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Published on December 11th, 2012 | by Yellow Magpie


Dreamcast: The Video Games Console That Got Away

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Console Photo By Evan-Amos

The Dreamcast was the first of its kind. An innovator in so many different areas. The Dreamcast was the first 128-bit platform, the de facto standard of today, the original online console with web browser, the first to have broadband, the first to have online chat and the first to have in-voice game chat.

Long before Skype, Youtube and Facebook the Dreamcast was one of the pioneers of free person-to-person calls, video conferencing, uploading pictures and videos. Before the Eyetoy was Dreameye, a digital camera for the platform that also doubled as a webcam and video camera.

The guts of 14 years before the Wii U’s release, the console’s portable PDA memory cards allowed extra in-game information to be displayed on the controller which was especially useful while playing against human opponents.

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit (VMU) Photo By Evan-Amos

Haunted by the past ghosts of the failures of the Sega Mega Drive add-ons the 32X and CD (Sega Genesis in North America) as well its Sega Saturn console. The Dreamcast’s Saturn predecessor required very highly skilled programmers to get the most out of its twin CPUs (central processing units).

Famous video game designer Yu Suzuki once maintained that the ratio of suitable programmers with the necessary dexterity and skill was one in-a-hundred. The failure of the Saturn, despite it having several advantages over the competition, was especially damaging to both Sega’s reputation and finances.

Heavily in debt, the premature cancellation of the Saturn irked many who had gone to the expense of purchasing the platform system. However, the Saturn would provide some valuable feedback to the betterment of Sega’s next console, the Dreamcast.

The Release Of The Dreamcast

The Dreamcast hit Japan on Tuesday, the 27th of November, 1998. It would reach North America on the 9th of September, 1999 (9/9/1999) and Europe on the 14th of October the same year. The console boasted a built-in 56kbps modem (although the European version was limited to 33kbps) and portable visual memory units which also acted as memory cards.

Displaying images in VGA the Dreamcast had a native resolution of 640 x 480 pixels giving it a considerable advantage over future rivals the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Gamecube. It is also worth bearing in mind that seventh generation consoles, the Playstation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360, still do not have a true high definition display output.

The Dreamcast used proprietary GD-ROMs (gigabyte disc) as opposed to DVDs which gave it a capacity of 1.2 gigabytes. Ultimately using the GD-ROM would lead to the Dreamcast’s demise.

SegaNet and Dreamarena provided the Dreamcast’s online internet services and offered a whole host of facilities besides online gaming.

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Mouse Photo By Evan-Amos

A Programmer’s Dream

Unlike other platforms, the Dreamcast had no pre-loaded operating system (OS). Every time a game disc was loaded the OS software was booted with the game. This was highly advantageous as it meant that the operating system could be updated and optimised with the release of new games. It also allowed Sega to update their online browser software.

Learning its lesson from the Sega Saturn fiasco, the Dreamcast decided to spend a large amount of its resources on software development kits for third-party game developers. A successful partnership with Microsoft emerged and the two companies worked closely in the creation of the Dreamcast version of the Windows CE OS.

The Windows CE system was so successful that third-party game developers found that they could port over completed game titles from other systems such as the PC in as little as a couple of weeks.

Sega also developed their own OS called Katana. More powerful than Windows CE, Katana was a better choice when it came to utilising the Dreamcast’s potential.

Revolutionary Games

One of the things that set the Dreamcast apart from other consoles was the quality of unique and revolutionary games. Regardless of the gaming platform having a lifespan of less than two and half years, the Dreamcast produced a lot of exceptional games.

The incredible sense of three-dimensional speed that Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 provided was never seen before in video games. The console also supplied some of the very best ‘beat ’em ups’ and ‘shoot ’em ups’ in the gaming industry.

Sega Sports titles lead the video games trade and the NBA 2K series provided three of the finest basketball games available at the time. The NFL 2K series was immeasurably superior to EA’s NFL Madden franchise. Virtua Tennis and Virtua Tennis 2K2 brought the sport to a new high in gaming. Rounding up the sporting games was Sega Bass Fishing a fun-fishing title.

Motor racing games such as Yu Suzuki’s simulation, Ferrari 355 Challenge provided a marvellous combination of good graphics and sterling gameplay. Metropolis Street Racer shook the genre of motor sports by providing real-world settings, changing the emphasis from point-to-point racing to driving as stylish and cleanly as possible.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica brought the Resident Evil franchise into the 21st century with its stellar gameplay, extraordinary graphics and degree of difficulty.

Although not as sophisticated as Street Fighter 3 Turbo, SoulCalibur brought entertaining gameplay, stunning visuals and flowing environments to the 6th generation console world.

The Dreamcast had plenty of stunning role playing games (RPG) including the epic Skies Of Arcadia and the addictive Phantasy Star Online. D2 was the first Dreamcast game ever released. An epic four-disc supernatural horror game the title was cinematic and involved mixed genres of gameplay including RPG.

Jet Set Radio, or Jet Grind Radio in North America, was the first console game to properly utilise and make mainstream cell-shaded graphics. A panoply of colour and challenge the futuristic Jet Set Radio was one of the first to combine skating with graffiti art.

On the life simulation side there was LOL: Lack Of Love in which the player was in charge of keeping an ever-evolving lifeform alive in a newly terraformed planet. Famous composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the Dreamcast’s start up sequence music, scored LOL’s soundtrack. The game provided an invaluable experience of life at both a micro and macro scale.

Three of the most unusual Dreamcast games were Rez, Samba de Amigo and Typing Of The Dead.

Rez, a very difficult game to describe, was a feast of colour and visual pleasure. In control of a being that could evolve to higher levels it consisted of creating a light and soundscape as the player hit targets that burst into sonic and aural delights.

Samba de Amigo was a game that utilised maraca peripherals. What resulted was an addictive musical rhythm-based game.

Typing Of The Dead was a challenging typing game in which the gamer shot zombies by typing quickly and accurately. The game became much more challenging as it progressed and it was impossible not to develop typing skills as you mastered the game.

One title that stands out as a rarity both then and now was the voice-activated Seaman. The object of the game is to raise a demanding and interactive half-human/half fish pet.

As Seaman got older he asked more and more probing questions of the gamer remembering previous answers the player had given him until finally Seaman became less a game and more of an experience.

Leonard Nimoy provided the voice of the narrator in this bizarre concept. There was nothing like it before and there has been nothing like Seaman since.

Ecco The Dolphin was a unique puzzle game in which you controlled a dolphin. Featuring fantastic watery environments and extremely difficult puzzles that were not for causal gamers, Ecco The Dolphin was for hardcore players who were good at lateral thinking.

Alien Front Online was a single player and multiplayer game that allowed the player to play as either a human or alien side in a world-wide battle for control of the Earth. With each group possessing different strengths and weaknesses different tactics were crucial for success. The games real strength resided with its online mode as up to eight people could take part in battles.

If the Dreamcast is to be associated with one title it is probably Shenmue. A game of such epic scale, Shenmue was simply like no other. Difficult to define it is the father of modern gaming. Shenmue allowed the player to interact with a world that seemed almost complete.

Playing as the protagonist Ryo Hazuki the main character could eat, drink, play games, buy items in shops, walk around villages, towns, cities, harbours and the game could be replayed with unique paths every time. In short, the level of interaction was unprecedented.

With detailed graphics and a unique voice actor for every character in the game, Shenmue was the most expensive title ever produced at a cost of 70 million U.S. dollars in 1999.

Unusual Accessories

As well as platform-standard accessories such as the haptic feedback vibration packs, light guns, steering wheels, dance mats and arcade sticks, the Dreamcast had a wide variety of unusual peripherals.

A full-size keyboard and a separate mouse allowed users to play first-person shooters without the disadvantages of not being on a PC and also browse online with greater comfort.

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Keyboard Photo By Evan-Amos

The Visual Memory Unit (VMU) doubled as both a memory card and a mini-gaming console. Mini-games within games  could be downloaded and played independently of the Dreamcast. VMUs could also be connected to one another and data shared between the two.

The VMU was particularly useful for sports games as certain plays and moves could be accessed and viewed which only the player would be able to see.

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Visual Memory Units (VMU) Photo By Evan-Amos

The fishing rod was a unique motion sensitive peripheral for the Dreamcast. Six fishing games on the platform utilised the accessory including the famous Sega Bass Fishing. What may not be widely known is that SoulCalibur and Virtua Tennis were also compatible. Seven years before the existence of the Nintendo Wii these games could be played by basically using hand movements.

Dream Karaoke was a peripheral that sat on top of the Dreamcast and connected via the modem. Given only a Japanese release, additional tracks could be downloaded online.

The Dreamcast microphone came in two variants, one that clipped to the controller and a headset. The microphone allowed for unique gaming as well as free internet voice calls. Alien Front Online was the first console game to use voice chat utilising the accessory which came with the title. Nevertheless, it was with the unique Seaman that the value of the microphone became apparent.

Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Microphone Photo By Evan-Amos

Samba de Amigo maracas were designed for the de Amigo game. The controller consisted of a foot pad, sensor bar and two maracas. The sensor tracked the position of the maracas and added greatly to the gameplay.

The Densha De Go! was a train controller for the Japanese train simulator game, Densha De Go! It consisted of brake and accelerator levers modelled on train controllers.

The Dreameye was a digital camera and web-cam for the Dreamcast that allowed people to email pictures and videos. A Japan-only release, the Dreameye also let people video conference with one another.

Why Did The Dreamcast Fail?Dreamcast Sega Dreamcast Controller And Visual Memory Unit (VMU) Photo By Evan-Amos

There were several reasons why the Dreamcast made a premature exit from the console market. Chef amongst them was the financial strain the failure of the Sega Saturn had created. This meant that Sega had very little room for error.

Its previously fractured relationship with gamers, third-party software developers and retailers meant that it had a lot of work to undertake before it had an even footing. This was also coupled with the fact that its competitors, Sony and Nintendo were in a much stronger position.

Rifts And Tensions

The Dreamcast also had problems with personnel, Sega of America‘s president, Bernie Stolar could be quite off-putting and arrogant. There were also internal tensions between the North American and Japanese divisions. This rift had plagued the Saturn and caused the removal of many executives.

The Graphic Processor War

Initially, Sega chose to prototype two separate graphics processors with Sega of Japan opting for PowerVR while Sega of America chose 3dfx. Even though originally choosing 3dfx, Sega in a U-turn picked PowerVR.  this was in no doubt due to 3dfx leaking the secret Dreamcast technical specifications at the company’s Initial Public Offering.

Ten and a half million dollars lighter after settling a lawsuit with 3dfx, Sega’s choice in graphic processor would once more come back to trouble them in Japan. With the market free of competition, Sega had a limited window of opportunity to sell as many Dreamcast consoles as possible.

Conversely, chronic problems at PowerVR meant that in the face of the huge demand for the new 128-bit platform it could not sell any Dreamcasts to satiate the public’s thirst. Eventually the graphic processor shortage would cost Sega success in Japan and the console would remain a poor-seller in its native country.

Mistakes From The Past

The marketing faux pas of cutting many retailers out of the surprise Saturn launch led to frayed relationships with retailers in North America when it came to promoting the Dreamcast.  Various retailers poorly displayed the Dreamcast away from the public’s eye. The marketing of offers such as a free Dreamcast with a SegaNet subscription was appalling and many retail shops never even drew attention to these special deals.

Sega Europe’s Misdirected Marketing

Very poor marketing choices was to plague the Dreamcast in Europe and much of Sega Europe‘s budget was foolishly wasted on sponsoring Arsenal, Deportiva de La Coruna, Sampdoria and Saint-Etienne football clubs when it could have been spent on developing a better online gaming infrastructure and a larger catalogue of European or PAL games.

This was also twined with the fact that despite the astonishingly strong sports titles coming from North America, the Dreamcast football games produced in Europe were by far the weakest in a sports market dominated by an interest in football.

The Hype Of The Playstation 2

The hype surrounding the upcoming Playstation 2 meant that it was difficult for the Dreamcast to match such completely unrealistic expectations. The poor choices and the unfortunate problems with PowerVR without question aided the Playstation 2’s market dominance.

Although the Dreamcast conceded ground on processor power and polygon count it more than made up for this in having four times the amount of dedicated video RAM. What’s more, the Playstation 2 did not support anti-aliasing and games were full of jagged edges. More importantly, The Playstation 2 was an offline console.

Nonetheless, the Playstation 2 had one crucial component that the Dreamcast did not possess – a DVD drive.

Not Choosing DVD

Poor marketing in Europe, a terrible relationship with retailers in North America and a shortage of consoles at a vital stage in Japan did not help the Dreamcast’s cause but none of these were really the reasons why the Dreamcast failed.

The lack of a DVD-ROM and the choice of gigabyte discs destroyed the Dreamcast. Many people, especially the Japanese, wished to purchase a games platform that included a DVD player. These were still highly exotic in the late 90’s and early noughties and were particularly sought-after.

Using a GD-ROM also had a fatal flaw and it was this defect that crippled the Dreamcast. Early in the console’s design, to speed up the prototype stage, the development team hid code in the BIOS that allowed the Dreamcast to play games on CDs. This flaw was forgotten about and Sega never believed that it would be exploited and as they controlled the production of GD-ROMs it was felt that the Dreamcast would be secure from piracy.

One thing Sega didn’t anticipate was a German group of hackers getting their hands on a Dreamcast development kit that should never have left the hands of game developers. With this piece of equipment the hackers uncovered the BIOS flaw.

A further bit of ingenuity saw Dreamcast games being copied onto cheap and widespread CD writtables flooding the market with counterfeit titles that played identically to the real thing.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Dreamcast sold over 10.6 million consoles in just over two years, the widespread piracy plunged the platform’s software sales into abysmal figures. Sega was making a loss on every Dreamcast and was counting on the sale of games to become profitable.

It was a simple case of economics: ‘Why purchase something at full market value when you can obtain it for less than one-fifth the price?‘ Choosing a DVD drive, which they would have struggled to afford, would have protected Sega and the Dreamcast from piracy and probably guaranteed its future.

The Dreamcast Lives On: The Retro Scene

Even though the Dreamcast console production existed for less than two-and-a-half years and just 18 months in North America it has attracted a loyal following down through the years.

The ease at which it could be programmed meant that even in such a short period of time it had an extensive gaming catalogue. There are a total of 720 games for the system including 22 unlicensed titles.

Although the majority of its online games have been closed down four titles remain online and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. The games still online are Quake III Arena, Phantasy Star Online, 4×4 Evolution and Starlancer.

Since the Dreamcast’s demise unreleased fully-playable titles have trickled down into player’s hands. Propeller Arena, HellGateHalf LifePBA Bowling,  System Shock 2, Geist Force and Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas have all managed to make it onto Dreamcast consoles throughout the world.

The Dreamcast has attracted a cult following and new games are still being released for the platform by small independent developers.

You might wish to check out Yellow Magpie’s Shenmue Saga: The Ultimate Video Game For The Dreamcast.

Recommended Reading

For an in-depth read of the history of the Dreamcast Sam Pettus’s Death Of A Dream is an excellent choice.

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