By May 23, 2006

Adventures in Xbox Modding

Since I can’t justify buying a Slim Devices Squeezebox, I started looking for cheaper alternatives. Cheaper meaning something I didn’t have to buy and that I already had around the house. I considered putting my file server downstairs, but that also serves as my DVD and CD ripping station and that seemed like a bigger pain in the ass than it was worth. Plus, my file server is a full-sized tower and has roughly a hojillion fans in it. I started pricing out a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) but to build one and configure it was upwards of $600+ easily, and I’d have to learn a bunch of new crap, like how to capture and encode TV programs on the fly.

Then I remembered my original Xbox, which was sitting downstairs. I hadn’t used it since … well, maybe since we moved to Richmond last year. I have been playing my GameCube and my PS2 a lot more. I knew that the Xbox could be modified to do all sorts of neat tricks, like run homebrew code, copy DVDs and games to the hard drive, and jump through hoops of flame. Well, maybe not the last part.

I dusted off the ol’ black beast and went to work.

The end goal: Xbox Media Center
The magic bullet for watching video and streaming audio to our televisions would take the form of Xbox Media Center, an open-source project that is so damn good it should be a commercially-produced product. It allows for the decoding of almost any audio or video format one could think of, and
Soft or Hard?
The first thing I had to decide was if I wanted to hardmod or softmod my Xbox. Hardmodding meant buying a special chip and soldering it to the motherboard of my Xbox. You can also buy solderless chips, but I heard that they were fragile and any bumping or serious moving of the Xbox would muck up the solderless hardmod. I wasn’t too keen on soldering, so I looked into softmodding. It also has easy-to-use hooks to Xlink Kai, which is a free way to play Xbox games online with other people, local weather, an RSS reader, and all sorts of other stuff. More on that in the future.

Softmodding could be accomplished by an exploit found in a select few original Xbox titles. The short version is that certain versions of MechAssault, 007: Agent Under Fire, and Counterstrike cause a buffer overflow on the Xbox, which allows for running unsigned code. By loading an alternate “dashboard” (essentially the OS for the Xbox), you can run your own code on the Xbox and enable all kinds of new functionality.

Read the fine print
I immediately ran into a few problems with softmodding that I wouldn’t have had I chosen to hardmod my Xbox. The first of which was that there are about 100 different HOWTOs on the Web about softmodding. Unfortunately, none of them are 100% up to date, or 100% informative. The tutorials that were more up to date sometimes left of crucial information (more on that later). Tutorials that were very specific often were written two years ago, and as such the steps on what to do after you exploited your Xbox were out of date. I had to consult two different articles and three different forum threads across two boards to get my shit working right.

I chose to use MechAssault to do my softmod. I’m not sure why I chose this game, as it was probably the most complicated choice out of the three options. MechAssault has been released in several “editions,” and some of the editions have been fixed so that the softmod exploit won’t work. The way to identify which version of the game works is by looking at the serial number on the printed label on the front of the disc. It also means reading the serial number on the disc itself. This last bit was left off of the tutorial I used for the majority of my hack. The article was written in 2005, and I guess the author assumed that by now everyone knew to double check the MechAssault serial in addition to the disc serial.

I walked in to EBGames and went up to the counter. There were three young men working behind the counter, and one of them greeted me and asked me if I needed any help. I wondered if I should make up some bullshit story about wanting to play MechAssault, but I decided that honesty was the best policy here and blurted out, “I want to softmod my Xbox. I’m looking for a certain version of MechAssault.” They all smiled in unison and began digging through the used games behind the counter. I looked at the serial number on the front of the disc, it was what I needed. I bought the game for $2.99 used and bought a replacement cable for my Xbox controller ($4) and a memory card ($15). I actually had to come back for the memory card, as I had forgotten that I needed them when I got the game and the cable the first time.

I came home and began the extremely tedious job of hacking my Xbox controller cable to a USB cable. See, Xbox controllers are actually USB devices with a proprietary plug on the end. How Microsoft ;). I spliced a USB cable to the controller cable so that I could copy the exploit files from my computer to the Xbox memory card. I could have bought a pre-made cable for about $10 +shipping on eBay or a commercial version from Circuit City for $30, but it was worth it to me to spend about an hour doing the cable myself.

Okay, so we have the exploit files on the memory card now, and all I have to do is put MechAssault in the Xbox, load the exploited save game, and BOOYAKA we have a softmodded Xbox. No problem — disc in … copy save game over … load save game …. Hrm. “Cannot load save game ‘Run Linux.'” It didn’t work. Thinking that my homemade cable led to a save game corruption, I took the cable apart, put it back together, and copied the files to the memory card again. Still no dice.

I was at my wits end and was considering doing a hardmod when I went back to one of my other tutorials. That’s when I learned that certain versions of MechAssault had the proper game serial on the front of the disc, but were the wrong disc serial on the back. I went back to EBGames, said, “I need a different version of MechAssault,” and they gave me what I needed without so much as a smirk.

Okay, so we have the exploit files on the memory card now, and all I have to do is put MechAssault in the Xbox, load the exploited save game, and BOOYAKA we have a softmodded Xbox. No problem — disc in … copy save game over … load save game …. Hey, this time it worked! I was well on the way to backing up the essential default files of my Xbox and installing the new dashboard. Once I had all the right pieces in order, the process was quite fast and easy. I softmodded the Xbox I have for the downstairs in about 10 minutes without a snag.

Ever since I’ve softmodded my two Xboxes I’ve been looking for others to join my little club. So far there haven’t been any biters. Trust me, if you find someone who’s already done it, it will be MUCH easier on you. 🙂

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Posted in: games, technology

1 Comment on "Adventures in Xbox Modding"

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  1. ca11away says:

    I hope we will be modding mine SoonTM