Sega tried, but ultimately failed the 32-bit generation with the
Sega Saturn. The Dreamcast was intended to be their comeback
machine. In 1999, they released the Dreamcast to a welcoming audience, and it produced several firsts
in gaming history. The Dreamcast was the first gaming system to include an internet connection, in the
form of a dial-up modem, in the package. In 1999 dial-up internet access was much more popular, but of
course the dial-up modem is largely considered to be a useless internet gaming medium today. With the
Dreamcast came a basic web browser which could also be used to sign up for their ISP, SegaNet. Another
first was the massive homebrew development community it launched, which has only been matched since
by the PSP. For more information on that, see Neat Tricks.
The Dreamcast had a great starting lineup, featuring the all-3D Sonic platformer
Sonic Adventure and slick football game NFL2K. The graphics were exceptional,
with full-screen anti-aliasing and a fast GPU. Framerates on the Dreamcast were always up to par,
and the graphics are arguably equally capable to the GameCube and
exceed the PS2.
Unfortunately, the Dreamcast may have had the best graphics and lots of great games, but it lost
a lot of key races. Although easier to develop for than PS2, the Dreamcast's
storage medium, a GD-ROM (which stands for Gigabyte Disc-ROM) limited the amount of streaming content
like full-motion video. Sega also lacked the monetary resources that Sony had, so Sony could sign
more contracts to attract developers with incentives in exchange for releasing games only for
the PS2. Eventually the Sega Dreamcast lost its steam and died a quick death, even quicker than the
Sega Saturn, barely having
been around for a year. However, Dreamcast games are still occasionally developed by third parties,
as was the case with Trizeal, released
four years after the Dreamcast ceased production in 2005.
The Dreamcast hardware is extraordinary in several ways. Like the Nintendo 64, it
came with four controller ports for multiplayer gaming without a multitap. Each controller had
two expansion ports (an idea almost certainly taken and expanded from the Nintendo 64)
so you could plug a Jump Pack (a Rumble Pak, basically) into one slot, and a Visual Memory Unit into
the other. The VMU was not just a regular memory card, it also had the capability of storing mini-games
(also partially inspired by the Tamagotchi) and linking up from VMU-to-VMU for data transfer or two player
mini-games. The only major problem with this design was that each VMU required two CMOS-style button cell
batteries, which are expensive and die very quickly in the VMU, after perhaps just a few hours of minigame
play or a month or two of being left plugged into a controller without use. This was a very frustrating
problem and killed most of the excitement of the VMU. Eventually Sega released a not-so-visual memory unit
with a higher capacity that did not require batteries. There are lots of Neat Tricks for the VMU. Ironically, the Dreamcast has another battery problem; the
rechargeable internal clock battery dies every time you leave the system off for a month or so, thus
forcing you to re-set the clock before you play a game. Quite frustrating!
The VMU and Jump Pack.
There are many accessories for the Sega Dreamcast, a large number of them available as
first-party products directly from Sega. Among them, Sega released:
Mouse, Fishing Controller.
The massive selection of accessories would have benefited Sega's hardware business
better were it not for one problem; most games did not require the special controllers
but instead left them optional. The standard controller would serve the task fine.
- A fishing controller (see picture).
- A light gun (which, regrettably, never came out in America due to Columbine fallout)
- A mouse (see picture).
- A keyboard.
- A steering wheel.
- An arcade stick controller.
- A twin-stick controller for Virtual On.
Upon first glance, the Dreamcast controller looks absolutely uncomfortable
to hold. However it fits the hand very nicely and for most games, its layout is appropriate.
The VMU delivers in-game information conveniently in the center of the controller. However,
for racing games, Sega chose to make only two buttons on the controller pressure-sensitive,
and they were the left and right trigger buttons. Using these buttons as brake and gas pedals
did not make any sense, and when given the option many gamers would change the assignment to
the face buttons, which were not pressure sensitive. Another gripe about the controller was
the horrible design decision to put the cable at the bottom. The cable would get in
awkward positions and be difficult to handle. To address this problem Sega put a notch
under the controller to hold onto the cable, but if you plugged in a Jump Pack, its
release lever would knock out the cable every time. However for those with big hands,
the feel of the Dreamcast controller is matched only by the Xbox controller, and not
completely. For those who love the Dreamcast controller, read on for information on
After the failure of the Dreamcast in record time, Sega gave up on developing
hardware and are now exclusively in the business of producing software for other systems.
After a long time fighting tooth and nail with the Genesis
(and its add-on accessories Sega CD and 32X), Saturn, and
Dreamcast, and also failing in the handheld business with their Game Gear system, they made
the discovery that being out first in a generation has never been an advantage over being out
last, but having better games.
Adapters for PC
The Dreamcast controller is fairly complicated, so it is not a surprise that it is hard
to find an adapter that handles it perfectly. For example, none of these adapters supports
force feedback through the Jump Pack, nor do any of them attempt to interface with the VMU.
They all support the L/R triggers as both buttons and axes, so they are certain to work
no matter where you want to use them (although it will be difficult to set them up as axes in a
program where the first input it receives is used; since it will see the button press before the
axis movement). In both cases the L/R triggers are assigned to Z/ZR (since those axes are used
when those adapters have a PS2 controller attached) so you can expect for your camera to be
doing loops in Grand Theft Auto. Supposedly the Trio Linker Plus allows remapping of these axes,
but I cannot install the driver from EMS, it crashes every time.
3-in-1 PC Joy Box (and
a Saturn adapter)
The Trio Linker
Plus differs by supporting the Dreamcast Cha Cha Amigo maracas,
the Arcade Stick, the Virtual On Twin Stick, and the Steering Wheel. I do not have any of
those controllers so I have no way to find out if, in fact, the 3-in-1 PC Joy Box also has that
capability. Unless you plan to use the Saturn connector, though, I would suggest the Trio Linker Plus.
The Dreamcast really set off the largest homebrew movement ever. Because the Dreamcast has
the ability to play a CD-ROM, instead of a GD-ROM, it is fairly simple to make homebrew work. There is,
of course, a Linux distribution for Dreamcast, and a
number of emulators are available as well.
For details on emulation jump down.
It's also easier than it has been for any other system to transfer save game data from
the VMU to your computer. The easiest (and free) method is to connect to the internet with a later
build of the PlanetWeb Dreamcast browser, and e-mail the save game file as an attachment to yourself.
You can do this in either direction: To, or from, the Dreamcast. You just need an e-mail host.
An alternative method (and there may be certain types of data where only this method will work) is to
buy the Nexus 16M card+PC Cable
which connects directly to PC and allows you to download saved games directly.
What is really interesting is the VMU development that has been done. Booyaka.com has been around since the Dreamcast VMU information
was released. Many people were interested in putting custom VMU animations on their web page to show
on the VMU while that page is browsed on a Dreamcast, so one developer wrote a program called Dream
Animator that allowed the user to create a .LCD file. However, those .LCD files were only visible from
the browser. What Booyaka did was they created a compiler that would take a .LCD file, and some special
instructions, and make an executable game out of it that could be downloaded onto the VMU anytime. Of course,
since anyone could upload their VMU programs, it was soon after that 48×32×black and white
pornography programs started appearing. Geez.
Emulation on Dreamcast
The Dreamcast was the first major player in emulation on consoles. Although by today's standards
it is a bit slow, it does a fine job playing classic games. There is a bit of work involved in burning
a CD that is in the right format to play games. I suggest you read the instructions on the homepage or in
the readme that comes with the specific emulator you are using, and follow them carefully. To find a
good emulator, start at Zophar.net. For
more information on emulation, see the emulation page.