In very exceptional way, having regard to the temporal focus of this blog (and my collection), I am going to write about a fairly recent console, contemporary to the Nintendo GameCube and Sony Playstation2, that was the last wonder produced by Sega factories, the swan song of the hardware division of this legendary company: the Dreamcast.
Despite my unbridled passion for video games and machinery such as consoles and computers, at the time of its life cycle, this extraordinary and innovative object has passed virtually unnoticed in my eyes.
When it was launched in Japan, in 1998, there wasn't a large spread of the Internet, the Web, forums and blogs, but I was used to read a lot of videogames press, which didn't dedicate any attention to this console.
There are many schools of thought, with several different theories, which debate for years about why and how a such concentration of refined technological power has failed to spread to the general public.
The main one among these claims that Sega, already hardly hit by the previous console failure – the Saturn – was a step away from bankruptcy, and served with a so small budget that forced to make a drastic choice between technological development of the console, and the massive advertising campaign that has always characterized this brand.
Fortunately for the (very few) console owners, Sega decided to develop his creation to its best, thus sacrificing the promotional campaign that had always enjoyed huge success.
Added to this was the upcoming release of Playstation2, who kept on stand-by many potential buyers, who chose to wait, for about a year, the successor to the highly successful PlayStation, sure that it would be worth it.
As often happens with new technologies, is not always the best one to have the upper hand.
In fact, on a technical level the Dreamcast was not inferior to anyone, rather. It was the first console to contain an operating system: WindowsCE, the embedded systems version of the ubiquitous software made in Redmond. It is rumored that Microsoft accumulated a lot of experience, alongside the designers and engineers during the development of the Sega Dreamcast, so much to lay the foundation for what would eventually be marketed under the Xbox name.
The Dreamcast was a 128-bit machine, thanks to a powerful CPU supplied by Hitachi and a graphics dedicated co-processor , produced by NEC, capable of rendering, shadows and 3D real-time optimizations. Was equipped with 16MB of RAM, 8MB allocated to graphics and 2 reserved to the audio section. Also included a 128KB flash memory.
In late (unfortunately vain) effort to curb software piracy, Yamaha put in place a proprietary support for Sony's distribution of games: The GD-ROM. In practice it was a conventional CD-ROM, that was written over the physical limits (overburn) and at a lower speed, in order to increase storage density and cram up to 1,2 GB of data, against the limits of 700MB set in standard CD.
What were the innovations introduced by this console? One out of every: was the very first game machine provided with a standard modem, which was associated with an online service provided by Sega, and the ability to surf the web and manage e-mail. Among the various devices was also introduced an enhanced keyboard, such as PCs, that could be connected to one of 4 joypad ports.
I said joypad, and what a joypad! Sega's engineers gave free play to their creativity, no doubt about it, and hence, in particular just only watching from afar the shape of the standard joypad.
As was common in that period, games saves, settings and data in general, were stored in special memory cards, usually, these were placed in slots on the console. In this case, the designers chose to include two slots inside the joypad, where they could be included normal memory cards, a “rumble pack” to allow the joypad vibrating (force feedback) and very special memory cards, that looked like a sort of mini-gameboy with tiny buttons, controls and a small LCD screen.
We are talking about the awesome VMU: Visual Memory Unit.
These innovative memory card could be detached from their housing (and so far nothing new) but, as “intelligent” and autonomous, could be used like a small portable video game. Many games provided the upload of mini-games inside the VMU, that could be played when console was powered off and in many cases allowed the player to unlock some items within the game itself. This is an absolutely brilliant and ambitious idea. Even today there are people who enjoys writing and disseminating these little mini-games to the VMU. 🙂
Formally, this console is out of production since March 2001, but fans around the world have not accepted the decline of this gem full of unexpressed potential. In fact video games are still running at a commercial level (the latest dates from 2007), and there are dozens of hardware designs that add modern features to this console, such as USB ports, hard disks, SD readers, etc..
Almost all of these customizations go through the Extension Port, where is connected the factory's internal modem. Given the peculiarities of the connector (totally proprietary and non-standard) it is necessary to cannibalize the modem itself, to be honest, in the ADSL age it has no more reason to exist, so to pick the valuable connector and solder it to homemade adapters, terminated with connectors more easily available.
Good geeks were able to develop a NetBSD distribution that can run on the Dreamcast and nowadays it can be used just like a computer. 🙂
I discovered this beautiful console very recently, I mean to recoup the wasted time and, who knows, perhaps put my hands on Eagle CAD, solder, iron, and give life to my personal LAN adapter, since the original is very rare and unavailable at reasonable figures. 😉