A modchip is a hardware chip that can be used with gaming consoles to achieve any or all of the following things.
- Playing an imported game
- Playing a backup copy of a game
- Launching homebrew applications
Modchips are used mostly with PlayStation and Xbox consoles. The PS1, PS2, XBOX and GameCube consoles each have security mechanisms which stop them from launching either unauthorized games and software or games intended for consoles sold in another part of the world. Therefore, to achieve these tasks, you have to modify your consoles. More recently, and notably, the Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii have the ability to be modded. Only the PlayStation 3 cannot.
In early 2007, just months after its release, the Nintendo Wii saw a few working modchips created for it, making it able to play downloaded or copied games. The first modchip was known as the Wiinja and only required 5 wires soldered to the device. A second chip, released weeks later was called the CycloWiz and was quick solder requiring no wires. The chips allow for playback of GameCube games as well as homebrew and obviously Wii games. In April, Nintendo began shipping a revised version of the Wii that included an altered circuit layout, one that makes system level mods more difficult to perform. Of course hackers have continued to revise modchips and the war between Nintendo and those wanting to mod their systems continues.
For more information in the News please visit here: Nintendo Wii Modchip News at Afterdawn.
PlayStation and PlayStation 2
Modchips became popular after the launch of the PlayStation console. The early chips made it possible to play imported games on a PlayStation and also made it possible to play copied games. Early PlayStation consoles had a parallel port on the back of the console for debugging purposes and in 1998, a method was discovered to use a Game Enhancer to swap an original disc with a copied disc.
Sony's PlayStation 2 console has a protection on games based on unreadable (broken) sectors. This part of the disc cannot be burned to a blank disc. When a game is inserted into the console, the console performs an authentication check. If that region of the disc is not found, then the disc is not authenticated, and doesn't boot.
There are many different modchips available for the PS2 console. So called "No Solder" modchips do not require soldering to the motherboard for installation. Modchips that have to be soldered onto the motherboard of the console are usually avoided by consumers who do not have the technical ability to install, or the consumers might instead look for a modchip dealer to install a chip, or buy a pre-modded console.
Some modchips require a game swap. These chips are usually used with certain discs like Swap Magic in order to get a backup to load. When the Swap Magic disc is inserted, the PS2 authenticates the disc. Then the modchip disables the eject notification feature of the DVD-ROM drive. Now the user can swap the disc for a backup and proceed to load it. Since the PS2 doesn't "know" that the disc was swapped, it doesn't need to authenticate the disc.
Other more advanced modchips do not require any swap. No Swap modchips replicate the authenticated signal that usually occurs when an original disc is inserted. The BIOS is fooled into booting the disc as a result. These modchips have many more wires that have to be soldered than modchips that depend on swaps.
Some more advanced modchips can also be flashed, allowing upgrades. These chips would give several more options than theirpredecessors such as booting software bypassing the original BIOS. They can also boot from other media such as a HDD add-on, Memory Card or a USB flash drive.
The Xbox gaming console can also be modded in a variety of ways. One easier method is known as Softmodding. Softmodding utilized exploits for several Xbox games that depend on loading altered save game files that cause a buffer overflow resulting in the execution of code that can modify the Xbox firmware. This can then allow the loading of homebrew applications on the console.
Modchips for the Xbox usually take advantage of a 16-pin LPC debugging port that is included on the Xbox motherboard. The console can use this port to load an alternative BIOS. A pin header must be soldered to this port and connected to the modchip and a single solder point outside of the LPC header (D0) must be attached to the modchip also. This leads to the onboard BIOS being bypassed and the loading of the BIOS from the LPC port. A common practice in the modding scene is to use an alternative BIOS (that contains no copyrighted code whatsoever) that can load a Linux Operating System either from DVD or from the Xbox HDD.
Another method is known as a TSOP Flash. This requires 2 points to be soldered which can make the Xbox BIOS chip writeable. Then again the same exploits that make soft modding possible come into use. Using the exploits the chips BIOS can be overwritten and the new BIOS will be loaded whenever the Xbox is booted.
Different alternative BIOS's are in use. Firstly, the Cromwell BIOS can be used, which can be used to boot Linux on an Xbox. There is also what is known as a "hacked BIOS" which is the original Microsoft BIOS modified to launch homebrew code (emulators etc.) as well as allowing booting backups of games. These BIOS's are illegal in some countries. Users also prefer to load an alternative to the original dashboard by Microsoft, such as Evolution-X.
Nintendo's GameCube can also be modified. A modchip called Viper was released for the console last year. It allows users to write some small .DOL files to on-board flash memory but doesn't circumvent copy protection or do pretty much anything that would put it in the Gray area. However a hacked BIOS for it called Cobra surfaced. This BIOS allows users to play backups (on 3in DVDR media) or homebrew making it much easier to play copied games.
Playstation Portable (PSP)
As of May 2006, there is not yet a publicly available modchip for the PSP console. However a chip has been announced and revealed. Up until now, in order to run homebrew and backup copies of games from a Memory Stick Duo, users would need to have PSP firmware v1.50. It is possible to run some homebrew on newer versions of the firmware including 2.00, 2.01, 2.50 and 2.60 through an exploit, but most homebrew that needs kernel space will not run.
A modchip was annouinced in May 2006 called the Undiluted Platinum chip. This is basically a chip that will act as a flash replacement and will allow the usage of earlier flash updates and custom firmware on the PSP. This allows users to run homebrew software without Sony pulling the plug with new updates. The modchip is also designed to fit inside the PSP, so there are no changes to the appearance.
This modchip also provides one major feature, it can bring a "bricked" PSP back to life. The U.P. contains 32MB NAND flash which is programmable from the PC via a high speed USB connection. You may boot the PSP from either its onboard flash or the flash contained on the U.P; the flash which is used is determined by a button press as the PSP is powered on (U.P. flash is used by default, hold L1 to use the PSP onboard flash).
Modchips are definitely in a legal gray area. In the U.S., it could be argued that modchips are illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) because many of them are written with intent to circumvent copy protection mechanisms. Chips do exist too though that only allow the playing of import games. In 2003, iSONEWS was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for modchip sales. The chips had a pre-flashed BIOS there was a hacked version of the Microsoft BIOS. Therefore this case really didn't have much to do with the actual modchip situation, it was all about infringing Microsoft's copyright.
The games industry has been suffering from piracy for as long as games have existed. In modern days, the ESA targets modchip dealers and legislation about modified consoles and game copying.
Modchips in the News
Modchips declared legal in the UK (13 June 2008)- In the UK it has been ruled that the creation and sale of modchips are infact legal, overturning a past ruling by a lower court.
Mod-proof Wiis to be released in Japan? (26 May 2007)- According to Japanese retailers, Nintendo is planning on releasing Wii consoles in Japan that are mod-proof. The new hardware revisions would include the "snipping" of "some of the pins from the surface-mounted IC on the motherboard,", a change that would make current modchips useless.
ELSPA modchip assistance gets man longer jail term (3 April 2006)-The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) helped to extend the prison sentence of a man convicted of handling stolen goods by one month after assisting investigators in proving the man had committed "chipping" offenses. The individual in question, David Hoang, owned a shop called DH Wings, which was raided by the police resulting in his arrest on 23rd February 2006. The police raided the shop for stolen goods and then called on ELSPA for help when the man pleaded not guilty to additional chipping offenses.
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/3831.cfm (ISONews.com busted -- domain redirected to DOJ)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/5436.cfm (Mod Chips illegal in the UK)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/3401.cfm (Major mod chip dealer shut down by Microsoft
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/3443.cfm (Lik-Sang is back)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/4193.cfm (Nintendo won its case against Lik-Sang)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/4407.cfm (Lik Sang settles mod chip case with Sony)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/4902.cfm (Italy Court: PS2 modchips are legal)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/5190.cfm (Xbox and PS2 modchips legal in Spain)
See: https://www.afterdawn.com/news/archive/6906.cfm (Modchips legal says Australian high court)
Future of Modchips
Next generation consoles are coming and whether or not modchips or other methods to modify them will appear is to be seen. One thing is for sure though, security mechanisms on next generation consoles will be a lot more tough to break than those seen on past consoles but nothing will stop hackers from trying to find ways.