How I learned to stop worrying and love the LetterBomb

The past 18 months have been really tough on the bevy of computers in this house. The Avid bit it (but is feeling better these days), Zen bit it, a tablet cracked up and then came back good as new, even my wife’s netbook bit it and was returned, zombie-like, from the dead by the manufacturer. It’s not like we’re getting massive, knock-out-Manhattan-Island power surges every twelve minutes or anything… but it does seem like Murphy’s Law is being enforced pretty vigorously upon us of late. Money’s insanely tight right now, and my job prospects are looking… well… clouded. There’s no money to be thrown at the problem.

As it just happens, the benevolent hackers of the world have got my back.

There have been softmods and disk-swapping schemes throughout the history of the Wii that have enabled more adventurous Wii owners to add something called the Homebrew Channel. Think of this as an alternate to Nintendo’s equivalent to the app store. Nearly all of the homebrew applications are free (in a few cases, the authors wouldn’t mind a donation for their work if you find it useful), and nearly all of them do cool stuff that the Wii can’t do – or restores functionality that Nintendo has removed.

I should point out at this juncture that I’m already a huge fan of the Wii, as is my son. It’s my favorite console to come down the pike in years. I’m not a hardcore gamer in this generation of hardware, or indeed for the past couple of generations. I like to be able to pick up a quick game of something, preferably if Little E can play it with me. I’m not a first-person shooter type, a spend-weeks-with-the-same-RPG type, or really an online gaming type. I’ve crossed over into the world of casual gaming, which is a natural for an old fart like myself who’s accustomed to a single game of something not lasting much longer than four or five minutes. I do like a few games that demand a longer commitment of time, but increasingly I stick with a more abbreviated gaming experience. And I’m cool with that. The Wii has a library that’s nicely tuned in to that experience too. We enjoy it tremendously. But what if it could do more?

Let’s look at what all I did to my Wii in the past few days that suddenly made it a whole lot more awesome than it already was.

You have to start with what makes it possible, and this is the thing: there’s probably a pretty tight time limit on this before Nintendo issues a System Menu upgrade that they want you to install. The current best means of installing the Homebrew Channel is via the LetterBomb hack. The site which has released this package has made it insanely easy to install – just go here, look up the MAC address of your Wii, punch it in, fill out a captcha, and it’ll let you download a custom-tailored zipfile. Unzip that file onto an SD card (if you’re already using one for game saves, that one’ll do nicely), pop it in the Wii, check your Wii messageboard for a letter with an unusual icon, and – at the risk of too many cliches in one short space of time – boom, baby!

LetterBomb

No disk swaps requiring ownership of one of a handful of specific titles, no popping the hood open, it just works, even on the most recent system menu upgrade (betcha that’ll change within a week). I’ve resisted previous softmod approaches because they were a bit too byzantine and seemed to have disturbingly good odds of bricking the machine if you did something just wrong. The LetterBomb installer’s damn near foolproof.

It’s bundled with an installed called HackMii, which allows installation of the Homebrew Channel. Done in one.

Next! The awesomely cool thing that I proceeded to add via the Homebrew Channel is a robust little application that turns your Wii into a fully-functional set top media center machine. The program in question is WiiMC, and when they say it can “play virtually any video or audio format,” they’re not joking.

Wii Homebrew Channel

Most of the video files on my home media server PC are Divx AVI files ripped from my own DVDs (or, in many cases with the financial crunch of parenthood, DVDs I’ve had to part with). There’s not a one of them that the thing can’t stream beautifully. The picture and audio quality are top notch, and the interface is wonderfully simple.

WiiMC

There’s a little bit of legwork involved in getting the thing to access specific shares on your wi-fi network – each one has to be entered manually, IP address and all – but once it has that information, nothing’s simpler. It remembers. It streams music very nicely. It also allow access to Youtube, Shoutcast, and other services. If this is the only thing you ever add to your Wii via the Homebrew Channel, it’s okay – it’s probably added a hundred bucks of functionality to the box that wasn’t there before.

WiiMC

WiiMC eliminated the pesky elephant-in-the-room question of “what do we replace the media center PC with in the living room?” Any attempts to sock back money for a new machine had proven fruitless, because we repeatedly get paragraphs 12 through 29 of Murphy’s Law thrown at us relentlessly. Now the question is pretty much answered: the machine that’s already sitting next to the TV has got this one, living up to my mantra of “there’s no money, so use what you’ve got.”

WiiMC

Why stop there, though? Next stop: emulation.

I’m a fan of old arcade games, so needless to say, googling “WII MAME” was among the first orders of business. Turns out there’s an app, erm, a homebrew for that too. You probably already noticed the Atari 2600 emulator on the menu shot above. Now get a load of this:

Wii Emulation

An Odyssey2 emulator for the Wii? Now how cool is that? As it turns out, nearly every emulator under the sun has been ported, from MSX to Atari ST to Sinclair to Apple II. The only major system that was conspicuous by its absence was the Atari 5200. I can only assume that someone’s working on that. SDL MAME Wii seems to be the arcade emulator of choice on the Wii. It’s not perfect – it has a somewhat limited palette of games that it’ll emulate, and even then you’ll run into some occasional audio stuttering. The Wiimote is held sideways in the “okay, now it’s kinda half-ass configured like an old NES controller, only not as comfortable” position that we’re already accustomed to from Namco Museum Megamix and Super Mario All-Stars.

Wii MAME

The authors of the Wii port of MAME make it clear that the strangely truncated list of games it’ll run is in the interest of keeping the base application lightweight – if the Wii is already struggling to run some games at full frame rate, obviously there are some limitations. The thought occurs to release different versions of MAME to group games by the same manufacturer – usually running the same base hardware – into its own emulator, but that way lies dragons, and lots of money for lawyers. Over ten years later, even though a lot of what it plays is abandonware, MAME is still in a dark grey area.

Most, if not all, vector games are off the table (even if they do appear on the menu). There are some other strange omissions as well, probably to avoid any still-active major franchises and the wrath of their IP holders. Trackball and paddle games are a barely-playable mess. But even those limitations aren’t game killers (ha!). There’s still some perverse irony to having modern official Nintendo hardware running an ancient ROM of Crazy Kong, an ’80s bootleg of Donkey Kong.

Wii MAME
Its-a me! Uhh…. Murray O.!

There are lots of other free homebrews for the Wii – KidsPaint is a nifty, simple “paint pictures on the screen” program, which is kinda fun with the Wii controllers. There are physics-based “playgrounds” where you can simulate the behavior of water, dust, etc. on the screen and use the controllers to manipulate the orientation of their virtual “container.” And there’s also one that lets you point a Wiimote, hit the button, and shoot off fireworks on the screen. WiiEarth is a Wii port of Google Earth, something for which the Wiimote is such a perfect interface that I don’t think I could go back to a mouse. So many of these things just captivate little ones, and yet they’re so stupidly simple that no one’s thought to do them as WiiWare or as part of a game that can be bought in a store. The Homebrew Channel apps are getting more play than some of the games we’ve paid for. I’m sure some of that is the shiny/new factor – we still play Super Mario All-Stars about once a night (or, as Little E calls it, “Shiny Mario”) – but it’s a great find.

Can these new superpowers be used for something other than good? In short, and I’m sure you know the answer to this, yes. Of course it can. There are some folks for whom Homebrew Channel = “let’s score some warez, d00d!“. The reason we’re getting so much fun out of the emulators and other simple games is that they’re not already out there. If there was official WiiWare that played Odyssey2 games, I’d be all over that. There isn’t. So much of what we’re being asked to pay for frankly isn’t that interesting – so uninteresting, in fact, that I can’t even be bothered to steal it. I have a pretty good idea of which rocks to look under if I was so inclined. But there’s cool enough stuff to be gotten for free – legally – that isn’t taking money out of anyone’s pocket, that makes the Homebrew Channel worthwhile.

So pull the SD card out of your Wii, go put a LetterBomb on it, and join me – break out of the limitations Nintendo has imposed on the console. I’m so sick of this notion that, even though $200 was paid for the machine that sits in the living room, I’m somehow still not doing much more than rent it from the Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft. Screw that. I own it.

And now it does neater stuff than it did straight out of the box.

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