Video: cracking the 20-year-old Sega Saturn game console’s CD copy protection to save gaming history

The Sega Saturn game console.

The Sega Saturn game console, originally released in 1994.

Do you know what happens to vintage computers and video game systems, and all the games and documents stored on them?

Well, because of the entropy inherent in our universe, hardware and software media deteriorate and is lost, sooner or later. Unless someone with a lot of patience comes along to figure out how it all works and make systems usable again, using methods like emulation, software archiving and spare parts.

For an eye opening, albeit geeky look into the present and future of Cultural Preservation, we have just the thing for you! In a recent, fantastic Youtube documentary about Professor Abrasive, the alias of engineer James Laird-Wah, we get the story about how the copy protection, or DRM on the 20-year- old Sega Saturn CD-based gaming system was cracked after several years of hobby-based work.



We found this video remarkably informative, as it provides a detailed, yet well spoken and understandable glimpse into the reverse engineering needed to make 32 bit Sega games loadable from modern things like USB drives.


Game consoles are cool computers but a nightmare to preserve!

Those two words we mentioned above, reverse engineering, is a term for the craft of figuring out how systems work, when there is limited or no technical documentation available. The Sega Saturn, a contemporary of the first Sony PlayStation, was a relatively obscure gaming platform in the West, but had an interesting, multi-CPU architecture with a CD-based copy protection scheme dissimilar from other consoles of the day.

Getting rid of the CD copy protection is vital for the preservation of Sega Saturn games, since the laser optics in the CD drives of the remaining consoles appear to be failing over time. Naturally, spare parts are becoming harder to find by the day.

Professor Abrasive figured out a way to trick the system into believing that it was being fed the correct data from a special “wobble” data track on the outer rings of the CD, using an expansion slot in the original console.

The Sega Saturn game CD DRM "wobble".

The Sega Saturn game CD DRM “wobble”.

Game companies don’t write history, they try to stay afloat

Companies that make computers, consoles and gadgets are burdened by business and legal issues that keep their systems locked up. So, the people who hack old systems to preserve often take the role of real librarians and archivists. This work is urgently needed to preserve even our recent digital past.

Think about what would have happened to our understanding of cinema if no early silent movies were preserved. Or, for that matter, our long-term understanding of how white American entertainers made Afro American music a mainstream success, if no-one had the skills to literally bake Elvis Presley master tapes just before they fell to pieces.

Sometimes, digital preservation and restoration can even turn into a successful business, like that of, “Good Old Games”, a company that hunts down and painstakingly pieces together old games to run on modern PCs. And code isn’t the only thing they need to hunt down: it can be hard to find copyright owners for long-forgotten game companies that went down in flames.

All this is easier said than done for a lot of reasons. But preservation should arguably be a standard act of corporate responsibility and platform stewardship. That way, we could be pretty sure that a few decades down the road, work like that of Professor Abrasive, wouldn’t be the only remaining spare key we have to our past.

We as a global, information-powered culture might just be really, really lost and bereft of our history if we were to just loose all our data because no-one cared.

Super Mario branded box for NES cartridges

We won’t be needing any more of these: future games won’t come in cartridges you’d store in some colorful lunchbox. Photo by Jack-Benny Persson.


In the age of downloads, big companies could create trust by preserving history

If we have to pick one major company, Apple under current CEO Tim Cook just might be in a historically unique position of making cultural preservation of games and software feasible.

It doesn’t seem likely that Sony is going to lead the way towards better historical preservation with the PlayStation, despite long production runs of previous generation consoles.

But Apple is playing big on police-proof encryption to protect everything from photos, chats to health data and our payment details. All that noise about cryptography might as well mean that Apple has ambitions to become a well-trusted financial services vendor.

An understanding of cultural preservation would probably need to be built into the whole social and legal contract of proprietary, locked down platforms. Apple’s phone and tablet operating system, iOS, is carefully built and extremely locked down… and a very popular gaming platform that would deserve proper preservation.

Apple, as a platform owner, could do a lot, even if game and app developers increasingly make games and apps that need servers to really work.

To really make preservation legit, there needs to be some sort of useful official emulation and data extraction capability, decades down the road. For all we know now, there might be terrible legislation that prohibits reverse engineering in a lot of jurisdictions, with current laws like the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act leading us down the first steps of a path towards digital amnesia.


It’s actually decades-old legacy-proof mainframe platforms that run our civilization

There’s of course a lot problems to solve with legacy-proofing systems, with legitimate issues such as security, cryptography and licensing at hand, but big companies should be on this. This is crucial as games and other software is becoming increasingly ephemeral trough download based models and cloud storage. Such business models leave no trail of artifacts like game cartridges or disks in our attics and basements!

In the end, it’s about customer confidence in moving towards digital services. When it comes down to it, big corporations, banks and governments have long trusted mainframe computers that can run decades-old software. Not pretty, but it works.

As consumers, we probably don’t want exactly that, because it would make it much harder to renew computers.

But we also shouldn’t trust our data to companies that don’t show a clear will to think ahead as proprietors of massive infrastructure. Assuming we want the whole cloud thing to work, it’s time for the computer industry to become more like the kind of institutions we trust in our lives.

If you want, tell us about old games and computers in the comments. Have you ever felt regret over not keeping something like a Windows 95 PC or an 80’s gaming console?

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