Cult Classic Tech: Why Collectors Still Seek Zunes and Dreamcasts

Jimmie Lee Koetzle didn’t care much for the original iPod’s click wheel or tiny screen. The whole design aesthetic of Apple’s revolutionary MP3 player turned him off, even as the rest of the world gravitated toward it. But the singer needed some device to play his sizable song library in his car, and a generic MP3 player wouldn’t do.

A solution to the Dallas native’s problem came in the fall of 2006 when he saw an ad for the Zune, Microsoft’s foray into the world of digital media players. He admits they were bigger and clunkier than the iPods at the time, but something about the device clicked (pun intended).

“It was different,” he recalls. “I also liked the way the software looked and how you could navigate it.”

Sharing music is what sets the first-generation Zune apart from its competitors. Users could carry 30GB of songs, color photos, and videos and display them on the device’s three-inch screen and could share them with other users wirelessly. It also featured an FM radio tuner, and, as Koetzle mentioned, many praised the intuitive software design.

Business consultant Simon Sinek frequently shares a story during his lectures about how Microsoft gave him a Zune as a thank you for his services. A week later, after giving a presentation to Apple employees, he sang its praises to an Apple executive, only to be told, “I have no doubt.” Apple never saw the Zune as a threat, and Microsoft discontinued the Zune in the summer of 2012, leaving the iPod as the winner of the music player war.

‍Nowadays, people will stand out in line for days to be the first to get their hands on the latest iPhone or a Nintendo Switch or Playstation 5. But fifteen years later, Koetzle is still obsessed with the Zune, which may seem odd considering that filmmakers used the device as a punchline in the finale of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie. This development has not escaped Koetzle’s attention.

“Years ago, at a place where I used to work, someone found out I had a Zune,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘What? Who has a Zune now? They stopped making them years ago.’ People have a weird reaction when they know there’s somebody out there that has one, and it’s working.”

“The Zune was a good idea,” says Sam Byrd, a video game hardware repair technician for the Arizona resale chain Bookmans. “Microsoft saw the market that Apple had with the iPod. But when it comes to these big companies competing against each other, they try to outdo each other with features.

“But when it comes to the consumer, the big thing is name recognition. Practically everyone knows what an iPod is, but a lot of people haven’t even seen a Zune in person. They don’t know what it is and what it could do. I think people were drawn to the simplicity of the iPod. I think the Zunes over-featured themselves out of the market.”

Koetzle has never considered selling any of the six Zunes that he’s snagged on eBay over the years. And should he ever change his mind about it, he doesn’t think he’ll make any of his money back. But devices such as Zunes and the Sega Dreamcast, which also fell out of favor with consumers decades ago, are making a comeback in the retro market.

According to Byrd, the pandemic has given rise to a new kind of collector: one who values nostalgia over making a return on their investment. The lockdown allowed for disposable income to be used to experience something they never did the first time around.

Koetzle and other collectors congregate on Facebook to share their experiences with the Zune. And if you visit his YouTube channel, you’ll see how deep his obsession runs. He keeps track of how many times he’s played a song on his Zune and he shares his top 20 every week.

“Years ago, I was shy, and I didn’t like talking,” Koetzle says. “I just love sharing music. I was talking to my dad, and he said, ‘You’re going to have to move on. It’s all streaming at this point, and you’re not going to be able to hook it up to your car in the future.’ The first thing I’m going to look for when I buy a car is the AUX port so I can plug it in.”

The Facebook group Zune Fan Club boasts over 100 self-proclaimed “Zune loons” who post memes, pictures of their devices and offer each other support should something go wrong with their players. But Koetzle says the Facebook group has gotten quieter lately.

“I’m in a few Facebook groups for Zune now, but there is hardly any activity,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone else with a Zune, even when they were out and working. But we haven’t given up on them.”

“[Zune’s] are one of the less common things you’d see in the store,” says Byrd. “It’s more of a collector’s item at this point.”

Byrd says that the market has gone up for the Sega Dreamcast, and it continues to sell well, stating that the consoles tend to sell for $100 or more at Bookmans, which is almost as much as Sega sold them before taking them off the market. He’s among the gamers who wish they had gotten the discontinued system instead of the Playstation 2 when it came out in 1999 to play fighting games like Soul Calibur.

“It’s one of the coolest consoles out there, which is why it continues to sell well,” he explains. “There’s a nostalgic value about it because it’s one of those things that people never really got to experience…Nowadays, with the retro market, it makes it possible for people like me to get their hands on something like this.”

When the Dreamcast came out in North America in the fall of 1999, a record-breaking half million units were sold in two weeks. The console featured innovations that are commonplace today, such as a built-in modem and an internet gaming service, downloadable content, visually stunning titles processed at a then unheard of 60 frames per second, and a virtual memory unit that doubled as a mini-game console.

‍Despite coming out several months before the Playstation 2, the hype surrounding Sony’s then-unreleased console didn’t do the Dreamcast any favors when it came to sales. To make matters worse, third-party software developers such as Electronic Arts and SquareSoft, the team behind the Final Fantasy franchise, didn’t support the console. Additionally, Sega didn’t put a lot of money into marketing the Dreamcast and gave up on it before it had the chance to get off the ground. The company got out of the console business altogether and discontinued the Dreamcast in the spring of 2001.

But over two decades later, there is a small but rabid group of gamers who want to know what they missed while hypnotized in front of their Playstations and Nintendo Game Cubes. Stephen Robinson, who runs the website and YouTube Channel Dreamcast Hub, believes that people love to root for an underdog, which is why Dreamcast continues to capture the imagination of gamers.

“PS2 and XBOX were always the go-to, but there’s always that special system that has all these experiences that feel like they’re made for you,” he says.

Robinson picked up his first Dreamcast in 2008, and like Koetzle and his multiple Zunes, the 35-year-old South Jersey resident has eight consoles in his possession.

“I have a Japanese model so I can play Japanese games,” he says. “I also have a European PAL version and a GDEMU one, so I can play off an SD card, which is a lot of fun.”

Should any of those systems break down, Robinson has gathered enough knowledge from YouTube to make any repairs. And because of his day job, he also has access to an industrial 3-D printer, allowing him to replace any parts that go bad. It also permits him to design and create props inspired by games like the horror survival game Illbleed, which was made exclusively for the Dreamcast. He’s shown off some of his creations in videos on his YouTube channel, and subscribers can see his extensive collection of over 120 games.

“I have a bit of OCD,” says Robinsoin. “When I get into something, I really get into it. When I first got into Dreamcast, I spent the first two or three years doing nothing but playing it. Even now, I play nothing but Switch, Dreamcast, and PC…A lot of information about the more obscure stuff on Dreamcast isn’t out there, which is why I have my YouTube channel. I want to tell people about this amazing game that they may not have heard of.”

Robinson hasn’t seen the value of the Dreamcast console decline since he started collecting them and says he has no plans to sell any of his games, although many in his collection have doubled in value. But unlike Koetzle, Robinson has met several people from the Facebook group he has run for over five years. He even considered putting together an event before the pandemic hit, but he doesn’t think he could find the funding to set it up.

“Getting the community in the same spot is difficult,” he says. “But I think that people treat every game convention like a Dreamcast convention. Even if [a gamer doesn’t] have one, there’s respect [for the console] there.”

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