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The Dreamcast could be immortal, thanks to homebrew

There’s still plenty of new games to play on that old thing

photo of a Sega Dreamcast and its controller on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Ryan Somma/Flickr

It’s hard to forget when the Dreamcast hit stores: Sept. 9, 1999. But Sega’s failure to light the industry on fire with its ambitious console is the narrative that most remember best. Less than two years after it came to market, poor sales led to the Dreamcast’s discontinuation.

Except that 17 years after its release, the Dreamcast’s most dedicated, talented fans are grown up and making games themselves. Instead of moving on to modern iterations of the Dreamcast’s one-time competitors, a community of programmers continues to develop games for Sega’s final home console. Between the Dreamcast itself and the Virtual Memory Unit (VMU), a funky peripheral released alongside it, there’s a steady stream of new releases to play on there.

Uh, what?

This may seem bizarre, especially as we enter a period where new consoles are emerging mid-cycle. But there’s a pretty simple reason why the Dreamcast remains a viable, if limited, primary console option: homebrew.

Unlike other bygone consoles, playing unofficial games on the Dreamcast doesn’t require any hardware alterations. Download a game onto a regular old CD-ROM and you should be good to go, as hackers discovered not long after the console’s discontinuation. The ease of producing and distributing homebrew content to Dreamcast owners has kept the development community alive and kicking over the years, leading to a variety of original games and homages to classic, non-Dreamcast titles.

Although fans have released their own games for the console since just after its discontinuation — and the first official title arrived in 2007 — the Dreamcast’s homebrew community kicked it into high gear around a decade after the console was first released. Since 2003, more than 40 games have launched or been announced for the Dreamcast. Ten of those arrived in 2015 alone. Chalk it up to nostalgia or download speeds getting faster; either way, the Dreamcast lives on.

From brand-new games to Pokémon Go

What’s most fascinating is that the new games released on the Dreamcast are more than just emulations of popular games. There’s plenty of those too, particularly on VMU, for which hackers have learned to recreate bite-sized versions of Metal Gear and Metroid. With the advent of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, original games have been produced for the system as well.

Gunlord is one of the better known Dreamcast games to see release after the console’s seeming death. The 16-bit sidescroller is all about, well, being the lord of guns, and it came first to the similarly old-school Neo Geo system in 2011, ahead of its Dreamcast debut in 2012. The game even received a physical print, although that’s been sold out for years. It was well-received, a success for believers in the Dreamcast’s longevity.

Redux: Dark Matters is another shoot-’em-up from the guys behind Gunlord, and it also saw a commercial release. Although it’s a revamp of Dux and came to modern consoles as well, the Kickstarter project received more than twice its funding goal. It’s a solid example of how Dreamcast owners haven’t been left in the dust even as more powerful systems take the forefront.

That’s true of other recent, popular titles, like Cave Story. The cult favorite platformer has made its way to a bunch of platforms, and the Dreamcast is definitely among them. The port is unofficial, of course, but it’s available for free and looks mostly the same as it did in its original release.

Less graphically involved games like Cave Story and Super Mario titles are easy to replicate on the Dreamcast as well; there are several compilations of old games for the Dreamcast and other systems. More enterprising developers are trying trickier ports, though, like a version of Pokémon Go for the VMU peripheral, which is also easy to hack. That sounds like a perfect fit for the mobile title, perhaps along the lines of its upcoming Apple Watch version. It’s eyeing a 2017 release, according to its developer, who’s also brought Flappy Bird to the device.

As the saying goes, "The Dreamcast is dead; long live the Dreamcast."

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