Exploring the basics of PlayStation 2 soft-modding with FreeMCBoot and Open PS2 Loader (OPL)

It’s been possible, even downright easy, to soft-mod a PlayStation 2 for years now. And yet, it never really occurred to me to try to do it. Why is that? Maybe it’s because my PS2 has spent a decade in storage, in favor of a backwards compatible PS3. Or maybe because the PS2’s peak was in an era where I was less active with video games. Or maybe the system just never really captured my imagination. I still distinctly remember getting one on launch night, playing some SSX and TimeSplitters and thinking “that’s it?” It felt like a letdown after how mind-blowing the Dreamcast was on release the year before.

Regardless of my own interest in it, the PS2 is a system that really came into its own after a few years on the market and is undeniably one of the biggest successes the industry has ever seen, so even I ended up with a nice collection of games for it. For whatever reason, I recently took an interest in exploring it more. And exploring it more meant modding it. (Really, the true impetus for this project was probably that I’d been wanting to try out Gregory Horror Show, but didn’t have a PAL system to play it on!)

So with that out of the way, let’s document my setup for future reference or for anyone else who might be interested in doing something similar:

Target State

My goal was to have a handful of unique, rare, or otherwise interesting games available to play on my launch-day (NTSC, SCPH-30001) PS2 without needing to open the system or do any physical or permanent modifications. I wanted to be able to play games from any region without having to keep a stack of discs on hand and also wanted to explore interesting homebrew.

The Materials

This took a mix of items I already had on hand, plus a couple of cheap new additions to “the lab.” In all, I spent about $25 – remarkably cheap for everything the system is now capable of doing. Here’s what it took:

  • PlayStation 2 system (cost: already had) – Like I said above, this is the system I’ve had since launch day in October 2000. I connect it to a 32″ JVC D-Series via component cables. There’s nothing else particularly remarkable about it.
  • FreeMCBoot 8MB memory card (cost: <$10 shipped) – FreeMCBoot is a “Free Memory Card Boot” program that fully unlocks your PS2 at boot time, as long as it’s loaded on a memory card inserted into your system. Want to go back to a stock system? No problem, just take out the memory card! It’s an extraordinarily easy and non-invasive mod and remarkable in its effectiveness. It’s possible to make your own FreeMCBoot card, but it’s a complicated setup and you’re best off using a spare memory card dedicated to it anyway, so why not just buy one pre-loaded? They’re dirt cheap on eBay – less than $10.
  • An old 60 GB IDE hard drive (cost: already had) – I used to have an old Pentium 3, circa the year 2000. It was a high school graduation gift from my parents. I later added a second hard drive to it. I recycled that PC long ago, but I pulled the HDD when I did and it’s been in storage ever since. What a great way to put it back to use, don’t you think?
  • Official PS2 HDD/Network Adapter (cost: ~$15+shipping) – This is something I briefly wanted back in the day because I was convinced I wanted to play the original SOCOM online after trying the demo. Then I never got around to it. I guess I finally found an excuse to get one! A used one was surprisingly cheap. I’m not sure why I thought this would cost more than it did!
  • USB thumb drive (cost: already had) – I’m sure you already have one of these. Probably several. So do I. In fact, mine was free. You probably have free ones, too.
  • IDE/SATA to USB 3.0 adapter (cost: already had this one from Amazon, which runs $16) – I got this a few years ago for backing up old hard drives. Super useful and convenient. There are multiple ways to get data onto your PS2 HDD once it’s modded, like via a network connection, but connected to your PC via USB is absolutely the fastest way to move around large files.

The Procedure

1. Perform the Mod

Plug your FreeMCBoot card into either memory card slot and turn on the system. That’s it. The mod is done. Whew – that was hard work, wasn’t it? Your memory card probably came with some pre-installed utilities and emulators, so poke around a bit and see what’s possible. Hopefully it came with uLaunchELF and Open PS2 Loader (OPL) already installed. If not, add them by copying the .ELF files over to your memory card and running the FreeMcBoot Configurator to add them to the launch menu. I’ll leave that exercise to you, since it’s a procedure best documented elsewhere, and this guide assumes they’re probably already installed. At this point, if you really wanted to, you could even start running games off of a USB drive. That isn’t a great experience, though, since the USB ports on the PS2 are so slow. So let’s continue on to the next steps…

2. Format the HDD

With your PS2 powered off and your HDD’s jumper set to Master (note: this is important, don’t skip this!), plug the HDD and Network adapter into your PS2. Boot the system and run uLaunchELF. Go to File Browser –> MISC –> HddManager. In the HDD Manager program, hit R1 and choose “Format.” This will format your drive to be readable by the PS2. After this, reboot and launch OPL. Launching OPL will automatically create the directory structure it needs on your hard drive. With those two steps out of the way, you should be able to browse your HDD in the uLaunchELF File Browser and you’ll see a “+OPL/” directory at its root.

3. Load some games

Unfortunately, you can’t just copy ISO files over to your HDD like any other file and have them be playable. You have to properly install them. So, power your system down, remove the HDD, and place the jumper into Slave mode. Connect the drive to your PC via your USB adapter. (This part is finicky for me, sometimes the drive powers on properly, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes apps can recognize it, sometimes they can’t. With my adapter, I need to keep trying until I hear the usual Windows USB chime, without an additional drive appearing in Windows Explorer.) Once the HDD is properly connected, run hdl_dumb (note: run as Administrator!) to install whatever ISOs you happen to have on hand. (You’re backing up your own games, right?) This process is self-explanatory, just follow the obvious functions in the UI.

Installing games to the HDD via HDL Dumb (and an IDE to USB adapter for your PC).

4. Add some fancy artwork

You want your loader menu to look nice when you’re picking out what games to play, don’t you? After your games are installed, run OPL Manager (again, run as Administrator) to get box art, disc art, screenshots, and more. The program can auto-recognize which games are installed by choosing “Get Game List” from the “Local HDD Options” menu. You can automatically download the art you want for your installed games, but note that this process is not actually putting the artwork onto the PS2 HDD at this point. You’ll have to do a transfer process to move everything over. There’s a utility called OPL Manager HDD ART Batcher that can do this automatically, but I found it finicky and it would often skip files (especially disc art, for some reason). Instead, I recommend reinstalling the HDD into your PS2 and manually copying the contents of your OPL Manager hdl_hdd/ART directory from your PC to the corresponding directory on your PS2 HDD with a thumb drive via the uLaunchELF File Browser.

5. Configure OPL

You’re almost done! The next crucial step is to get OPL to recognize your HDD when you launch it. So run OPL, go into the Settings menu, and set “HDD Device Start Mode” to “Auto.” Save your settings and from now on, OPL should automatically recognize your HDD and any games installed on it when you launch it.

At this point, you have a fully functioning mod in place, it’s just a matter of setting up OPL to get the look and feel you want. I recommend exploring the various themes that are available for the utility. They can be easily installed by copying over to your +OPL/THM directory via USB drive. (I particularly like the “stone” theme.) Tinker around with whatever other settings you want – for example, the “Enable Write Operations” flag will allow you to delete games or edit their names straight from OPL. Just don’t forget to save your settings each time you make a change.

Also note that a fair amount of configuration is available at the game level. You can do things like change the video mode (useful for playing PAL games in NTSC-land) and use “virtual memory cards” if your memory card is full. Poke around, see what there is to see, and make the setup your own.

Wrap-Up

And there you have it! At this point, you have a fully modded PS2 with a collection of games and a nice hard drive loader front-end to browse and launch them. Feel free to explore what else you can do with a modded system, but if I’m completely honest, there’s not much I recommend. Yeah, there are emulators and Doom ports and such, but there are a million and one different devices that can do a better job of those things now. Modding a PS2 these days is really all about running games from a hard drive. But hey, that’s a pretty good use if you ask me!

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