Sega Dreamcast: Console of the future, 20 years ago

When the Sega Dreamcast hit American shelves 20 years ago today, on 9.9.99, it sold like crazy – for a while at least. It was Sega’s last chance in the hardware business. The 32X had been a dismal failure thanks to it being announced at the same time as the more advanced Sega Saturn in Japan. The Sega Saturn crashed and burned when Sega surprised consumers and developers alike by releasing it without warning at E3 (at the behest of Sega of Japan) – only for Sony to come on stage an hour later and undercut the Saturn by $100. Yes, that’s the same trick they used with the PlayStation 4 18 years later.

The Dreamcast would eventually fall to the PlayStation 2, thanks in part to support from developers like Electronic Arts and Squaresoft, but for a while, it was the place to be. It felt like a return to form for Sega Genesis fans. The Dreamcast was a future-facing system that packed in all kinds of hardware features that would eventually become standard on consoles years later.

We’re all about hardware of any age here on the Tech Report. To celebrate the Dreamcast‘s 20th anniversary, let’s look at some of the awesome hardware features that made the Dreamcast such a futuristic console, even if they didn’t end up taking it to the future.

Let’s Get Online: The Built-in Modem

Sega Dreamcast 20th Anniversary

Sega really saw the future coming with this one. The Dreamcast was the first console to include online connectivity in the box in the form of a built-in dial-up modem. Japan got a 33.6K modem, while America’s later release received a beefy 56K version. Here’s where things get wild, though. Back then, in 1998/99, the vast majority of us had dial-up internet, and for a lot of us at that time, college dorms were the first time we experienced the power of a fully-operational Ethernet port. Even so, Sega had a broadband adapter that would let you pry off the 56K modem and replace it with an Ethernet adapter. You could play games like Chu-Chu Rocket and Phantasy Star Online with your friends, assuming you knew more than one person with a Dreamcast. On top of all that, the system had a lightweight web browser.

Microsoft’s Xbox would ship with an Ethernet port a couple of years later. While Microsoft was later, it had the monetary muscle to build out a proper gaming network in the form of Xbox Live that ultimately made it all work. But Sega saw the future coming and tried to prepare for it impressively early. The list of online-compatible games included games like NFL 2K1, Quake III Arena, Jet Grind Radio, Phantasy Star Online, and Virtua Tennis 2.

Click, Click, Bang: Mouse and Keyboard Gaming

Quake 3 Arena Dreamcast

To make that built-in modem even better, you could pick up a mouse and keyboard. The thing even had access to Windows APIs via Windows CE to make for easier PC ports. You could get online with the Dreamcast like it was a PC. Games like Quake III Arena supported the mouse and keyboard, too, meaning that not only could you play with PC players, you could compete with them.

So Many Pixels: the VGA Connector

At this point in time, console gaming was a strictly interlaced affair. While PC gamers were enjoying all that pixel density, us console gamers had much fuzzier screens. That was until the Dreamcast VGA adapter. This breakout box took advantage of the Dreamcast’s ability to output in 480p resolution and allowed output to a then-rare progressive-scan TV or, better yet, to a VGA monitor. The box also featured a 3.5-mm jack to output to headphones or speakers. At this point in time, I was just starting college, so the VGA access let me pack the Dreamcast into my tiny dorm room desk and enjoy Skies of Arcadia in glorious VGA clarity. At the time, this upgrade felt revolutionary.

Vroom, Vroom: Analog Triggers

Sega Dreamcast 20th Anniversary

Nintendo added shoulder buttons. Sony doubled the number, disposable-razor style. The Dreamcast, though, was the first console to bring analog triggers to play right out of the box. Games like Metropolis Street Racing and Sega GT, both of which felt like serious contenders for Gran Turismo‘s throne at the time, felt great on the controller and provided a vastly superior racing experience. Shooter games felt great, too. The triggers added extra fidelity to the feeling of wielding a gun. It was Halo: Combat Evolved on Xbox that finally got it right, but the Dreamcast got it started.

The PlayStation 2 DualShock had its charms, but I’ll always remember the Dreamcast controller as the first time I had a favorite console controller.

Second Screen Gaming on the Go: The Sega Dreamcast VMU

The Dreamcast VMU is a weird artifact of its time. It’s an attempt to turn the Sega Dreamcast into a piece of social hardware limited by the capabilities of hardware at the time. The VMU, or Virtual Memory Unit was the Sega Dreamcast’s answer to the memory card. One of the best parts of the PlayStation over the Sega Saturn was the memory card. With the memory card, you could bring your game to a friend’s house or swap another card in for more space. It was a huge advantage over the Sega Saturn. Sega wasn’t content to just copy the memory card, though. Instead, Sega put a small, low-res LCD screen on the card, powered it with a CR2032 battery, and put the card port on the Dreamcast controller instead of on the console.

Sega Dreamcast by Morgan

When playing, this turned the controller into a second screen. Resident Evil put the life meter on the screen. The NFL2K games would let you plan plays off-screen so that you could take your opponent by surprise.

On the go, the system could run miniature games. It was little more than a glorified Tamagotchi. But it was a Sonic Tamagotchi and a Skies of Arcadia Tamagotchi and a Sega GT Tamagotchi. At the time, it was incredibly cool to take my console games on the go, but the constantly-dying batteries, the easy-to-lose cap, and the limited functionality all kept it from being a major feature.

Hey, Dreamcast: Voice Control

The last item on my list might be the weirdest. The Dreamcast was the first game console to introduce voice control as a meaningful element to a game. That game, of course, was Seaman, the ultra-strange game about a fish with a human face. The game required the microphone for play, as it was the only way to interact with the weird Nautilus-tadpole-fish-frog-man-thing. It worked surprisingly well considering the game came out almost 20 years ago. I remember it being less frustrating than yelling at Google when I want to set a reminder.

Room for Activities: The GD-ROM

While the change from cartridges to optical media opened up games to previously-unimagined possibilities, it caused plenty of problems, too. Sega, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all struggled with the fact optical discs were easier to copy than cartridges. Sega’s answer was the GD-ROM, the gigabyte disc.

The timing of the Dreamcast held the system back as much as anything else. It beat the PlayStation 2 to market by over a year and the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox by two years. By the time these systems were hitting the market, the DVD had already taken over, and the PlayStation 2 even became the primary DVD player for many gamers.

Sega made the decision to pass on DVD and went with a more densely-packed CD-ROM, called the GD-ROM. GD-ROMs packed the pits on the CD-ROM closer together, giving the disc a 42% capacity advantage over CD-ROMs and also made its games theoretically harder to copy.

Only it didn’t make it any more difficult. I hadn’t even finished my first year of college before friends were swapping pirated Dreamcast discs. The tech made it look like Sega was competing with Sony’s previous console instead of acting as copy protection.

Sega Dreamcast by BAGO Games

The Dreamcast was a weird console. Ultimately, many of these features added little to the system. Very few games supported things like the modem, mouse, keyboard, and microphone. Even less intensive features like the VMU required platform-specific support for multi-platform games. That means they often went ignored by developers outside of Sega’s studios. These days, console gamers expect high-definition gaming, online play, and a microphone is included out of the box. Analog triggers are standard on Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Meanwhile, features like voice commands and second-screen gaming have come and gone a couple of times throughout the years between the Dreamcast and now. Controller and mouse support are just now coming back into vogue, too.

The Dreamcast may be long dead, but this weird, progressive piece of hardware will live on the hearts of many gamers for a long time to come. Now if only Sega would release a Dreamcast equivalent to the Sega Genesis Mini.

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Bagerklestyne
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Bagerklestyne

Sorry, but chuchu rockets which doesn’t appear to be in any form on any other platform was one of DC’s greatest games

silverblue
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silverblue

I’d argue that the Saturn not having PlayStation-style memory cards wasn’t really a negative. For one, you could buy a memory cart, though if you bought one of the third-party ones with lots of space, you quickly realised that their compression mechanism wasn’t exactly supported by most games, which meant to avoid corrupting your saves, you’d need to save them directly to console, then manually copy over. A bit of a bind, but the official carts, though a little pricey, were the way to go. A cart really was a good idea, though, given that the CR2032 battery didn’t last… Read more »

Alec
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Alec

I remember Quake III Arena servers including PC players causing the unforeseen consequence of Dreamcast players getting absolutely rekt haha. PS: Play Space Channel 5 Part 2, you can get it on steam. Changed my view on videogames as art.

willmore
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willmore

If it doesn’t come with Seaman, I don’t want it.

crystall
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crystall

Oh, the countless hours spent playing Soul Calibur with my friends back in college. BTW the VGA breakout box was amazing at the time. I remember us sneaking the room equipped with a projector at my dorm, plugging the Dreamcast with a long VGA cable in and spending all night playing all sort of games.

atari030
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atari030

Soul Calibur alone was worth buying the console for. Nothing close to the graphics at the time that I can recall….

Sweatshopking
Editor

But what games would you even want on dream cast classic? Honestly the game I played most on mine was marvel VS Capcom 2 AND IF I EVER HEAR THAT TERRIBLE MUSIC AGAIN IT’LL BE TOO SOON.

derFunkenstein
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derFunkenstein

I’M GONNA TAKE YOU FOR A RIDE

Here’s what I’d like to see on a Dreamcast Classic

ChuChu Rocket
Crazy Taxi
Crazy Taxi 2
Daytona USA 2001
Grandia 2
Hydro Thunder
Ikaruga
Jet Set Radio
Metropolis Street Racer (unlikely with all the car licenses)
Rez
Shenmue
Skies of Arcadia
Sonic Adventure
Sonic Advenutre 2
Soulcalibur
Space Channel 5
Street Fighter Alpha 3
Typing of the Dead
Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram

Sweatshopking
Editor

Youre such a jerk.

derFunkenstein
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derFunkenstein

You’re singing it now, aren’t you?

BTW there are Dreamcast-compatible disc images on the internet that replaced the stock music with all types of other crap, but none of it is quite as fun.

sweatshopking
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sweatshopking

i wanna know who is responsible for that track. how did it pass approval? i’m sure there are, but i don’t have a dreamcast anymore, my brother has it, and i’d probably just use another platform where hopefully they removed that nonsense

Arxor
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Arxor

Phantasy Star Online was my first online console experience, 50-ft RJ-11 cable required, and damn was it fun.

I can’t say it’s aged well (and without the social aspect it wouldn’t really have a place in a “Classic” system), but at the time, it was remarkable.

As for whether I would call PSO a actual “Phantasy Star” game… I wouldn’t. Being a SEGA Genesis veteran, PS II, III, and IV were really remarkable for their time.

Marc
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Marc

Street fighter 3 3rd strike

ozzuneoj
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ozzuneoj

Let’s not forget that the graphics of the Dreamcast was powered by VideoLogic’s PowerVR2. Somewhere along the line they changed their name to Imagination Technologies (you may have heard of them?). The technology later made its way to STMicro’s incredibly efficient (but underpowered) KYRO graphics cards where it wasn’t fully appreciated. Several years later, millions of mobile devices based on Intel, TI, Samsung, Mediatek and other SOCs were equipped with I.T.’s graphics, including most Apple products up until 2017.

I wonder if things would have been any different today if the PowerVR2 had never been put into the Dreamcast?

Juan Pablo Valverde
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Juan Pablo Valverde

It could have been fun anyway, there were 2 Dreamcast/Naomi projects back then, one powered by Hitachi SH4+Nec/VideoLogic PowerVR (Dural, developed by SEGA of Japan, eventually became Katana and then Dreamcast) and the other powered by Hitachi SH4+3dfx Voodoo (Black belt, developed by SEGA of America), and SEGA choose the Japanese one, that may have impacted negatively on the American press. Word was that Black belt was easier for developers but less powerful/featured than Katana. As a gamer, i’m in the same boat than Eric, the console was ahead of his time and aged pretty well, the places were it… Read more »

Krogoth
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Krogoth

Too little, too late.

Playstation 2 hype killed the Dreamcast and the momentum that Sony build with the highly successful PS1. Sega Saturn only managed mediocre market performance outside of its domestic market.

=

derFunkenstein
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derFunkenstein

Thank you for not describing the VMU as a Game Boy in a memory card the way several sites today have.

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