Sega Saturn's copy protection finally cracked, giving retro gamers a new option

Excessive wear, heat, and just plain old age can all wreak havoc on CD-based game consoles. The Sega Saturn, now more than two decades old, is at risk of becoming essentially extinct due to disc drives inside no longer being able to read games. But one dedicated wizard took it upon himself to crack the system’s DRM, and preserve its library.

Dr. Abrasive (real names James Wah), who previously created “Drag ‘n’ Derp” for easily loading files onto Game Boy cartridges via USB, was interested in developing software for the Sega Saturn next due to its multi-channel sound chip, but found that the console’s copy protection system made it impossible.

“It actually works quite well. It detects the little wobble in the outer rim of the CD when it’s trying to read the protection data,” Wah says. “And that’s not something you can do with a CD burner.”

Wah was able to acquire a Sega Saturn’s CD module CPU, which he connected to a circuit board of his own and “tricked” into revealing the entirety of its ROM contents to him. He was then able to use this information to determine exactly how the console’s operating system worked.

“There are bits [of code] that have been written by hand and edited several times,” Wah says. “I’ve actually been really surprised by much you can see of its development history just by kind of looking at the code.”

After examining a slot for a peripheral card on the back of the system, Wah opted to circumnavigate the CD drive altogether, instead using “tentacles” and a small card plugged into the peripheral slot to effectively replace the drive completely. He has now also implemented the ability to read and write files directly to a USB drive while the system is running, which allows you to store saved game files.

Curiously, though the Sega Saturn has remarkable copy protection on the system itself, the discs can be read on a PC without issue. This allows anyone to easily load them onto a USB stick for use in the cracked console.

“These consoles, the CD drives are slowly dying. And especially in the west, it was never that popular a console that generation. So finding spare parts is actually a little bit difficult,” Wah says. “Ultimately I’d like to help homebrew become accessible and also more powerful with a USB interface, but I’d like to see it with a place in archiving.”

For more information about the challenges Wah still faces and footage of the cracked system in action, check out the video at the top of the page.

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