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What is a Dreamcast? What is an emulator?

Sega Dreamcast console and controller

Sega Dreamcast console and controller

The Sega Dreamcast console was released in 1999 as the successor to the Sega Saturn. At the time, the console truly felt revolutionary. The machine had an in-built modem for online gaming, four controller ports and a wide range of AV connectivity options. Owning a Dreamcast at that time felt like being in a special club of videogame connoisseurs. Sega treated us to some amazing memorable games too, such as Jet Set Radio, Shenmue and Crazy Taxi. Despite the machine selling relatively well, Sega decided to discontinue the machine less than two years later, citing stronger than expected competition from that all-conquering Sony PlayStation 2. Despite being discontinued, software development continued for some time afterwards, especially in Japan, leaving the machine with a large and unique back catalogue.

While Sega’s accountants might disagree, many gamers feel that the Japanese gaming giant was too hasty to pull the plug on the console. Whatever your feelings on that particular era in videogame history, the legacy of the Dreamcast lives on in its software library, a library that, thanks to the ever-increasing power of PC computers and the magic of emulators, is now accessible to more gamers than ever before.

What features did the Dreamcast have?

Apart from powerful (for the time) 3D graphics and sound capabilities, the Dreamcast had a number of unique features that affect gamers wanting to emulate the system on the PC.

Controller – The Dreamcast controller can be seen in the picture above. It has four face buttons, a D-Pad and a single analogue stick, as well as two analogue triggers. While not as divisive as the Nintendo 64 controller, gamers do have varying opinions about the controller. An Xbox 360 controller is a good substitute in most cases, though the D-pad on the 360 controller is often criticised for its lack of accuracy. Alternatively there are a number of adapters you can buy that allow you to connect Dreamcast controllers directly to the PC.

The Dreamcast had four controller ports and there were a number of games that allowed four players to play at once. You can connect multiple controllers to your PC too and enjoy these games with your friends.

vmu-gameVisual Memory Unit – In the picture above you may be able to make out a small screen that appears to be inside the controller. This is the Dreamcast’s memory card, or visual memory unit. Dreamcast memory cards could be taken from the consoles controller and used as a sort of simple portable console. Sega intended for developers to use this for mini games, for instance you could access the mini game “Chao Adventure” on your VMU if you owned the game Sonic Adventure. Visual Memory Units could also connect to one another to allow easy data copying. Unfortunately, few Dreamcast owners ever took advantage of this functionality as the battery life on the Visual Memory Units was impractically short, requiring new CR2032 batteries to be purchased almost weekly.

During gameplay, some games would flash information to these screens, though the limited size and resolution meant that this was rarely anything more than a novelty.

Modem and Broadband Adapter (BBA) – Sega pioneered online gaming with the Dreamcast by including a modem with every console. Towards the end of the consoles short lifespan this could be upgraded to a broadband LAN adapter too. The official online gaming services for the console have all shut down, but some Dreamcast emulators support online play functionality and there are even dedicated players who have reverse-engineered Sega’s networking code and run servers for the old Dreamcast games.

GD-ROM – The Dreamcast used a special format of disc called a GD-ROM. These discs held more than regular CDs but less than DVDs. GD-ROMs are not compatible with PC optical drives and special steps need to be taken to copy the contents of game discs to the PC ready for playing on an emulator.

Dreamcast Emulator?

Configuring emulators can be tricky, but don't worry, we'll show you how.

Configuring emulators can be tricky, but don’t worry, we’ll show you how.

An emulator is a piece of software that makes a computer act like a different computer. You could think of it as a translation program, that can take a game or program designed for a completely different machine and translate it in real time so that it can run on your PC. While all computers and games consoles follow binary instructions, those instructions and how they command the hardware are totally different on a Dreamcast compared to a PC. Without an emulator, a Dreamcast game is completely indecipherable to a PC.

Emulation is great because it opens up libraries of software that would otherwise be unusable unless you have access to the original hardware. In fact, Dreamcast emulators on the PC are so awesome that they actually improve the visual quality of many Dreamcast games. The original Dreamcast console was limited to a maximum resolution of 640×480. By PC standards that’s puny of course. Even if (like us) you still take pride in having your original Dreamcast console on display and hooked into your TV, you may still want to give emulation a whirl just to see what your favourite Dreamcast games look like when upscaled to high definition resolutions.

Emulation isn’t without its drawbacks though. Emulating another computer system demands a lot of computer resources. Translating a computer program from one architecture to another in real time, fast enough so that a game can be played is quite a feat. Your PC will need to be many times more powerful than a Dreamcast console, but fortunately that’s now the case even for more modest PCs. If you want to upscale or enhance the graphics of Dreamcast games you will need a more powerful PC still.

The other drawback of emulation is accuracy. You should think of the Dreamcast emulators as being an approximation of the original thing, rather than a truly 100% accurate simulation. For most situations the emulators are more than accurate enough, but some games will exhibit graphical or audio glitches. Some games might have bugs due to the emulation, sometimes this can be game breaking and in the worst cases might even impede your progress at some point in the game. If you want to play Dreamcast games completely accurately, exactly as they would have been on a Dreamcast console, you should look for a second hand Dreamcast console. If you simply want to play games, dip your toes in the Dreamcast’s back catalogue or you already own a Dreamcast and just want to see what some of your favourite games look like when upscaled, emulation is perfect for you.

OK I’m in, how do I get started?

Head on over to our “Emulating the Dreamcast” page for details of where to get your emulators and how to configure them.

One comment

  1. Dimitriy Dzyuba says:

    Great article, was the Dreamcast the first console with online gaming??

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