The SEGA Dreamcast was the last console developed by SEGA. and was the first console to kick off the 6th generation of Video Games. At Launch, the Dreamcast was competing against the previous generation of machines which included the Nintendo 64, Atari Jaguar, it’s own Sega Saturn, and the dominating newcomer to the console world, The Sony Playstation. The Dreamcast brought innovations that were ahead of its time. In this episode, I will explore a few of the quirks and features of the Dreamcast, and look at how the system is able to boot the NetBSD operating system, which has been ported to the platform.
The Sega Dreamcast was designed around a Hitachi Super-H or SH-4 CPU operating at 200 Mhz. The main memory is 16MB of SDRAM with other memory allocated for Video and Sound. There are input ports with a proprietary connection. On the back is an upgradable communications port, with the US models shipping with a 56K Dial-Up Modem. An optional broadband adapter was made available and installed in my unit here which features a realtek 10/100 ethernet chip.
As graphics and gam-eplay for this generation required more storage, console developers were looking for ways to squeeze more data onto a disc, while also providing copy protection. SEGA opted to use a 12x speed Yamaha GD-ROM. GD stands for GigaByte Disc. SEGA was the only console manufacturer to use this format, as the DVD, although more expensive to implement, became standard in the soon to be released Sony Playstation 2, and original X-Box. To put this in perspective, a CD-ROM holds up to 700 MB of data; and single layer DVD can store 4.7GB. But a GD-ROM can only hold 1 GB. That’s almost 5x less than a DVD.
One interesting thing that is noteworthy about the Dreamcast, is the printed Microsoft Windows CE Logo on the front of the unit. This was an attempt to provide porting of games written in Direct-X to be sold on the Dreamcast.
One of my favorite features of the Dreamcast was the VMU or Visual Memory Unit. While its primary purpose was for storing save games, it added two additional dimensions that I have never seen again on any game console. First, the VMU was removable, allowing you to swap them out. Once removed, the VMU itself contained its own D-PAD and buttons. With the battery, you could use the VMU as a standalone portable game device. Several titles provided the ability to store a “mini-game” onto the VMU that you can then take with you. Another cool feature was the ability to link your VMU to another allowing you to copy save games or data between two VMU’s without needing the actual console.
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the VMU, was the addition of an in-game screen that was unique to each player. When inserted into the controller, the VMU would act as a second screen, giving the player access to information at their fingertips. While not every game took advantage of this extra feature, certain games, such as NFL football allowed you to see the selected play on your own controller, whilst hiding your choice from the other players
NetBSD on the Dreamcast
Over the years, I have looked for ways to run other operating systems on my game consoles. Sony actually offered a Linux Kit for the Playstation2 which included a hard drive, keyboard, mouse, and copy of a specialized version of Linux MIPS designed to run on the device. There were several mods for XBOX which also allowed you to run alternative systems such as XBMC or build linux clusters. On the Dreamcast, there is a port of the Linux Kernel and NetBSD still maintains Dreamcast as a supported platform. In this video, I use the steps outlined on the NetBSD Dreamcast Port how-to (URL: http://www.netbsd.org/ports/dreamcast/howto.html )
Is running an operating system on the Sega Dreamcast still useful today? I would have to say no. Because modern day devices such as Tablets and Mobile Phones can do such much more, running a networking operating system on the Dreamcast is not really practical. It is truly amazing it runs, and with relatively little effort, thanks to the efforts of the developers who took the time to make it possible. That said, the Dreamcast is an amazing machine, with some innovations still not seen in modern consoles, but with some obvious fatal flaws that likely led to its ultimate failure in the market.