Gaming Top 5: Sega Dreamcast innovations that didn't take off

PC World's top five Dreamcast innovations that failed to catch on

Back in the 1990s, Sega decided (perhaps due to the troubled Sega Saturn) to exit the 32-bit generation of video consoles early in order to bring out a 128-bit console: the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast was launched in 1998, a couple of years ahead of the Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube, and it had many innovations at the time. However, its innovations were ultimately too far ahead of their time and many failed to succeed until a few years later. In this article we have listed our top five Dreamcast innovations that failed to catch on.

No. 5: HD gaming

The innovation: The Dreamcast introduced the VGA adapter, a peripheral connection that enabled the console to output video to a computer display or high definition TV for a crisper and cleaner picture.

Why it failed: During the lifespan of the Dreamcast, HD TVs were still a pipe dream and most people held onto their old analogue TVs. Many people were content to use the bundled AV cable with their TV, as the improved resolution of the console compared to the previous generation was still a noticeable improvement. Computer displays at the time were mostly bulky CRTs. These factors relegated the VGA adaptor to a novelty among enthusiasts.

When it finally took off: While the Xbox 360 officially launched HD gaming in 2005, the lack of an inbuilt HDMI port and VGA cable meant that many people were still hooking up the console to analogue TVs. It was the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006 that finally ushered in the real age of HD gaming, aided by the dropping prices of HD TVs overall.

Did you know? While most Dreamcast games were compatible with the VGA adaptor, a handful of European and North American games did not work with it.

No. 4: Console to handheld linking

The innovation: The Dreamcast was able to connect to SNK's Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld via a special link cable, which allowed content to be shared between the two devices.

Why it failed: The Neo Geo Pocket Color was only released in limited numbers in Japan and North America, which in turn limited the appeal of the feature to those two regions. While the Neo Geo Pocket Color found a small fan base, it received very little third party support due to SNK's precarious business health at the time. In addition to the limited popularity of the Neo Geo Pocket Color and SNK's untimely demise sealing the fate of the handheld, very few games took advantage of the link feature.

When it finally took off: The Nintendo GameCube-Game Boy Advance link cable enjoyed niche popularity when it was released in 2005, while Sony introduced Remote Play interconnectivity between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable following its launch in 2006. However, the appeal of the link technology is still limited due to the small amount of software that supports it.

Did you know? SNK is an acronym of Shin Nihon Kikaku, which means New Japan Project in Japanese.

No. 3: Proprietary disc technology

The innovation: The Dreamcast used a Yamaha-developed proprietary optical disc format called GD-ROM (Giga Disk Read-Only Memory) to expand on the space limitations and piracy issues connected with the CD format.

Why it failed: The DVD format was just around the corner for mass market adoption when Sega introduced GD-ROM, which caused many people to overlook the proprietary format. The 1.2GB storage of the GD-ROM was found to be inadequate for a growing amount of games, resulting in multi-disc releases and increased production costs. The security of the disc format was also compromised a few years into the console's lifespan, resulting in a flood of piracy that did not require any physical modifications to the console. When the DVD format was included in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and to a lesser degree the GameCube, the writing was on the wall for GD-ROM.

When it finally took off: Proprietary disc technology never really made it big, most likely due to the high R&D costs associated with engineering it. Despite being more advanced that the CD format at the time, GD-ROM was not adopted outside of the Dreamcast. Sony used its proprietary Blu-Ray technology for the PlayStation 3 in 2006, though it had already gained some market acceptance a few years earlier as a HD video format. Microsoft also adopted the HD-DVD format that it backed for the Xbox 360, though ultimately would discontinue it after Blu-Ray won the HD format war in 2008.

Did you know? Sega made tentative plans to release a DVD add-on for the Dreamcast that would have enabled the console to play DVD movies. The add-on never saw a commercial release.

No. 2: Online console gaming

The innovation: The Dreamcast was the first console to come bundled with a modem that allowed for online gaming against other players around the world.

Why it failed: The Internet infrastructure in the early 2000's was much more limited then than it is today. Dial-up modems were the norm for PCs back then, and the Dreamcast tried to capitalise on the popularity of online gaming by being the first console to offer a modem. The problem was that online gaming in those days, even on a PC, was extremely clunky and fraught with problems such as dropped connections and irregular speeds. Once broadband started to gain a foothold in the market, Sega tried to improve the online gaming experience with the introduction of the Dreamcast Broadband Adapter in 2001. However, the limited availability of broadband and the adapter itself meant it was out of the reach of most Dreamcast owners.

When it finally took off: Microsoft experienced some success with its Xbox LIVE service when it introduced it with the Xbox in 2002, though broadband network availability was still limited at the time. It was the launch of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation and the upgraded Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network that finally ushered the online console generation. These robust online services not only consisted of online gaming, but access to digital content as well.

Did you know? While Dreamcast consoles sold in Japan and the U.S. were fitted with a 56Kbps modem, the highest specification at the time, all PAL models where fitted with the older 33.6Kbps modem that provided slower online performance.

No. 1: VMU

The innovation: The Dreamcast introduced the VMU (Visual Memory Unit) peripheral that plugged directly into the control pad and acted as a memory card, an auxiliary display during gameplay, and even as a handheld game console.

Why it failed: The technology limitations of the VMU didn't give it a broad appeal, there was a lack of supported software and it was expensive. While the small black and white screen, directional pad and four buttons meant that Nintendo Gameboy-style games could be developed for the VMU, the reality was that none of the software released for it went beyond basic mini games. The screen was also underutilised by games when the VMU was plugged into the controller. The small amount of storage on the device restricted its functionality, and the VMU had a tendency to quickly drain the two button batteries that were required to operate it. Later on in the Dreamcast's life, Sega would introduce a dedicated memory card with more space and without the screen and controls.

When it finally took off: Screen-based memory cards lived and died with the Dreamcast. Sony briefly experimented with the technology when it introduced its PocketStation peripheral in 1999, though the late introduction into the PlayStation's lifespan and failure of the VMU to catch on meant that Sony would not actively release or support it. The PocketStation was released in limited numbers only in Japan, where it enjoyed some popularity and limited software support. However, the PocketStation suffered many of the same limitations as the VMU, such as basic functionality, low storage space and poor battery life, which led Sony to discontinue it after a mere three years on the market and without a North American or European release. Beyond the PocketStation, no other VMU-influenced peripherals have been released since.

Did you know? Sega announced plans to release a VMU that had MP3 playback and a whopping 64 MB of storage, but the upgraded peripheral was never released.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World

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