by Adam Pash
Recently Apple announced that you can buy video games for your 5G video iPod for 5 bucks a pop. Cool, right?
But what if you don't own a video iPod? What if you're stuck in the world of pre-video obsolescence? Worse yet, what if you don't have 5 bucks? The new games for sale at the iTunes Store aren't for you, and that's not quite so cool. Luckily, you can still play video games like Texas Hold 'Em, Tetris, and Bejeweled (all of which are for sale at the iTunes Store) on pretty much any iPod with a little bit of virtual elbow grease for free. Here's how.
iPodLinux and Rockbox
Two non-Apple tools allow you to play games on your iPod: iPodLinux and Rockbox, both of which are completely free and open source. I've used and been impressed with both, but today we'll stick to iPodLinux since it's easier to install. I'll describe the process from the perspective of a Windows user, but iPodLinux installers are available for Mac OS X and Linux as well.
Getting games up and running on iPodLinux is a pretty simple 3 step process:
- Install iPodLinux
- Install some games
- Play your games
It's not exactly news that you can play games on an iPod with iPodLinux, but you may not know just how easy the process can be.
Step one: Install iPodLinux on your iPod
NOTE: Though I haven't had any problems using iPodLinux, you could potentially run into a snag that would require you to restore your iPod's firmware, which could mean you lose all of the music currently on your iPod. So do back up your iPod's music and files before proceeding.
First, download the iPodLinux Installer and extract the contents to a folder on your computer. Don't use a temporary folder, since you'll use the installer more than once, and this is where it will backup your current firmware and settings for easy uninstallation if you choose to get rid of iPodLinux.
The iPodLinux wiki currently claims that the installer doesn't work properly if you've upgraded your iPod firmware with the new iTunes 7, but I am running the latest firmware on my 4G iPod and didn't have a problem. Your mileage may vary, but if you do have a problem with your iTunes 7-upgraded iPod, you can always downgrade your firmware with the iPod Updater 2006-06-28 in order to install iPodLinux (since iTunes 7 has been somewhat of a mess, scads of people are downgrading anyway).
If you're ready to give it a try, run the installer. Again, the iPodLinux people make a point of telling you that lots of iPods aren't officially supported, but you'll find that for most purposes (at least for the games we'll be installing), pretty much any iPod should work fine.
Installation is straightforward. Plug in your iPod with disk mode enabled and run the installer, keeping the defaults. You may be told at some point (at least I was) that there's some dependency errors, but just click OK and barrel ahead.
When you get to the boot loader options, you have a choice: You can have your iPod automatically boot to Apple's default firmware (holding the Rewind/Back button during the boot process will load iPodLinux), boot iPodLinux by default (holding Rewind boots Apple firmware), or select the iPodLoader2, which gives you a boot manager interface where you can choose what to load each time you start up your iPod. In most cases, I'd suggest loading the iPod firmware by default, though I'm currently using iPodLoader2 (pictured above) without problems.
When your installation is complete, go to iTunes and eject your iPod. You may have to plug your iPod into the wall outlet to complete the installation, but the next time your iPod starts up you should be able to boot into iPodLinux.
Step two: Load some games
Now that your iPod is dual-booting Linux and the default Apple firmware, it's time to get those games running. Plug your iPod into your computer, boot your iPod into the Apple firmware, and run the iPodLinux installer again. This time the installer will recognize that you've already got iPodLinux installed. Select "Update my existing installation" and hit Next. The installer should take you to a page of packages you can choose to install on your iPod. This is where you can choose your games.
The installer gets a little buggy for me at this point, but you can get around it easily. When the package list finishes downloading, I don't always get the option to go to the next page and view the packages. However, if I hit Back and then Next, I'm taken to the package list. (I'm but one man, so this may or may not happen to you.)
Once you make it to the package installation tree, you can select from a long list of cool games and other modules for your iPod.  Select the games and modules you'd like to install, hit next, and wait for the installation to finish.
Step three: Play your games
Once the installer finishes, you can eject your iPod and boot back into iPodLinux. Once the interface is loaded, go to Extras -> Games (just like you would on Apple's firmware) and you should see all of the games you installed. Here's a quick taste of all the games I've been playing on my 4G iPod:
DuckHunt (It's surprisingly playable on an iPod, but chances are the dog will laugh at you more than normal)
iDeal (Deal or No Deal game)
PodPoker (Texas Hold 'Em)
Keep in mind that some of these games work and look a little better than others, but all of the games I've mentioned work very well on my 4G iPod. And they're all free.
As I said earlier, iPodLinux isn't the only way to play games on your iPod; in fact, I've had plenty of fun in the past playing Doom with Rockbox (in my experience, it's much easier to set up Doom in Rockbox than iPodLinux). If you're feeling particularly ambitious, you can set up a triple-boot of Rockbox, iPodLinux, and the default Apple firmware using iPodLoader2.
Whatever you choose, it's pretty easy to get a bunch of fun games on your iPod for absolutely free. If anyone out there has tried iPodLinux or Rockbox and you want to weigh in, or you've got any questions about this process, direct your iPod-game-lovin' energy to the convenient comment box below.
Finally, if you're looking for more ways to have fun with your iPod, check out my other iPod-focused features.
Adam Pash is an associate editor for Lifehacker who doesn't have a 5G video iPod and wouldn't buy games for it even if he did. His special feature Hack Attack appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.
 The package list is also the place to go to remove troublesome modules. For example, the MPD module has caused iPodLinux to freeze during boot-up for me, but removing it through the installer takes care of this problem. Also, if you try a game you don't like and what to remove it, just come back to the package installation tree and uncheck it. [back up]