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PSX'ing in a Foreign Land
By Thiravudh Khoman

Six months ago, what I knew about Sony Playstations could fill a thimble. To me, it was a simple toy - connect it to a TV as you would a VCR, stick in a CD as you would an audio CD player, and voilá, it worked. This was especially true if you acquired your Playstation ("PSX" for short) games in the same geographical area that you bought your PSX console. Unfortunately, things aren't quite so simple if you get transported to a "foreign land".

For some time now, video game consoles (at least the authentic ones) have been shipped with a form of "protection" that prevents games obtained in certain locales from being played on machines originating from other locales. Such was the case with the Sony Playstation as well, as I discovered when I tried to get my daughter's Thailand-bought PSX to work in the U.S.

Being a reasonably experienced computerist, I figured this would be child's play (sic) to remedy. Six months later, I'm much wiser but alas a bit poorer than I needed to be. For better or worse, though, "Dance, Dance Revolution 2nd Mix" (the nefarious dance game that is/used to be popular in Bangkok and is unavailable in the U.S.) is now playable on my daughter's PSX, and my daughter is playing with MY toys a bit less (yay!).

While this topic is probably of limited interest to hardcore computer folk, I figured I would write it up anyway for the sake of some poor soul who finds him/herself in the same predicament as I was in.


Attentive readers will no doubt catch onto the fact that Thailand and the U.S. use different television systems - i.e. PAL in Thailand and NTSC in the U.S. - not to mention different A/C voltages - i.e. 220 volts at 50 cycles in Thailand versus 110 volts at 60 cycles in the U.S. Not a problem. My Thailand-bought PSX was dual voltage and could handle the electrical differences without a problem when I tried it in the U.S.

The problem was that the picture came out in glorious black and white. Doing some research on the internet, I found out that the B&W; images were symptomatic of a PAL PSX being played on an NTSC TV. This was a surprise to me since my PSX was supposed to be an NTSC model (or so it was labelled), not PAL at all. I didn't think to verify this when I was in Thailand, since my multi-system TV at home could handle NTSC signals with aplomb anyway, and I simply assumed that the PSX was operating in NTSC mode.

The seemingly simplest solution would be to buy a multi-system TV here in the U.S. Unfortunately, all TV's sold through regular retail channels here are single system (i.e. NTSC only). Indeed, the only way to obtain a multi-system TV in the U.S. is to go through special importers who charge atrocious prices for such items (around US$500 for 21"-ers).

A similar alternative is to get a multi-system VCR that can convert the signal from PAL to NTSC, and then connect the PSX to the TV through the VCR. Again, such items are only available from said importers and the price is hardly much cheaper.

Yet another option was to try and find a "black box" signal converter, one that could convert a PAL signal into NTSC. Scouring the internet, I found a handful of inexpensive converters that could convert NTSC to PAL, but very few from PAL to NTSC, and those that I found were quite pricey, around US$200 and up. Given that I had never used such a device before, this was a very risky option, not to mention expensive. I was willing to spend $50 at most; anything above that and I may as well buy a new U.S. PSX instead.

No Way (Play)Station

Not surprisingly, I eventually gave up on trying to make my Thai, seemingly-PAL PSX play on a U.S NTSC-only TV. It was just too costly. The only alternative open to me now was to buy a new U.S. PSX instead. The cost of these are currently about US$100, give or take about US$10. Actually, given that the Playstation 2 is due out soon, I had hoped it would be cheaper.

But wait a minute. During my internet research, I discovered that PSX CD's bought in different parts of the world are only playable on machines bought in that part of the world. Sony chose to embed a "regional code" into the boot sector of the CD which the hardware checks when it is turned on. If the regional code on the CD doesn't match that of the hardware, the CD won't play. Bottom line: if I bought a U.S. PSX, I wouldn't be able to play the PSX CD's that I brought from Thailand. Whoops. What fool said that this was child's play?

Granted, there are many places in the U.S. that rent PSX games à la Blockbuster videos, but one would be limited to what games were available here only - and A LOT of the Japanese games available in Thailand are NOT available here. No, some way would have to be devised to play our Thailand CD's.

Mod Devices

The de rigeur method of playing what are referred to in PSX vernacular as "imports and backups" is to add a "mod" device. (Note: "Imports" are authentic PSX CD's obtained from other regions and can be distinguished by their black undersides. "Backups" are copies of games, normally written with a CD writer onto plain CD-R's with silver bottoms.) From what I've been able to glean, there are three types of "mod" devices"

  • Mod Chips

    This involves obtaining a "mod chip" (available from a number of internet companies for about US$20, give or take a few dollars) and then soldering the chip, along with a few wires, onto the PSX's mainboard. No need to guess - this will instantly and irrevocably void your PSX's warranty. As this obviously involved some soldering skills, any mistake which could lead to a "fried" PSX (good-bye $100), I never seriously considered doing this myself. Asking at several video game stores in town, I found that no one provided such a service locally. If you desired, though, you could mail your PSX to certain internet vendors who would install the mod chip for you at the going rate of about US$45. Or, you could even buy a complete PSX pre-mod'ed.

    While this sounds like an awfully "hairy" solution, once mod'ed by a knowledgeable technician, games from multiple regions can be played without ANY user intervention whatsoever. Additionally, this mod can be applied to practically any model of PSX. My guess is that most REAL PSX's in Thailand (i.e. those sold outside authorized retail channels) are "mod'ed" in this way. Presumably all clone PSX's are mod'ed from birth.

  • Parallel Port Mod Plugs

    If you own one of the newer PSX's (i.e. the series 9000 or the PS One), using a mod chip may be the only solution available to you. However, for owners of older PSX's (i.e. the series 7000's and earlier) that have a parallel port at the back of the unit, there's another alternative: you could install an external "mod plug". (Note: This port was removed from the current series 9000's, presumably to save costs) (figure 1). The advantage of doing this is that you don't have to open up the PSX case and perform surgery on the mainboard, which also means you won't void your warranty.

    One major advantage of this approach is that the plug tends to come with numerous "cheat codes" preinstalled. These allow you to play many games in "cheat mode" (i.e. with infinite lives or invulnerability, automatically find all treasures or weapons, access certain "back-doors", etc.). Cheat codes could even be entered and saved for games not available on the plug. Numerous websites and even magazines publish these cheat codes. Incidentally, mod chips don't have these cheat codes embedded in them. However, you can obtain this same functionality by purchasing plugs which are inserted into the front panel memory slots instead.

    As to be expected, there are a few downsides to this device as well. As mentioned, newer/current PSX models just don't have this port built-in any more. While it is possible to buy a parallel port kit and solder it onto the mainboard so that it can accept the mod plug, you're again talking about performing potentially life-threatening surgery on your PSX. The only other alternative is to track down an older (and therefore, "used") model PSX which has the port built-in.

    Another downside involves the modus operandi in playing imports or backups. To play an import on PSX's with mod chips, simply insert the CD and power on the PSX. To play an import on PSX's with mod plugs, you must first "fool" the PSX into thinking you're using an original CD and then swap CD's. This is done by booting the PSX with an authentic CD (a demo disk will do, such as those provided gratis with PSX magazines), removing the CD, and then continuing with an import or backup CD.

    While the mod plug will perform the task of stopping the spinning CD for you, you will still need to find a way to operate the PSX while its cover is open. Usually, this isn't possible, but there's a workaround whereby you use a spring to press down on a switch to fool the PSX into thinking the case has already been closed (figure 2). Once the original CD stops spinning - and more important, AFTER the proper region code has been read into memory - you can remove the CD, insert any import or backup CD, and then press the Start button to continue on your merry way. If you were to power down the PSX at any time, this procedure must be repeated.

    Probably the best known mod plug is something called an "Action Replay" which costs about US$30, +/- a few dollars. These are also available in Thailand, a fact that I was made aware by my daughter who badgered me to get her one. Of course, back then I hadn't the foggiest idea what it was. ("No, you can't have one. What is it anyway?")

  • Memory Slot Mod Card

    Apparently, there is another variety of mod plug/card that plugs into one of the PSX's front memory slots. A vendor called Citywide Solutions advertises such a device on their website (https://www.videogameaccessories.com/frontaction.html), although I haven't seen it advertised anywhere else. I thought I'd mention it in case it catches on in the future.

    Of course, one obvious downside to this type of plug/card is that one of your two memory slots (normally used to load/save games) will be pre-empted, . Also, I believe I read somewhere that performance using such slots is much poorer than via the parallel port.

Do You Know What I Did Last Summer?

Okay, so what did I finally do? After asking around at a few local video game stores, I found out that some older model PSX's were available for sale (used, of course). Apparently, a major video rental chain that rents video tapes/players, as well as video games/players, had offloaded their PSX game machines, presumably in anticipation of getting the new PSX2's. The asking price was US$70 but at least I could use the mod plug which I preferred over the mod chip.

I then ordered one of the mod plugs over the internet and found to my consternation that it wouldn't work. After a few emails were sent asking for help and more than a week passed without an answer, not to mention a daily stream of lame excuses to my daughter why I couldn't get her PSX to work with the new magic plug, I broke down and revisited one of the more knowledgeable game stores and picked up an Action Replay, testing it there and then. It worked - FINALLY - and the cost to me was that of a 2nd mod plug; or as us Thais are apt to say: "ka ngo" (i.e. "the cost of being stupid"). I'm still trying to get a refund on the first mod plug.

(While this may sound like a reason NOT not buy stuff over internet, I'd like to underline the fact that I've experienced NO major problems buying over the internet in the past 4-5 years. Quite the contrary, the only credit card problems I've had was with an international grade hotel in Bangkok, where I got - or apparently got - scammed twice. Of course, it wasn't the hotel but rather a rogue employee. Fortunately, I didn't lose any money.)


If I had to redo this over again, what would I do differently? Well, first, I'd make sure I got a PSX (real or clone) from Thailand that was dual voltage and TRULY NTSC functional. Next, I'd make sure the machine was properly mod'ed and/or had a parallel port equipped with a mod plug. I'd also bring "Dance, Dance Revolution, 2nd Remix" along with a few dance pads because, oh man, them Yanks don't know what they're missing!

Copyright © 2000, Thiravudh Khoman