• Dreamcast DIY - An early look at homebrew on Sega's console

    In the early days of the home computer, users were forced into being technically savvy. Bits, bytes and pokes were all terms in daily use whilst trying to play games, and this was early computingís double edged sword. Whilst many people considered this to make the machines completely inaccessible, it also gestated the early bedroom coding scene.

    With today's more user-accessible computers comes a certain level of transparency between the user and computer. Users no longer need a degree in Computer Science to use the machines, meaning that the homebrew scene has gradually become more stagnant. With the 8 and 16-bit consoles generally being produced on cartridge media, the home-brew scene has shifted onto the PC.

    But with the advent of the CD-based consoles and cheaper, more accessible CD-writing hardware, the bedroom coders could be set free once again. However, it was not to be during the Playstation or Saturn days. To play your own software, you had to be able to modify the console to play unsigned code, and because the console's processing chips used were generally custom-made, it became tricky to write programs with little-to-no reference material. The Playstation purposefully tried to kick-start this scene with the Sony Yaroze - essentially a modded Playstation with the means to connect this up to a PC for development purposes - solely for the benefit of the scene. Demos and full games appeared on many magazine cover-discs, allowing the general public to see what the 'geeks' could do. Unfortunately, the documentation only gave the programmer the standard libraries, with no details on how to write to the metal to optimise their code.

    These demos, however, went through Sony, so only legal code (software which was passed through the Yaroze scheme) was available in the public domain. Add to that the fact that many people didn't modify their machines to play unsigned code, and you were left with a legacy that tried to leave the bedroom, but couldn't. This is where the Dreamcast stepped in.

    Sega's Dreamcast looked (unintentionally) designed for the homebrew scene. It featured a well-documented CPU (Hitachi's RISC-based SH4) with an NEC PowerVR2 based graphics chip which could have been pulled straight from a PC. Couple that with a generous amount of RAM for the time, and the Dreamcast was looking to be a perfect console for the bedroom programmers to play with.

    The real reason that the Dreamcast homebrew scene has been able to kick it off with such a storm is the ease of playing the software. Dreamcast consoles are dirt cheap and do not require any internal modification to play home-brew games. Whilst this also hiked the level of piracy for the system, it also let the homebrew scene have the perfect platform not only for development, but for distribution too.

    Emulation has been a highly productive area of the Dreamcast enthusiastsí scene. Emulators like DreamSNES and even the multi-platform MAME have hit the system with mixed success. The Super Nintendo emulators, whilst stable, run slowly unless certain features like Stereo Sound have been disabled. MAME suffers from the low RAM size, so the number of games playable is seriously limited.

    Apart from the emulation scene, many commercial games have been released. Ports of Doom, Quake, and even Quake 2 (plus many games based off the same engine) have been ported to the system, taking advantage of the different controllers too. Using the shareware-level data, this is also perfectly legal.

    However, the Dreamcast has more than just ports to its name. Many original games have been released for the system, most notably an incredibly polished DDR-clone named Feet of Fury. This title won a competition on a Dreamcast home-brew site to become widely published, and is available from many on-line retailers. Whilst not officially licensed by Sega, this game is playable on all Dreamcast systems.

    Officially published homebrew doesnít end there, though. The recent "DreamOn" competition offered the first and second winners a professional pressing of their games. The point of the compo was to create original titles, the winner having their game officially published, all with the hope of bolstering the amount of top quality games available.
    Not that the roster is lacking: a quick glance at Dcemuís list of projects shows well over sixty original titles and over fifty ports of classics such as Descent and ScummVM.

    The only problem with the DC homebrew scene is that, due to it being built around free projects done in peoplesí spare time, many very promising titles end up discontinued and never updated. Games such as Inhabitants (an animal tile-based puzzle game) and Maqiupai (Mahjong) which are due for public sale, give the creators stronger motivation to complete them and add that extra layer of polish. Despite the homebrew scene imitating real life, with a large quantity of average titles to wade through in order to find the best, there is still plenty of high quality releases to sink oneís teeth into.

    A particularly good example is "Beats of Rage", a Capcom/SNK-inspired scrolling beat-em-up, with a myriad of top mods that are following it. Doing the rounds at the moment are highly impressive Megaman and Castlevania-themed versions of BoR, with X-men, TMNT, Mortal Kombat, Ghouls Ďní Ghosts and several others in the pipeline. Around a dozen high-quality, aesthetically excellent brawlers with a theme for everyone. Also worthy of special mention is Trampalien Gunmen, an interesting new genre created by one of NTSCís very own writers. With a graphical style influenced by Metal Slug, players take to trampolines with the aim of carefully blasting away their opponent with pinpoint accuracy and timing. Whilst intentionally slow paced, it offers excellent 2-player action with several major improvements promised for the future.

    All of this is only the beginning, though, with key members of the scene predicting the next few years as possibly being the DCís "Golden Era" for homebrew games. There are a selection of officially pressed demos in the works containing a variety of projects, as well as a new "DCFreeDev Programming Environment" that should aid in the creation of homebrew. There has also been a recent increase in the amount of websites dedicated specifically to the DC coding scene, which is a good indicator of its ever-increasing growth.

    It's a testament to the Dreamcast's amazing bedroom success that even though Sony have released a complete affordable development kit for the home in the form of the PS2 Linux Kit, which gives all of the functionality of the professional development version (but with a limited set of documentation: it includes only six of the seven architecture documents). The Dreamcast still reigns supreme in the home-brew scene.

    Dion (Dr Zoidberg) from leading Dreamcast Emulation website www.dcemulation.com has taken some time out to answer just some of the questions regarding Dreamcast emulation and the homebrew scene.

    NTSC-uk: Considering there have been many recent consoles which appear almost made for the home-brew scene (Sony Yaroze, Playstation2 Linux Kit et al.), what are your reasons for the Dreamcast appearing to remain head and shoulders above the rest?

    Dion: Unfortunately I'm not a programmer, so I'm probably not the best person to answer this question, but I think it would be due to the fact the Dreamcast and the tools to develop programs on the system are a lot cheaper and easier to come by than the Yaroze or the PS2 Linux Kit. Those systems probably aren't really a viable purchase for the average person who just wants to code homebrew software in their spare time, as a hobby.

    NTSC-uk: Emulation on the Dreamcast is still slightly flaky around the edges for the 16-bt consoles and above. Do you believe we will see a distinct improvement any time soon?

    Dion: Obviously getting the emulated 16-bit systems running at 100% or close to it on the Dreamcast isn't as easy as it is on the Xbox due to the lower specs, but I think that newer emulators like Scherzo's Super Famicast, and the port of the Neo Geo CD emulator NeoCD/SDL by Ian Michael & Co. have shown that improvements in that area of emulation on the Dreamcast can be achieved, and, hopefully we will see even more advances as the year progresses.

    NTSC-uk: Home-brew software on the Dreamcast seems to be picking up nicely. Are there any titles on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

    Dion: Alice has had a couple of demo releases so far and I think that would be a game that a lot of people are looking forward to seeing the full version of: it's a very nice looking adventure game that could easily pass as a commercial release. There have been a lot of very good Beats Of Rage mod releases over the past month or so, and two of the more unique mods being worked on are one by GabbiAngel that's a lot different than the usual BOR side scrolling games, and a mod by DcSteve that's based on the classic NES/arcade game Punchout called Little Mac's Revenge.Both of those look like they will be worth waiting for. Last but not least, people should be on the lookout for some upcoming game ports by Eytan Kaziberdov. He is working on bringing us some very interesting titles and they should be well received when they arrive in the not-too-distant future.

    NTSC-uk: Which titles that are already available for the platform should check out?

    Dion: There are a lot of very good homebrew games for the Dreamcast, too many to mention in fact, but some of my personal favourites are High Cube by g-funkster, which is a DC version of the old Playstation 3D puzzle game Intelligence Qube; MrSiggler's Smash DC, which is a very playable Smash TV clone, and the fun 3D platformer Echo's Quest by Trilinear - they are all games worth checking out in my opinion.

    NTSC-uk: Why do developers stick to the Dreamcast as their primary development platform even though the Xbox is proving a hit in the homebrew scene, and offers far more flexibility in terms of hardware?

    Dion: Being able to release their work out to the public without having to worry about Microsoft giving them a clip around the ear (because they can use the legal devkit KOS) might be one reason they stick with the Dreamcast. Not having a modded Xbox and the challenge in getting something running on the lower spec'd DC might be other reasons. Also the Xbox scene does seem to be more biased towards the emulator ports at the moment rather than the homebrew games, so maybe the developers feel their efforts will be more appreciated by the commercial game-starved Dreamcast lovers.

    We thank Dion and the team at www.dcemulation.com for answering our questions.

    This article was written by Tom Salter and John Beaulieu