I recently did a write-up on how to softmod a PS Vita and a PlayStation TV. The PS Vita scene has blown up in 2018 and a flood of new mods and homebrew are out. What scene isn’t booming in 2018? The PlayStation 2 scene. While researching Vita homebrew, I came across a video from 2012 where someone demonstrated a soft mod for the PlayStation 2 slim. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but hey – I’ve got one of those. So I went down in to the basement, dug it out of a box, blew the dust off it, and got started.
Before you read through this guide, let me save you some time. If you take a look at this and decide that it’s not for you, you can forgo this entire guide and spend around $10 on eBay to achieve the same result. Not kidding. Just search eBay for “Free McBoot” and purchase a 8MB memory card with the Free McBoot hack already installed on it. Keep in mind that you still need a Free McBoot-compatible PS2 slim for this to work (details for determining your PS2 slim version are below).
Here’s What You’ll Need
- A PlayStation 2 slim model manufactured 3rd quarter 2008 or before (more on that later)
- An official Sony 8MB PS2 memory card
- A PlayStation 2 controller (wired is preferred)
- One retail legal PlayStation 2 DVD game disc (game doesn’t matter)
- One retail legal Playstation 1 game disc (game doesn’t matter) or CD-based PS2 game disc (these are rare)
- A Windows PC
- One USB 2.0 flash drive formatted FAT32
- A DVD+-RW drive capable of burning DVDs and CDs
- One blank CD-R
- One blank DVD-R or DVD+R
- A small philips screwdriver
- Some tape – I used Scotch, but a lot of people use duct tape
The list looks like a lot, but you should have most of this stuff lying around if you already own a PlayStation 2.
Find Your PS2 Slim Manufacture Date
A not on the version of PlayStation 2 slim required. You must have a PS2 slim that is manufactured before the 3rd quarter of 2008. Here’s what the date code looks like on the PS2 slim.
The first digit in the date code is the year of manufacture. This can be anything from 4 to 9 (2004 to 2009) and also 0 to 3 (2010 to 2013). The second digit in the date code is the quarter of manufacture, A through D for first through fourth quarter of that year. Mine is 4C, which means it was manufactured in the third quarter of 2004.
For this to work, you’ll need a PS2 slim with a date code of 8B or earlier. If your date code is 8C, the mod may or may not work. PS2 slims that were manufactured in 3rd quarter 2008 came with different versions of firmware, so it’s a crap shoot. Anything newer than 8B may require a physical mod chip be soldered in.
It should be noted that a PS2 slim is basically required for what we’re about to do because you’ll need to swap discs on the fly while the unit is running. The goal here is to install a hack application called “Free McBoot” on a memory card. Although a PS2 slim is required to do this, after the Free McBoot application is installed, the memory card can then be used in another PS2 slim manufactured 8B or earlier, as well as any fat PS2! Because of this, some people have made a business out of selling PS2 memory cards that already have Free McBoot on them online, so if you have a fat PS2 or an 8B or earlier slim, you could just purchase one of those cards and use it straight away.
Downloading Tools and Setting Up
Because the PS2 scene died a long time ago, most of the websites that hosted the tools to do this are long gone. I even found tutorials from 2014 that mentioned the sites were gone and that you needed to use an archive site like Wayback Machine to access archived copies of the sites to get the tools. Lucky for you I’ve collected all of the required tools and put them in one RAR archive. All of these tools, as well as the method, are 100% tested and working on my own hardware.
Grab the archive here: http://stuffjasondoes.com/tools/ps2.rar
This archive contains several files. This is what they’re for:
Apache1.1.rar – This application will be used to create an ISO image of your legal PS2 DVD game disc.
Apache3Preview.rar – This application will be used to modify a file inside the ISO you created of your legal PS2 DVD game disc. The file that we insert will be the payload to launch unsigned code.
COGSWAP.rar – This is the payload application, called CogSwap.
noob.rar – This is a suite of tools that you’ll copy to a FAT32 formatted USB flash drive.
uLaunchELF_v4.12_CD.rar – This is the uLaunch application that we’ll burn to a CD-R (not DVD+-R) to launch the Free McBoot installer.
OPL0.9.3.rar – This is an application that we’ll install after the PS2 is modded and Free McBoot is installed, which will allow you to play game ISOs from USB or over a network.
Download all of these tools, extract them in to their own folders, and let’s get started.
Creating the Free McBoot USB Flash Drive
This step is fairly simple. Insert a USB version 2.0 flash drive in to your Windows computer and format it as FAT32. Leave the volume label blank. Extract the contents of noob.rar to the root of the flash drive. While you still have the flash drive inserted, go ahead and copy the OPL0.9.3.ELF file from OPL0.9.3.rar to the root of the flash drive as well. Eject the flash drive and set it aside.
Creating the uLaunch ELF CD-ROM
Insert a blank CD-R in to your DVD+-RW drive. Extract the contents of uLaunchELF-v4.12_CD.rar. You should have a .bin and .cue file. If you’ve ever burned a CD before you should know what these are. If you don’t already have CD burning software, you can search the web for software that will allow you to burn BIN/CUE images. I like UltraISO for this. After your uLaunch ELF CD is burned, label it uLaunch ELF and set it aside.
Ripping an ISO of Your Legal Game
The goal here is to make a clone DVD of a legal game. Obviously this won’t boot in the PS2, since it’ll be a burned copy of a game, but we’ll need it regardless – you’ll see. Extract Apache3Preview.rar and launch Apache3.exe. Insert your legal PS2 game disc in to your DVD+-RW drive. This has to be a DVD-based PS2 game to work. When you launch Apache it will tell you that there’s an update available. Just close that window with the X and Apache3 will continue to load.
When Apache loads, select your DVD+-RW drive from the drop-down on the upper left portion of the window. You’ll see the contents of the disc appear in the pane on the right. Above that pane there’s a row of buttons. One looks like a disc with a black arrow pointed upper-left. If you hover your mouse over that icon it should say “Create ISO image from CD/DVD.”
Click this icon and then chose a path to save your PS2 game disc iso. Don’t close Apache3 yet.
Modifying the Game ISO You Created and Burning it to a Disc
At this point we’ll inject a payload in to the game ISO. I used Ratchet and Clank for my ISO. Note in Apache above the file that begins with SCUS_. The name of this file will be different with every game. Take note of the name of the file for the game you’e using. You can see that mine is SCUS_971.99.
Back in the working directory for our PS2 files, you’ll want to extract the contents of COGSWAP.rar to get the COGSWAP.ELF file. We’re going to rename the COGSWAP.ELF file to match the name of the SCUS_ file that we discovered above. I’m going to rename COGSWAP.ELF to SCUS_971.99. You rename yours to match your original SCUS_ file name.
Close Apache3 and extract the contents of Apache1.1.rar. We’re going to use Apache1.1 to inject our new SCUS_ file in to the PS2 DVD ISO we created above. Open Apache.exe. From within Apache, go to File > Open ISO and open the PS2 DVD ISO you created with Apache3.
Once your ISO is open in Apache1.1, you’ll be able to see the contents in the right pane, just like you could in Apache3. Highlight (single click) on the file that begins with SCUS_ (agian, this will be different for every game disc), and click on ISO Tools > Change TOC for Selected File. We’re going to change the value in the Size (dec) field to 58160 and click Update.
In case you’re curious, 58160 is the size of the COGSWAP.ELF file that we renamed above in bytes.
We aren’t done yet. Highlight the SCUS_ file again and click ISO Tools > Update Selected File. Remember when we renamed COGSWAP.ELF to SCUX_xxx.xx above? You’re going to want to browse to that file and click Open. When you do, you’ll get a message that says Selected File Replaced. Essentially what we’re doing is is replacing the SCUX_xxx.xx file on the original DVD image with our hacked version.
You can now close Apache1.1.
You now need to burn your modified PS2 DVD ISO to a DVD+R disc. For this you’ll have to use a high quality disc. Some tutorials say that you have to use a DVD-R and that a DVD+R won’t work. I successfully used a Sony branded DVD+R on my PS2 slim and it worked just fine. Once you have the disc burned, label it with the name of the game you cloned, and let’s get on to the PlayStation part of the tutorial.
Disassembling the PS2 Slim and Preparing it for Modding
The goal here will be to disable the PS2 slim and prepare it for modding by taping down the two switches that tell the unit that the disc drawer is open. We’re going to have to do an old-fashioned disc swap trick here, so we’ll need to have access to the unit while the disc is spinning and it thinks the disc drawer is closed.
Flip over the PS2 slim and you’ll see some plastic feet covers. 6 of these have to be removed. You can do so with a sharp knife or small flat headed screwdriver. They are not held on with adhesive, rather they just pop in to place… so it’s easy to put them back when we’re done.
Next, remove all 6 phillips screws.
The top now just pulls off. You do have do so some wiggling to get it free. Don’t force it because you don’t want to break anything. There may also be a warranty sticker on the back of the unit right next to the 56K modem’s RJ11 jack that you may have to remove to get the top off. Don’t worry, your warranty is void by now anyway. Haha.
Behold, the guts of the mighty PS2 slim!
It’s good to see that if your BIOS battery every dies that it’s a standard CR2032.
Luckily this is as far as we have to go with the disassembly of the PS2. What we’ll need to do now though is tape down two switches. Sony got wise after how easy it was to do the disc swap on the original PlayStation, so instead of one door switch we now have two to deal with. One is in the front of the unit directly behind the power button. We’ll need to use the power button during this process though, so don’t tape over it.
The front button is black, and if you push it with your finger you’ll see that it’s very delicate and doesn’t take much effort to press or to keep it depressed. Instead of tape I heard one guy say that he used a substance similar to silly putty to hold his buttons down. That would be a viable route as well, but scotch tape worked fine for me.
Here’s the location of the front button. Be careful of the ribbon cable that goes between this board and the motherboard. It’s very fragile.
The rear button is a little tricker to get to. It’s to the rear left of the DVD mechanism if you’re looking at the unit from the top. This switch is tan. Luckily there are no delicate connectors near this unit, but still be careful.
Once you have both buttons taped down we’re ready to get started.
Hook your PS2 slim up to your TV and connect power to it. Insert your 8MB memory card. Know that during this process your memory card will be wiped, so you may want to make a backup of it on to another memory card before you begin this process.
Now’s the time to take the FAT32-formated USB 2.0 flash drive you prepped with the Free McBoot installer files and plug it in to the right-most USB port on the front of the PS2 slim.
You’ll also want to connect your controller. I have a pair of Logitech wireless controllers, which work great, but during this process they were a pain. If the controller is not synced with the receiver BEFORE you begin the disc swap process, you won’t be able to sync it after (once the system is inside the COGSWAP hack). You’re better off using a wired controller here.
You should have your legal PS2 DVD game disc, your legal PS1 CD game disc, your copied PS2 DVD game disc, and the uLaunch ELF CD-R ready to go at this point too.
Congratulations, you’re done with the easy part. Now comes the frustrating part.
Performing the COGSWAP Disc Swap Trick
I have to say, this frustrated me to no end. It’s not very easy trying to explain how to do this, so I’ll link to a YouTube video where you can watch someone do it. The video is fairly old and is of extremely poor quality, but you’ll get the idea. Essentially these are the steps.
- Insert your legal PS2 game in to your PS2 and power it on.
- Wait for the PlayStation 2 logo to show up. As soon as it disappears, swap your legal PS2 game disc with your burned clone PS2 game disc.
- Wait 3 seconds.
- Swap your legal PS2 game disc back in to the system.
The video I referenced is here: https://youtu.be/Mduw8PzafkE?t=1241
I would watch him do it 5 or 6 times to acquaint yourself with the process.
It doesn’t sound difficult, but your timing must be exact. If your timing is off at all one of three things will happen: the game will boot, you’ll get the red screen telling you to insert a valid PS2 disc, or you’ll get kicked back to the BIOS screen where you manage your memory card.
If you do this trick correctly, you will be presented with the following screen.
When this screen appears, the legal PS2 game disc will stop spinning. You’ll want to replace it with the legal PS1 game disc. You’ll then want to un-tape the front disc tray close switch for 1 second and then re-tape it. What we’re trying to accomplish by doing that is to tell the system we opened the disc door and then closed it again. When you do that, the PS1 disc will spin for a second and then stop spinning. Your screen will change to this:
You can now remove the legal PS1 game disc and replace it with your uLauncher ELF CD-R disc.
Press X on your controller and the system should launch the main screen for uLaunch.
If you don’t see this screen, you may need to try a different USB flash drive and start the process over again. I formatted a Staples branded flash drive as explained above and put all of the required files on it and the system refused to read it. The light on the drive would just blink and the screen was black. I tried again with a PNY drive and it worked fine.
After this screen comes up, press Circle on the controller to launch the file browser. Scroll down to mass:/ and press Circle again (mass:/ is where your USB flash drive mounts). Scroll to the FMCBINSTALLER.ELF file and press Circle on it to launch it.
When the Free McBoot installer loads, arrow over using the d-pad to FORMAT MC and press X.
You’re warned that it will wipe the card. Accept the card’s fate and format it. Then arrow over to MULTI-VERSION INSTALL and press X. Installation will begin and should take 3-4 minutes to complete. Don’t press anything on the controller of power off the system while this process happens. Be patient.
When the installation is complete you’ll get a dialog box telling that it’s done. Press X to choose Ok. At this point you can power off your PS2 and remove the disc. Power it back on. When it boots you should see a Free McBoot logo on the screen, and when you are brought to the system browser you’ll see some extra options for Free McBoot and some other utilities.
Congratulations, the hard part is done!
Alternative Swap Trick: 007 Agent Under Fire
The method above is one of the oldest methods to soft mod. It’s great because you don’t need any specific game to get it to work. The down side is that you have to be perfect with your timing when swapping discs after the PlayStation 2 logo disappears. There’s a slightly different trick that involves using 007 Agent Under Fire for the PS2 as your legal game as a starting point.
007 Agent Under Fire has an ELF file (PS2’s executable files end in ELF if you haven’t gathered by now) that’s specific to a driving level, which is the second mission in the game. The file is on the root of the disc and is called DRIVING.ELF. In our tutorial above, we replaced the main game executable (SCE_xxx.xx) with a fake version in order to boot in to homebrew software. With a 007 Agent Under Fire disc, you can replace the driving level’s ELF file in a similar way, and when the game goes to load that level it will boot in to homebrew.
This is quite a bit easier, as exact timing isn’t required. This video shows someone pulling the trick off. https://youtu.be/kp1uvnN-2z8?t=254
If you already have 007 Agent Under Fire, you may want to go this route. It’s a little easier. If you don’t have the game already though, purchasing the game to pull this off is rather pointless. The game goes for around $8-9 on eBay typically, and for the same price you can simply purchase an 8MB memory card with Free McBoot already installed.
OpenPS2Loader is an application that allows us to play PS2 game ISOs from a USB flash drive, external hard drive, or across a network from a network share. We already put the ELF file for this on our USB flash drive in a previous step, so now we’re ready to install it to the memory card.
Boot up your PS2 to the Free McBoot menu, and make sure your USB flash drive is inserted in the right-most USB port on the PS2 slim.
- From the Free McBoot menu scroll down to uLaunchELF and press X
- Press Circle to open file browser
- Arrow down to mass:/ and press Circle
- Arrow down to OPL0.9.3.ELF and press R1
- Ensure that Copy is highlighted in the menu and then press Circle
- Arrow up to ../ and press Circle to go back to the mount listing
- Arrow up to mc0:/ and press Circle
- Arrow down to BOOT and press Circle
- Press R1 and ensure Paste is highlighted, press Circle to paste
- A copy of OPL.9.3.ELF should now be in mc0:/BOOT/
- Restart the PS2
- Arrow down to Free McBoot Configurator and press X
- When asked to select your button layout press X
- Arrow down to Configure OSDSYS Options… and press X
- Arrow down to Configure Item 1: uLaunchELF and press Right on the D-pad until you reach an open slot (will be slot 7, if you haven’t made any other modifications)
- Press X to enter the open slot
- Ensure Name is highlighted and press X
- Name your slot OpenPS2Loader and then highlight Ok and press X
- Arrow down to Path 1 and press X
- Choose MC0:/ and press X
- Arrow down to BOOT/ and press X
- Arrow down to OPL.9.3.ELF and press X
- Arrow down to Return and press X
- Arrow down to Return again and press X
- Arrow down to Save CNF to MC0 and press X
- Arrow down to PS2 Browser (FMCB Restart) and press X
- OpenPS2Loader will now be available as a menu option
That’s it. OpenPS2Loader is now installed.
At this point you can re-assemble your PS2. Congratulations. You’ve got a soft-modded PS2 slim that can now play games from USB flash drive, external USB hard disk, or over a network connection. Keep in mind that the software that makes this work is installed on your memory card. You should label it as such. When you remove the card from the machine, it will act like a normal PS2 slim, as nothing on the console itself has been modified. The console will still play retail games just fine, and you can use either the open space left on the Free McBoot memory card or another memory card inserted in to the second memory card slot to save games.
If you enjoyed this tutorial and would like to see more, please feel free to share this article on social media, comment below letting me know what else you’d like to see, and follow me on Twitter @JROlmstead.