Terraonion MODE

Following hot on the heels of the GC Loader, Terraonion's MODE – which stands for Multi Optical Disc Emulator, in case you were wondering – looks set to shake things up for Sega collectors as it allows you to supplant the optical drive on either your Saturn or Dreamcast and replace it with solid-state storage, such as Micro SD cards or a more roomy SSD. Yes, that's right Nintendo fans – we're going off the beaten track again to tell you about something that isn't Nintendo-related, but should be interesting to retro fans all the same.

Terraonion is a name that will be instantly familiar to retro enthusiasts, of course; the company created the excellent Super SD System 3 for the PC Engine, Neo SD flash cart for the Neo Geo AES and the Mega SD for the Mega Drive – the first device of its kind to emulate the Mega CD (in FPGA form) on an original Mega Drive / Genesis console. This talented outfit has a clear knack for creating unique retro hardware, and the MODE is its latest product.

Like the GC Loader, the MODE effectively replaces the optical disc drive of your Saturn or Dreamcast console, and as such is quite an invasive mod to fit. Installing it on a Dreamcast is relatively straightforward (although the large number of console hardware revisions out there means that it's easier to fit to some Dreamcasts than others, due to the internal layout), but the process of fitting it to a Saturn is a little more complex. Right off the bat, it's worth stressing that this isn't a simple hack which suddenly unlocks the wonderful world of disc images; while no soldering is required, you'll need to be confident about cracking open your beloved console in order to fit the MODE.

MODE gives you a welcome amount of choice when it comes to storage media, but we opted for a Samsung-made SSD which slots into the top of the board and takes up most of the space on its upper side. Once installed, games are loaded directly from this drive via the MODE's custom UI, which also allows you to tinker with various settings (you can force games to run in VGA mode, for example). In a neat touch, a constantly-evolving, community-driven cover database is available which can be downloaded to the drive and thereby give you cover artwork and descriptions relating to each title.

As is the case with all Terraonion products, the firmware for the MODE is constantly being updated to add new features and eradicate bugs – it's worth noting that while performance with the MODE was exemplary during our review period, some users have detected issued with certain console models and games, and these are being addressed by the team at Terraonion as and when they become known.

One of the key selling points of the MODE is the fact that it works with both the Saturn and the Dreamcast; you can even have games for both consoles sitting on the same SSD and they will only be visible when the MODE is connected to the correct console. The fact that it supports both systems will be a real boon for hardcore fans, but it does also mean that you'll need to get pretty comfortable with opening up each system and swapping it over – unless, of course, you're flush enough to afford two of these things.

This process is extremely fiddly and might put off a lot of potential customers; it's also not without its risks, as we were clumsy enough to actually snap the power switch on our Dreamcast during the install process, and had to repair it with superglue. Lest we forget, these systems were never really intended to be opened by the end-user, and their internal parts are quite fragile.

The cost is another potential sticking point; at over 180 Euros (around £162 / $212) this is hardly an impulse purchase, but given that it's a fairly unique piece of hardware with FPGA components and custom-made firmware, such a high cost is unavoidable at present – if it sells well, then we could potentially see the price come down, but it remains a hardcore enthusiast proposition at present.

Then, of course, there's the small issue of how you actually obtain the games to play on the MODE. We'd strongly advise that you use a PC and specialised software to rip the data from discs in your own personal collection, but it would be rather naive to assume that people won't be visiting shady sites online to acquire titles for this device. In that regard, MODE – just like other devices, such as the GC Loader, Everdrive carts and Mega SD – could be seen as a way of promoting piracy, but on the other hand, they're going to be a godsend to serious collectors who want all of their games in one place and don't want to risk damaging their valuable discs.

Despite the legal shadiness of the whole situation, MODE is also a means of giving players access to titles which are no longer available in any form other than their original release; games like Border Down, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force III have never been re-released since their original physical publication, and MODE gives people a chance to experience them for the first time without having to pay hundreds of dollars on the secondary market (which doesn't benefit the original publisher). On top of this, the MODE is also a means of restoring Saturn and Dreamcast consoles with faulty drives; optical drives are notoriously unreliable and after 25 years, there will be more than a few Saturns out there which would otherwise be doomed to the scrapheap were it not for devices like the MODE.

The arrival of ODEs on the market is certainly good news for those who wish to return to their CD and DVD-based consoles over the decades to come, but it's worth noting they're not the only option; the forthcoming Polymega supports systems like the Saturn and PlayStation and even allows you to run games from original media, while modchips like the Phantom can not only open up your system to playing CDRs, but can also make it totally region-free. If you're looking for a MODE alternative, at the more costly end, there's the Satiator cartridge which will plug into the Saturn's rear expansion port and therefore requires no internal modification, while Fenrir and Rhea are both internal ODEs which, despite being cheaper than MODE, will only work on Saturn consoles and don't come with Dreamcast support. Likewise, GDemu – an ODE for the Dreamcast – doesn't work with Saturn. As we've already stated, that dual-console support really is the MODE's 'ace in the hole'.

Is the MODE right for you? That really depends on what you want from your retro system. If you're all about original media and keeping things as 'stock' as possible, then the prospect of popping open your console to install the board and then dumping all of your games to an SSD will probably fill you with existential dread, but those wanting a more streamlined experience with these ageing systems will find the MODE to be a worthwhile investment – although, as ever, it's worth noting that it's not going to be to everyone's taste (or their budget, for that matter).