Back when the PS2 was not a retro console, the homebrew scene was big. What was the way to get involved with the scene? You either modified the internals of your console to join, or you bought one that already had a homebrew circuit modded into the console. For many, this did not sound like the start to a great process, but sounded like a scary one.
A developer then discovered the delights of the humble memory card (8mb). This delicious piece of proprietary storage cake had a little secret – it could run executable code on system boot. Thus, with this priceless discovery softmodding was born. A way to join the homebrew scene without modifying your console.
What is softmodding?
As touched upon above, softmodding is the act of unleashing the full potential of the PS2 without modifying the hardware, which used to be the only solution. With the discovery of software and firmware exploits, solutions were created which did not require the need of the humble hardware mod, but simply an exploited memory card.
What are the benefits?
Do you remember those adverts on TV (we’ve lost the younger audience here) for Tony Hawks American Wasteland? The main selling feature was no loading screens (well, reduced). Yes, the PS2 suffered from horrendous loading time issues, with most of the blame resting of the disc based operations of the system. With a small amount of RAM, the PS2 was almost constantly loading data off the CD or DVD, which was woefully slow. To make matters worse, the older ‘Phat’ consoles would normally have the laser burn out or the drive stop operating.
Here is where modding has a particularly bright light to shine. You can take the strain off the CD drive and move it elsewhere! If you had either a phat console, or the ability to cope with increased waiting times, you could install your games to a hard drive. Hard drives are built to be resilient, and can cope brilliantly with the PS2’s heavy reliance on them.
The hard drive solution was the best for the phat/original PS2, but if you had a later model without internal HDD support, and couldn’t cope with even worse loading times, there was an interesting alternative solution. You could host your games on a PC and let the PS2 stream them across! Ethernet has a fast transmission speed, so especially with a cable-based connection streaming the games over your network would be just as efficient and fast!
Hand-in-hand with the issues mentioned above, I would find my discs would get chewed up from daily usage. In fact, I was quite young in my PS2 days (I was 6 when the console came out), so my games would get left all over the place and become scratched beyond readability.
With the hard drive and network play features, you can ‘rip’ your games from the disc, and create a virtual disc of your game. With this virtual disc, a softmodded PS2 can run the game from the virtual disc instead of the actual disc, so when the physical disc finally dies you can still play your beloved game without hunting down a new copy.
Feel free to re-read that sub-heading.
As long as you do not expect the same graphical level as the PS3, the PS2 had minor support for High Definition (namely, 1080i). If you were lucky enough to have a YCbCr TV (one of the early-ish HD screens, before 3DTV) and lived in an NTSC region, some games could achieve this incredible resolution (best example is Gran Turismo 4). With a softmodded console, you could push all games to render in this fantastic level of quality.
(Advanced) Running Unsigned Code
For those who like to dabble further in PS2 coding, softmodding your console allows you to forgo the security features of the console. With these out the way, you can effectively run your own code. You can use this to run applications that you’ve developed, or applications you’ve downloaded but were not officially released.
With the signing feature moved out the way, the possibilities are endless!