An interview with Tom Charnock: Father of the Junkyard and Dreamcast Royalty
There hasn’t been much to celebrate in 2020 thanks in no small part to a global pandemic that has kept us locked up inside like Claire Redfield at the beginning of Resident Evil – Code: Veronica. So when we had the opportunity to celebrate the Junkyard’s 15th birthday earlier this month, we took it with open arms.
We talk about the Dreamcast a lot here at The Dreamcast Junkyard. Of course we do. It’s the reason we’re here (and the clue is in the name). But what we don’t talk about enough is the man who made all of this possible. A man who has spent countless hours researching the most bizarre Dreamcast trivia and interviewing even the most tenuously linked people to our favourite console. I felt it was about time someone put a microphone in front of his face for a change and got a little insight into the history of the Junkyard from a true member of Dreamcast royalty.
Tom is far too humble to reflect on what he’s achieved so far with the Junkyard, and indeed the immeasurable contribution he’s made to the Dreamcast community as a whole. So, if I may, allow me to do it for him. 15th birthday celebrations wouldn't be complete without talking to the man of the moment, so I caught up with him for good old fashioned chinwag.
“Before the Junkyard, I’d created an all-format gaming website on a defunct service called Treeway, where I basically just copied news from other sources and created my own articles about them. Around that time I was quite obsessed with making fanzines as well, and made ‘Cast-Aw@y’ - a Dreamcast magazine”, Tom remembers, keen to point out that he’s very proud of his improper usage of an @ symbol in the title, for full late 90s edginess.
Humble beginnings with "Cast-Aw@y" fanzine.
“I had my Dreamcast about two weeks after the UK launch, but a friend of mine had an imported Japanese system just after it launched there. We would play games like Tokyo Highway Challenge and be absolutely blown away by the graphics. That was my first real experience of the Dreamcast and once I’d saved enough money from my paper round, and sold my N64, I was able to get a console for myself.”
Tom grew his Dreamcast collection throughout its short life, and then he did the unthinkable…
“In 2001, I made the very foolish decision to part-exchange my Dreamcast and all of my games for a PlayStation 2 and the latest NHL game. It was only when I got home and played it that I realised I’d made a big mistake,” says a teary-eyed Tom. Luckily for us, it was not too long until he was a Dreamcast owner once again.
“When I went to university I managed to buy another Dreamcast bundled with Metropolis Street Racer, Jet Set Radio and Virtua Fighter 3TB which was ultimately replaced when I graduated, with a shiny new Xbox and Gamecube. And then in 2005, I’d been to visit my dad and I was standing at a bus stop which was right next to a GameStation store. I was just looking in the window and there was a Dreamcast there for £40 or something with a load of games, which was too good for me not to buy. I took it home and showed all my housemates and they loved it too. So I started buying up all the games again and one day had an epiphany to document my purchases and experiences in general on a blog, and the Junkyard was born.”
A blog which would ultimately turn into one of, if not the biggest Dreamcast fansite on the web.
“I had an affinity with the Dreamcast because it was the last SEGA console and me and my brother had a SEGA childhood with the Mega Drive, Mega CD, 32X and the Saturn - it was always a SEGA household. My love for the system really grew after I set up the Junkyard because I started to explore the more obscure and import titles rather than the games that everyone knew.”
Tom was quickly acknowledged as a "Dreamcast expert".
Tom’s early vision for the Junkyard was purely a blog set up out of boredom.
“There was no real vision in all honesty. It was a case of being bored and wanting to document what I’d bought. I was accepted into the Navy and was waiting to join - which took months - so I was taking on temporary jobs and spending the money I made on Dreamcast games and accessories. In reality, going on day trips to different towns to visit small independent gaming shops and then blogging about it was just my way of killing time.”
“It was a bit like a diary. I didn't expect anyone to read it. I was doing it purely for my own enjoyment and entertainment, and then slowly but surely a couple of people started commenting on the posts. I was completely oblivious to other online gaming communities at the time and so to me, this was all quite new and exciting - I felt like it was all happening inside a bubble.”
As the community started to grow and more and more people commented on Tom’s hard work, he’s in no doubt that this pushed him to keep updating the Junkyard and find new ways to engage with his newfound audience.
“Yeah, it definitely spurred me on. You'll notice that there is a definite turning point in the very early days where it went from just being a blog with random nonsense about the games I’d bought to doing actually researched features and reviews. I don't think anywhere else was really doing that at the time, not for the Dreamcast anyway as it was becoming something of a forgotten console.”
Representing the Junkyard at one of many gaming expos.
As Tom bought up most of the games he’d either owned back in the day or wanted to own, it was starting to get to the point where it was no longer about just owning games he liked but more about owning as much as he could.
“As it stands today, right now, you could literally ask me any name of any Dreamcast game and I'll know exactly what it is; I can picture it in my head, the box-art and the genre because over the years I've seen or played so many of these games. But back then, I didn’t. I would go into shops and I'll see things I’d never heard of before, like Aqua GT for example. I'd never seen it, I didn't know anything about it but Dreamcast games were so cheap I’d just buy them.”
When Tom finally did join the Navy, things on the Junkyard naturally slowed down a little. New staff members were introduced, but it wasn’t until Tom returned home some years later that the Dreamcast Junkyard saw its next evolution and jump in popularity.
“In 2012 I started to get back into collecting again and then a few months later we started doing our first live events, which all happened because I got involved with an outfit called Retro Collect. I started writing for them quite a bit and then we resurrected the old Retro Collect podcast after I offered to edit it for them. It was a bit surreal because I was previously listening to the show before I got involved, and here I was sitting next to people I’d been listening to for years previously.”
Getting into the podcasting world for the first time was certainly the catalyst for one of the most major developments to come from the Junkyard shortly after, the infamous DreamPod.
“This gave me the idea to do something similar for the Junkyard, because it was pretty straightforward: you just get together online, chat and then you have it. You put it out and people listen to it. And thus, the Dreamcast Junkyard DreamPod was born in around 2015. Around that period where we were in full swing. We were doing live events going to different retro gaming expos, sometimes as part of Retro Collect and sometimes on our own as the Dreamcast Junkyard. We had some big banners made up and we'd have loads of flyers printed off. Then we’d just rock up with all our Dreamcast consoles and TVs, set them up on the big tables and let people play.”
"Back in my day..."
With everything going on, the Junkyard soared in popularity and was quickly becoming one of the most renowned Dreamcast resources on the web.
“It went off into a bit of a snowball with the blog gaining popularity. I started a Twitter account and the Facebook group which exploded in popularity, which then obviously led back to the blog getting more and more hits. It felt a bit like a full-time job at the time with writing articles, recording and editing the podcast as well as managing the social groups. The Facebook group alone went from 50 members when it first started to 10,000 members in a really short space of time - it went absolutely through the roof.”
Despite the sheer volume of content that was created over the last 15 years, there are a few pieces that really stand-out for Tom.
“The biggest one would be the multiple-article escapade about the search for the Dreamcast barber from all the European adverts! His name was not documented anywhere and there was no production company attributed to this advertising campaign, so one day I decided to go on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find out who this guy was. I think it went on for the best part of a year. Sites like Kotaku and Nintendo Life ran articles about my article, calling me a 'Dreamcast expert,' which amused me, but was really cool to see. And then eventually we found him and obviously had an interview with him. It's just amazing to actually say we found him.”
It’s the relentless desire for answers and the absolute obscurity in articles like this that really make the Dreamcast Junkyard what it is. Tom’s passion is as clear as day as you pour through his efforts when you read back things like his discovery of the Dreamcast barber
Some of Tom's collection - and the literal junkyard.
With Tom’s collection at an all-time high during peak-Junkyard, I asked him what the crown jewel was amongst his stacks and stacks of consoles and strange accessories. For the record, I knew he’d say it was this...
“From a curiosity perspective, it would have to be the Karaoke unit. I’d always coveted it because it looked so cool sitting underneath the Dreamcast. I loved how impenetrably weird the whole system was around that piece of hardware like the way that you could connect online and download songs. It's no longer accessible, which makes it absolutely useless and pointless, but the fact that it's like this remnant from a forgotten era, it's almost like a living relic. But if you turn it on, it still works and it comes up on the screen showing you what you could have done with it. You can still play with a microphone and do all the weird vocal effects, but ultimately it’s pretty useless.”
Before we wrapped up, I just had to know if Tom’s favourite Dreamcast game ever released is in fact Spirit of Speed 1937. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn’t.
“I think I've mentioned this before, but I'd have to say again, it would be San Francisco Rush 2049. Even though it's not a Dreamcast exclusive, I do think that's the best version. I've always really liked the San Francisco Rush games and I love that the championship mode is so unpredictable. You can be at the top of the table for a couple of races and then you have a couple of bad races and you’re right down at the bottom. It’s a 30-race season or something which is really cool.”
Looking ahead into the future, Tom doesn’t think the Junkyard will slow down any time soon which is good news for all of us.
“I think for the immediate future, it’s fine as things are at the moment. I’d like to migrate the blog away from the Google platform into its own hosted instance as we’ve moved on a bit since the original days. I think the name now is synonymous with the system and the community and I don’t think we could ever rebrand it. The name actually came from one of my housemates at the time I was re-buying all these games back in the mid-2000s. My room quickly became a repository and he mentioned that my room was turning into a bit of a Dreamcast junkyard and that’s where the Yard's name was really conceived!”
James Harvey (left), starstruck in the presence of Tom Charnock. For the avoidance of doubt, the photo was taken in a pre-Covid world!
All that remains to be said is a thank you from me, on behalf of the entire Dreamcast community, to Tom for what he’s achieved with the Junkyard and the various relationships that have been created because of its mere existence.
Here’s to another 15 years, where we’ll no doubt still be shooting down Dreamcast 2 rumours, uncovering hidden prototypes and still debating about which are the best and worst games ever released on our beloved box.
Want to leave a message for Tom? Do so in the comments below or send us a message on Twitter!
Want to leave a message for Tom? Do so in the comments below or send us a message on Twitter!
Source: the dreamcast junkyard