Monday, February 11, 2019

In a Solid State of Mind

So about that Dreamcast. You may recall that it wasn't playing discs properly, but I took care of that problem. Now, it doesn't play discs at all! Heh, nailed it.

image from Netflix
See, there's this potentiometer you're supposed to adjust to make the laser more intense, but Sega stuck some glue on it to keep it that from happening. I couldn't cut through the glue, and I couldn't make the pot turn with a screwdriver, so I went with the nuclear option and tried to force it to turn with a pair of needle nose pliers. Now you can turn it as much as you like, because it's been pulled off the GD-ROM drive entirely! Ugh.

However! That doesn't mean the Dream is over. In fact, this could be a blessing in disguise, as that broken optical drive can be swapped with a peripheral called the GDEMU. Instead of discs, the GDEMU takes SD cards, which are smaller, can be freely erased and rewritten, and hold a lot more data. You could put a massive chunk of the entire Dreamcast library on a 128GB card, and never need to open the drive lid again.

Admittedly, the GDEMU is expensive... Chinese clones of the device cost eighty dollars or more, with the genuine article costing several hundred. However, it may not just be a wise future investment, but a necessary one. I'm told that optical drives in general aren't built for long-term use, with Sega's proprietary drive being especially damage-prone. Beyond that, the GD-ROM has been out of production for nearly two decades... purchasing a replacement just isn't an option, unless you're willing to pay through the nose for a drive fished out of another Dreamcast. 

My Dreamcast, patiently awaiting a drive transplant.
With GDEMU prices starting at eighty dollars,
it may have to be extremely patient.
Sooner or later, you will have to throw out the drive entirely and switch to solid state storage. That doesn't just apply to the Dreamcast, but all game systems with a disc drive... the Playstation, the Saturn, the GameCube, you name it. Some of these machines are already equipped with alternate forms of storage... the classic Xbox has a small hard drive by default, which can be swapped with a much more spacious one after it's been hacked. The PSP has a slot for a Memory Stick... this was originally intended for game saves, but plummeting storage prices and a handy Micro SD card adapter means you can stick dozens of games into the system without ever opening the UMD drive.

Unfortunately, just as many systems from the age of spinning discs and moving parts have no other official storage options. Hackers have cribbed together their own solutions... the Dreamcast has GDEMU, the Saturn has Phoebe and Rhea, and even the decades-old Turbografx-16 has an alternative to the Turbo CD in the Super SD System 3. All of these devices are expensive, with the Super SD System 3 costing nearly as much as a Turbo Duo when it was launched in 1992. However, with the lenses of optical drives dimming and discs slowly losing their data to bit rot, players unwilling to settle for emulation may have no choice but to empty their wallets.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Livin' the Dream

...well, sort of, anyway. The Dreamcast I bought arrived yesterday, and while it does work, it has some issues. When I first turned it on, it went to the date entry screen, and while I was setting the WABAC machine for twenty years into the future, it shut off. Uh, that ain't good. After several such resets, I managed to get the machine to keep its eyes open, but it wouldn't recognize discs. Cleaning the lens with a Q-tip and a small amount of alcohol fixed that problem, but it's still kind of picky about what it will read. It ran Fighting Vipers 2's introduction too slowly, focusing on characters for so long that the background music finished well before the rest of the intro did. Street Fighter Alpha 3 wouldn't run at all, and while I could play through the game in its entirety, Capcom vs. SNK 2's smug announcer got a slight stutter... not a game-killer by any means, but still distracting.

I guess the best course of action would have been to send the Dreamcast back, but I wasn't sure it would be worth the hassle just to recover twenty five dollars and some couch change. It certainly wasn't worth the hassle for the seller, who told me she really needed the money and that she had a toddler and three pit bulls to feed. Pretty good hustle, kid... you're off the hook for this one. So it looks like it's up to me to work out the kinks in this system.

Fortunately, much of what's happening with this Dreamcast are common issues with common solutions. The laser can be strengthened by adjusting a potentiometer inside the system, and the random shutdowns usually happen because the power pins get corroded over time and need to be cleaned. I'll have to open the machine to do this maintenance, and that brings with it the possibility of brushing up against the internal power supply and getting a painful electric shock. I can't imagine it being any more painful than paying eBay prices for another Dreamcast, though...

I've only spent a small amount of time with this system, but just seeing the orange dot hop along the bottom of the screen, then expand into the Sega swirl, brought back some serious nostalgia. I played Dreamcast games almost exclusively from 2000 to 2002, and it's good for the soul to relive that experience on an actual console, if only briefly. I just need to do a few repairs to keep those good times rolling...

Monday, February 4, 2019

Half 'cast

"Ooh, a Dreamcast for twenty-two dollars! How could I pass that up?"
"Does it come with a controller? Or A/V cables? Or anything else that would make it usable?"
"Congratulations. You just bought a Sega-branded paperweight."

Well, you can't blame me for trying. As usual, I do have this system in Michigan, but since it doesn't look like I'll be getting it back any time soon, I've had to go with plan B and order another one. I just might not be playing it any time in the near future.

By the way, can anyone vouch for the high definition cables available for the Dreamcast? They come in VGA and HDMI flavors, and while they're said to be a big improvement over composite cables, I also understand that they don't play nice with some games or television sets. Heck, they're not even compatible with every Dreamcast, although that mostly applies to the black Sega Sports model that was introduced late in the system's short life. You know, the more piracy proof model that came out after the Dreamcast was cracked and the Playstation 2 loomed overhead like a console-crushing Death Star. 

Eh, I guess you can't blame Sega for trying, either.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

You Are Watching Fox(es)

image from AtariAge and Penguinet
Now here's a pleasant surprise! A game was released late last year for the Atari 7800, and it's a real doozy. Rikki and Vikki brings the look and feel of NES platformers to Atari's third game system, with the title characters fighting their way through a subterranean amusement park to rescue their offspring from the dastardly Misery Dragon. (This scaly douchebag lives to annoy others, but when you resort to kidnapping, you've left "annoying" a thousand miles behind and have set both feet firmly in "felony" territory.)

The brilliantly designed marquee tells you everything you need to know about the gameplay... you strategically set boxes, then grab keys scattered around the room to advance to the next one. You'll have to put your thinking tuque on to figure out how to reach those keys tucked away in seemingly unreachable spots... some sneaky tricks to increase your reach include sticking the boxes to the sides of walls and jumping on the top of a box held by your partner. While it's possible to play the game on your own with a set of single player stages, you can't really win unless you bring a friend along for the ride. Like I said, the Misery Dragon lives to annoy people.

The stage designs are top-notch, and the graphics are impossibly good on a game system best known for ports of creaky old arcade titles. Both Rikki and Vikki look like they jumped straight out of a Disney Afternoon game by Capcom, gritting their teeth when they pick up boxes and kicking them into rabbits so big and meaty you'd swear they missed a dinner date with a Korean dictator. The only game that comes close to looking this nice on the Atari 7800 is Tower Toppler, and... well, you have to play Tower Toppler, which I don't recommend.

Atari 7800 owners will no longer have to resort to that terrible fate to get their platforming fix, thanks to Rikki and Vikki. Heck, even if you don't have an Atari 7800, you can still play this on Steam, and for a lot less. Definitely look into this if you like action games that test both your footwork and brain work.