PS2 optical drive exploit makes homebrew games and backups playable without hardware mods

Cal Jeffrey

Posts: 2,398   +553
Staff member
In context: The PlayStation 2 just celebrated its 20th birthday on March 4. Although the console is quite dated, it still has many fun and enjoyable games. Its age also makes it a great candidate for playing and creating homebrew titles, since voiding your warranty is no longer an issue if you mod the hardware.

Modding the PlayStation 2's hardware to play homebrew games and backup discs may be a thing of the past thanks to an exploit found by a security researcher. CTurt created software called FreeDVDBoot that uses the PS2's DVD player as an entry point to bypass disc checks at the software level. No hardware modification is required.

The PlayStation 2 will not load burned game discs, but it will read burned DVDs. CTurt saw this as a potential attack vector and began exploring how the PS2's optical drive plays DVDs. He eventually found that the hardware starts DVD loading by reading the disc's IFO file and writing data to a RAM cache.

Without going into the technical details, which you can read in his blog, CTurt created a corrupted IFO file that generates a "large read overflow." Essentially, it loads an ELF (Executable and Linkable Format) file—the type used in homebrew games—into the system's cache, which is then pushed into the main memory by the overflow.

This method completely bypasses the PS2's physical disc copy protection because the system thinks it is preparing a DVD for video playback. It is unique because CTurt claims it is the only exploit that does not use non-native hardware like network adapters, an HDD expansion, or a modchip. It also does not involve physically blocking the disc tray sensors. All that is needed is a disc.

The exploit can be used for a few things. As mentioned, homebrew games and burned backups are possible. CTurt showed a video running a backup of Shadow of the Colossus (above). Another shows the PS2 running a Super Nintendo emulator (below). It is also possible to put multiple games on one disc (providing they are small enough) and run them from a startup menu.

He also says that since all optical drives, including CD and Blu-ray, operate on the same principle, the exploit could potentially work on anything from a first-generation PlayStation through to the PS4.

"There's really no reason this general attack scenario is specific to the PlayStation 2 as all generations support some combination of burned media: from the PlayStation 1's CD support to the PlayStation 3 and 4's Blu-ray support, with the PlayStation 4 having only removed CD support. Hacking the PS4 through Blu-ray BD-J functionality has long been discussed as an idea for an entry point," wrote CTurt. "This may be something I would be interested in looking into for a long-term future project."

While FreeDVDBoot does not have support for all DVD drives used in the PS2 line, he is working on expanding support. Instructions and the required files are posted on GitHub for those interested in trying it out.

Image credit: Deni Williams

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0dium

Posts: 67   +63
Good find but, memory card way is better. You can even prepare it on another console (which has modchip or uses a memory card method too) and use it on your console without modifying hardware.
Buy a sata hdd adapter from eBay, 1tb hdd, load it full of games and pop it into a console.
No editing, no disk burning, no dying lasers, fast load times. That's the best way to do it.
 

Vulcanproject

Posts: 1,138   +1,833
I used to be big on retro hardware, I guess I lost interest for many years. I'm starting back a little now. Dangerously browsing places for old consoles and the like. Thought about picking up a PS2. I had a launch machine, but I forget what I did with it. Think I gave it away when I got PS3.

I have a back compat launch PS3 which has put me off getting anything older, though the emulation is far from perfect. I don't even know if I would play on a PS2 now, but I appreciate the styling of the machine more and more when I see these new boxes. What is it with Sony's designs? Dubious on launch, then they age so well.

Original PS2 with either stand attached looks like a classic piece of design now. Terrible for dust mind....
 
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TheBigFatClown

Posts: 780   +297
I always thought circumventing PS2 copy protection was fairly easy anyway. It wasn't until the PS3 where they figured out a way to require hardware mods to play back up software.
 

etempest

Posts: 36   +18
I always thought circumventing PS2 copy protection was fairly easy anyway. It wasn't until the PS3 where they figured out a way to require hardware mods to play back up software.
It is, what makes this unique is you don't have to alter the PS2 in any way or use external 3rd party devices hooked up to it. It works on stock PS2's with DVD firmware 3.10. In addition, Sony can't "fix" this since PS2 wasn't designed to received firmware updates.