Sep 07 2016

The Fleeting Lives of Hardware Hacking Scenes

I spent Tuesday this week reading old posts on, a Wii homebrew website, learning everything I could about the history of the Wii homebrew scene (at least, what is documented on that site) and trying to understand what I can about how the Nintendo Wii actually works.

I’m a big fan of the actual technology behind game consoles – these little, specialty computers which have one primary goal – running entertainment software. Moreover, I love when hobbyists get into this hardware and make it do things it was never intended to do – run custom software.

My love of this started back in 2010 when I finally snagged an original Xbox – I had an opportunity to get one cheap, so I did. This 9 year old console was basically a very custom 2001-era PC in a box, and with a few hard drive swaps and some custom CD’s being burned, I had installed a custom operating system and some special media center software on it. Over the years, I’ve continued to overhaul and tweak this box into its current form, studying details where I can on just how it works, why it is the way it is, and looking for more, exciting software to try on it (well, as exciting as software can get.. you know what I mean!)

Recently, I purchased a couple of Nintendo Wii consoles for dirt cheap as well. While I already owned my own Wii, I never wanted to mod it, for both personal and logical reasons (for one, it’s a later model which doesn’t feature Gamecube support.) I immediately set out with one of these Wii consoles to get it software modded, or “softmodded” as the term is, to see just what the Wii could do, and what was out there to play around with. Of course, this also meant reading up on the console and learning how unique it is when compared to something like the Xbox, or a typical computer.

My modded xbox has been quite the project off and on over the last few years, hardware and software wise.

My modded xbox has been quite the project off and on over the last few years, hardware and software wise.

I took the time Tuesday to just read up all I could on hackmii, getting a much better understanding on how people discovered how the Wii works, the concept that Nintendo had with the IOS structure, and hunting around to try out more random software on the console. I had what I wanted on there, but I wanted to naturally play around with other programs.

That’s when I discovered something that is common to most any hardware modding scene, be it the Xbox, the PSP, or the Wii – the short half lives of these console modding communities.

The final post on the Hackmii blog is a tribute in February of 2016 to a long term member of the community – the last post before that, one that actually involves the modding scene activities, is dated to around December of 2012, the same time period as the entry of the WiiU.

While people are working on it, the Wii U has only recently been opened up to homebrew software, with much of the system currently a mystery, so the Wii is still a the most current hardware from Nintendo that  regular people can develop for without major issues. While I understand people getting bored, and leaving the scene, I would imagine others would come in and try to make more software, or people would finish what they start before leaving, but nope… it’s almost a ghost town. The Wii isn’t alone in this – the original Xbox has had the same issue for many, many years now, and this issue is the point of this article.

A Wii homebrew website, contains a very useful assortment of specialty programs to run on a softmodded Wii. The site clearly is still kept up with, for what it’s worth, as a tribute message to the same scene member is present here, as well, but much of the actual software listed on the site is seemingly abandoned by its authors, to a point where in some cases it is simply not available at all – let alone in a working state with the current Wii ecosystem. Pages list plans for future updates to programs; updates which will never happen. There are links to author sites that go nowhere, download links that are long expired, and everything just has a sort of frozen in time feel to it, as if everyone who worked on such just disappeared all at once, never to be heard from again.

Let's install some custom software on a Wii!

Let’s install some custom software on a Wii!

On the Xbox scene, the most terrible example of this is the UnleashX dashboard – my preferred choice of custom user interface on the original Xbox. This dash is forever locked at version 0.39a, with a build which still contains many small, but still present, bugs. This last update dates back to I think around 2009-2010 range, with not even a source code release coming afterwards so others can polish up the software.

Sure, there are people still writing original Xbox code, but they are few and far between. About the only example I can really think of is the old Xbox Media Center (XBMC) or whatever they want to call it now still getting new builds for the original Xbox. Otherwise, anything else custom out there is long abandoned, and while it’s cool and it still all works just as good as it did back when it was last released, I still have to ask why people just abandon such so quickly.

I get it, you want to move on to the next big thing, but there are still people out there who write DOS games – people who still write software for the Commodore 64. You seriously want to tell me there are no people out there with programming skills who want to code for the Wii, or the Xbox? If I had such skills I would in an instant!

It’s just something I don’t totally understand. I love messing with such hardware, be it old or new. I try to avoid console modding until after the life span of the console has passed, so I can both get them cheap, and not have to worry too much about updates breaking things. Hell, once a console is disowned by its parent company, that is the best time to get coding – it’s a stable, solid platform that won’t change anymore, so now you know what you can do, and know it won’t get “fixed” in an update. Take advantage of every aspect of the machine while it still physically works! All this effort is put into modifying systems while they are still actively updated amazes me. Yeah, you want to get this machine under your control as soon as you can, but why abandon it the same time the creators of it do? It’s there, it’s stable, tear into it!

I know this is a bit of a rant. Maybe it’s the challenge, rather than the practicality, that people mod for. Then again, the effort they take and the ideas they seem to have make me feel they really do care to make the most of the machines, but for some reason, people just give up with the dream half fulfilled. Their passion shows. Why give up with the work half done?

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  1. Good article as usual, you might be surprised to know the Wii U has actually been hacked. I don’t know if it can loads backups or anything but there’s already working mods for Super Smash Bros 4. In fact there’s an experimental Wii U emulator in development too known as Cemu.

    1. An emulator for the system is another thing entirely – that’s a re-creation of the hardware that doesn’t necessarily need, or in most cases, never tries to use, actual code – only some way to “fake it” wherever possible (hence how emulators can actually be legal)

      On the WiiU itself though, it seems like people still don’t fully understand how to code for it quite yet, so it certainly isn’t anywhere close to a mature scene. Still, editing the article!

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