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Code Breakers

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Region coding – if ever there was a pointless and annoying technology implementation, that’s it. I’ve never really understood the obsession that multi-national companies have with making software sold in one region, completely incompatible with hardware from another.

Region coding first received widespread exposure with the launch of DVD – Hollywood decided to cut the world up into sections, and only allowed discs in each region to playback on players from the same region. The general idea was to stop consumers buying DVD movies from the US, before the film had even been released in Europe, for instance.

However, the only thing that DVD region coding achieved, was spawning a third party industry which invented ways to circumvent it. It didn’t take long before all kinds of chips and software hacks were available to allow you to play discs from any region in your DVD player. Hollywood did try to fight back at one point by releasing RCE (Region Code Enhanced) discs, but it was a matter of days before this too was cracked.

But contrary to popular belief, the craze for region coding didn’t start with DVD players, it first reared its head in the world of gaming consoles. Back in the days of 16bit gaming consoles, both Nintendo and Sega decided that it would be a good idea to stop any US or Japanese games working in UK consoles. For the most part nobody cared about this, but for those of us who wanted to play import games, it didn’t take long for adapters to appear.

Unfortunately for the console manufacturers, the research into cracking region coding brought with it copy protection issues. There’s no hiding from the fact that the part of the reason that the original PlayStation achieved such a massive hardware install base was that it was so easy to modify the machine to play pirate games. Nintendo thought that it had a way around the piracy issues that plagued the PlayStation, by continuing with a cartridge based model for the Nintendo 64 when both Sony and Sega had moved onto CD media. But even this decision didn’t save the Nintendo 64 from piracy problems, as solutions appeared that enabled you to connect a CD-ROM drive to the console and load games from CD onto cartridges.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that if console manufacturers hadn’t implemented region coding, no one would have circumvented the copy protection; but I do believe that people who wanted to play imported titles ended up having to enable their console for pirate games as a side effect. Then the temptation to use very cheap, or downloaded pirate software would be constantly nagging in the background – right or wrong, I’m sure that many of them succumbed.

Over the past few years the console modding market has exploded, and now there’s a dizzying array of chips from multiple manufacturers. When I wanted to chip my first generation Japanese PlayStation2 console so that I could play UK games I came across web retailer Divineo, and purchased a DMS 3 chip. Armed with a soldering iron and circuit diagrams, I was soon able to play UK or US games on my Japanese PS2. But, as already mentioned, my PS2 would also now happily play pirate games without blinking an eyelid.

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