The 9th September 1999 is a milestone in gaming history: it was the day Sega’s last, and arguably best, console, the Sega Dreamcast, was released in the West. Twelve long years have gone by since then, but though the console died an ignominious death just 18 months laters, its legacy still lives on. Join us as we look at how the Dreamcast continues to shape the landscape of gaming today.
Screen on your controller? Sorry Nintendo, the VMU pre-dates the Wii U
One of the major USPs of Nintendo’s new Wii U console, unveiled at E3 earlier this year, was the ability to stream games from the TV screen to the controller. It’s not quite as groundbreaking an idea as you might think: with the Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Unit (VMU) plugged in, you could play some games, such as Virtua Tennis, without even looking at the TV screen, since the players’ movements appeared on the court there too. You could even take it away and play mini games on the go using the in-built D-pad.
Shout out to voice input
We take voice input on gaming consoles for granted nowadays: there’s the PlayStation Eye, and the Xbox 360 Kinect peripheral can be controlled using your voice. Sega was one of the pioneers of microphone input: its official Dreamcast mic could be used with all sorts of games, with surprising results. Mr Driller, a block-based puzzle game, even let you play just by yelling “DRILL!” repeatedly into the mic. Fun times.
It moved motion control into the picture
Forget PlayStation Move, forget the Wii Remote: Sega’s Dreamcast beat all the rivals to the punch, with the fishing rod controller. You could use it in Sega Bass Fishing, and feel the hooked marine life vibrating down the line, or even swing it about wildly in Soul Calibur.
It had a web browser
What would a games console be without a web browser? Oh wait, an Xbox 360. The Dreamcast was far from the first console to provide an internet connection – even the Nintendo Entertainment System had a modem add-on – but it was the first to popularise the idea that actually, you could use all the processing horsepower to surf the internet on your telly.
It pioneered online multiplayer gaming
Likewise, though the Sega Saturn provided a way to play online against others, it was the Dreamcast that ushered in our current era of online multiplayer, instead of split-screen. With a 56k modem, you could just about play all sorts of games, from fragfests like Quake 3 to massively multiplayer online RPGs, like Phantasy Star Online. In fact, you can still play the latter today on private servers, meaning the Dreamcast’s online support has actually outlasted that of Microsoft’s first Xbox. Aline Front Online meanwhile was the first console game to sport in-game voice chat, long before Xbox Live became the place for smack talkers to peddle their insults.
It pioneered the freebie game
Game bundles were nothing new when the Dreamcast began shipping, but Sega’s generosity when it came to distributing online multiplayer game ChuChu Rocket set a business model others followed. The addictive puzzler was designed to demonstrate the console’s mad multiplayer skills, and was given away free to every Dreamcast owner. How did Nintendo show off the Wii’s family potential seven years later? By giving away Wii Sports for free, of course.
It was Microsoft’s first play into consoles
Microsoft released its very own machine, the Xbox, shortly after, but the Dreamcast marked the software giant’s first foray into console gaming. With great fanfare, Microsoft announced in 1998 that Windows CE would be the operating system powering the Dreamcast, and that DirectX tools would make development for both it and the PC simple. It ended in failure however: since the OS was on the game disc, and few developers chose to use it, it remained little more than a logo on the Dreamcast’s hardware. Kotaku has a great history of it Windows CE on the Dreamcast, if you’re interested.
It upped the resolution
For its age, the Dreamcast was capable of delivering stunning graphics – we still can’t get over the first time we saw Soul Calibur in motion. In part, that was because the Dreamcast was one of the first consoles to offer 480p “progressive” resolution (Nintendo’s Wii can’t output at a higher resolution, even twelve years on). It’s not HD by any definition, but it was an improvement, and the start of a pixel war: nowadays, we expect nothing less than full 1080p in stereoscopic mode.
It made virtual pets popular
Though EA’s Dogz and Catz series had shown how adorable animal sims could work on the PC, it was the Dreamcast that, for better or worse, showed they would work as a console game, not just an idle distraction. The seriously disturbing Seaman let you raise an animal with a human face, and speak to it using the Dreamcast microphone. In your face, Nintendogs.
While the Dreamcast only linked up with the Game Gear in our most feverish dreams, it did play nice with another handheld, SNK’s Neo-Geo Pocket Color. Although the Pocket Link cable, letting you transfer data between games – mostly SNK beat’em ups – was hardly supported, the idea is commonplace now. The Game Boy Advance could connect to the Nintendo GameCube home console; the Sony PSP can be used to watch videos stored on your PS3 from afar, and even play some games, while Kinect for Xbox 360 will soon work with Windows Phone devices.
It’s making a comeback
The homebrew scene is still making games the Dreamcast, but at last, Sega is honouring the console’s memory in the mainstream. It’s begun releasing ports of old Dreamcast classics onto Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, starting with Sonic Adventure and insane arcade hit Crazy Taxi. Here’s hoping others will follow – and while you’re at it Sega, Shenmue 3 wouldn’t go amiss…