640×480: still living the Dream with Cabou

Cabou (right) giving fellow DC enthusiast Antifrog a crash course about VGA cables.

WHILE THE MUCH BELOVED DREAMCAST (DC) HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY OUT OF PRODUCTION SINCE  2001, A NICHE COMMUNITY STILL ENJOYS IT TODAY, THROUGH AN INCREDIBLE BACK CATALOG AND AN ONGOING STRING OF INDEPENDANT & HOMEBREW GAMES. AS A PART OF THE FRENCH  UNDERGROUND RETROGAMING COMMUNITY, CABOU HELPS FELLOW ENTHUSIASTS TO ENJOY THEIR SYSTEMS ON THEIR LATEST FLAT PANEL TV’s AND PC MONITORS THROUGH HIS OWN MANUFACTURED VGA CABLES. AS WE KEPT UPDATING EACH OTHER ABOUT SEVERAL RELATED VGA TOPICS FOR THE SYSTEM, I THOUGHT HIS VERY INITIATIVE WOULD MAKE UP FOR A SOLID INTERVIEW AND A GREAT  OPENER FOR TheNightShift. SO WE MET IN MARCH 2011 IN MARSEILLE.  


TheNightShift: Where did you get the idea to produce such cables for the community?
Cabou: The Dreamcast was the first console with a true VGA output built in from the get go. What makes the image quality is not a VGA box whatsoever, It’s the Dreamcast itself. In early 2000 I bought myself a third party cable from Hais, and hooked my Dreamcast unit to a PC LCD screen. I was spending some time on a board called Metagames and to my great surprise, nobody there was aware of this possibility to play the games in higher definition! So I started by shouting it out loud on every roof! And as an electric engineer, I saw that the pattern for a VGA cable was easy to make so I took a regular RGB cable and turned it into a VGA one.

“THE DREAMCAST WAS A VERY ADVANCED PIECE OF HARDWARE, WELL AHEAD OF IT’S TIME”

TNS: What’s the main difference between the RGB and VGA video output?
Cabou: With the VGA signal, components are separated and forwarded through an individual electric line. This allows to drive directly the monitor’s end stage without the need of using complex thus quality degrading video decoders. This results in a simple & streamlined design that helps achieving the best possible video quality. And it’s the only way to read onscreen typos properly. That’s why up until now, VGA has been the standard video format for computers.  The current format for PC monitors is still DVI. HDMI for television is in fact DVI+sound. The Dreamcast was a very advanced piece of hardware, well ahead of its time. It offered online gaming 4 years before anyone else with Chuchu rocket… as well as the embedded VGA port. VGA offers a progressive signal with one pass while interlaced needs two. Thus reducing image flickering.

Sticking to the Dreamcast with this original Japanese "CEO" advertising.

TNS: But why such an interest for a system which has been dead for years?
Cabou: Because of today’s flat screen market. It sparked a new interest in the Dreamcast, allowing, under the right circumstances, to play a lot of good games very neatly. It’s like “How, there’s a VGA port on my Dreamcast and there’s one on the back of my big flat screen. How do I do to play my old favorites through this HD port?”. But the official Sega VGA cable has become a very sought after item, very rare and so generally very hard to find and very expansive. And other third party cables don’t really match the official one in terms of display quality.

TNS: So you do it yourself for the community. Do you make any business out of it?
Cabou: First of all, I have a regular job in electronics that I love. I must have produced a hundred cables on a 1year and a half span around 2008-2009. So it’s not really a question of going for the “extra buck”. I was so excited about discovering this opportunity, build it and meeting the requests from fellow gamers through Metagames and other popular gaming forums. What I ask for it allows me to recoup the investment and the time spent on it. So It’s merely out of passion, and definitely a hobby.

“YEARS BEFORE RAVING RABBIDS, MICHEL ANCEL KEPT MESSING THINGS UP IN CLASS” 

TNS: Such expertise implies an engineering background
Cabou
: I do have a degree in electronics. I grew up in Tunis and I moved in Marseille in 1990. There I majored as an engineer. Michel Ancel (top game designer for Ubisoft, father of Rayman, Beyond good & Evil and The Raving Rabbids) was one of my fellow comrades for several years, in primary and high school back in Tunis. Funny thing is that he kept being lazy and mischievous. Years before his Raving Rabbids would do the same, he kept messing things up in class. Teachers were always shouting “ANCEL, SHUT IT UP!”. So there’s no wonder where his ideas come from!

School games: Cabou and Michel Ancel in Tunis, 1984. Cabou is second from the left, first rank, while Ancel is second from the right.

TNS: How long does it take to produce a cable?
Cabou
: 2h30 for the very first ones that I made was what it took.  At one point I ran out of components. I got through a shortage of RGB cables. So I ordered a pack of hundreds through Priceminister.fr. But the rarest piece is the proprietary part to hook up on the back of the DC. It was made in purpose to help competition from mass producing such cables.  I had a hard time finding those and finally found a provider in China. The first batch I received from them in mid 2010 was good for trash. I had to figure out the proper adjustments and draw them back to the provider. It was fastidious. But that’s how I finally received a correct sample. Now I ordered them 200 pieces. They wanted to build 2000 initially, which I refused. With this new provider, the time to make a cable is almost split in half. So now it takes atound 1h30 to build one.

TNS: And what about the community feedback?
Cabou: So far the feedback is: “Awesome!” I even get requests from Switzerland and Belgium. But I take care to get updated about some compatibility issues. Some flat screen brands or specific units are not compatible though, like some Sony Bravia models. For a time I held an updated list of compatible games. While most of them are, some few ones are not.

Some domestic mischief with Toy Commander, one of the very first titles for the Sega Dreamcast, produced by french maestro Frederick Raynal.

TNS: Which games truly benefit from the VGA display? Is Shenmue a blast?
Cabou: Shenmue already looks great through RGB, so there isn’t such a gap. But all the fine shmups the DC has to offer benefit from it. Everything is clearer and crisper so it helps to concentrate and enjoy the game even more. For instance, in Under Defeat, you clearly see the shells of your bullets flying around when you fire at your enemies. Otherwise games like Soul Calibur, Ferrari 355, MSR, Ecco, Propeller Arena and Alone in the Dark are good examples of games that benefit from VGA quality. And personally I got a soft spot for the French game Toy Commander (from Frederick Raynal powered company No cliché).

Japanese shots of the latest Sega arcade hardware.

TNS: Do you believe Sega will be back in the game soon with new hardware? 
Cabou: Sounds very unlikely. I think they wouldn’t hold it long opposite Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

TNS: Last question. Where the frak is Sturmwind. Did you pre-order it?
Cabou: The game has already been postponed two times now. It’s original release date was announced in spring 2011. Now Duranik‘s webpage gives a december 2011 release date. I have pre-ordered it. I think it’s gonna be a blast on VGA!

Will Duranik/Redspotgames' Sturmwind spark a new interest in the Dreamcast and Sega hardware?

The end note: good news is that Cabou has now everything he needs to supply solid VGA cables. As he gave me one for the purpose of this article, I can tell you that it’s kind of a blast to enjoy games like  G Rev’s Border down or Yu Susuki’s F355 in the best available conditions. Thanks to such people, the legend will truly never die.

The NightShift
march-december 2011


UP YOUR ARSENAL 

Cabou’s official facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cabous-Dreamcast-VGA-cables/252286754827860

The dragon’s lair:
http://www.metagames-eu.com/

The compatibility list for the games:
http://www.gamekult.com/forum/topic-liste-des-jeux-non-compatibles-vga-380937n.html

Sturmwind trailer and official page:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1vcIhjUjCc
http://sturmwind.duranik.com/ 

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