Why it took 20 years to crack Sega Saturn's copy protection

News
July 13, 2016 by Kris Ligman

James 'Dr. Abrasive' Laird-Wah reveals why it took more than two decades to reverse-engineer the DRM on Sega's next-to-last home console.

There's a thriving homebrew scene out there nowadays, where amateur engineers and designers take to obsolete games and computer hardware in order to make new titles and experimental works with the technology. It's some thrilling stuff! But one of the more elusive pieces of hardware out there is Sega's 32-bit Saturn console, the copy protection for which is so "over-engineered" that it took 23 years for someone to break it.

Enter James Laird-Wah, known to many in the chiptunes and homebrew communities as Dr. Abrasive. In 2012, he learned that the Sega Saturn had fantastic audio capabilities for creating chiptune music, so on a visit to Japan he picked up a second-hand unit and set to work breaking it open. What he found was that the Saturn's technical specs were not only ahead of their time, there was an entire, dedicated central processing unit -- separate from those handling graphics and audio -- which was devoted strictly to reading and running game discs.

Back in the 1990s when the Saturn was the hot new thing on the market, many players turned to black market "mod chips" to override region and copy protection. Laird-Wah wasn't satisfied with that solution (not the least of which being that mod chips for old consoles are hard to find these days), so he decided to start taking apart the Saturn's copy protection system bit by bit, to understand how it actually worked.

In the above interview with debuglive, Laird-Wah walks viewers through his process of reverse-engineering Sega's hardware, first by identifying the 'wobble' written into Saturn game discs which was meant as a guard against counterfeits, and then moving into the actual guts of the machine. It's seriously fascinating stuff, even if you're not the super hacky type. Above all, it sure helps illustrate how far ahead of the curve Sega's hardware designs were, even if the company has since retreated into third-party publishing.

(h/t Gamasutra.)