Interview with Ben Heck – Console Hacker Extraordinaire
Benjamin Heckendorn (aka Ben Heck) is one of the greatest console hackers the gaming community has ever known. Not only does Ben have the amazing technical knowledge and great design sense, but he is also a riot to converse with.
In case you are not familiar with his work, Ben basically takes full game systems (from basically all console generations) and turns them into a custom handheld device. His work has been featured in publications such as WIRED, Popular Science, and Maxim, and on TV shows like The Screen Savers and Attack of the Show. He also has written his own book, published by ExtremeTech — Hacking Video Game Consoles. I recently was able to discuss some interesting topics with Ben and thought I would share them with you…
Racket: Hi Ben — I greatly appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to talk with me. To get us started — What is your first memory of playing video games?
BenHeck: It’s kind of blurry… I do recall as a kid begging my mom for quarters to play arcade machines… Several of my relatives had Ataris, I always wanted to play when we’d visit. This bugged my cousins to no end, though I believe they’ve gotten over it. (Or forgot) I never actually had an Atari as a kid, but that didn’t stop my game playing very much. Somehow… I found a way! So I’d say I’ve been a fan probably since I was 6, 7 years old.
Racket: That’s cool — I was actually the exact same way. My parents wouldn’t buy me video games so I always stuck to the arcades. And my cousin actually had an Atari as well. I was amazed by Space Invaders and Pole Position Any games stick out in your mind?
BenHeck: In the early 80’s? Hm. Asteroids, Pole Position, I liked those. For the Atari 2600 I really liked Space Invaders and Pitfall.
Racket: Nice choices! So, what gaming generation stands out as your favorite? (8-bit, 16-bit, etc)
BenHeck: The 8-bit Nintendo is my favorite system. It’s the perfect blend of good-enough graphics, but not so much emphasis on the graphics that it gets in the way of gameplay. Still I’ve owned systems and played games from each generation since, but I seem to play less and less as time goes by. Example, I only have three PS2 games! I was also a big Genesis fan though (The system, not the Phil Collins group. Actually, it was a pretty good band too, come to think of it. OK, so I’m a fan of that too)
Racket: Yeah, I’ve been diving back into some of the NES games as of late. But I think on some games I feel more limited by some of the control schemes of the NES games than the graphics. (Castlevania, Megaman, Metroid) Am I the only one there? To me, it seems like the control schemes in the 16-bit era seemed a bit more mature without getting complicated.
BenHeck: I’ve been trying to get through Castlevania 3 for the first time since, probably was 1991. The old Castlevania games always were hard to jump in. It’s clear now that the main danger in an old game wasn’t getting damage, but getting knocked backwards from the damage and falling in a pit. Ninja Gaiden eagles, anyone?
Racket: Yeah, it can be pretty frustrating
Now that we have games covered, which of your hacking projects are you most proud of?
BenHeck: Probably the Atari 800 laptop, or the NES Micro. The Atari because it was a system I loved, and it was quite the task making it into a laptop. The NES Micro because it was so small. I’m actually trying to come up with a way to make a whole bunch of “NES Micros” I think people would go for it if done en masse, like my Phoenix in 2005.
Racket: I would love to see that Laptop in action — it is quite impressive, but I’m guessing the pictures don’t do it justice. And the Micro is sweet — just a shame that the cartridges dwarf the thing
BenHeck: Not much anyone can do about the size of the NES cartridges
Racket: You’ve been hacking consoles for over almost 6 years now — what the most interesting thing you’ve learned during that time in terms of console guts?
BenHeck: I don’t know of one SINGLE thing… but I’ve learned a lot about electronics in general though. I look back to myself in 2000 and think “Man, I didn’t know jack” Granted, I have not quite morphed into some sort of Nikola Tesla-esque “super genius” but my understanding of how consoles work has greatly improved.
Racket: Are CD-based systems more challenging to hack than their cartridge-based counterparts?
BenHeck: Oh yeah. Mostly because you have to figure out how to work in the [usually large] CD-ROM drive, plus it takes extra power. On top of that a CD/DVD drive uses very small connections that are a pain in the rear to solder and work with. As a rule I tend to lean more towards cartridge-based systems.
Racket: Have you ever run into any issues with licensing after selling some of your projects?
BenHeck: Not yet, but I’m sure the companies know of me though. I have to confess, I consider myself the unofficial namer of the PSP. Sony surely noticed my nice, symetrical pallidrome of a name and decided it was the best bet! (Symetrical pallidrome being the most redundant thing I’ve said all month)
Racket: Have you ever thought about expanding your projects into retail products? If so, what are the primary roadblocks?
BenHeck: Roadblocks are making PCB’s (not a huge deal as it once was) and getting “system on a chips” for the guts, ie, a NES on a chip (NOAC). Making a lot of cases is also a pain… If I can get my hands on some NT6578 NOAC’s, I think I could easily whip up a few hundred NES Micro-type portables for about $200 each.
Racket: Are there any other people’s hacks that have really impressed you?
BenHeck: I’ve seen a pretty impressive Dreamcast portable… Not sure who did that, but it was nice, with vacuum forming for the case. There’s also been some swell Gamecube portables. I’m mostly impressed when people do thing I haven’t yet – it shows they’ve been inspired by me rather than just copying. Also, when people say “why don’t you make X system portable?” I can say “Because someone already did!” and kind of shrug off the question.
Kevin Horton does some pretty impressive stuff too. I think if we joined forces we could possibly take over the world. Or at least a bunch of cool stuff.
Racket: What system would you most like to get slimmed down, but just seems too challenging?
BenHeck: Well, the Dreamcast was a target for a while. But, like the Gamecube, it’s kind of square shaped, so the components are on top of each other (rather than beside), so it’s hard making it thin. Another system with this quirk is the Gamecube, which I might be taking a look at soon. I’ve seen this mock-up drawing of a portable Gamecube on the Net, it’d be interesting to see how close I could get to the person’s pipe dream.
Racket: Did you enjoy the book writing process? Anything you would have done differently? Who approached who on the idea for the book?
BenHeck: The book was interesting, it was enjoyable to me as a challenge. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, I had to design, document, build and write about 8 different all-new portables in 4 month’s time. So as I was finishing up chapters on one I’d be designing the next.
I was contacted about doing a book after my first appearance on G4 (when it was Tech TV) back in February of 2004. I saw it as a great way to show people how to do this stuff, especially since I get a lot of emails to the order of “send me complete instructions on building X portable, plz” Now I can just say “Buy my book!” That may sound crass, but after about the zillionth email asking “is my Game Gear screen useable for a portable?” it’s good to put all those answers in one spot.Note: The Game Gear screen is as worthless as tits on a bull.
Racket: You mentioned on your site about your emulation comments on a G4 appearance — I didn’t get a chance to see it — could you fill us in?
BenHeck: Oh boy. It was a live show but we did a rehearsal. That’s always a fear of mine because I tend to swear a lot in RL (real life – the geekiest acronym on Earth) and always worry I’ll slip on TV and pull a Janet Jackson. Anyways, during rehearsal the guy asked “Why not just emulate?” And I thought “These guys seem pretty loose…” So I said what I’ve always THOUGHT about emulation and never said in public. “Emulation is like masturbation!” Everyone was like “oh shit, did he just say that?” and then they were like “You HAVE to say that for the actual thing!” I was like “Is that OK?” and they’re like Sure! So we “baited” (ha ha) it in the live show so I’d get to say it again. I knew when I got back home it’d be the new catch phrase for my boards – oh well
Racket: LOL – that’s awesome. You also mentioned that Neo Turf Masters was a game you and your friends played a lot — what other games are on heavy rotation?
BenHeck: Yeah I don’t know why I even bothered getting a six slot Neo Geo as we only play that one game! Let’s see… well I play Battlefield 2 on PC a couple times a week. Plus I STILL play Street Fighter Alpha 3 on the PS1. Any game where you can fight your friends and trash-talk is good by me! I also find it necessary to beat Contra again every so often… you know, as if the hundreds of times before weren’t enough. That damn Vile Red Falcon is always stirring up trouble!
Racket: Have you had a chance to play with Messiah’s Generation NEX? Now that the classic gaming trend is continuing to grow, What are your thoughts on having older consoles re-released by either the original manufacturers or third parties?
BenHeck: Not sure what that is – is it the new, flat-style NES with the wireless controllers? Ah, it is, isn’t it? Ah yes. That thing is pretty cool – wish I knew where they got their NOAC’s! Maybe they rolled their own… Anyways, yes, it’s pretty neat. There are a lot of NES fans out there, I know several people (including myself) who still have theirs hooked up. I think this NEX could sell well… probably not everyone knows about it though.
Racket: Well, BestBuy.com is listing them now, so we’ll see where that goes…What system/model of console has impressed you the most in terms of industrial design?
BenHeck: Well the old 1979 model Atari 800 computer is basically a tank. If you sat it out in the desert next to a pyramid the Atari would probably outlast it. And still boot up. I also really like the PS2 design, even if it’s a rip-off of an early 90’s Atari Falcon computer. (Check this out, tilt your head sideways and GASP!)
The PS2 is great because you can wedge it in anywhere sideways. If you can set down 2 cans of pop someplace, you can stick your PS2 there. And you don’t even need that dumb stand they sell! (Unless an earthquake strikes, but then you’ve got other problems) You know it’s good because everyone else is copying the “horizontal or vertical” case for their new systems.
Racket: Maybe it’s just me, but between some of the pictures you post on your site and your witty writing, you remind me a bit of Conan O’Brien. Has anybody else mentioned that to you?
BenHeck: I get that a lot, or used to. I still recall, getting my first loan back when I was 18, and the guy comes to a dead stop and says “You know, you remind me of Conan O’ Brien”
Racket: Ok, so I’m not the only one Well, thanks so much for your time, Ben. It’s been a blast talking with you and I hope I can touch base with you more in the future!
BenHeck: No problem!
If you would to learn more about his projects, I suggest you check out his website at benheck.com and the Benjamin Heckendorn Wikipedia entry. You can also learn how to reproduce his projects with his book, Hacking Video Game Consoles .