The Dream Of The 90’s Is Alive At My House – Dreamcast GD-EMU Review

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

So it’s no surprise to anybody that I’m obsessed with Sega’s final console, some…fifteen years and change after it shuffled off this mortal coil (an event that coincided with me having to start high school, which if I were a dickhead I’d say was some representation of me having to start the journey into adulthood or something). I play mine with a frequency, and I still lug it over to a number of friend’s houses to get back on the multiplayer for a number of games – indeed, it was really the only time I could ever claim to be good at Quake III Arena, and even then it was because I had the mouse & keyboard.

The only real problem is that they just don’t last too long. I got mine shortly after launch and it’s held up fine enough so far, but browse the Internet for any length of time and you’ll see dozens of accounts of people whose Dreamcasts have just stopped reading discs, thanks to the…er…touchy specificness of the GD-ROM laser lens. And while technology has allowed us to emulate the system well enough, it still isn’t 100%, and for a long time there was no Everdrive-like solution to replacing the need for physical games, even if you’ve been able to burn pirated copies since about a month after the damn thing came out.

Until now. Thanks to an industrious young man in Poland with the patience of a saint (and the skill with a soldering iron to match), I now have access to every goddamn Dreamcast game I could ever want to play. Even that shitty fucking South Park quiz game.

While there have been a few other USB/flash-drive-esq solutions for the Dreamcast, most of them either didn’t run the games well enough to make them playable, were focused more on homebrew, or the guy who made them lost his fucking mind.

This one, called the GDEMU, seemed to have none of those problems! Made by hand by a Polish gentleman who also developed a similar device for the Saturn (which I plan to buy next), the GDEMU replaces the entire GD-ROM drive of your Dreamcast with a small SD card reader, allowing you to play damn near any Dreamcast game.

Installation was easier than expected, or at least it was as soon as I found a screwdriver that would fit the long holes on the back. There’s only a few cables connecting the GD-ROM drive to the system’s casing, and the GDEMU is designed to mount safely within the existing design of the casing without the need for anything other than a few included screws and the ribbon cable that connected the original drive. You have to make sure you have a Model 1 Dreamcast, but most of them that aren’t the Sega Sports model will be, and it’s not like a second Dreamcast is that expensive anyway. I bribed a friend of mine to help me with the installation in exchange for Ghostbusters tickets, but even an idiot like me could have probably figured it out eventually…so long as I was sober while I did it. (I might not have been, to be fair.)

Once it’s installed, operation is as simple as loading an SD card up with .cdi or .iso images and popping it into your GDEMU (most SD card brands will work if they’re under 32GB and FAT32 formatted – I got mine at Micro Center!). There’s a few catches here; certain types of images won’t work, like those intended for burning to disc (but those are usually pretty clearly labeled and easy to avoid anyway), and you have to stick to a pretty specific file structure – each folder on the SD card can only be labeled 01-100, and each image file has to be renamed to “disc.whatever” but you can keep a .txt file in each folder with the game’s name so you remember what is what.

Game switching is handled by a small button on the GDMU itself (or if you’re feeling adventurous there’s instructions on how to mod it to be on the outside, but I felt like I’d tempted fate enough already) and it’s here that we find my only real complaint. You have to press the button enough times to get to the folder you want, which kinda sucks sometimes, especially when you need to get to a game farther down the list. It resets every time you turn the system off and back on, which means you have to remember how many button presses it takes to get where you need to go. I’m sure it will come with practice and time, but for now I’m constantly fumbling around trying to find Crazy Taxi or WWF Royal Rumble. God forbid I start replaying a multi-disc game, I’m just going to make it worse on myself.

Once you find the game you wanted to play in the first place (or just give up and start Cannon Spike again), everything works great. There’s a compatibility list floating around the internet, but the GDEMU has undergone a few revisions lately and everything I’ve thrown at it has worked perfectly anyway. Games with heavier CD audio like Crazy Taxi or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 sound as good as ever, load times seem slightly shorter due to the fact it’s pulling data from an SD card and not a disc, and I haven’t had a second’s worth of stuttering, frame skip, or any issues at all really – or at least not issues that weren’t present in the games already.

And, honestly, that’s all I wanted! I know I like the Dreamcast, I know how most of its library worked, I’ve just developed an obsession with making sure I can play every game I want to play on as many formats as possible, as my recent excursions into the RetroPie and modded Wiis have probably indicated, and the GDEMU is maybe one of my favorite solutions so far. Taking my favorite console, replacing the flimsiest part, and giving me super-easy access to almost the entire library without fear of disc rot or stupidly expensive used games? I’m so fucking happy I would have bought a second one, if it weren’t for the fact the waiting list was insane. Besides, I gotta mod my Saturn next so I can finally play Guardian Heroes in English because the Japanese one was way fucking cheaper.

Seriously, if you still love the Dreamcast and you’re even remotely handy with a screwdriver, you need one of these things, if for no other reason than to spare yourself the heartache of a failing GD-ROM lens. Both my Dreamcasts still work great, but…nothing gold can stay, right? It’s not like the system had that long of a lifespan to begin with.

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