Forensic Examination Of The Dreamcast Corpse - File 2 of 2

Recently, we featured the first of two revealing articles looking at the secret life the Dreamcast lead behind the scenes after it's official death. Here, Doc Eggfan of Sonic Retro returns with part two, speculating about what happened to all those surplus GD-ROM drives...

In the first half of our exposé, we established that reports of the Dreamcast's demise in 2001 may have been a little exaggerated, and that the spirit of the system would go on to live a long and fruitful life as Sammy's Atomiswave arcade system. While this covers part of the Dreamcast's hardware legacy, there's a whole other side yet to be covered around the use of GD-ROM drives and the proprietary GD-ROM media itself. Did the Dreamcast live another second life beyond the grave? Let's find out...

Separated at birth?
The Gigabyte Disc, or GD-ROM, was co-developed by Sega and Yamaha in 1998. The design of this new media retains the essential characteristics of a conventional CD-ROM, but the data contained within the tracks is packed more closely together, expanding the capacity from the usual 700 Megabytes to, as the name suggests, just over 1 Gigabyte. GD-ROM drives would then read these discs at a slower speed to pick up the higher density information, but still have the flexibility to speed up and read regular music CDs and other CD formats. The intention was to create a new higher capacity format as an alternative to DVD-ROMs, where costs could be reduced by using recalibrated, off-the-shelf CD drives, and also to avoid the prohibitive licensing fees required to include support for DVD playback. The new format would also have a low risk of piracy, due to the limited availability of recordable GD-R discs, GD-R system boot discs and GD-ROM readers and burners. 
soft and gooey low density on the inside, hard and crispy high density shell on the outside
However, perhaps as penance for denying consumers the ability to watch DVD movies, Sega went to great lengths to ensure that the Dreamcast had as many multimedia capabilities as possible. Their guilty conscience perhaps guided them a step too far by developing and promoting brand new CD formats specifically tailored to the Dreamcast hardware, one of which was the MIL-CD format. Similar to the mysterious CD+G karaoke format mentioned in Mega CD manuals, the MIL-CD was intended to expand the capabilities of Audio CDs to include navigation menus, internet capabilities and video. Only 8 official MIL-CD music discs were ever released, but the format would gain notoriety by allowing hackers a back-door through the Dreamcast's piracy fortress. 

Boot discs, emulators, home brew and modern indie releases all take advantage of the MIL-CD format's alternative boot access to the Dreamcast's processing strata, and very early on it facilitated the explosion in sub-par pirated versions of the Dreamcast's software catalogue. Personally, I never saw the appeal in gimped DC games, with down-sampled or missing audio and FMV in order to make the games fit on a standard 700MB CD-R. This led to my obsession for obtaining only legit copies of games for the full and complete experience (only to feel a bit foolish years later upon the advent of SD card adapters).
The unassuming collection of official MIL-CD enhanced music discs. Little did they know how much trouble they would cause
Despite this setback, GD-ROM discs would go on to be used more successfully with the Dreamcast's famous sister hardware, the NAOMI series of arcade boards. The NAOMI series is legendary - its supported life span is second only to the venerable SNK Neo Geo MVS, and this is due in no small part to the release of the GD-ROM system upgrade in late 1999/early 2000. Originally, NAOMI games were only released on interchangeable ROM board cartridges, but these were quite costly and time consuming to manufacture. The GD-ROM system upgrade replaced the ROM boards with a reprogrammable DIMM board, to which games could be loaded via an external GD disc drive. 

NAOMI games could then be sold on the much cheaper GD media, which were attractive to arcade operators due to the reduced cost and the ease in which games could be swapped in and out. The system was also attractive to Sega, as they had proprietary control over the licensing and manufacture of the GD media, they were easier and faster to produce, and the threat of piracy was low. Security would be tighter on the NAOMI system, as games discs would come paired with security lockout IC chips, and the NAOMI would confirm that the disc was still in the drive upon start up to prevent arcade operators from installing discs across more than one unit.
Just like a Mega CD upgrade for the Mega Drive
It probably comes as no surprise to find that the NAOMI external GD-ROM unit uses the exact same GD disc drive as found in the Dreamcast - I even opened them both up to compare and confirm. It seems likely that any over-supply of GD drive units originally intended for the abandoned Dreamcast assembly line would find a new home in Sega's arcade division, where they would either slip into new NAOMI GD-ROM drive units, or remain as spare parts for Sega's repair and maintenance service. 
Perhaps as a consequence of looking to offload the excess stock of homeless Dreamcast drive units, the GD-ROM disc would become the media of choice for most of Sega's arcade output between 2000 and 2005. DIMM boards and GD-ROM disc drive configurations were made available for both the Xbox-based Chihiro board and the Gamecube-based Triforce board. Both of these systems would come in two main flavours: 'Type-1' and 'Type-3'. Type-1 boards were compatible with the original NAOMI DIMM boards for operators who wanted to upgrade and re-use the same hardware they'd already purchased, whereas the Type-3 boards were all-in one solutions with the DIMM board incorporated inside the systems case.
Nintendo and Sega working together? Who would've thunked it?
In December 2004, Satellite terminal versions of the Naomi 2 and Chihiro boards (multi-player systems that ran on local area networks) would receive firmware upgrades to allow compatibility with games and update discs released on standard CDs and DVDs. Would this mark the end of Sega's love affair with the humble GD disc?
The first NAOMI and Chihiro releases on CD and DVD. I'm not sure if these are used as standalone installation discs or if they are just updates for the prior releases, but they are notably not GD-ROMs
The signs were not looking good by July 2nd 2005, when Sega released the Lindbergh arcade system into location testing. This was Sega's first major independent step beyond the legacy of the successful NAOMI series, and also one of the first to begin the trend of PC-based arcade boards using cheaper off-the-shelf components. The Lindbergh would also noticeably lack support for GD-ROMs, opting for regular old DVD-ROMs instead, perhaps due to the need for the increased capacity that DVD-ROMs offered. 
Incidentally, it turns out that the Xbox 360 external HD-DVD drive is compatible with the Lindbergh system, and is generally more reliable in loading games than Sega's own external DVD drive.
Reading between the lines, it seems as if Sega may have been victims of their own success. Despite technological advancements, arcade operators and developers alike were more than happy to continue sticking with the now 7 year old NAOMI hardware. There was little enthusiasm for investing in new systems such as Chihiro, Triforce or Lindbergh when a new NAOMI game could be purchased for a fraction of the cost and still provide similar returns. However, from Sega's perspective, the profit margin wasn't nearly as lucrative as pushing new hardware onto operators, and costs were beginning to accumulate in maintaining a repair service for the ageing GD drive units. While the drives were designed to be used only minimally during operation, nothing lasts forever, and dust bunnies appear to be a significant problem for Japanese amusement centres (virtually all of the hardware I've ever purchased and refurbished over the years have been absolutely infested with the buggers).
Dust bunnies: The scourge of all Japanese arcade hardware
Hitherto un-covered so far is the fate of the Dreamcast itself during this period. Despite the end of hardware and retail support, the Dreamcast was still receiving new games well into 2006. After an abundance of mostly forgettable shovelware and dating sims in 2002 and 2003, there was still a drip feed of some excellent NAOMI conversions between 2004 and 2006, mostly fine quality shoot-em-ups. The hardcore Dreamcast collective from this time were also gobbling up rumours, actively signing petitions, and pressuring NAOMI developers for even more Dreamcast conversions. Of particular interest was the Type Moon / Ecole beat-em-up series Melty Blood, which underwent numerous conversions, sequels, gameplay and balancing tweaks from the original game on PC, to NAOMI, to PS2, and then back to NAOMI and PC again. Despite being ported several times to Dreamcast-based NAOMI hardware, no version of the game ever made it's way to the Dreamcast itself, which was frustrating for those wanting some variety amongst their shmup fixes. 
Maids vs School Girl, Round 1, Fight!
On January 18th 2007, Sega announced that by the end of February they would no longer be pressing any new GD-ROM discs, much to the dismay of arcade operators and developers alike. This would also mean that they would no longer be issuing forth any more licenses to use the GD-ROM format, effectively ending official support of both the GD-ROM system in arcades, and any future official software releases for the Dreamcast itself. All future NAOMI games were now to be released on ROM board cartridges only, and it can only be assumed that the increased cost inherent in this decision was an attempt to discourage support for the now comparatively ancient system. The following is an epitaph for all the last fallen heroes of this bygone era:

  • 2006 – Last Naomi 2 GD-ROM game, Initial D Arcade Stage Ver.3 - Cycraft Edition, Rev.B [GDS-0039B]
  • May 2006 – Last Triforce GD-ROM game, Virtua Striker 4 Ver.2006, Rev D [GDT-0020D]
  • September 2006 – Last Chihiro GD-ROM game, Sega Network Taisen Mahjong MJ 3 Evolution, Rev.A [GDX-0021A]
  • December 2006 – Last Naomi GD-ROM game, Noukone Puzzle Takoron [GDL-0042]
  • March 8, 2007 – Last (official) Dreamcast game, Karous [T-47803M]
  • July 27, 2009 – Last Naomi ROM cart. game, Star Horse Progress Returns (satellite) [840-0186C]
The last Naomi GD-ROM, Compile Heart's puzzler Noukone Puzzle Takoron (released as Octomania on Wii in 2008)
It's difficult to separate rumour from fact, but I seem to remember the president of boutique developer Triangle Services expressing an interest in porting its then upcoming NAOMI title Shooting Love. 2007, featuring Exzeal, onto Dreamcast in 2008 - intended as a celebration of the system's 10th anniversary. This was to be a big thank you for all of the support offered to the fledgling company by die-hard Dreamcast fans who, after a heartfelt open letter of appeal to help make the Dreamcast port of Trizeal a success, kept the developer afloat during 2005. Unfortunately, without a license or support from Sega to press new official GD-ROM discs, this plan could not be realised. Unlike other independent developers at this time, Triangle Service couldn't just release an unofficial game on a self-booting MIL-CD, as the developer wasn't in a position to jeopardise its fruitful relationship with Sega, which continues to this day. Ultimately, Shooting Love. 2007 would be released as Shooting Love. 200X on Xbox 360, and the Dreamcast's 10th birthday bash would be fulfilled by Yuan Works' unofficial game, Wind and Water Puzzle Battles (does anyone know whatever happened to those guys?).
Unfortunately, Triangle Service couldn't “recycle” their Shooting Love assets for a Dreamcast release *snigger*
In spite of this, a year later Sega would officially support a limited Dreamcast re-release of Border Down on January 17th 2008, exclusively available at Japanese Messe Sanoh stores. This was rumoured to have used up the last remaining stock of GD-ROMs leftover in Sega's warehouse, although others pointed out that this made little sense. GDs and CDs are materially the same and are manufactured in much the same way. While ever there are factories that continue to press CDs, there is no reason why new GDs can't also continue to be manufactured. The only barrier is Sega's control over the issuing of new licenses. 
Dreamcast advertising, circa 2008
Two years after the official “end” of GD-ROM production, Sega would demonstrate its ability to resurrect the format by pressing a fresh batch of official GD-ROMs for NAOMI, Chihiro and Triforce in March 2009. In order to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Giga Disc media, Sega released a Compact Flash unit to replace the now decrepit GD drives still in operation, and, in order for these to work, the DIMM boards needed one final firmware upgrade via these minty new discs. No longer wanting to be burdened with repairs for faulty disc drives, these CF units would effectively replace them entirely, and the games owned by operators could be transferred from the optical disc to solid state CF cards. Some games even saw official re-release on CF cards, notably the Initial D series of racing games. Compact Flash cards also had the added benefit of improving transfer speeds when installing a new game onto the DIMM board for the first time, and Sega would adopt Compact Flash systems into their Lindbergh series of hardware as well. 
The official Sega Compact Flash reader: murderer of the GD disc
At the end of this epic saga, we return to our original question: When did Sega terminate the life support of their youngest and most gifted child? The question has many answers, 2001 with the end of hardware production, 2007-08 for the end of software support, or 2009 when the Dreamcast-powered arcade progeny finally bit the dust. From the rosiest perspective, we're looking at a little under or a little over a full decade of life, which is a mighty fine achievement for the little Dreamcast that could. 
Revisionist Historian? Moi?
But perhaps the most interesting (or sobering) lesson here is that there is really no technical reason as to why 'official' software support couldn't rise from the proverbial grave. Would Sega have anything to lose by open-sourcing the license to GD-ROM technology for the indie game market? For the sheer principal of the matter, I don't see why dedicated third party independent developers shouldn't be allowed to press their wares into the GD-ROM format again, and this would help ease the pressure on our delicate, fault prone drives, currently spinning their loads just a little bit faster than they ought too. 
I wub u, deecee...
At the end of the day I guess it doesn't really matter, we still keep getting new games regardless and you may say I'm a dreamer…but am I the only one?
-Doc Eggfan

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Robert Jones said...

Cool article Doc. Very interesting to see just how parts of the Dreamcast could have been transplanted and reused elsewhere. Its crazy to think how long both NAOMI and MVS lasted,especially when home console generations were so short back then.

The 1 Ross said...

Great article man!

Tom Charnock said...

Yeah, such a fascinating read and beautifully researched - great stuff Doc :)

Mongroovy said...

Love these articles, just love them!

doceggfan said...

Thanks guys, I enjoyed putting it together. When I was fact-checking some things that I half remembered, I learnt a few new things myself, and have have stumbled on some other avenues worth exploring. A few more articles are in the pipleline...

Benjamin Murbach said...

Sweet write up! great stuff
I'd love to find out that new retro style Tamagotchis makes a come back and when we open them up to find out they are all new/old stock VMU inside. Lol. The DC hardware will live on somehow.

doceggfan said...

Heh, wouldn't surprise me.

Mike Perry said...

What a great read! Thanks for this, I enjoyed it alot!