As far back as I can remember (which would be the first Nintendo days), manufacturers started putting hidden secrets or alternative methods into games and game consoles to improve the gaming experience.
Usually you were informed of this by word of mouth, calling tech support, or even by pure accident (and luck). Here is a list of some useful tricks you can perform on your game console to wow all your friends.
If you've got one of the component/composite dual video cables – the one that comes in the box with most 360s – you can have your console display its gamey goodness on two TVs simultaneously. The trick is to flick the cable's switch to Standard Definition but hook up the composite (yellow) cable to one screen and the component (the red, green, blue) cables to another. It won't be high-def, but it could be handy if you're staging a mini LAN party and want to set up a display for bored spectators to point their eyes at.
2. Play your own music in original Xbox games
That you can fire up your own MP3s during a 360 game is common knowledge (and re-sound tracking moody horror games with the Benny Hill theme tune never stops being funny), but it doesn't work if you're playing a title from the original Xbox. There's a way around it – start playing your album or playlist before you load the game, and it'll keep on playing once you do fire the title up. The game's own music won't be muted, however, so if you can't do that in its settings you'll go mad from the weird cacophony.
3. It can write its own blog
Ah, the internet – founded upon crazy men making crazy things for free. Such as a blog supposedly written by your 360, based on what you've been using it for. It monitors your Live account and automatically generates entries about what it's been up to that day (or what it hasn't been up to – expect many posts about neglect if you don't turn it on for a while). The tone is very much American geek, but it's a fun record of your own gaming habits, and of keeping an eye on what your chums are up to. Get set up at www.360voice.com.
4. Play Xbox 360 games online for free – without a Live account
That you have to pay a subscription for online gaming, something that's free on other consoles and on the PC, is perhaps the 360's greatest bugbear. Stage your own form of peaceful process by playing online without paying a penny. You'll need XLink Kai, a free app you run from a PC on the same network as the console that tricks the 360 into thinking the internet is a LAN.
So it'll treat remote opponents as though they're in the same room as you – and you don't have to pay for local multiplayer. Clever! One snag – Microsoft has set the 360 to boot out anyone with a ping higher than 30ms, so you'll have to be selective about who you play with. Local chums are best, not your Chinese penpal.
5. Interact with your Xbox 360 music
Hit X whilst playing a music CD or file (whether from the 360's hard drive, an MP3 player you've plugged in, or streamed from a PC) and you'll enter Psychedelic Wonderland. Well, some artful visualizations, anyway. Grab a controller or two (or up to four, as it happens) and start moving thumb pads and pressing buttons to interact with the crazed shifting colors. There are actually some fairly elaborate controls – read the full manual at http://www.llamasoft.co.uk/x360manual.php. Good at parties, this.
6. Connect your Xbox 360 to a wireless network without an official adapter
The good news is you don't have to drop £50 on Microsoft's offensively overpriced Wi-Fi adapter. The bad news is you'll need a laptop with W-Fi to do it. Head to Control Panel – Network Connections (In Windows XP) or Network & Sharing Center – Manage Network Connections (in Vista). Select the Local Area Connection and the Wireless Network Connection at once, then right-click and hit 'bridge connections'.
Disconnect then reconnect to your wireless network, run a network cable from the laptop's Ethernet port to the 360's, and you should be good to go. Unfortunately, you may have to remove the bridge (repeat the above process and you'll see the option) whenever you want to browse the net with the laptop.
7. Play music from your iPod
Not a secret as such, but Microsoft doesn't exactly shout about the fact it plays nice with a device made by uber-rival Apple. Hidden in the depths of the Marketplace, you'll find a teeny download called 'optional iPod support'. Once you've grabbed that, plug in your iPod (iPhones aren't supported yet, sadly) and head to the Media Blade. You'll see your pod appear there, and can now browse its music by album, artist, genre or whatever. It'll also charge via the USB port, usefully.
8. Reset your Xbox 360 video settings
Remember this one if you're in the habit of carrying your console to chum's houses and hooking it up to different displays. It can end up trying to output the wrong signal, so you can't see anything or get a flickering screen. Fortunately, there's a fairly simple fix if this happens. Remove any discs from the tray and turn the thing off. Then turn it on using a game pad. As it boots, hold down the Y button, then hit and hold the right trigger. The video settings will reset to default, and you'll stop your sobbing.
9. Play any media file, plus online videos on your Xbox 360
Free app Tversity neatly sidesteps the pointless video/audio restrictions Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo alike slap on their consoles, making them able to play any format. Again, you'll need a PC on the same network, but it's a simple matter of installing the program and having it scan the folders you keep your media in. It'll replace the standard network file-sharing system Windows uses, but behaves pretty much the same way at the 360's end. As well as that, it'll convert unsupported files on the fly – though you'll need a pretty beefy PC to do this with large video files, otherwise you'll be waiting ages. You can also add online video URLs on the PC's end – including Youtube – and then access those from the console.
10. Use any HDMI cable and still get digital surround sound
Though the newer 360s have an HDMI output for optimal video quality, they've built the ports in such a way that you can't have the standard component/composite video cable, with its crucial optical audio output, plugged in at the same time as HDMI. Instead, you're supposed to drop a frightening amount of money on the official HDMI cable with audio adapter. Balls to that. See the big plastic box at the end of the standard video cable that connects to the console? Wedge a knife or screwdriver into the join and twist to pop it off. The result looks messy, but is small enough to plug in alongside a standard, cheapo HDMI cable.
11. System updates by disc
Not got your console online yet, or having trouble downloading the latest dashboard update? Try downloading it from a web-connected PC or Mac instead and burning it to a CD. Grab the latest (well, latest-ish - hopefully Microsoft will update the page soon) update from the XBox 360 System Updates page, burn it to disc, then pop that disc into the 360 and turn it on. You'll be prompted automatically as to whether you want to run the update.
12. The towel trick
Bit of a controversial one this, at least as long as you count "possibly burning your house down" as controversial. What it is is a short-term fix for the infamous red rings of death, the mournful LEDs that announce your 360 is dead. There are various theories about why it works, but the important thing is that, for some people, it does. The way to do it is to wrap the console in a towel or two - ensuring all sides of it are covered - then turn it on and leave it running for 10 minutes or so. Then turn it off, remove the towels, turn it on again and pray. If it's worked, it'll only stay alive for a few hours, but doing this a couple of times may be enough to get you through those long, lonely days while you wait for Microsoft to collect and replace your dead Xbox. Again though, it's dangerous - it could damage the console further, and could cause enough heat to set stuff on fire.
13. Clear the cache
Is your 360 dawdling along like a gin-addled pensioner? It's possible its hard drive is full up with junk files from old games and downloads - a spring clean could work wonders. There's a hidden function to clear out the cache, though be warned it'll delete any game patches too, so you'll probably have to re-download a few. Head to the System blade, select memory, HD, then press Y. Next, hit X, X, Left Bumper, Right Bumper, X and X. You should get a message about maintenance. Don't expect miracles, but if a game's been slowing down mysteriously lately, this could cure it, plus free up some extra space on your HD.
14. Makeshift web-browsing
Microsoft's continued refusal to add a web browser to the 360 is infuriating, but there are a few ways to stare at the internet with your console if you've also got a PC in the house and on the same network, and running either Windows XP Media Center or Vista Home Premium/Ultimate. There are several ways to do it, but perhaps the easiest is the MCE Browser plug-in. It's somewhat limited, but set it up on your Media Center PC then configure your 360 as a Media Extender and you can access your favorite web pages from it.
15. Stream Netflix movies
One for US 360 owners only, this. Again thanks to Windows Media Center and a free third-party plug-in called vmcNetflix you can save yourself from picking up an expensive set-top box to stream downloaded Netflix movies, as well as being able to manage your queue and set up new downloads from your PC. Install it, configure your 360 as a Media Center Extender and you're away.
16. Quieten the damn thing down
The 360's heat issues are well known, but they don't mean the box has to quite as noisy as it is. That's down to Microsoft using the cheapest fans it can get its hands on, which make an awful racket and are quite a distraction when you're watching a movie. If you're prepared to neuter your warranty, you can replace them with near-silent third-party jobs, such as the Talismoon WhisperFan. Go to real extremes with a complete replacement case, the Lian Li XB-01. Unfortunately, neither of these will silence the roar of the DVD drive, but once the upcoming dashboard update introduces installing games to the console's hard drive, that'll be less of a problem.
17. Insert special characters in your gamer profile
Oh, boring, boring text. Why can't we make our Gamercards a bit flashier? Fortunately, there is a way, but unfortunately it involves screwing around with Far Eastern languages. It's a bit of a complex process to explain in words alone, but this video made by a helpful soul will guide you through the entire process.