A class on the Nintendo DS?

© 2011 EPFL

© 2011 EPFL

Professor David Atienza is offering his third-year electrical engineering students an unusual option – developing video games on the Nintendo DS. The course is a complete success.

The chance to program and create video games on the Nintendo DS – a dream opportunity for many a student at EPFL! This is now a reality, thanks to Professor David Atienza. Since February, future electrical engineering graduates can follow a course that consists of developing a game called “Tetris” on the well-known portable console, and then to use the knowledge acquired to create other video games.

At the beginning of the course, the students receive a “kit”, including a Nintendo DS and a graphical interface, together with a compiler and a Nintendo DS simulator. They are also provided with a memory card, on which they can load applications designed especially for them, using a small Nintendo DS cartridge. It’s on this memory card – which can be inserted either in a portable computer or in the mini-console – that they program the video games. Their objective is to develop a system capable of controlling the Nintendo DS hardware, consisting of the various keys and the touch-screen. There is also a creative aspect to the work, as the students also have to design graphics, create animations and come up with some music to accompany the game.

Although the “mission” seems to be rather recreational, the course has a very specific goal – to bring genuine added-value to the studies of these third-year electrical engineers. “When they begin the course, the students already have a very good individual understanding of how to create various components and electrical devices, like circuits. Now they have to learn how to combine them, in order to develop a system in its entirety”, explains David Atienza.

“A tangible result”
The course has become very popular, and has aroused the passions of many students. Professor Atienza has even agreed to take some students from the School of Computer and Communication Sciences who asked if it would be possible to follow the studies, without being officially enrolled. Although they obtain no credits, they are able to refine their expertise in programming. As a result, the enthusiasm in the classroom is almost palpable.

“It’s very interesting to create something tangible and to be able to program on a console that everybody knows”, comments Chloé Weber, one of the students sitting on the front row. “That’s exactly why I chose to study electrical engineering – to understand the functioning of devices we use every day.” Chloé’s view is echoed by her fellow student Paul Ferranet, who is studying electronics: “I never did anything like this before. The course enables us to understand systems in their entirety, and to focus on all their elements. Even though we don’t understand everything, and there is a lot of programming, it’s captivating.”

A competition to elect the best game
The complexity of the task to be performed doesn’t, however, prevent the students from being ambitious. “They have lots of ideas. For example, one group would like to develop a car-race game for several players, so we provided them with a Bluetooth card, which will allow them to connect several Nintendo DS consoles together”, enthuses the professor. “Others are planning to develop a planner, or even an interface enabling a connection to Facebook via the console.”
Encouraged by this profusion of ideas, David Atienza has decided to mark the end of the course in style. In June, he will organize a competition to reward the student who has created the best game. “Nice graphics are not enough, however – the students have to use all the functionalities of the console. The winner will receive a Nintendo DS.”

Reference: Course in micro-programmed embedded systems by Professor David Atienza.