SNES Classic Hacking: Jailbreaking Nintendo’s latest console

Nintendo’s SNES Classic has been flying off store shelves, and there’s little wonder. It’s a fantastic piece of technology, and includes several games that are legitimate contenders for greatest of all time in their genres. Fortunately, Nintendo seems to be producing more of these than last year’s impossible to find NES Classic, and patient buyers should be able to find one without enriching a scalper.

The SNES Classic is a wonderful value fresh out of the box, and the games included could easily keep you occupied for weeks or months. The emulation is spectacular, and games like Yoshi’s Island and Star Fox 2 have never been made available before on other services like Nintendo’s Virtual Console. That said, there were some curious omissions from the miniature console’s library, and the reliance on the console’s physical Reset button to access many features is inconvenient. I was fortunate enough to snag a preorder for the tiny SNES and decided to see if there was anything that could be done to remedy these minor annoyances.

Let’s start with the Reset button. You’ll need to press it every time you want to switch games, and you can also use the menu to save your state or undo a mistake by replaying the last few seconds.  If you’re playing a tough game like Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, you’ll probably be hitting it a lot. Unfortunately, it’s built into the console, so it’ll probably be closer to the TV than it is to your hand.

There are a few things you can do to remedy this problem. First and easiest is to attach the SNES Classic to a longer HDMI cable than the one provided in the box, allowing the console to sit within reach. You might also have noticed that the SNES Classic’s controller ports are identical to those found on the bottom of Wiimote controllers. This is no coincidence, and the Wii Classic controller or Classic Controller Pro will connect to the SNES Classic with no difficulty. Pressing this controller’s Home button will allow you to access the mini console’s menu functions without getting up to bump the Reset button, as long as it’s plugged in as the first player controller. The classic controller doesn’t feel as nice as having those pristine SNES controllers in your hands though, and if hardware solutions aren’t your style, you may want to look into hacking your console to add a button sequence to access the menu.

Breaking in

The NES Classic was hacked pretty thoroughly after it was released late last year, and there’s been some speculation this is what caused Nintendo to deliver the consoles in such short supply. Surprisingly, the programs that worked on the NES Classic needed very few changes to work on the SNES Classic, and it only took about a week to add the same functionality to the newer system. Before we continue, please keep in mind that hacking your console in this way does carry a small risk of rendering it unplayable, and using it to play games you’ve never purchased is at best a legal grey area. This article won’t go step-by-step into how to hack your console, but you can find a detailed guide on Reddit.

The Hakchi 2 program allows you to write a new kernel to the SNES Classic, and this allows several functions to be added to the miniature console. Let’s face it; adding more ROMS to the console is probably the biggest draw for most people, but you can also use the program to do other things like adding a gamepad shortcut to access the menu, or allow turbo fire. The original hacking tool, the Game Genie, is planned to be added in a future update.

This is all possible because the SNES Classic has more space and hardware horsepower than it needs to do its job. The SNES Classic and NES classic contain nearly identical hardware, and the NES Classic was a much beefier machine than it needed to be. Both systems contain 256 MB of DDR3 RAM and 512 MB of Flash memory, far more than necessary to run the games included. Even accounting for multiple save states, adding art of each games’ box, and the time rewinding function, there’s about 250 Megabytes of memory unaccounted for and available to play around with.

So why would you want to add games to the system? Well, as mentioned above, the emulation included on this system is top-notch, and if there’s any input lag it’s negligible. The games look great in HD, something that can’t be said when you try to hook original SNES hardware to a modern TV. Plus, holding a perfect, brand-new SNES controller to play these games feels great, and it’s as close as you’re going to be able to get to playing them as they were intended short of hooking up your yellowing SNES to an old cathode ray tube.

You can find any number of lists compiling the biggest omissions from the SNES Classic’s library, but the one that most baffled me is probably my favorite game ever, Chrono Trigger. I included the PlayStation and DS versions in this picture to prove I’ve bought this game no less than three times, so I have no moral quandaries about adding it to my system. As you can see it runs fine on the SNES Classic hardware, so I’m still not sure why it was omitted from the system’s lineup.

Depending on your personal sense of morality, you can also use the tool to add games which will never otherwise see the light of day, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4: Turtles in Time, Uniracers, and Tetris Attack. Each of these games has licensing or legal issues preventing them from seeing rerelease, so I can confidently say you’ll never see any of them on a future version of the SNES Classic. It’s a shame, because all three are fantastic two-player experiences which would put the system’s second controller to excellent use.

Not every Super Nintendo game will work on the SNES Classic, though odds are good you’ll be able to add some of your favorites. You can check this compatibility list to see if the games you’d like to add are working. Most US and Japanese releases work just fine, but non-NTSC ROMs don’t work through the native hardware. This means you may need to install an additional module if you want to play a European exclusive like Terranigma. This will eat up some space on the hard drive, so a selective approach is best. One other thing I noticed was that the base system only recognizes ROMS in the *.SMC and *.SFC formats, meaning older *.FIG files won’t work.

Surprisingly, the console isn’t limited to playing SNES games, and by adding modules you can make it emulate other systems like Sega’s Genesis or the NES. If you’re lucky enough to own both a SNES and NES Classic, the controllers are interchangeable. It’s technically possible to run later games from systems like the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation, but the much larger file sizes make doing so impractical.

Nintendo hasn’t made a statement on using the hardware in this way, but given its earlier hardline stance against emulation, the company’s position probably isn’t favorable. It’s likely no statement will be forthcoming, since the company’s boasts about defeating the DS’s R4 cartridge ended up amplifying interest in the device. Still, it seems someone at the company knew this was inevitable, and a message to potential hackers was included in the system’s firmware.

It takes a little bit of computer knowledge to get Hakchi 2 running, and it’s a Windows program so it won’t work natively on Mac or Linux machines. Using the program isn’t especially complicated, but it’s possible to wreck your console if you really don’t know what you’re doing. If you decide to try it out though, it can help extend the capabilities of your SNES Classic and smooth out some of the system’s design flaws. As much as I enjoy the games that were included on the SNES Classic, I’m not going to lie; playing Chrono Trigger with an authentic Super Nintendo controller in my hands put a huge smile on my face.