Meet the Hackers Breathing New Life Into Sony's Abandoned PlayStation Vita

Sony itself might not want anything to do with the handheld, but committed homebrewers and modders are keeping it alive.

Nov 3 2016, 8:22am

When the Vita was first announced, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai had one simple message: "Vita means life." The name of this revolutionary handheld—a device that promised a home console-like experience, on the move—literally means "PlayStation Life". Odd then, that it's a system more synonymous with dying before its time than it is living to the fullest. The seeds of its demise were sown as far back as 2014, when the Vita got the barest of mentions at Sony's Gamescom press briefing, and has been practically flat lining in terms of first-party support since.

But despite Sony's reluctance to turn things around for the handheld, despite the overall shortage of genuine triple-A games available for it, and despite the lack of meaningful updates, not everyone is ready to throw in the towel in just yet. Some people are taking the Vita's fate into their own hands through shadowy means: hacking.

Hacking the Vita is no easy feat. Realizing it's gone nearly five years without a major incident gives you an idea of how tight Sony's security has become since the PlayStation Portable days. But as time moved on, Sony's seemingly impenetrable defenses would eventually show a crack. 

In July of 2016, that wall came tumbling down. Despite a security system that made Fort Knox look as safe as an automatic door, Sony's handheld had been hacked wide open.

Above: 'HENkaku'

Team Molecule's HENkaku is an app that lets users run homebrew games on the Vita. It's akin to "rooting" an Android phone or "jailbreaking" an iOS device. You'd be forgiven for thinking the user-end of modifying a robust system like the Vita would require a degree in game development to operate. Thankfully, running homebrew is slightly easier nowadays: You open a webpage and click a button. That's it.

While the user-end of HENkaku is child's play, breaking the walls down was anything but. It took Team Molecule's Davee, Proxima, xyz, and Yifanlu an age to get HENkaku to where it is today.

I bought the Vita's First Edition Bundle, and almost immediately started looking for vulnerabilities. – Team Molecule's Yifanlu

"I bought the First Edition Bundle when the Vita came out, and almost immediately started looking for vulnerabilities," Team Molecule's most vocal member, Yifanlu, tells me. "That was back in early 2012. By the end of 2012, I managed to get code running in user space: the same permissions as games, so not enough to launch custom apps yet.

"For the next two years, we tried to hack the kernel, the central part of the console's operating system, and met success in the summer of 2014. The original exploit we found, for many technical reasons, would not work for a hack for the masses. So for the next two years, we slowly and meticulously reverse engineered the kernel and figured out how it works; how games are loaded, how encryption and decryption works, how to draw to the screen. Finally, we had all the pieces to create HENkaku, and then wrote the kernel patches that allowed homebrew games to work."

"There are three distinct steps [to hacking the Vita]," Yifanlu continues, doing away with my understanding that it's merely the result of witchcraft. "The first is finding the initial vulnerability that lets you dig into the system. Once you do that, you can dump all the system code from the device and reverse engineer it. In reversing the code, you figure out how it works—and what to patch to disable code signature checks, for example—as well as further vulnerabilities in order to run custom code." 

"Finally, you have to write the software that chains together all these vulnerabilities to achieve the goal of disabling code signature checks—this software is also what you see on screen when you run HENkaku."

Tracking how many Vita users have installed HENkaku isn't an exact science due to how seriously Team Molecule takes user privacy. That said, a rough estimate courtesy of Google Analytics indicates the app has been installed (at least once​) by somewhere in the region of 500,000 owners.

Related: An Overdue Apology to the Outgoing Vita

Upon the release of HENkaku, Sony swiftly released Vita firmware update 3.61 on August 8th. "This system software update improves system performance," reads the patch notes, which roughly translates as "We duct-taped a hole to stop you running homebrew."

Despite the hack only being a few months old, developers have been busy. To date, we've seen ports of much-loved PC games like Quake, Doom, Prince of Persia, and Another World, plus a selection of housekeeping apps. 

Fancy playing The Binding of Isaac with a Super Smash Bros. skin? That's now possible thanks to someone porting over a selection of PC mods. One developer, TheFlow, managed to gain access to the PSP emulator on the Vita and mod in right-stick camera support for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. Not bad for a few months' work.

Above: 'RetroArch'

One of the main reasons many get into any mod scene is the prospect of emulation. People relish being able to play the classics on as many different platforms as possible. That's where RetroArch comes in.

Consider RetroArch to be the One Ring. Instead of needing to scour the internet for different emulators that may or may not work, RetroArch comes equipped with the best, designed to run within its own engine: one emulator to rule them all.

Libretro, the group behind RetroArch, is currently in the process of optimizing its tech for the Vita, but has already seen great success. New builds go out regularly, and there are a host of emulators running at near full-speed, right now—all of which is being achieved without the same kernel-level access HENkaku has. If there's an emulator of a system designed before 2000, the Vita will have it.

N64 emulation is probably likely on Vita, but it's hard to say when. – Seong Gino, 'RetroArch' tester

The PSP, after years of people tinkering with its hardware, was able to achieve a feat many thought impossible: N64 emulation. It wasn't great, but the DaedalusX64 emulator was never about perfection—it was about doing something nobody else could. It's essentially a dick-wave from the people with an innate understanding of how the system works. 

So once more developers have kernel access, could we see the Vita complete the work the PSP started?

"N64 emulation probably will be likely on Vita, but it's hard to say when," says RetroArch tester Seong Gino. "It is indeed amazing that the PSP was able to do some Nintendo 64 gaming, but that was after years of development time, a bunch of speedhacks, and the only game that came out perfectly fine was Super Mario 64. Anything else either had graphical inaccuracies galore, sound bugs, or just wouldn't work.

"Now on Vita, it goes back to the whole lack of driver support at the moment; without any way to utilize the GPU, we would be at the same place, just about, as the PSP and DaedalusX64. But in the future, if we are able to use the GPU effectively in homebrew, I can definitely see PS1 and N64 getting good enough performance on the Vita. Heck, I can imagine Sega Dreamcast—with a port of Reicast, perhaps—running on the Vita about as well as the Nvidia SHIELD Portable."

Above: 'Sonic the Hedgehog 3' running on a Vita

It's hard to make sense of Sony's apparent decision to abandon a console with so much untapped potential. Former CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America Jack Tretton recently spoke about why he thinks the Vita failed, saying: "Now that I don't work there anymore, I think internally it was: 'This is a great machine, it's just too late.' The world has shifted to portable devices that aren't dedicated gaming machines."

It's a curious line of thought that raises more questions than it answers. Is it not a publisher's responsibility to get people excited? To explain to the consumer how the product is different, and better, than a mobile phone? If we live in a world where people are happy to re-buy a console they already own (but slimmer!), how difficult must it be to get people excited about a super-powered handheld?

In June of 2014, Sony announced plans to refocus the Vita as an expensive indie gaming console with a light sprinkling of triple-A titles. It was, essentially, a collective shrug. Sony didn't know what to do with the console anymore, and didn't want to pump money into the home console-like dream anymore. Instead, the Vita turned from a portable PlayStation 3 into something more akin to an over-powered Nintendo eShop, minus the first-party support. In the company's defense, the Vita wasn't ever going to sell all those 4K TVs, so why bother, right?

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Too much? Perhaps. But consider this: how would you feel if you spent £279.99 on a console only to find, just a couple of years later, first-party and most third-party support non existent? 

For the record, indie games are great. Indie games on the Vita are even better. But let's be realistic here: who bought the Vita in the first year hoping that Sony would ditch its triple-A plans, its ambitions for more games in the vein of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and focus on indie stuff instead? Has Sony ever made it up to those people who took a gamble?

I digress. Modding journalist Wololo runs a hacking website where he covers the trials and tribulations of the hacking community. As someone who knows the Vita scene inside and out, I asked him for his thoughts on the Tretton quote.

"The popularity of smartphones certainly didn't help," says Wololo. "In the mid-2000s, the PSP and the Nintendo DS were excellent options for anyone looking for a device that would do gaming on the go, plus video and music.

"There were also strong issues with the direction the Vita was advertised it would take—high-power gaming on the go—versus what actually happened, namely a few half-assed triple-A titles and a console that's nothing more than a PS4 second screen or a portable indie console in the West."

Related, on Motherboard: Criminal Hackers Have Launched a 'Turf War' Over the Internet of Shit

The question on modders' lips at the moment is what comes next. In a short space of time, hackers have brought excitement back to a stagnating community devoid of any prospects.

"I think [the future] will vastly depend on the amount of time some hackers will spend on the device," continues Wololo. "I have a huge wish list of things I'd like to see on the Vita, one being that HENkaku could be updated into a more complete custom firmware, including support for plugins, more customizable themes, maybe ways to replace the default music and movie players with beefed up versions, the possibility to output the Vita screen to PC via USB, improved emulators and more.

"I'm also hopeful that better knowledge of the system could lead to support for alternate memory cards with hardware hacks, given that Sony's ones are way overpriced—they're more than five times the price of regular SD cards."

The 3DS was failing too, but Nintendo didn't just write it off. Sony, however, just ignored the Vita like an unwanted child. – Yifanlu

As one of the men at the center of the potential Vita revolution to come, I pose the same question to Yifanlu.

"I think Sony's bad marketing and support takes a big part of the blame," he says. "Just look at the 3DS and see how it differentiates itself from the mobile device market. Nintendo is very good at making that argument, and has enough first-party support to back it up.

"At the beginning, the 3DS was failing too, but Nintendo didn't just write it off. They lowered the price aggressively and then doubled down and announced a whole slew of new games. Sony, however, just quietly backed off and ignored the Vita like an unwanted child. It may have made business sense to focus more on the better-selling PS4, but it was a betrayal to fans like me who bought the First Edition Bundle and bought into their vision of 'console quality games on a handheld'.

"That's why we wanted to take Vita's fate into our own hand[s] and provide our own support for it. HENkaku was a labor of love, and I think that shows."

Above: This is effectively the insides of a Vita, as seen through 'VitaShell'

There is, of course, an elephant in the room that goes by the name of 'piracy'—and a lot of homebrew activity on the Vita, essentially, equals just that. It's doesn't matter how you frame it, how many 'killer apps' you have breathing a new lease of life into an abandoned console—break Sony's rules, and you're basically on the wrong side of the law. 

It'd be easy to assume hackers may want to play the victim. Memory cards are expensive! Games cost too much! Piracy doesn't hurt anyone! But Yifanlu doesn't shy away from what he's helped to create, albeit inadvertently.

"I strongly believe that hackers should not disassociate themselves with their work," he says. "Sony did what they could to protect their content and the content of third parties that they are contractually obligated to, to the best of their ability.

"We take part of the blame for chiseling some of those security features. That was inevitable, as you cannot get homebrew to work without weakening the security. But those who write the tools to dump games must take a larger part of the blame.

"But whether piracy is right or wrong is for you to decide. At the end of the day, I don't regret my part of it because I did not have a guilty mind in doing it."

Amidst all of this, I keep coming back to the original Kazuo Hirai quote, that Vita means life. Is there a hidden meaning there? A context changed over time? Vita symbolizes life—but you can't have life without death. 

Maybe, in a surreal twist of fate, the Vita needed to die before it could rise again from the proverbial ashes, stronger than ever, full of new life. Maybe—just maybe—the name symbolizes a rejection of death. That no matter what you throw at it, however much its makers cold-shoulder its qualities, this is one handheld that refuses to disappear completely.

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