit. Thanks to the browser’s ability to read QR codes, you don’t even have to type it in – just scan the special code, and you’re on your way to homebrew nirvana.
To be clear, there is still a long way to go. Getting the files to your SD card and triggering the exploit is only the first step. Before it’s all said and done, you will need to restart the 3DS several times, put more files on the SD card, and install a number of programs on the system. Nothing of that hard, but there are a dizzying number of steps and it would be easy to get lost without a good guide.
Fortunately, the members of the 3DS community have produced the most comprehensive and user-friendly documentation I have ever seen. The guide they created walks you through every step of the process in great detail, and as long as you don’t skip any steps, upon completion your system will be loaded with the latest version of Luma3DS custom firmware.
Personally, when I hear the term custom firmware, I think of something like DD-WRT or Aaron Christophel’s work with Xiaomi Bluetooth thermometers. In other words, firmware replacements that essentially leave you with a completely different device. So part of me was surprised when I restarted my system in Luma3DS and everything seemed to be exactly the same. I even wondered for a minute or two if I had done something wrong.
After taking a closer look at the project’s GitHub repository, the situation became clearer. While the community calls it custom firmware, it would be more accurate to say that Luma3DS fixes the system’s original firmware to enable an extended feature set. Much of this allows the user to install and run non-Nintendo apps, but there is also a system menu, accessed with a special button combination, which allows you to change more advanced settings.
With Luma3DS installed, the 3DS retains 100% of its original functionality. You can still play all your games, log into the eShop to download new titles, and play online with others. It’s apparently even safe to install an official firmware update with this installed, although, again, others are unlikely to be dropping.
Get the goods
In general, 3DS software comes in two distinct forms. Smaller tools and programs are likely to be offered as a
.3dsx file, which is a stand-alone executable that you can run through a tool called Homebrew Launcher which is installed with Luma3DS. It works well enough for one-off applications, but can get annoying as it takes several steps to boot the software from a cold boot.
The preferred alternative for larger and more complex software is the CTR Importable Archive (CIA) or
.cia to file. This archive contains not only the software itself, but the metadata necessary to actually install it as if it were an official game or an app downloaded from Nintendo eShop. Since the software installed via CIA appears in the main menu of the 3DS, it is much faster and easier to access than going through the Homebrew Launcher first.
But there is a catch. Installing a CIA file is not as easy as dragging and dropping it to the system SD card. The archive needs to be properly unzipped by a so-called Title Manager, the most popular of which is known as the FBI and runs on the 3DS itself. Once unzipped and installed, the original CIA file can be deleted, otherwise each app would end up taking up twice as much space on the SD card as needed.
It’s a bit annoying, but there are a few tips to speed up the process. On the one hand, the FBI can load a CIA file from the local network or the Internet by scanning its URL from a QR code, thus eliminating the need to manually place the CIA file on the SD card before it is released. installation. It has become a very popular way to distribute homebrew on 3DS, and you will often see these codes posted on forums or on GitHub.
Even still, unboxing a CIA on the 3DS itself is rather slow due to the hardware limitations inherent in the system. For those who do not want to wait, there are projects such as
custom-install that allow you to process CIA files on your computer. Running on a much more powerful processor and enjoying high-speed access to the SD card, these tools can install software and get it ready to run on 3DS in a fraction of the time it would take with the FBI.
Much like the custom firmware installation process, changing the region of your system is very well documented. I had no problem getting the US firmware on my 3DS, although it must be said that the process takes considerably longer than installing Luma3DS in the first place. Unfortunately, once the region is changed, you can no longer access official Nintendo services to purchase software, download updates, or play online. That said, local wireless multiplayer with US consoles works as expected and you can still run physical retail games.
I also noticed a few weird issues, although nothing really critical. Once the system claimed it needs to install a firmware update and then after a minute or two of downloading files threw an error message. The firmware will also lock after checking the system notifications, but they’re pretty annoying in the first place, so I just turned them off.
So is moving to another region worth it? I would say it depends on how you plan to use the system. If you’re more interested in running your old favorites through RetroArch than modern games, absolutely. But if you want to get the most out of the system, including its various online functions, the downsides of changing regions will likely outweigh the financial savings.
Before buying this 3DS, it had been over a decade since I owned a portable console. I barely have time to play games at home, let alone on the go. But the incredible catalog of titles which are directly playable on the system or which can be run through any of the open source emulators available for this, was extremely convincing. Add to that a wide array of original homebrew games and the continued effort to port Linux to the system, and it was just too much to pass up. Installing custom firmware on the 3DS turns a great system into an amazing one, and these days I find myself spending quite a bit of time playing around with this dual-screen wonder. I’m even thinking of updating to one of the latest 3DS models, but that will be a story for another time.
While it’s still hard to predict the future, it’s not hard to imagine that the Nintendo 3DS might just be the last true handheld game console. Smartphones and tablets have largely conquered the market, and while the Switch is technically mobile, it just can’t compare to the svelte clamshell design that has characterized Nintendo laptops since the Game Boy Advance SP. So if this is the last of the purebred laptops, at least the homebrew community can be said to make sure it comes out in style.