Steel Battalion in High Definition

PC gamers have always had the opportunity to get to customize their own simulator controllers. They even get to build their own mega controllers by using custom Arduino contraptions. On PC it's possible to customize and combine input devices to your heart's content. Unfortunately, console gamers never had anything close to this before or after “Steel Battalion”.

Before I played “Steel Battalion” I was a console gamer only. I did not like the idea of sitting in front of a PC monitor when playing video games. I loved the couch gaming approach. But after I played “Steel Battalion” a whole new world opened up for me. It eventually made me approach PC gaming and even VR gaming. But that’s a story for another time.

Very few games come close to what Steel Battalion offers out of the box. In my opinion, no mech game is equal to the gameplay scope and complexity of Steel Battalion. Not even my favorite mech game MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries.

In this article, I will guide you through the process of making the game looking dramatically better on modern TVs and PC monitors.

Video Resoluton

Making 20 year old games shine.

By today's standard Steel Battalion has terrible video resolution – especially in the PAL region. In addition to being very low saturated in the color department, the gauges inside the cockpit are barely readable, and the enemy and allied forces can most of the time only be identified by their square identifiers on the main monitor or the radar icons.

To get the optimal resolution in PAL territories you need to change the video from standard-definition 480i to 480p. This will double the vertical resolution in-game. In the multiplayer game “Steel Battalion - Line of Contact” it’s actually possible to play in 720p!

Recently the Xbox modding community has come back to life thanks to the attention the game has gotten on YouTube. An experimental build of the “Steel Battalion” executable created by Guy Öhm, enables 720p mode in the single-player game. It’s crude and has a lot of bugs, but hopefully, the developer of this hack will continue the work so we can enjoy a complete 720p single-player experience in the feature.

Shopping list:

Stuff you need to have

  • Original Xbox – hacked, either by modchip or soft mod.
  • Enigmah-X videomode changer.
  • The latest version of the Xbox dashboard. The menu system allows you to manage system settings, game saves, etc.
  • Component cable – The advanced SCART cable will not give you HD options on your Xbox. So, if you want surround sound you either got to get a special adapter or do a hardware mod to get digital audio.
  • (Optional) Component to HDMI converter. This makes the game playable on normal PC monitors.

Setup walkthrough

How to enable HD video output

To make this possible you first have to enable the option of 480p and 720p. To do this you have to use a Component cable – that split the video signal into three cables. When using this cable you can activate the 480p, 720p, and 1080i video modes in the Xbox dashboard. The advanced SCART cable with optical digital audio will NOT trigger the logic in the Xbox to enable HD video modes.

The Xbox developers never gave the PAL region the option to enable these modes even with the component cable attached. Luckily the same dashboard was distributed to both PAL and NTSC regions. To access the options with the component cable attached you have to change the video mode from PAL to NTSC.

Start by installing and running Enigmah-x on your Xbox. Use this app to change the video mode from PAL to NTSC.

PAL and NTSC were the video standards used around the world before HDTV’s become a thing. In the PAL territories (Europe) this was based on the power grid frequency of 50Hz that led to 50FPS (Frames Per Second) and a standard broadcast resolution of 625 TV-lines. In the NTSC territories (USA) this was based on 60Hz power grid that led to 60FPS and a standard broadcast resolution of 525 TV-lines.

DVD’s came in mainly two video standards before 480p24 became standard:

  • PAL-DVD - 24.25FPS - 720x576 resolution.
  • NTSC-DVD – 30FPS – 720x480 resolution.
  • 480p-24 – 23.976FPS - 720x480 resolution.

After changing to NTSC mode, reset the Xbox and go to the Xbox dashboard. Open setting and go to the video menu. You should now see the list of HD video mode options. Select widescreen and enable 480p and 720p. The 1080i mode is only possible in very few games and does actually look worse than 720p. By enabling these options, you will be able to get video on most PC monitors via the Component to HDMI converter. My monitors do not accept the normal 480i resolution provided by the Xbox. So, perhaps you have to do like me - set these settings on a “normal” TV before connecting to a PC monitor.

Now it’s time to try “Steel battalion” in 480p and “Steel Battalion – Line of contact” in 720p. On my PC monitor, I had to change the video mode from auto to 16:9 to get a widescreen in 480p. Like many other Xbox games, the widescreen mode is not fully 16:9. It does have thin black bars on each side of the screen.

Modchip issues

Important things to know when playing on a modded Xbox

With a modchip/soft-mod BIOS it's possible to install a backup of the game on your HDD. This will reduce the loading times dramatically. Installed backups have loading times that are usually 2-3 seconds in Steel Battalion compared to 8-10 seconds when playing from a disc.

Please note that with som some modchip/soft-mod BIOS may cause some in-game issues because of how the soft reset is mapped to the Xbox controller. This is a fantastic feature in almost every situation except when playing Steel Battalion. If you press the Ignition button on the game controller it will reset the Xbox.

To bypass the soft-reset problem, push the right joystick all the way forward when pressing the ignition key.

Technically the steel battalion controller has to combine button presses to bypass the limitations of the controller interface. Direct-X has an interface that enables 4 analog axis and 20 buttons pr. controller on the original Xbox.

The steel battalion controller has 38 buttons, 3 analog pedals, 1 joystick with 3 analog axes, and one joystick with 2 analog axes. In addition to a rotary encoder for the radio that acts as 2 buttons (up and down channel). In addition, we have the gear shifter that acts as 7 buttons. This makes for a whooping 55 inputs that can come from the controller! To get this to work the programmers had to combine button presses to bypass the limitations of Direct-X.

That’s why the ignition button on the controller resets the Xbox if you have an Xbox BIOS that has the soft-reset feature enabled. By pressing the right stick forward, you manipulate the reading of one of the analog axes one of the triggers is mapped to, so the ignition key will not trigger the soft reset in the BIOS.

If you by mistake soft-reset the Xbox during a start-up sequence you will lose credits in-game, just as you would if I had to eject in a mission. The request for a VT tank and equipment is saved at the mission start-up. It’s impossible to rage-quit or try to exit the game in order to not register a failed mission without a credit loss.

If you have a modchip installed with soft-reset I would advise turning the modchip off and just playing using the original disk and BIOS to not be bothered by this issue despite the longer load times. The change in video mode will be saved to the onboard EEPROM and work even when the modchip is turned off.