The cold embrace of death, eh? It comes for us all eventually, but for some – in this case CD-based games consoles – it comes quicker than most. While older cartridge-based machines will keep going until either their capacitors go pop or the universe falls in on itself, CD-based consoles aren’t so lucky. Once the motor burns out and the laser reads its final chunk of data, the machine itself is essentially useless.
This is a particular problem for Sega’s CD-based machines, as their two main CD-based consoles (the Saturn and Dreamcast) both have drives that are difficult to replace. While the Saturn used standard compact disks, the distinctive wobble of the copy protection system means that nothing but a like-for-like replacement for the drive will be able to read Saturn-formatted games. Meanwhile in Dreamcast land, the proprietary GD-ROM (Gigabyte Disk Read-Only Memory, don’t you know) deployed in the console means that the only choice for an optical-based replacement is a drive cannibalised from another Dreamcast.
Now, one piece of good news is that both the Saturn and the Dreamcast can be modified to replace their their optical drives with SD cards and standard Hard Drives (if this is something that interests you, you can read more about them: here.)
However what if you don’t really fancy having your beloved console taken to bits? The good news is that you do have a couple of options. On the Saturn front, Professor Abrasive is developing the Satiator, a cunning plug’n’play device that will be able to load Saturn ROMs via the Console’s Video CD adaptor socket, but that won’t be out for a while I’m afraid. For the Dreamcast it turns out you already have an option that’s existed for a number of years: SD Card adaptors that plug in to the serial port on the back of the console. You can order these from the likes of Ebay and Amazon, and they won’t cost you more than about £20.
The only question that remains is whether these cheap Dreamcast SD readers are any good.
Examining these devices, it’s clear that the finish isn’t overly professional, with some of the wiring on the connector exposed On top of this, they also don’t really seem to click satisfyingly into the Dreamcast serial port. The good news is that neither of these seems to be a massive problem. My unit has not only stood up to multiple insertion and removals, but the relatively stiff fit (oh, matron) means that the reader is only likely to wiggle free if you place the unit on an active washing machine.
Naturally, the Dreamcast was never designed to load software through the serial port by default, so these readers require a separate bit of software to function. The easiest way to do this is via Dreamshell, a KallistOS-based operating system. It seems many readers come with a pre-burned boot cd, but if not the installation process is pretty simple. Simply download this package from the Dreamshell website, burn the CD to disk (if required) and copy the DS folder over to the root of a Fat32 formatted SD card (Some of the Information online will tell you that 32gb cards work best, but personally i’ve been using this 128gb Sandisk card without issue.)
After that, stick your SD card in the reader, your burned disk into the optical drive and you’re good to go! Granted, the setup isn’t quite as simple as plugging it in and turning it on, but the fact that already here suggests that the above steps probably aren’t beyond your like mad technical skillz.
Dreamshell itself is pretty self explanatory to use. Though it’s possible to add your own game shortcuts to the front page (more on that later,) the games you’ve copied over to the SD card are accessible by clicking on the ISO loader app shown above. You select it by either using the Dreamcast’s thumbstick like a mouse, or using the d-pad to hop around the available icons.
The isoloader app is relatively pretty to look at and largely self explanitory to use. However, this is where things can start to get a little tricky. For a lot of games, you can simply fire them up by clicking on the image you’ve copied over to your SD card. After a few seconds, your game will load just as if you put in the disk. Easy peasy! !
Intermission! Buy my stuff!
However, for quite a few titles, you’re going to have to mess with the settings. Though the ISOLoader seems reasonably proficient at detecting these by itself, there are a good titles that simply won’t load (or will have major errors) if you feed them an incorrect memory address or disk access preference. Considering how you’ll need to hunt for the correct settings for these games online via compatibility lists, this isn’t entirely user friendly.
So you’ve checked your settings, and finally booted your game. How is it going to run? Well, the main disadvantage of loading your games this way is the serial port itself. Intended for linking consoles together for multiplay, the serial port simply wasn’t designed with the rapid transfer of large amounts of data in mind. This means that it is indisputably slower than loading than by the GD-ROM.
What this means in practice depends on a few factors – such as how the game has been ripped from disk and how the title was put together in the first place. Some games will run absolutely fine. Others will run fine but without music. The likes of Crazy Taxi will run mostly perfectly, but will occasionally suffer minor animation stutters – or in the House of the Dead’s case pause when accessing data that would originally have seamlessly streamed. Some will run as they would from the GD-ROM with odd quirks – like Jet Set Radio, which will randomly reset the machine if you pause the game. It’s fair to say that, if you want to run the game’s 100% as intended, this method may not be for you.
With that said, I think some of the common information you’ll find about SD compatibility over-eggs the pudding somewhat. Though it’s true that it still isn’t in the ball park of the near 100% compatibility offered by devices like the USB GD-ROM, the only retail game i’ve failed to boot personally is Metropolis Street Racer. Though i’d have felt let down if i was interested in watching the movie files found in the likes of Head Hunter, so far the games i’ve wanted to play have all been (still) immensely playable.
For anyone on the fence, the Dreamshell OS also has one final – and quite handy – trick up its sleeve: the ability to create shortcut applications to launch games with any custom settings straight from the desktop. These are a little tricky to create from scratch – the OS won’t load if you malform the XML – but are relatively straight forward to adjust if you have a template. Because i’m a nice sort of chap, i’ve created a template zip you can download from here
Overall, I don’t think these SD card readers are as bad as the information I found on the net suggested. Though your best bet in terms of performance is to spend extra money to replace your GD-ROM, to me my reader seems like a perfectly functional way of loading and playing Dreamcast games. Though it’s true that there is a bit of overhead with tracking down games and setting up shortcuts, with a bit of effort you can create yourself a solution which is as accessible as any other on the market – even if it doesn’t strictly have 100% compatability