The Pandora has been out for a while already (early models date from 2008, while the production only started to be reliable in 2012) and it was designed from the start to be a powerful machine capable of doing emulation of older consoles and computers. Over time, It has proven to be very reliable to do excellent PS1 emulation (thanks to notaz, and even with increased resolution rendering in the latest versions, something that Exophase contributed to) and GBA emulation (from Exophase and ported on Pandora by notaz), but until recently very few thought it would be able to emulate anything else. At least, anything more recent. Exophase proved everyone wrong when he started working a completely new Nintendo DS emulator that would be fast enough to run on the Pandora. Now, the beta has been available for a short while, for the DragonBox Coding competition, and it’s time to review in more details what it can and cannot do.
So, how do you get to display 2 screens on a single one ? Well, thanks to the Pandora resolution this is not really a problem, since DS screens can fit side by side on the high resolution Pandora display. This may not be the best display choice for all games, since most games do not really use the second screen in a meaningful way. That is why a new mode has been included in the latest version (1.2.0) to allow for a single screen to be displayed and to swap between one and the other. You can see here for example New Super Mario Bros played in a single screen format (thanks to BAFelton for the video):
On top of that, since the Pandora screen is touch-sensitive, it can perfectly emulate the DS stylus and touch effects on one of the screens. This works amazingly well and the Pandora is the only device out there, as far as I know, which can replicate the DS games look and feel in such a size format.
But emulation is all about software. What exactly can it run ?
First, in terms of compatibility, it can already run many, many games. The very first version (1.1.0) had some issues with about 30% of games crashing right at start, but most of them have been fixed in the newer 1.2.0 version. Overall, between 80 to 90% of games seem to run past boot, based on the testing done so far. Running a game does not, however, means it runs perfectly. There are a couple of issues still remaining to claim full compatibility.
First, some games crash because of the multiplayer functions – that is the case with one of the Castlevania games, looking for network connection right after start. Since Exophase mentioned DS wifi will not be emulated it is unlikely such games end up working in the future. So, no multiplayer for Tetris DS, Mariokart to be expected, unfortunately.
Second, not all DS functions seem to be implemented yet. For example, in Phoenix Wright (Ace Attorney series), the investigation scenes requiring 3D rotation and examination of evidence still cause issues (missing button) that prevent from finishing several of the games.
Third, RAM limitation comes into play for some of the roms. Most of DS roms are small in size but certain games go up to 128, 256 or even 512 MB. 128 MB games are usually appropriately supported, but 256 and 512MB seem to be prone to failure if they are zipped (as they need to be uncompressed into RAM). Unzipping the files is another way to get around this RAM limitation.
In terms of speed, Drastic is already very impressive. It is yet to be optimized for all games, but some games (about 20-30%) already run very close to full speed (with or without some degree of frameskip).You can see for yourself that Yoshi’s Island runs extremely fast without frame rate limiter:
Games using the 3D capabilities usually run slower, and noticeably so. 3D capability usage does not always mean actually displaying 3D scenes on screen: even 2D games somehow use 3D capabilities to render 2D-like effects on screen, such as overlay effects. New Super Mario DS is a great example of that: most of the game is made of 2D layers, but the Mario sprite as well as enemies and coin are generated with polygons and 3D engine. When it comes to games using full 3D capabilities to display actual 3D graphics, these games run even slower and are not yet very playable – with stuttering sound and very low framerates. This being said, this is still a very early version and 3D optimization is still very much in the works. Even in the current state, overclocking your unit or better, running it on a 1Ghz Pandora seems to yield better results and faster framerates than the earlier CC or Rebirth models running with an older CPU at lower frequency.
Still, having a working DS emulator is big news. The DS was no less than the Playstation 2 successor in terms of popularity (both reached more than 150 millions units sold and became ubiquitous worldwide), with an extremely high market share and widespread developer support from both 1st and 3rd parties. Its capabilities were certainly behind what the PSP could do, but the sheer amount of games available made up for the lack of power.
Looking forward to the next DraStic upgrades! It is even rumored that an Android version will come to light later on. Until then, consider it a Pandora exclusive !