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Sega Saturn copy protection cracked after 20 years

One of the problems with maintaining access to classic game libraries is the physical age of the hardware required to play various titles in their original incarnations. Classic Famicom and NES systems tend to suffer problems with their front loading mechanisms, while aging CD-ROM drives in PlayStation-era hardware cause problems of their own. Now, one hacker has found a way around a similar problem in Sega Saturn hardware — even though solving the issue required cracking the console’s DRM.

The Sega Saturn was the follow-up to the Sega Genesis / Sega MegaDrive (outside North America) and competed head-to-head against the Sony PlayStation. The Saturn’s hardware was arguably more powerful than the PlayStation’s, but also much more difficult to program, with a dual-core CPU, a custom sound processor, two video display processors, and associated controller chips. Its 3D engine used quadrilaterals, rather than triangles, as the underlying primitive structure, which also made it more difficult to program.The platform sold 9.26 million units over its lifetime, but only sold well in Japan, which accounted for over half its unit shipments. Even so, there were a number of critically acclaimed titles for the platform, including Virtua Fighter, Nights into Dreams, Sega Rally Championship, and Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Cracking the Sega Saturn’s DRM proved somewhat tricky, however. The Saturn’s copy protection worked by detecting the wobble in the CD itself as the CD-ROM attempted to read copy-written areas of the disc. If the drive didn’t pick up a characteristic wobble pattern in how data was written to the disc, it refused to authenticate the drive as valid. This makes it extremely difficult to mod an existing console to work with a third-party CD-ROM (keep in mind, all of the Sega Saturn drives are now roughly two decades old).

The video above describes how the Saturn was finally cracked. By dumping the ROM from the CD-ROM controller chip, Dr. Abrasive (James Wah) was able to finally determine how the console performed its DRM checks and bypass it altogether. Ironically, Sega Saturn discs can be read by a PC without any problems. The console is designed to guard against playing unauthorized content, but there aren’t any file-system locks to prevent access on the PC side. Thanks to some technical wizardry and a peripheral slot at the back of the console, Wah was able to work out how to use a USB drive to load files directly to the console (and allow for saved games at the same time).

The larger issue in play is the need to preserve classic games that may have never seen ports. The Saturn was never a popular console, and its eight processors were difficult to program and potentially even harder to emulate. Most emulator projects prioritize performance and compatibility over pixel-perfect accuracy, and while major titles are often re-released by their own publishers, these ports may or may not match the quality and gameplay of the original. Relying solely on old hardware to continue functioning isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s sometimes the only way to analyze a game and ensure fully functional emulation is eventually possible. Modding also opens the door to homebrew collections and continuing development — long-dead consoles like the Atari 2600, NES, and the Dreamcast have all seen homebrew game releases long after conventional publishers had abandoned them. The Dreamcast is better-remembered, thanks to stronger North American sales and its status as Sega’s final console, but the Saturn actually outsold it on the worldwide market. Hopefully this new DRM bypass will give modders and longtime enthusiasts increased access to the platform.

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