Once Upon A DreamShell

I bought a DreamShell SD card reader for about £5 from an eBay seller some time last year. After a few days, it turned up in the post (in surprisingly good condition too, considering it was sent wrapped in a folded piece of A4 lined paper) and I had a quick glance at some forum posts regarding ways to use the thing. All I could fathom was that I needed to burn some disc or other, and put some files on the SD card that should be inserted into the device before implanting it into the serial port on the back of the Dreamcast. And I won't lie - it looked like too much work; my mac wouldn't burn discs that the Dreamcast would see as anything other than a music CD and I couldn't really see what the point of the contraption was anyway. And so, the SD reader went into a box and was never thought of again...until now.

The main issue I had with using the SD reader back then was that (as I just mentioned) I had no way to burn CD-Rs that the Dreamcast could read. I primarily use a Macbook to write all this shit and as amazing as Mac OSX is, there doesn't appear to be a software package available that will let you burn a Dreamcast-compatible disc with it. This changed somewhat a few weeks ago when my girlfriend bought a new Windows 8 laptop, and regardless what you may think of that operating system, it has a major advantage over Mac OS in that it allows the use of a package called Boot Dreams. And so, armed with the new hardware and a freshly installed copy of Boot Dreams, I was ready to re-visit the SD card reader...and I'm sure glad I did: Boot Dreams has single-handedly changed my opinion of the SD card reader from useless tat to amazing peripheral that no serious Dreamcaster should be without.
Apologies for my carpet
I went back to those forums I had previously dismissed and this time actually read what people had posted. I watched some youtube videos and I digested a few 'step by step' guides. I downloaded the DreamShell software package and carefully extracted the SD reader files into the root of the SD card (after formatting it in FAT32, of course). I then employed Boot Dreams and attempted to burn a DreamShell CD-R. The disc burner roared to life and white text spewed across the black DOS-style dialogue box on the Windows desktop in front of me. After a few minutes, the CD tray snapped open and I took the warm CD-R and carefully placed it into my Dreamcast while simultaneously inserting the SD reader, replete with memory card containing the necessary files, into the serial port. I turned the Dreamcast on. I held my breath and fully expected the 'Music CD' screen to pop up on the TV screen. I waited. The startup animation died away and the familiar grinding of the GD drive started up like an orchestra. Then it happened...the Dreamcast was actually reading the disc. It was actually reading a CD-R that I had burnt myself! The initial Dreamshell menu appeared and I clicked on the 'SD Card' option. And then I fainted through sheer shock that I had actually burnt a working CD-R. About an hour later, I came to and continued - I was met with this screen next:

A thing of beauty. I'm sure you'll agree. Looking something like an ordinary PC desktop, this is the Dreamshell 'desktop' view - and those images down the left hand side are the standard system icons. They are:

  • Console
  • Region Changer*
  • DSN
  • ISO Loader
  • DSInstall*
  • File Manager

And here's a look at each one:

As you'd imagine, this is for those with a more advanced knowledge of command prompts than yours truly.

Region Changer*
For changing the region of your system I would imagine - I haven't tried messing with this personally as I'm not overly confident and can't really afford to brick one of my consoles just yet!

For doing network-based stuff I guess. Again, not something I've messed with much. Mainly because my Dreamcast isn't connected to anything other than the TV or my capture device.

ISO Loader
This is where things get interesting - ISO Loader does what it says on the tin...more on this later.

DS Install*
This utility allows you to install the DreamShell software into the BIOS of your Dreamcast. I imagine this would negate the need to use an SD card and the DreamShell CD-R in order to get to the Dreamshell 'desktop,' but again this isn't something I'm confident exploring just yet. Maybe once I've got a few more expendable Dreamcasts cluttering up the living room.

File Manager
As the name suggests, File Manager lets you explore whatever software you may have on your SD card. Interestingly, it also lets you poke around in your VMU and a few other locations too.

There are a few other interesting facets to the DreamShell OS, such as the multiple desktops, but - and I have no problem admitting this - I am a total n00b in this department so I'll hang fire before I write more about the functionality of the package lest I be trolled a billion times over by the worst scummVM of the interwebs for all interneternity. What I'm saying here is that I'm writing this just as a bloke who does not profess to be any sort of expert when it comes to the higher functions of Dreamcast homebrew, hacking or any of that stuff. I'm just an average dude with a love of the Dreamcast, a thirst for knowledge and maybe a bit too much free time. Now that's out of the way, what exactly have I been doing with DreamShell? Well...playing games of course!

Using the ISO Loader bit of DreamShell, it is possible to execute specific Dreamcast-compatible .iso files and play some pretty awesome games. I would recommend visiting the Dreamcast SD Iso section of The Iso Zone and grabbing some of the files on there. Naturally I was only doing this for the experimental purposes of writing this little blurb, and a few of the files I downloaded happened to be Neo Geo CD games. The Neo Geo CD is a console I have lusted after for quite some time, and is one of the few consoles from the 1990s that I do not own on account of its high price; and the reason for my desire to own one stems from the amazing-looking 2D sprite-based titles available. Not necessarily the fighting games - more the other titles such as Neo DriftOut and Super Sidekicks for example. Guess what? With Dreamshell, playing these games - albeit in emulated form - is now a reality for me. Simply locate the .iso file on the SD card using the ISO Loader, execute the file, and voila...

Of course, it's not just Neo Geo titles that can be emulated using DreamShell. There are a multitude of homebrew titles out there that are begging to be played, and lots of other interesting applications too.

My advice for anyone toying with the idea of getting involved with DreamShell but feeling a bit put off by the daunting prospect of locating software/burning booting CD-Rs is this: give it a go. I'm a complete knob when it comes this type of thing (see a few paragraphs above) and the fact I have managed to get some fun from this device is testament to how easy it really is if you're willing to spent a few hours educating yourself.

I'm not sure if there have been later versions of DreamShell released - there might well have been - but the one I have used (4.0) seems to work great. Here's a really useful guide to getting set up, and here's a link to the software you require.

Oh, and here's the official DreamShell website.

*It's been brought to my attention that the Region Changer and DS Installer can only be used if you have a modded Dreamcast with a flashable BIOS. Thanks to @pcwzrd13 for that!


Lorfarius said...

You need to use Toast Titanium to burn stuff like this on a Mac. But failing that CloneCD does the trick on PC.

Tom Charnock said...

Cheers for the comment Lorfarius. I generally just steal my girlfriend's PC for burning Dreamcast stuff - makes life easier! I'd like to know when you're going to start reviewing wierd Japanese soft drinks again XD