PS2 Emulation On The Xbox Series S: A Story Of Walled Gardens

It’s hardly a secret any more at this point that today’s game consoles from Microsoft and Sony are essentially AMD gaming rigs packed up into a custom package and with tweaked system software. So it’s not too surprising that enterprising hackers got the Playstation 2 emulator of RetroArch running on an Xbox Series X|S game console despite Microsoft’s attempts to stop them. (Video, embedded below.)

It’s possible to sneak the RetroArch app past Microsoft’s security checkpoints by shelling out $19 for a Microsoft Developer Account, setting up Developer Mode on the XBox console, and getting the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) port of RetroArch from the official website. This has the advantage of it being a blessed-by-the-Redmond-gods approach. But one cannot play retail games in Developer Mode and large games due to a 2 GB limit.

More recently, a hacker by the name of [tunip3] found a flaw in the Xbox app distribution system which allows one to download a ‘retail’ version of RetroArch. This involves marking the RetroArch app as ‘private’, allowing it to skip a review by Microsoft. People whose email address is on a whitelist are then granted download permission for that app on their Xbox console. The advantage of this ‘retail’ approach is that it does not feature the 2 GB filesize limits. The disadvantage is that Microsoft is free to take the app down and ban [tunip3]’s developer account.

My Way Versus the Highway

A lot about this comes down to a simple question of ‘why?’. Why even jump through these hoops to set up a limited, possibly ToS-breaking emulator on what is ultimately a gaming PC running Windows 10? Why not use that Raspberry Pi 4 or NUC system that’s been giving you sad eyes for the past months from where it’s been stuffed into a dusty corner?

The Playstation 5 should be more than capable of playing back any Playstation title from the original PSX up to the PS4 based on its hardware specifications, yet it only offers compatibility for the PS4. The XBox Series X|S on the other hand provides such backwards compatibility along the entire lineage of XBox games, though not encompassing every single title released for a Microsoft console.

Xbox One S playing PS2 version of the original God of War

Nintendo has had an on/off relationship with running their own blessed emulator solution, such as the Virtual Console (VC) for the Wii, Wii U and 3DS which even offered access to games for non-Nintendo games. In early 2019 Nintendo began to phase out VC, however. In many ways the VC service was the closest to what RetroArch offers today, even if one could argue about the limited number of games on the VC and the per-game cost to purchase the right to play it.

All of this makes one wonder what would happen if a multi-system emulation service like the VC but with a much larger game library and lower cost (e.g. full access as part of a PSN subscription) were to be made available. Would this be enough to make people stop trying to get RetroArch on their brand-new gaming console?

It’s Called a PC

The skeptic’s view on this matter would probably be that with the lack of truly exclusive titles for video game consoles these days one might as well stick an SFF rig of one’s choosing underneath the TV, running one’s favorite OS and controlled by a controller of one’s choice. Using Steam’s Big Picture feature or equivalent, it’d be about as easy to control with a controller as if it was a dedicated game console.

Installing RetroArch and similar on this gaming rig would be a snap too, and would likely work better for more emulators as it’d be a standard Windows or Linux system for which RetroArch is actually optimized. Bringing us back again to why people try to do things the hard way instead.

A large appeal of game consoles and other walled gardens has often been the ‘it just works’ selling point. Buy it, set it up, turn it on, start playing games, stop worrying. Not everyone is into debugging obscure compatibility and driver issues on Windows, or figuring out why launching a game makes the Xserver crash on Linux. From there it is appealing to still make it do a bit more, at least to those who even as a child found ourselves staring at devices and feeling that familiar itch in one’s fingers.

In the end it’s essentially just about hobbies and interests. Even if Microsoft et al. would vehemently disagree, nobody is harmed if someone hacks their PS5 or XSX|S to run additional software on it that brings the owner of said hardware more pleasure. That’s after all how most interesting hacks are born.

Is it practical? No way. Is it fun? You bet.

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