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The key to unlocking the Nintendo Wii’s copy protection was a simple pair of tweezers

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An entertaining breakdown of one of the biggest hacks in console gaming

For publishers, one of the biggest perks of putting a game on a console versus Windows PC is locking it down from piracy. Of course, piracy is a two-sided coin, with those looking to flout the law on one side and historical preservationists on the other. No matter which side you’re on, however, the hack of the Nintendo Wii was a very big deal when it first went down. And without a pair of tweezers, it might not have happened at all.

A channel called Modern Vintage Gamer has a concise, 12-minute story that’s fairly easy to digest. It includes lots of well-researched sales data, as well as some handy graphics for the technical bits. But the punchline comes at the 6:20 mark.

As the host explains, Nintendo packed its most sensitive software secrets inside a hardware chip where hackers couldn’t easily read it. The strategy they employed was to connect various contact points on the Wii circuit board with a pair of tweezers to confuse the chip into moving the data somewhere else. Working slowly and carefully, they were able to migrate those secrets across the chip itself and out into the open, where they could dump them out and examine them in detail. It’s the equivalent of pulling the key to the door of a locked room out from under the door itself.

It just so happens that one of those sensitive secrets was the encryption key that unlocked Wii game disks. The hack resulted in a complete end-around of Nintendo’s copy protection for a time. Other hacks have evolved since then, but as far as the history of console hacking goes Modern Vintage Gamer’s video is a great anecdote.

Incidentally, the Nintendo Switch was also reportedly hacked last year ... with a paperclip.