It was only a matter of time before people found a way to hack Nintendo's NES Classic and that time has come. Earlier this week, modders trading tips on a Russian forum discovered a way to add ROMs to add extra games to the system that was previously limited to only thirty.
A modder going by the name madmonkey posted a guide to hacking Nintendo's NES Classic on a Russian forum last Wednesday. His method requires having a save file in the starting slot for Super Mario Bros., but no actual mechanical or electronic alterations to the hardware, allowing owners to potentially add ROMs of old NES games to the hardware if they are brave enough to be on the front lines of experimenting with new hacks.
The exploit involves connecting the console to a computer via a USB cable, booting it in "FEL", a mode used for programming devices using USB, and then copying the NES Classic's information to your computer and modifying it using a tool developed by madmonkey called "hakchi". After adding NES ROM files from the computer onto the tool, "hakchi" then overwrites what was on the NES Classic with a new installation including the additional games.
The entire method has been discussed at length in this Reddit thread.
The above video, uploaded by a group called ARCADERU from Tyumen, Russia that builds and sells arcade cabinets, shows the results. Games like R.C. Pro-Am, which aren't on retail copies of the NES Classic, are now playable from the main menu, complete with box art.
It didn't take long before improvements to madmonkey's original hack were made, however. A user posting in the same thread under the name Cluster put together a second version of the tool that overwrites the NES Classic data called "hakchi2." This new version makes the entire process a little more streamlined.
It doesn't require a Super Mario Bros. save and is easier to navigate. After connecting the the console to a PC, ROMs can be dragged and dropped onto a roster and then "uploaded," at which point the NES Classic is booted in FEL mode and if the program recognises it, the games are installed and ready to go once the system is restarted. A second video by ARCADERU outlines the process in detail.
I spoke with a video game music artist called Halley's Call who employed Cluster's method and said the whole thing was "pretty plug'n'play."
"I just installed four games Tetris, Chip'n'Dale, Battletoads & Duck Tales," he said. "They seemed to work, but I hadn't enough time to check them thoroughly."
But while Halley's Call was fortunate enough not to brick his NES Classic, he's less clear on whether the tool used to hack the system came installed malware on his computer in the process. Multiple users in the thread discussing both hakchi and hakchi2 have reported instances of their computers flagging the programs for viruses.
And while some think these could merely be false positives, Halley's Call and other modders aren't taking any chances.
— Halley's Call (@halleyscall) January 7, 2017
"I had a virus warking on my win10 machine, so I deleted the tool and retried on my win10 VM just for safe measures," he said. "I don't know if the trojan is a false positive. Cluster hasn't said anything about this topic."
Cluster himself is no stranger to the retro video game modding scene, having posted a number of popular videos on the subject on YouTube, including one about how to create a cartridge that can house hundreds of old gaming ROMs and have them run as they were meant to on original hardware.
We've reached out to Cluster for comment on his contribution to the hack, what the deal with the viruses is, and whether he plans to make hakchi2 open source and will update the post when we receive more information.
But why would anyone even bother hacking an NES Classic, which as recently as last month were going for upwards of $US200 ($274) a piece on Ebay, when building a device to emulate old Nintendo games is already so cheap and easy? I put the question to Halley's Call since he was willing to risk the safety of his system as part of the first wave of people to try these recent hacks.
"As a techies I do things just to prove them feasible," he said. "That's the fun part." It's a common answer in the hacking and modding communities, where new devices are treated like puzzles to be solve, with the practical and legal implications often coming second. "But also I have hopes that Nintendo decides to invest in the classic mini rather then release another box with new games new year after this," said Halley's Call. "I'd be more than happy to shell out some cash for my favourite NES classics if there was any kind of App Store solution for the mini."
"The mini is sexy fast & portable," he concluded.
So it makes sense why he'd want to be able to include more games on it. While the retail version of the NES Classic only comes with thirty games, some people employing the latest hack have speculated about at least being able to double that number.
And since games already look so much better on the Classic than on Nintendo's various virtual consoles, it makes sense why people find the device so alluring beyond its nostalgia factor. For many, the NES Classic is much more than a gimmick, and at least some of the people currently hacking it see what their doing to the device as a way of expanding the horizon of its 8-bit possibilities.