Identifying Playstation Cracktro Soundtracks

Screenshot from Paradox Klassix – Soul Reaver (ITA) cracktro

A user in the Nectarine Discord brought an interesting question recently: they had some Youtube videos of cracktros from Playstation games, and wanted to know if anyone could identify their soundtracks. For those unaware, a “cracktro” is a combination of a “crack” (piracy) and an “intro” (demoscene) – it’s a little movie or menu that plays at the start of a hacked / pirated game, usually with credits and simple visual effects. It’s a calling card from the group who helped pirate the game, often with “greetz” to the supplier of the disc image, the coder who cracked it, the BBS or site who re-hosted the result, etc.

Cracktro soundtracks are usually an oldschool chiptune or lo-fi soundtrack in “module” format. Originally created on the Amiga computer, .mod audio files are very small, similar to a MIDI with bundled sound samples. They are well-suited to cramming into a tiny executable, which must fit on the CD along with the pirated game. Sometimes the musician gets credited, but other times it’s a mystery. MOD files don’t have a place to write the artist or other info, only the title and instrument names. Because of the unknown provenance of the files, ripped from games or BBS posts or musicdisks full of sounds, sometimes the original credits are lost or incorrect.

Back to the Playstation games. There was a short list of videos that needed help to track them down, but eventually we got them all figured out. Every one of these was from the group “Paradox”, a console cracking and piracy group who released a number of titles in the early 2000s. Here’s how we figured them all out:

Check the Credits

The first one we solved was The Land Before Time (NTSC, US). The credits for this listed SFX as “Superstars & Class”, but that isn’t the name of an artist. However, it provided a helpful clue… People in the scene organize themselves into “scene groups”, loose organizations where different members fill a role (musician, artist, coder, etc) and work together on one or more releases. In this case, the crack authors mistakenly credited the *group* Superstars & Class instead of the musician. Searching ModArchive for “superstars” turned up a number of hits, and browsing through them eventually landed on “Happy Mushrooms” by Maktone. ModArchive helpfully extracts the instrument text and displays it on the site, so you can see how credits have been handled in a format that didn’t formally support them.

Know Your Sound Chips

Photo of the MOS 6581 “SID” chip – the infamous noisemaker inside the Commodore 64

The second one, Superbike 2000 (NTSC, US) was a bit similar to the first with an incorrectly credited name – but ModArchive was no help this time in looking up “Lepsi”. Here is where a knowledge of the distinctive sound of old computer audio came in handy: this sound is clearly chiptune, it does not sound like MOD files, which have more realistic samples. I guessed (correctly) that this was actually a Commodore 64 .sid file, either converted to MOD with recorded SID sounds, or a SID player/emulator for PSX. The big SID archive is the High Voltage SID Collection, and here a search for “Lepsi” turned up a number of results for the group. I ended up downloading the HVSC and trying each result until I discovered the actual source, “Anything” by Piotr Baczkiewicz (Bzyk), released in 2000 for group Samar Productions / Lepsi.

Ask Somebody Smarter

Third up was Prince Naseem Boxing (PAL, EU). This tune was instantly familiar, as I’d heard it dozens of times on Nectarine, but no source immediately came to mind. The solution? Ask in the OneLiner! Having a site full of fans of 1980s/90s computers is an excellent resource, and someone immediately said “That’s Turrican!” Close… it’s the ending sequence from Turrican 2, composed by Chris Huelsbeck.

Check Pouët (and Hexedit)

The final three were tougher to solve, and required actually getting the cracks so I could dig in to see if there were more clues available. Sometimes, cracks come with a .NFO or FILE_ID.DIZ file, which give information about what’s in the archive – sometimes with credits or notes for users. Failing that, I hoped I could try to extract the .mod files back out and see if there was anything useful.

Pouët.net remains THE source for demoscene productions and archiving, and it’s where I went to find these. The Paradox group listing has most of their work available, including a “Paradox Intro Collection” where they’ve helpfully packaged all the intros from a bunch of Playstation scene groups into one .iso file for easy viewing. Unfortunately nobody had commented the track names yet.

Some Playstation executables from
the Paradox Intro Collection.

This part gets a bit technical. Playstation ISO files are in a slightly different format from PC ones, so getting the files out requires special tools. I used psxrip.exe from PSXImager to unpack the ISO files, resulting in a number of .PSX files in PS-EXE format that can be run in a Playstation emulator.

From here I was able to use ePSXe to play the various intros. But it was clear I’d have to actually dig into the binaries to try to recover the MOD files. The intros did provide a helpful hint though – many credited the MOD player to “Silpheed / Hitmen”, and it turns out that’s still available, so I got that and attempted to convert some MOD files to their new HIT format and see what that looked like.

Turns out they are pretty similar. A HIT file is a MOD, except with the file identifier M.K. replaced with HIT4 (or 6 or 8 depending on channels), and all the samples converted to Playstation’s SPU-ADPCM format instead of Amiga’s 8-bit raw. Encouraging news since it meant that the instrument text might still be preserved, and in fact, hex editing the .PSX files and searching for HIT4 would reveal the embedded files. Some of the cracks were compressed, but it was still possible to make out a few words, and this was enough to take to the ModArchive or ExoticA’s ModLand instrument search and get results.

On the left: a HIT4 file, “Classic” by Estrayk, found within a PS-EXE. On the right: a HIT4 file, “Back 2 the roots!” by ANiMAL, inside a compressed PS-EXE.

Did this work pay off? The fourth cracktro, for Fussball Live! (PAL, DEU), was also available for download from Pouët. Using the methods here I uncovered enough sample text to locate the original: “13th of Friday” by X-Ceed / Appendix.

Cracking the Originals

A major issue with the last two is that I didn’t have the cracktros to look at under the microscope. But I did know what games they went to and who made them, so the next step was to locate some original ISOs for the games, and then apply the cracks just like it was 2001 all over again. Somehow, amazingly, ConsoleCopyWorld is still around and hosting the same cracks after all these years. So, with a Windows XP VM safely isolated from my main system, I applied the .exe files from dodgy sites and then checked the resulting .iso files in ePSXe to see if I’d done the job.

Credits to Paradox as their work did indeed deliver… ePSXe read these modified ISOs and played just great. Using PSXRip again I extracted just the main cracked PS-EXE files from the two games, and now I had cracktros to examine.

The fifth game, Ape Escape (PAL, SPA), was nearly within reach… but it was compressed, and the tantalizing bits of instrument text were not enough to use in a search engine. I briefly considered writing a decompressor until I realized the work was already done for me, by the crack itself! The loader portion has to read the rest of the compressed small file off the CD, and expand it into RAM, before it can execute the actual intro portion. Using ePSXe I took a save state while the crack was running – after the decompression – and then examined the dumped memory contents (ePSXe savestates are just .zip files). And there it was: “technocool rapid7” by Magnum 755 / Avalanche.

Pattern Matching

The final request was the most vexing of all. This crack for Soul Reaver (PAL, ITA) is most impressive – it’s a full-fledged demo with classic effects like scrolling text, 3d shapes, moving starfields, the works.

Video capture of Paradox Klassix – Soul Reaver (PAL, ITA) cracktro

It also thwarted everything I’d tried so far. The credits are useless, nobody recognized the song, and the crack does not appear on Pouët. I patched the ISO but the resulting crack is either compressed more than most, or it’s got encryption / protection of its own, so there are no strings to read. Dumping the memory and checking for HIT4 turned up this bit of instrument text:

NoName

( Original Format: )
(   Player v6.1a   )

Ripped'n'Converted
 with Pro-Wizard 2.20
  written by Gryzor!

Useless. No name, and the only text indicates it was once converted from Amiga to PC using a common program. Search is not helpful, as there are hundreds of files that look like this. By this point I’d enhanced my tool to extract the HIT and I could sort of hammer it into a MOD file, which played back with totally wrong samples, yet still the melody could be heard. I had a song length (3:06), and a guess at the original filesize (110-120kb?) and type (4-channel Protracker MOD) but little else to go on.

But I was not ready to give up on this last one, so I came up with an idea: Although my bogus MOD file had the wrong filesize and samples, the pattern data (which notes to play, and when) should still be accurate. If I had a big collection of MOD files, I could scan each of them for a match on pattern data against my test file, and if I found a hit then I’d have the original! The only thing to do now was to actually get a collection. ModArchive to the rescue once again: they have a set of torrents, nearly 200,000 modules total in several formats, available for download from their tracker.

After scanning all 76,402 MOD tunes for ANY match on ANY pattern… not a single hit. Nothing matched between my ripped file and the entire ModArchive. This is unusual but not impossible: the instrument text mentions ProWizard, which was an Amiga tool used for automatically locating and ripping music from Amiga applications. It looks as though this song was originally composed for an Amiga demo (using Player 6.1A as the replay routine), and Paradox stumbled across it later and extracted it for recycling into their own demo. Nobody else has done the same work and posted to ModArchive, so it just wasn’t there.

So what now? Well, there’s always a chance to find that original Amiga demo. Scene.org, Amiga Music Preservation, and Pouët would all be good places to look. ProWizard 2.20 and Player 6.1A were both released in 1995, so the demo should be at least that modern, and not newer than 2001 when the crack was released. Maybe an exhaustive search would find the source, but… I’ve already spent too long on this and will let someone else pick up the thread.

NoName.hit.mod (Amiga .MOD, 112kb)Download

In parting, I did manage to transform NoName.hit back to a playable .mod file. The samples are close but not 100% correct, because the conversion from PCM to SPU-ADPCM is inexact. Still, here it is. Maybe it will help in the search!

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