Hacking The SNES Mini – A Personal Journey…

Regular visitors will know that I’m generally quite enthusiastic when it comes to modern recreations of retro consoles. While many sing the praises of emulation using Raspberry Pi’s and other setups, I’m more than happy to support official products such as those from ATGames (despite their failings), the original ZX Spectrum Vega, the upcoming TheC64 (which I’ll be reviewing shortly) and the two micro consoles from Nintendo. Despite being emulators at the heart of these systems (and I’m not known for being a fan of emulation in comparison to using real hardware) my real support for these systems comes from the fact that they are supporting the original hardware manufacturers and the original software developers.

That being said, I was somewhat disappointed when I took a closer look at the SNES Mini recently. While I thought the console itself was quite good and overall offered great value for money, it was lacking in the games department, especially in terms of variety compared with its predecessor. Unless you’ve been hiding in the shadows for the last year or so, it’s common knowledge that the NES Mini was found to be hackable almost from the beginning and gamers were able to add their own games to the console. Being based on the same core hardware, it was only a matter of time before the same was possible with the SNES Mini.

As I said at the start, normally this is something that I don’t consider doing as I prefer my gaming on original hardware and software but looking at what is on offer from Nintendo from both of their consoles I can begin to see why people have turned to this to boost their library of games but just how easy is it to do? I decided to find out…

Both Nintendo Mini consoles not only use the same core hardware, but are essentially set up the same way under the hood. All of the games are stored internally on flash memory and contrary to what many may believe, this memory is not fully utilised. In the case of both units the machine has 512Mb of internal storage and there is sufficient capacity for several hundred more games to be added. Of that space less that half is used for the existing games, the operating system, emulator and allocated space for the game save states leaving the rest empty.

On a commercial level its understandable why this wasn’t used because of the amount it would take to license additional games, but from a fan point of view it’s simply a case of knowing how to access that space to give you a much bigger range of games and it’s a task that can be done in a matter of hours.

As I said, doing to my SNES Mini was more of a challenge and experiment more than anything else to see just how easy it really is to do it and why modding the Nintendo consoles has become so popular. With so many people currently profiting from doing this for others as well, are people paying for something that can be done by anyone?

From the offset I decided not to turn this into a “how to” guide but rather document my experience in doing it. Despite there being some questions surrounding the full legality of Nintendo’s consoles themselves (I’ll come onto that later), I wanted to explore the process of how to go about it.

In terms of the modding itself, there’s only one tool to do it right now – the open source package Hackchi. There are a couple of variants out there but I opted to use the current version of Hackchi2 because of its user interface. With that downloaded and installed I was ready to go.

The key thing to remember doing this is that the SNES Mini is an emulator so adding games has to be treated as such so my first step was to source some. I wasn’t going to fill the console up with them, just add a nice selection to give it a healthy boost so I headed online to source about 30 games. After about an hour I’d got a selection I was happy with.

The next step still didn’t need the console so with everything still sitting happily in a folder on a usb stick I moved over to my laptop for what should have been quite straightforward. Following an online tutorial video (that made everything look easy) I set up all the games I wanted along with images for the menus, game configurations and preferences for the console including a much needed remote reset function. 30 minutes well spent and looking great at this stage.

But then things went horribly wrong. Once everything is prepared the console needs to be connected to the PC, its driver installed and then it’s simply a case of reflashing the ROM kernal and transferring the games over. Couldn’t be easier. Or so I thought. After an hour of trying my laptop still flatly refused to install the drivers to accept and properly recognise the console in any way shape or form. Something was definitely wrong somewhere. I’d followed all the steps correctly but after talking to a friend who had modded more than a few, one possible issue revealed itself. Windows. My laptop has been a trusty machine for some time but that was potentially the cause of all my trouble as it was still running Windows Vista.

So moving the console up into the man cave for attempt number two where my main PC resides (running Windows 7). Success! The driver installs happily and then nothing. It refuses to install the kernal. This is not my lucky day.

Time to try Plan C. Up to this point I’ve been running everything from my USB stick. The ROMs are content and Hackchi seems to load normally but something isn’t quite right. So thinking that the USB stick might be causing problems, I transfer everything over to the PC to run it from there. Another win as the kernal installs first time!

It’s starting to look promising now and all that’s left are the games. I start the transfer… and nothing happens. It starts to create folders for the games and then freezes.

Back to the tutorial video to see what I’d done wrong (must be me this time I thought) and for some reason the SNES Mini doesn’t like too many games in a single or in its root folder. A quick change to the settings fixed this and on running the transfer option again all the games were copied quickly and efficiently.

With the struggles I had with Windows and the folders and finding the games initially I probably spent around 4-5 hours in total modding it. With the ROMs already to hand and the right version of Windows I’d say the whole lot could be done in 45 minutes.

But is it worth it? The extra games integrated extremely well, launching from a sub-folder and all support their own internal save data and the consoles own save state system. Obviously, downloading and using these is still illegal and we can’t condone the use of these ROMs. It’s still a grey area legally whether or not you own the original game cartridges as well.

You may recall that I mentioned Nintendo and their less than squeaky clean position with the console? Well with the SNES Mini being emulator based it’s understandable that it would use standard SNES ROMs that are readily available for most emulators. And it has been reported that the Japanese giant made use of many of these download sites to source the games found on the console. When looking for games to add I found it interesting to note a few I couldn’t find that would have been perfect inclusions on the console. Maybe theyre not there simply because Nintendo couldn’t find the ROMs?

Regardless, it’s been an interesting exercise and has certainly opened up the SNES Mini to be a far more capable system. It’s now more of what it should have been originally.

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