The Glory Days of Xbox Modding

With home computing, people have always had the ability to modify the computer to suit their needs. This was true of most game consoles as well.  For example, a Super Game Boy turned a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) into a machine that played Game Boy games in color on a television. With Sega Genesis, you could attach a 32X to give it 32-bit power, or a Sega CD to get the storage benefits of optical media. There are examples throughout the industry, but eventually the ability to modify fell into the user’s hands.

The earliest example I know is the PlayStation, released in 1995. There was a “swap trick” that worked with any PlayStation. Using a AAA battery to hold the lid sensor down, you could swap in a legal disc, and at the right moment, remove the disc and insert a burned copy, and play the burned copy. PlayStation later got a modchip, so you could simply play burned copies of games.

Dreamcast was released four years later, but Sega discontinued it less than two years after they released it. Someone found a way to run unsigned code (not approved by Sega) on the machine, and it grew wings. You could play copied games. You could play “homebrew games,” i.e., games developed by a hobbyist, such as a remake of Tetris. A real gem was Beats of Rage, in the vein of Streets of Rage for Genesis, with modern graphics.

But my favorite thing you could do is emulate classic consoles. Emulation in gaming is recreating the hardware of an old console in software, allowing classic games to be played on newer systems. NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, Game Boy… it was all supported on the Dreamcast with a burned disc not licensed by Sega. I gave a friend a burned copy of the NES emulator with many games, and he immediately jumped to Super Mario Bros. 3 and played skillfully from muscle memory. It was impressive.

The one emulator that truly worked on Dreamcast was the NES emulator. The developer pored a lot of his time into it, and included box art, game manuals, the ability to have a favorites list, and standard features like save state support (the ability to save anywhere). I got the impression the developer made optimizations specific to the Dreamcast, so that the emulator would run better. Most other emulators weren’t as polished. Some had frame-skip, skipping moments in games. Ultimately, the Dreamcast scene left me wanting more.

The Xbox was my answer, and with it, an Xbox modchip. It’s important to know the original Xbox was a PowerPC computer with off-the-shelf components. Apple ran Macs on PowerPC processors before switching to Intel/x86 (and rumor has it they’re now considering switching to ARM). Someone found an exploit that allowed custom code on the Xbox. The best way to take advantage of this was installing a modchip in the corner of the motherboard. My uncle and I tried this and failed, so I found a modder in New Jersey who charged a fee for his work.

The Xbox, once modded, could run its own operating system, XBMC, or Xbox Media Center. This is a feat I had never seen in home gaming. I think there was a wide base of developers who knew the PowerPC architecture and could make software with ease. Sure enough, there was an emulator porter who ported PC emulators to the Xbox. With the handle “X·Port”, he ported emulators that ran at full speed for NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, Game Boy/Advance, and even a full speed PlayStation emulator. There was a Nintendo 64 emulator by a different developer, and my friends and I had a fun day playing Monopoly at about half-speed.

A modded Xbox could support a 250GB hard drive, far more than the stock 10GB drive. Plenty of room for the music, movies, TV shows, and games you love. There was software that let you rip Xbox games to the hard drive so you’d never have to look for the disc again. There was visualization for music, similar to that in WinAmp, giving you something to watch while enjoying music. People even put LCD monitors on the front of their Xbox that said what was running presently, or stats about the Xbox itself. Mine had a switch on the front, that allowed the system to act as though there was no modchip.  Oh, and people painted the thing to make it look cool.

The sad truth is, the rest of the world caught up with what we were doing on our Xbox’s, but it took some years. There was formerly no good way to connect a home computer to a TV, and the Xbox was a home computer once modded. Now with HDTVs and their successor, UHD TVs, you can easily plug a computer into a television, with no legal gray area about it. Find the right software, and you have a launching interface for software (LaunchBox, rLauncher, etc), what’s known as a “ten-foot interface,” which a modded Xbox had before the term was coined.

If you look at Microsoft now, they are actively recruiting hobbyist developers to make software for Xbox. Meanwhile, I have an Xbox app on my laptop, that lets me play Xbox games. But I also have Steam, and uPlay, and Origin, and GOG Galaxy, all running on my laptop. What once was unavailable legally is now… well… available legally, with a price attached. Examples include the Mega Man Legacy Collection, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, and Sega offering 59 Genesis games on Steam. All games in these packages could run on a modded Xbox.

I will never forget the thrill and the do-it-yourself nature of making a modded Xbox my own.

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