The Dreamcast was the beginning, and the end, of the golden age of peripherals
The gaming industry used to be flooded with interesting peripherals. The era of the music game gave us piles of plastic instruments across two generations of consoles. PC gamers embraced racing wheels and flight sticks. Even NES gamers fell in love with the Advantage. The act of adding accessories to your system for specific games was well understood, and even casual gamers participated in the rush for interesting hardware.
Those days are gone, on both the consoles and PC. It’s rare to see even a flight stick these days, and peripheral-based music games have all but disappeared from the discussion. The options for peripherals are slim on all the latest systems: The PlayStation 4 offers a camera no one can find, and the Xbox One forces you to buy a camera that only sort of works for gaming. It’s a dire situation if you’re searching for novel gaming experiences.
There was one system that represented the golden age of gaming peripherals, and the delightfully diverse collection of add-ons and plastic oddities released for that system helped to keep its library a fan favorite, even more than a decade after it was discontinued.
Of course I’m talking about the Dreamcast.
Looking towards the future
You have to start by putting the Dreamcast system into context historically. It was more powerful than its competitors when it was released, and the GD-ROM drive offered more storage for games. It was a system that looked towards the future.
Every Dreamcast was sold with a dial-up modem for online play at a time when online gaming was rare outside of the PC space. The system even came with an extra-long network cable to connect to your phone line in case your entertainment center was far from a jack. This was crazy, forward-looking stuff when the system launched in 1999.
Games were saved on the virtual memory unit, or VMU, a little memory card with an LCD screen that could show images, information and animations on a 48 by 32 resolution screen.
There were a variety of fight sticks that mimicked arcade controls, and the Dreamcast was a beast when it came to fighting games. The Dreamcast had some great 3D fighting games, but its 2D fighting game catalog was where the system really stood out. You could grab an arcade stick, slam in your VMU, and have a great night with friends.
It gets weirder. Do you want to talk to a little fish guy in a strange sort of virtual life experiment? There was a microphone peripheral that was packed in with Seaman, that allowed you to do just that. It was an absolutely off the wall title that was creepier than it was enjoyable, but of course Sega released hardware for it, because damned near every game received some form of custom hardware.
Do you like fishing games? The Dreamcast had some amazing fishing games, along with an official fishing controller, and the only people laughing at this fact are those who have haven’t tried using it. That set up was fun. It was also an early version of motion controls, since you had to make the casting motion in front of the television.
These games didn’t sell in great numbers, but we remember them fondly. Who doesn’t miss Samba de Amigo, complete with maraca controllers? There was an attempt to revive the franchise on the Wii, but it didn’t really take.
This is just talking about the hardware that was released in the United States, things get even stranger when you look at what was available in other regions, including webcams, dance pads, a midi cable that allowed you to use your own hardware to create music, and a custom controller for train simulators.
The Dreamcast stands alone when it comes to breadth of control options, and most controllers had both official and third-party offerings. If you liked a niche, genre game, odds are the Dreamcast supported it, and offered some form of plastic accessory for you to purchase to enhance the experience.
Frozen in time
The Dreamcast was discontinued by Sega in 2001, and this sort of rampant appeal to so many genres and weird experiences didn’t help the system’s chances at reaching a true mainstream audience. These days broadband adapters and high resolution graphics aren’t features or even worth noting; they’ve become part of the baseline experience in modern consoles. There’s no need for your memory stick to have buttons and a screen when every system comes with a hard drive.
The Dreamcast turned your home into a beautiful arcade
Still, the Dreamcast was a heavenly system for those of us craving new experiences. Other systems before and after had their share of weird peripherals — sewing accessories, anyone? — but the Dreamcast offered so many games that were improved by the addition of new hardware.
The Dreamcast turned your home into a beautiful arcade with light gun games, music games, fishing games and great fighting games complete with hardware that made each title feel like an event. It was a system that allowed you to invite your friends to play and share each different experience; the system felt novel and fluid in a way that was rare at the time, and has become almost forgotten in conversations about classic hardware.
I’m not surprised the Dreamcast wasn’t a bigger hit, the target market for many of these games and peripherals was relatively small, but the system represented a high water mark for those of us willing to invest in and enjoy new experiences. There has never been a system like it, and there likely will never be again.