Through the wonderful world of homebrew, you can develop your own games, applications and run custom code on your favorite consoles or emulators. The Nintendo homebrew scene blew up in the early 2000s with the Game Boy Advance (GBA) and Nintendo DS as people found ways to execute custom software on these devices using independently built and open-source development tools. This meant you didn’t have to be part of an established game studio to make games, anyone who knew how to code, or wanted to learn how to code could do it themselves.
Today, these tools have continued to mature and expand to modern consoles like the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo has made it slightly easier to get your hands on their official development kit but if you go that route you’ll still have to go through an application process, convince them that you’ve got something good, and sign an NDA which will prohibit you from openly discussing their development tools. This is well within their right, and a necessary process if you are planning on selling your creation as an officially licensed Nintendo product. But what if you just want to start building games or software without a particular title in mind, or you want to build for older systems that are no longer in production?
Fortunately you can with freely available homebrew tools. Homebrew can be a great way to learn game development and familiarize yourself with console hardware. In this tutorial, we’ll be setting up a homebrew development environment on Windows. MacOS users can do the same here, and Linux users can here. Once you’re set up, you’ll be able to start building games and writing code for any of the following consoles:
We’ll be using devkitPro, a tried and true producer of homebrew toolchains for Nintendo consoles. Go to the official devkitPro Getting Started guide and follow their instructions under “Windows” to download the latest version of the graphical installer from the GitHub releases page. You'll be downloading an installer called “devkitProUpdater-X.X.X.exe”.
Run through the installation process as they describe in their Getting Started guide under “Windows”. A couple of things to note: During the process you can select which consoles you want to install tools for. By default, all consoles will be included in the installation. We will be running through and building a ROM for the GBA, so be sure to leave that checked during the installation. We will be using MSYS for entering commands when we compile below. For instructions on opening MSYS for your specific version of Windows, again, see devkitPro's Getting Started wiki here.
Free and open-source emulators exist for all Nintendo consoles. In our example, we are building a .gba ROM, so we'll need a GBA emulator. For this, we'll be using Visual Boy Advance (VBA) which is one of the best and most popular GBA emulators that’s been around for decades.
The process is very similar for other consoles: