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 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
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
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.
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.
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.