This week, 15 years ago, the Sega Dreamcast first debuted in Japan (it didn’t hit Europe and the US until 1999, the following year, mind you). This bizarre beige machine didn’t even manage to make it for three years on the market, but it left a lasting mark on the world of video games. From second screen gameplay to online multiplayer to DLC, the Dreamcast was well ahead of its time. Let’s take this opportunity to examine what made the Dreamcast special, and pay our respects to one of the most bizarre moments in gaming history.
Compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it’s startling just how little horsepower the Dreamcast had to work with back in 1998. It shipped with a 200MHz CPU, 16MB of RAM, 8MB of VRAM, and had a max resolution of 480p.
That said, the Dreamcast’s hardware was miles ahead of the other consoles on the market at the time. The Nintendo 64, released two years before, had a 93.75MHz CPU, 4MB of unified RAM (expandable to 8MB), and maxed out at 480i. At that point, the original PlayStation had been out for nearly four years in Japan, and its specs were even worse. Without a doubt, the Dreamcast blew existing hardware out of the water from a technical perspective.
The Dreamcast’s performance superiority didn’t last long, though. The PS2 launched less than two years later, and was capable of rendering substantially better looking games. Frankly, the PS2 was an unstoppable juggernaut, and that lead to Sega’s untimely exit from hardware production. Even so, the Dreamcast had a number of quirky features that set it aside from everything else at the time, and ended up influencing the future of console gaming in a major way.
Second screen gaming
Whenever anyone brings up the Dreamcast, the VMU (Visual Memory Unit) is bound to be discussed. Long before tablets and smartphones became common tools for interacting with games, the Dreamcast’s memory card could serve as a second screen. The VMU’s primary function was that of a standard memory card, but it could also be used as a tiny handheld gaming system.
The Dreamcast came with a dial-up modem right out of the box in most markets, and it could easily be upgraded to take advantage of broadband connections as well. With this built-in Internet functionality, developers were able to take the plunge into full-fledged online gaming on a console for the very first time. While separate accessories, like the oddball Satellaview, had been sold for previous consoles, the included modem meant that everyone could take advantage of online features. I would argue that Sega’s Phantasy Star Online was the very first game to make a compelling case for the utility of online consoles. Today, Internet connectivity is a given for any gaming device, and we definitely have the Dreamcast to thank for spearheading that movement.
The Dreamcast’s connectivity didn’t stop at online multiplayer, though. It also ushered in the concept of DLC for console games. In Sega’s colourful rhythm game Samba de Amigo, players could connect to the Internet and unlock a number of additional songs. While the tracks themselves weren’t being downloaded over the Internet, and stored on a tiny memory card, this is surprisingly similar to the way on-disc DLC is handled with modern games.
The goal was to provide more options for developers, and theoretically make the Dreamcast more appealing for a number of big-name ports. Unfortunately, not many games ended up using Windows CE on the Dreamcast thanks to the licensing and performance issues associated with it. Even so, it’s safe to say that this partnership helped pave the way for Microsoft to launch the original Xbox just a few years later.
The Dreamcast’s legacy
The Dreamcast only ended up selling eight million units globally over its short lifespan, and its failure was a huge blow to Sega. It’s far from a perfect console, but it was innovative and forward-facing in a way unlike everything else that came before. 15 years later, we can now look back on the Dreamcast’s legacy, and see that it’s the foundation that everything since has been built upon.
For more on consoles, turning our attention back to contemporary issues, you might want to check out: Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 speed showdown – which is the fastest console?