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In VGA dreamland

My quest for better visuals and sound is an ongoing one it seems. I’m always determined to improve my entertainment experience; be it film, music or gaming, I never tire of looking at the next step in quality.

Dreaming of better things… such as picture quality

It’s a habit – an addiction maybe – and I constantly look to feed it even if I can’t/don’t actually buy what I want. If you use an HDMI cable with the current-gen consoles, then there isn’t much more you can do short of buying a superior screen. The issue with that is cost, obviously – plus, there’s always new tech just around the corner, so I tend to skip minor advances and wait for the next big thing. For me, that’s OLED screens, but that’s some time away from affordability for me.

However, we weren’t always so limited when it came to improving visual quality. With standard-definition consoles the type of cable you use can affect the visuals massively. For instance, on the Wii I changed from the standard composite cables to component cables. Games with mediocre graphics and blurry edges became games with mediocre graphics and sharper edges.

But it was better, and this kickstarted my quest to improve the visuals on all my older consoles. I started with the SNES and purchased an s-video cable. The result is mixed with much sharper text, but hi-definition televisions negate a lot of the improvements simply because the screen technology isn’t flattering for older consoles – pixels become quite obvious is some cases. However, I’ve seen the vast improvement s-video cables make when used with a CRT set. Either way, it’s an inexpensive way of improving the visuals regardless of the screen technology.

I knew the main beneficiary from improved cabling would be the Dreamcast and I was right. I initially started with an s-video cable. It was also a mixed bag. On some games there was a huge improvement, with jaggies being less obvious and colours not blending into one another. Sometimes the extra clarity showed up a game’s flaws to the point it was off-putting. Shenmue is a great example of this. When moving around the towns, the s-video cable performs well – everything is much clearer and smoother. When you stop, though, pixels become very noticeable. Again, a lot of this is down to my HDTV, but this is the setup most people have and I don’t have room for a CRT, so I stuck with the s-video… for a bit.

As much as I could see the improvements, I could also see the flaws and it annoyed me. A game world as beautifully designed as Shenmue should be shown at its best. So I pursued the VGA option. It was a fantastic idea for SEGA to put this capability in the Dreamcast, allowing superb visual clarity for those that wanted it. I put myself in that category and bought the necessary kit.

A third-party VGA box for the Dreamcast.

If your tv has VGA input, then all you’ll need is the Dreamcast VGA cable or a third-party option (pictured) that does the same thing. I went for the latter because of cost and they typically have an s-video socket for games that don’t support VGA. Plug it all in and you’re set for visual dreamland.

If you don’t have VGA input, then it’s slightly more tricky. In fact, a lot more tricky in my experience. You will need said VGA cable/box, but your HDTV cannot process the analogue VGA signal if, for example, you’re using a VGA to HDMI cable. It won’t work.

You will need to use a VGA to HDMI adapter (about £30), which converts the analogue VGA signal to digital, allowing you to use the HDMI sockets on your television. However, there is an issue – I tried this and it didn’t work. Now, it’s entirely possible my bit of kit was dodgy, but I can’t confirm whether this option actually works. So please don’t contact me asking for a refund – it’s not my fault. Besides, I’ve spent my hard-earned cash to test this method and it didn’t work – my advice is to avoid it if possible.

Luckily, I have access to a VGA input on my HDTV and the difference is astounding. It does the Dreamcast games justice showing them at their best. The picture is unbelievably sharp and you’ll wonder how you went without this kit. I’ve tried a number of games, including Shenmue, Crazy Taxi and Metropolis Street Racer, and they all look brilliant. It’s helped with MSR a lot – the night circuits are impossibly dark sometimes, but this has sorted it.

Shenmue looks even better (if that’s possible?) – it’s a much clearer, sharper and brighter image, but without the rough edges the s-video sometimes produced. Crazy Taxi was also much improved, particularly on the vehicles themselves. It’s a vibrant game already, but the VGA manages to tease even more out the visuals.

I couldn’t recommend using VGA enough. Even if you’re not obsessed with high-quality visual standards like me, it’s still worth the investment. If you’re passionate about retro games and consoles (which I presume is the case if you’re on this site in the first place), then you can’t go wrong with the VGA setup.


  1. Dan Mallion

    With the rumours of Shenmue and Skies of Arcardia getting the HD treatment as releases on XBLA and PSN – I think you’ll have little to worry about in regards of playing the Dreamcast’s best titles in even better visual splender (ha,ha!). I’m sure you’re aware of Jet Set Radio HD also (complete with the bonus tracks us PAL gamers didn’t get – get in!).

    Back in it’s day Dreamcast was a technological beast and Shenmue (especially the character models on the Passport disc) really showed it’s teeth to the likes of the upcoming giants that would eventually adopt Sega’s best IPs.

    Still it’s really encouraging that the Dreamcast is remembered so fondly and people are still looking for new ways to experience one of the best machines ever released. Kudos!

  2. Danny Morgan

    While I like the idea of HD conversions of older titles, and some are real good, it’s still not the same. I know it’s cliche, but I enjoy having my Dreamcast on the shelf, using the (mostly pointless) VMU, and holding a controller other than a Dualshock or 360 pad.

    The Shenmue review/retrospective is coming – I’m still playing the same, but on the third disc now. Jet Set is on the “to buy” list, but I have a few other DC titles to finish and write on first.

    Good to know there’s plenty of passion for the DC and its library still.