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.

25 thoughts on “PS2 Emulation On The Xbox Series S: A Story Of Walled Gardens

  1. I stopped buying consoles and just stopped gaming after a PS2 I had on reserve broke from normal use within a year.

    I wanted a PS3 that did backwards compatibility, but could never find one.

    I basically gave up being a gamer because of Sony’s walled garden approach. I have a huge library of PS1 & 2 games that I loved playing but can no longer. Thought of buying a used PS2 to do so, but afraid it would just break again.

    I know of Retron, but last I checked Retro 5 or something didn’t do PS2 or 1 games. Since I gave up on gaming, because I couldn’t afford 300$ plus consoles and building a new library of games for every console to play something, I just stopped caring about being a gamer.

    I miss Suikoden, FF Tactics, Castlevania SOTN.

    1. You can install your games on a HDD and forget about the optical drive forever, but you need a network adapter to connect it. A memory card is no longer needed to install FreeMCBoot.

      1. I had at one point SOTN working on a PC emulator, that’s gone now.

        I just lost all will to give a f**k about gaming when I saw the way new Sony systems were going.

        I guess the concept of permanently being able to play a game on a system is a strange concept except with PC it’s normal.

        Basically all I want is an eternally working normal PS2.
        I have no interest in games that are mostly CGI cutscenes like some kind of movie.

        1. The best version of the PS2 was the very last revision of the “fat” model. That’s when Sony wised up and used a metal sled for the optics instead of the plastic one that would wear and cause misalignment.

          What would often work, for a while, was if the console had always been used flat was to tip it on end, or if it had always been used on end, lay it flat. But if that made it work, it would eventually wear more and fail to read discs no matter what.

          The ultimate fix for the previous fat PS2 versions was to swap the plastic sled for a metal one.

    2. PCSx2 (?) Is pretty good and runs most PS2 games rather well on a GT730 gpu and I even upscale to 2k resolution with the usual 60fps. Cpu wise I used a 3rd gen i7 with no issues and think an i3 would work as well.

      Mostly I played Ratchet and Clank along with the Jak & Daxter series.

      It’s not perfect but doesn’t take long to setup and does work well enough that I’d not bother with a physical console.

      1. PCSX2 requires a really beefy CPU. I have an AMD FX6100 and a GTX 1050. The GPU is enough but the CPU is not. Maybe it could handle some of the simplest games but it chokes on all the Ratchet and Clank ones.

    3. >could never find one
      >loved playing but can no longer
      >afraid it would just break again

      nice excuses to not admit you just got old and grew out of playing games ;-)

      >I just stopped caring about being a gamer

      yes, you got old, has nothing to do with “cant find hardware”

  2. The article misses, in my opinion, the most important aspects of console gaming versus PC gaming… The games are optimized for that (console) hardware and presumably everyone you’re playing against has the same hardware and thus the same frame rates and quality. On PC, if you’re not constantly upgrading hardware, then your at a serious disadvantage to anyone who has.

    1. The assumption that every console player has the same hardware broke last generation. If a PS4 gets 30fps while a PS4 Pro gets 60fps then someone with the Pro has a competitive advantage.

      As for having to constantly upgrade a PC, eh, not so much these days. Competitive titles tend to be easy for a PC to run so most people on older hardware can get 100+ frames per second in Counter Strike, plus they have updates over time instead of a whole new game every year with the exception of semi-competitive stuff like CoD. USB Mice and keyboards have been 1000Hz for a decade I think. High refresh rate displays offer a genuine advantage but those have been around for at least 5 years judging by the release of FreeSync. Consoles on the other hand have had their release cycles speed up, it was 6 years between PS1 and PS2, then 6 to PS3, 7 to PS4. After that only 3 to PS4 Pro and now 4 to PS5.

    2. Not really? If competitive viability is dictated by frame rate, for instance, there are many ways to counter that. Namely, PC titles offer way more graphical options that let the player fine-tune their graphics to achieve whatever balance between graphics and FPS the player wants within practical limits. The issue is that it is kind of difficult to create a truly level playing field anyways. Internet quality is another factor that can give certain players a slight edge. The good news is that these differences tend to be relatively small compared to actual differences in player skill. With people who are pushing both their skills and the game to the absolute limit the difference between 120 and 240 FPS might make the difference, but with my skills I am going to suck either way.

      The good news is that the games competitive titles tend to be well-optimized anyways, and it is a lot easier to get a stable 60 FPS. This certainly helps most PCs stay out of the FPS range where there is a significant competitive disadvantage.

      Now, the issue of optimization. I am honestly really curious about how much optimization can/is done on consoles. The main advantage is that anything released on the console should be able to run through some combination of simply turning down the settings and magic. As said, I am really curious about how much optimization can be done and would really like some concrete numbers for that. Of course, I am not clever enough to discern a fair approach to collect said data.

    3. As [nioge] hints at, Cyberpunk 2077 has a very low framerate on PS4 and Xbox One so there are definitely console games that don’t run well.

      You don’t have to constantly upgrade hardware in PCs unless you want bleeding edge graphics from bleeding edge games, but you’re not getting either on console games unless you upgrade to the latest generation.

    4. You are at a disadvantage, but not serious. The difference is only visible at the upped 1-5% level, aka esports. Of course everyone wants to believe they are the 1% gamer god, but just the mere fact of playing on a console puts you in the gutter of competitive gaming, well below average PC keyboard+mouse players.

      If you are not competing in an esports league hardware speed is far less important than simply knowing the maps, tactics, overall game basics, and not using the joypad.

  3. “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. ”

    And a greater use of virtualization. But that may change with a greater need for security on PCs, and in general “it’s not your PC”.

  4. This is the allure of cloud gaming. No need for an expensive rig or console. You connect and play. This is why MS and Google are both pushing subscription services so hard. As internet speeds (and cross play) increase, there will be less need for any rig other than a controller.

  5. I was gaming on an old AMD Phenom X6 for years, with $300 or so GPU upgrades every five years or so. Only upgraded the CPU because it didn’t support the newer instruction sets required to run the anti-piracy for games I wanted.

    Before that, I used to be the kid who blew money upgrading my entire rig every two years with the best hardware, but nowadays I’m happier to play AAA titles on A hardware, and spend the rest of my money elsewhere in life.

        1. This reads like nonsense, SSE is not used by DRM, its used inside game engine for fast integer math. SSE4 is mainly used for fast&clever data and string manipulation. If it was mandated by Denuvo nobody would be able to provide a patch removing this requirement without stripping DRM.

    1. What did you upgrade to? I went from a quad core Phenom 2 to an FX6100. Despite the somewhat higher clock speed, single thread performance was the same or slightly less. Multi thread stuff all got around 10 to 20 percent boost.

      Software HEVC encoding leapt up from 16 FPS to…. 17 FPS! Woohoo! Just like when I was doing MPEG2 encoding for DVDs on a Pentium III. Bah. I just use the nvenc in the GTX 1050.

      The FX series CPUs were a massive letdown from AMD. Years in development for minuscule improvements and some steps backwards when people were expecting much greater performance improvements.

  6. Why? Because you can, and ought to. If you can innovate, learn, hack, etc then do it. If some corporation tries to lock you in a prison (ie ban, or real) when you do, then 10x the reason why you MUST do it.

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