Hardware Hacking: The Best (and Worst) Options
Sometimes, there’s just nothing better than playing around on a console. Sure, a PC can do everything your whole collection can do and more, but there’s something about the experience that can’t be replicated with a PC: You can hook a powerful computer up to a TV and get it working with just about any controller with a little work, but without the acts of blowing in a cartridge, waiting for a disc to load, or even just the lack of that charming little opening jingle that all the best consoles have, it can’t equal the experience. You just can’t play Goldeneye 007 in a room with friends if it’s not on real hardware.
However, consoles do have one major weakness, and that’s their flexibility – some have more than others out of the box, but you can’t just check your email on a Switch, or pull up a movie to watch on your Super Nintendo. As such, a big part of the fun of revisiting console gaming when you’re old enough comes in one thing:
There’s just something about the satisfaction you get from getting access to features you couldn’t use before that also can’t be replicated on PC… Sure, you could get a video playing or open up an emulator without any hassle on that fancy laptop, but where’s the love? A computer is MADE to be flexible. That’s why developers seem to have so much trouble making games that run well on them; the more potential configurations hardware can have, the harder it is to program for it. But hacking a console is the opposite situation. It captures a touch of the good old “Resident Evil 2 packed into 64 megabytes” spirit – making the standardized hardware work for you.
All that being said, when it comes to hacking, not all consoles are created equally, and the average user won’t necessarily have the chops – or indeed, the desire – to mechanically re-engineer a piece of specialized, antiquated hardware; to put it simply, some consoles are a lot easier to open up than others, and some get much better benefits from being hacked than others do. If you’ve been looking for a brief overview to decide which of your consoles best needs a tuneup, or if you’ve been trying to decide which console you should buy to build your own little hacked arcade device, this is the article for you. We’re going to cover, from beginning to end, which consoles got it… And which consoles ain’t!
(Note: Yes, every console is capable of an awful lot if you happen to be a skilled engineer; if you can reprogram something, then you can make almost anything do something impressive. This list is explicitly intended for the average hack consumer that these amazingly skilled developers do all their hard work for… Thanks, guys!)
THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL: Atari 2600/5200, Intellivision, NES, Master System, SNES, Genesis/CD/32X, N64, Saturn, Playstation 1, Game Boy (+Color), Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS (OG/Lite), Game Gear, Neo Geo, Neo Geo Pocket, Atari Jaguar, Virtual Boy, 3DO
Don’t get me wrong: not only do I personally own many of these consoles, but I also love them to death. They’ve each got a fantastic suite of games that really earned them their fame, and they all deserve it in spades.
Unfortunately, from a hacking perspective, these consoles have almost nothing going for them. Sure, there’s a couple things you can do – you could file off the plastic pins inside your Super Nintendo so it can read Super Famicom cartridges, mod it with an HDMI output for optimal color and resolution on a modern screen, and even get a Super Everdrive or similar “Flash Cart” to play a wider variety of games. A Game Boy, you could modify with a quarter-inch ProSound output, a backlit biverted screen, and all new buttons, as well as a flash cart of its own… But, at the end of the day, you can’t make these consoles be anything more than what they are. A Super Nintendo, outfitted with all the bells and whistles listed above, is still only a Super Nintendo; a Super SUPER Nintendo, to be sure, but it will never play a video or do anything other than what Nintendo explicitly programmed it to do: Play SNES games. Every one of these consoles can be improved, but none of their functions can be changed. A Game Boy Advance cannot play vide- okay, there was Game Boy Video, but that looked terrible and is really best forgotten. Let’s move on.
NOPE. NOT GETTING OUT OF THIS CHAIR… THE UNHACKABLE: Xbox One
There’s no way in. We’ve been trying, and trying, and trying, but it’s locked tight, solid as a rock… Not budging a single, solitary, inch. That’s the theme of the indestructible Xbox One. Say what you will about the console’s overall quality, but I’ll tell you one thing; hacking this thing hasn’t been done yet. Partially due to limited interest, of course – the Xbox One’s limited market share compared to the PS4 and Switch didn’t earn it many fans within the hacking community either – but a major part of that is also because they made the thing an iron wall. Sure, it could be done with the right team behind it, but that’s true of almost anything. Hacking teams tend to be very altruistic when it comes to their communities, to be sure, but who out there is clamoring for a hacked Xbox One? I’m sure there’s ONE person out there, maybe even two (both of whom may gather in the comments here: organize, fellas, get heard!), but even if the thing gets hacked open, what’s the advantage of a hacked Xbox One over a PC? Style? I don’t think even style can earn it some points, here. This category isn’t the be-all, end-all, but I’d wager you’ll have to sit and wait for a long, LONG time for your Xbox One to get hacked open, and I wouldn’t recommend holding my breath over it, either. That being said, this category does get one step over the previous one because, despite all those limitations, if the Xbox One ever DID get hacked, it could potentially do an awful lot.
IT CAN BE HACKED… KIND OF… SORT OF: Xbox 360
The 360 does get some decent options if you manage to crack it, like loading backups and bypassing region locks. However, the console’s lot is an unfortunate one on two fronts. The first is that these added functions aren’t much compared to some competing systems; you can beat out the 360 pretty easily in that regard, so going out of your way to hack the 360 instead of its direct competitors is a bit of an oddball effort. The second, and biggest, misfortune is just how much you stand to lose. A 360 can only be hardmodded; there are various ways of going about it depending on which hardware revision you own, some cheaper than others, but you can’t just put a file on a USB or go to a website and crack the 360 like you can some other systems. So, this adds an immediate higher risk of sc*** up your console fatally – a software crack doesn’t tend to do this kind of thing often, but when you break open a console literally, that ups the risk of an issue coming up tenfold.
Not to mention that you’ll be throwing away one functionality for another… You can play online, or you can play backups, but you can’t do both, especially not at the same time. Say goodbye to playing a quick round of Black Ops 2 online with your buddies, because it’s all local play for you from now on! You can still hack a 360, of course, and if you don’t play online anyway, then it won’t really hurt you much to give it a go. But I definitely don’t recommend it.
THIS IS WHERE I’D PUT MY HACKED CONSOLE… IF I HAD ONE!: Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
These consoles have a nice set of mods you can use to your advantage; Retroarch forks, loading backups, customized themes… It really is a lovely world at your fingertips. Unfortunately, right now, your options to get there are extremely limited. Hacking a PS4 requires software that is several months out of date. Hacking a Switch both requires old software, AND a version of the console that was manufactured before 2018… AND, you’ll need to purchase a physical modchip, which… Well, good luck finding one now (read the article preceding this one for more on that)! You can go out of your way to find these older-version consoles on sites like eBay, but that’s a new game entirely to play – between bidding wars and finding out for sure that the console you’re looking at will be “hack-friendly”, you stand to have more than your share of issues… Especially since these third-party sellers tend to know about hacks these days and will jack up their prices to match.
Don’t worry, though. It may seem hopeless, but this is an area that tends to change very quickly. Not so long ago, the Playstation Vita was in here: for years, it simply COULD NOT BE HACKED, unless you had a software version installed that was over a year out of date, or tracked down an elusive PSP game that was generally removed from the digital store the exact day you went to look for it, and even then that only hacked the PSP portion so it was no better than its immediate predecessor… But this phase doesn’t last forever; that is to say, this category is not a death sentence. You can rest assured that someday, an easy set of PS4 and Switch hacks will surface… Of course, by that point, we’ll be waiting on the PS5 and Super Switch in this category as well. The point is, every console had a period in here. And every console escapes it. I look forward to that day, but until then, the systems that are sitting in here deserve their spot.
IT’S HARD TIME, BUT IT’S GOOD TIME: Playstation 2, Xbox (OG), SEGA Dreamcast, Nintendo Gamecube
This hardware generation offered a lot of firsts for the gaming community at large. Online play, previously a PC-exclusive, had been translated quite nicely to the console experience (yes, it was previously added to the Saturn as well, but it only really became feasible for more than just one or two games with this generation). In addition, the consoles tended to have some neat bonus quirks – the Gamecube could play everything a Game Boy Advance could with a neat little undermounted accessory, while the Dreamcast could play audio CDs (which Sony decided not to bring over as an option with the new generation) and had a special memory card with a screen called the VMU, which could even play some simple games on the go. The PS2 and Xbox went the extra mile themselves by including an option to add an internal hard drive; a stunning reveal in the era where 32 megabytes was enough to hold your saves for your entire collection. The purported purpose of these additions was to reduce load times by copying some data off of the game disk before play…
Of course, the modding community took to this like moths to a flame. Nowadays, thanks to the efforts of those brave few, we can easily play backups, use emulators, try out fancy homebrew games, and even get access to netplay long after the servers have shut down: Long live Timesplitters: Future Perfect!
There is a weakness to this, and that is that each of these consoles needs a hardware mod of some sort. The PS2 requires a special “SwapMagic” disk to properly install an exploit on one of its memory cards. The Gamecube needs a specially customized modchip to allow it to read custom DVDs, unless you happen to have a burner/presser for, and supply of, teeny tiny little buddy disks (you don’t, nobody does).
The Dreamcast, while it can run some mods without changes (like loading CD backups of games without any kind of hack), could really use an internal drive mod to make the most of its cracked potential.
And the Xbox, while it doesn’t need a custom chip or anything to be cracked, does require a burner game to get the magic working (someday 007: Agent Under Fire is going to be very valuable because of all the modders buying it up… Actually, no, it’s still going to be worthless then). Thankfully, none of these mods are too hard to do (I’d say the easiest are the PS2 and Dreamcast, the hardest is the Gamecube, and the Xbox is somewhere in between), and you get a nice set of functions for your trouble.
Some of my favorite stuff that you get out of hacking these consoles: The PS2’s Graphics Synthesizer Mode Selector, or GSM, lets you manually choose between several scaling modes to make games look their best on whatever TV you happen to be using – since the scalers in TVs tend to vary in quality, this is invaluable to preserving your games’ graphical quality without going out of your way to buy an expensive rescaler box or a better TV.
The original Xbox, amazingly, is so powerful that, just by upgrading the RAM to 128 megabytes, it can decently emulate the Playstation One! You could do this on a PS2 as well without the issues (thanks to hardware compatibility), of course, but there’s something to be said for a console’s quality when it, without any native hardware, can play the last-gen games of its direct competitor!
The Dreamcast’s CD drive, while amazing in that it allows you to load burned games without any kind of hack to the console itself, does have a limitation in that the CDs made specially for the console were bigger than the 700 megabyte standard your average CD-R uses. The solution? A simple soldering mod lets you load games right off of a standard IDE hard drive, which comes with faster loading times, less wear and tear on the Dreamcast’s (sadly fragile) laser, and bragging rights. Theoretically, if you got a big enough drive, you could store the entire library of the console inside of it! How’s that for a Dreamcast Mini?
I’m making all of this sound easier than it actually is, of course, but very little of this requires real expertise in modding, and you do get some nice benefits out of the deal. I’d recommend the PS2 as the best of this bunch to mod, thanks to it being the easiest to hack, having lots of continuing support, and also having hardware backwards compatibility, but any of the consoles in this spot would be a decent choice for a mod. However, I wouldn’t recommend modding the Gamecube, because…
SAME AS THE LAST CATEGORY, BUT EASY: Nintendo Wii
The original Wii was much like the previous generation; both literally in that it used nearly the exact same GPU as the Gamecube, and figuratively for us in that it gains very similar benefits from hacking. However, it soundly crushes its older brother as far as modding goes, due to it offering the exact same thing, but in a substantially better package. Not only can you easily hack it without any kind of hardware mod at all, but once you do, you instantly get not only every single feature that a Gamecube can use, like playing its entire library with the original controllers, but you also gain the entirety of the Wii’s library, plus extremely convenient features like loading games off of a USB, modding games like Super Smash Brothers Brawl with The Homebrew Channel and GeckoOS, and even some emulators that, while they have some imperfections (bsnes/Higan this ain’t), can play games pretty darned well. You can even make the thing play DVD movies (though this isn’t recommended as it strains the disk reader’s laser pretty bad, as it wasn’t meant for it)!
However, this console isn’t in the next rank for two reasons. The first is because it’s still locked in the era of standard definition; even with special cables, the best you can natively render is 480p. The second is because the next sets of consoles are even better as far as functionality goes!
A Wii is still an excellent console to grab for modding purposes, and a very attractive one for one big reason – it’s dirt cheap! You can grab a Wii for sixty bucks off of eBay, and there’s always some summer garage sale or flea market that’s got one for even less. Even its controllers are cheap – while used Gamecube controllers are climbing a bit in price thanks to love from the Smash community, Wiimotes can be snagged for ten to fifteen bucks each anywhere, anytime.
MOBILE GOLD: Nintendo DSi, Nintendo 3DS (Original and New), Sony PSP, Playstation Vita
You might be amazed just what you can take on the go these days. Before I start here, I’d like to break these down into two separate categories: The old, and the new.
The old is the Nintendo DSi and the Sony PSP. These consoles still have tons of potential! The DSi can be hacked to take advantage of the hardware inside of it that Nintendo hid away – there’s still a functional Game Boy Advance in there, and by extension, a Game Boy and Game Boy Color as well. Since this is hardware compatibility we’re talking about here, games are practically guaranteed to run 100% perfectly! You can also get the thing to load DS and DSi backups, and it can even do a touch of emulating thanks to RocketRobz’ TWiLight Menu. The PSP can also load its share of emulators, and does them much better than the DSi, so you can feasibly play some Genesis and even SNES on it. The built-in PSP backup stuff is pretty sweet too, and it even has a great PSX emulator made by Sony themselves! The PSP also shines quite nicely as a little media hub, being capable of playing back simple video, music and picture files easily natively, and doing it even better with Cooley’s PMPlayer Advance. With a simple SD card outlet for the DSi and Mini USB (a standard that needs to come back, it just feels so much more secure a connection than Micro) for the PSP, it’s easy to connect and hack, and you get a lot for your efforts.
The new category includes the Nintendo 3DS and the Playstation Vita. Yes, they are new(er), but why do they get a special category? Because they can do absolutely everything that their equivalent in the old category can do, plus their own set of features. The 3DS is far, FAR superior as far as emulating goes: not only does it still have all the hardware compatibility of the DSi, but the big boost in power (especially on the New model) means it can play a lot more; Asdolo94’s New Super Ultimate Injector officially supports NES, SNES, Game Boy, GameBoy Color, Game Boy Advance, Genesis, Game Gear and even TurboGrafx-16. Just picture it: on one console, you can natively play nearly all of the Pokemon games (bar the console titles of course), or maybe put in your cart of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies and back up (or restore) your save with BernardoGiordano’s “Checkpoint”, and all within the native 3DS user interface that just happens to have a custom theme based on your favorite band installed… On ONE console.
This, here, folks, is where hacking really begins to pay off.
The Vita is in just the same boat, and which you prefer will come down to taste; on the one hand, you give up the libraries of the DS, DSi and 3DS, but then, you gain the libraries of the PSX, PSP, and Vita. However, the Vita truly shines in the “console optimization” department which the 3DS has very little competition against – just by installing a few simple plugins, you can improve the quality of the Vita’s analog sticks by customizing their deadzones and sensitivity, enable the playback of music files anywhere on the Vita even when a game doesn’t support allowing it, boost a supporting game’s resolution from the Vita native (likely below it, few games maxed out the Vita’s resolution) to 720p (a huge fidelity boost from ~540p), and to make up for the performance hitches of high res rendering, overclock the system using a very simple menu (either VSH or Lolicon; VSH lets you clock up to the console’s max, while Lolicon lets you go just a bit further) to keep things running nice and smooth. I tend to be a bigger fan of the hacked 3DS as far as library goes, but there’s just no beating how great a Vita can look and play when you get something like Soul Sacrifice Delta going at 720p max clocks. The Vita’s one real weakness, its proprietary storage, even has a direct counter – SD2Vita, a hardware mod available for ridiculously cheap ($6 is a STEAL, let me tell you, and it’s so widely available that you can get it off of Amazon), lets you use the Vita’s game slot as an Micro SD card slot instead, supporting obscene memory upgrades that dwarf the 3DS’ potential storage (while 3DS games tend to be smaller, the fact is that cards above 32 gigabytes in size are a little picky about working right. The Vita with SD2Vita can octuple that number without even blinking).
Both are relatively easy to crack as well. The 3DS is stupidly simple, just needing some net-based toggles in place before a few files can be loaded off the SD card; going from zero to a hundred takes about an hour. The Vita is a little trickier, as it requires some fiddling with drivers on a PC and downgrading to get it to work just right, but it’s still not too difficult, and the payoff is absolutely incredible. The only reason the consoles in this category aren’t at the top? The next ones are still even better. Yep. Brace yourself, because now, it’s time for…
THE UNSTOPPABLE GODS: Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii U
I’ve had a handful of friends laugh at me for keeping these things. When the new generation came about, all my buddies jumped onto PS4 and just couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to upgrade. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who won’t chuckle a bit when you pull out the Wii U. “Oh, what are we going to play, Nintendo Land, the one game that hasn’t been ported to Switch? Ha ha ha!”
How little they know.
First of all, you have to remember just how great the Playstation 3 is before it has any kind of modification done to it. Out of the box, it can play PS3 and PSX games right off the disks (and PS2 games, if you had an older model), but you could also throw in a DVD or Blu Ray movie and watch it. You can even play an Audio CD; no, not just play, but RIP the tracks onto your system storage to enjoy any time. Common video formats, like most x264 and base codec MP4s, can also be copied and played back at any time. Pictures? Yep, they work too, and you can get a slideshow going, with music played off the hard drive. These are features that people usually need to hack to do.
The Wii U, while seeming less impressive on the surface, still has a couple nice things going for it out of the box as well. For example, everyone knows that it had all the Wii hardware inside of it, and can easily play Wii games. And, while it does need the gamepad to do many things, it also readily supports and actively uses Wiimotes as controllers for multiplayer and the like: which, as we established in the Wii category, are just about the cheapest controllers around.
But those days are past.
The Wii U has become a monstrous emulating machine, supporting every generation that came before it with frightening power: it’s not always perfect, but it easily handles Gamecube and Wii natively, and can do PSX with software without too much trouble. Working off of official Nintendo ports has enabled pretty great Nintendo 64 and DS support as well: yes, DS. I firmly believe that the Wii U is the only emulating device that can do the DS justice; do it on PC and you have to do some weird screen split gimmick that doesn’t work right, and even if it does, never FEELS right. The Wii U’s gamepad working as the touch screen while the TV works as the top is nothing short of perfect, and it even supports rendering games in a higher resolution, massively boosting the visual quality of 3D games like Dragon Quest IX and Super Mario 64 DS. Also, if you’ve got a bit of a vendetta against Nintendo as a company (they killed Mother 4, guys, let the hate fester), all the games that have been ported to Switch run just as well on the Wii U, and you can track those versions down for cheaper than the Switch’s $60 iron wall standard; and buying them used doesn’t put a penny in their pockets. Overall, for Nintendo fans, the Wii U represents a cavalcade of delights both modern and vintage – and it’s also cheap, because people who would never dream of hacking a console see no value in the poor little guy. It’s not as dirt cheap as the original Wii, of course, but a complete bundle for under $150, considering the longevity issues if a gamepad isn’t treated right, definitely falls under the “very reasonable” category.
The Playstation 3 when hacked is, without exaggeration, the pinnacle of human achievement (okay, maybe a little exaggeration). PSX, PS2, PS3 and PSP (yeah, PSP, go figure) with native or half-native (compatibility overall is good, and in earlier models is perfect) support, and all the 2D stuff, as usual, but where the PS3 really shines is in its incredible status as a master-class fightcade. Using a modded MadCatz TES+ fightstick (a stick I wholeheartedly recommend – modding sticks is fun, too!), I’ve punched, kicked, and otherwise blasted my way through hundreds of losses (hey, I didn’t say I was GOOD at fighting games) in everything from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (as well as All-Star Battle), The King of Fighters XIII, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, Soul Calibur IV… Look, I have Shrek Super Slam on there. It really is that flexible a fightcade. With a PS3, you’re only missing out on a handful of popular fighting games, like Dragon Ball FighterZ and Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, but you’ve got access to way, WAY more classics than just the ones I listed: including my favorite fighter of all time, Marvel VS CAPCOM 2. Or, if fighting isn’t your thing, there are still some great ports of other arcade classics available, like X-Men, The Simpsons Arcade Game and Crazy Taxi… And, amazingly enough, as of the writing of this article, the PS3 digital store is still up, so you can acquire tons of this stuff legitimately; though not doing so can possess precious little risk, thanks to apps like KW’s PSN Patch (though neither KW nor I can guarantee that you won’t still get in trouble depending on what you do, what I can say is that I personally have yet to have any kind of trouble, with both a cracked Vita and PS3). Plus, you can play a good version of Demon’s Souls; if the remake just didn’t do it for you, everything that made the original great is still there, and fans have brought back the online aspect as well with a custom server (that, unlike the official server back when, doesn’t lag your game). All this, plus its monstrous support for video and music playback, make the PS3 a giant…
Plus, you can install Linux on these. I know somebody would get upset if I didn’t mention that, so… There you go.
The best thing about these consoles is that getting all of these features unlocked is ridiculously easy; while neither system is as braindead-simple to hack as the 3DS or Wii, they are nonetheless simple enough to do on a day off from work.
CONCLUSIONS, AKA TL/DR
There’s a lot to like about everything listed here, but just what console(s) you choose to crack depends on you. If you love the idea of playing old school games on the couch with your buddies, then look no further than a PS3 or Wii U: or both, for the best of both worlds. If you love your games on the go and want to show off your hacking chops without bringing people home with you, give a glance to the 3DS or PS Vita. If you want to get the most bang for your buck if you’re on a budget, the Wii is a great choice to get an awful lot for very little. If you thrill in the sheer challenge of a hack and want bragging rights, the original Xbox can be quite the conversation piece (and until SEGA finally ports them, you can be one of the lucky few who can play Jet Set Radio Future and Toejam & Earl III: Mission to Earth). As for hacking or modding the hardware you already own, just about everything can get some kind of upgrade from a custom job… Just don’t try anything with the Xbox One.