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The Sega Dreamcast: Microsoft on consoles before the days of Xbox

Dreamcast
Dreamcast (Image credit: Windows Central)

This is the tale of the Sega Dreamcast, possibly my favorite console of all time, released to the world in 1999 (or late 1998 in Japan). In the early days it was basically Sega or Nintendo, but as the Dreamcast approached, Sony had entered the arena with the might of the PlayStation brand.

Sadly, the Dreamcast ended up being Sega's final console — and a short-lived one at that. But at its launch, it was something quite different to what Nintendo and Sony had to offer. And it had Microsoft at its side.

Well, it kind of had Microsoft at its side. What started out as a coming together of two giants, one of gaming, one of computing, ultimately fizzled out into being nothing more than a memory.

The launch of the Sega Dreamcast

Sega Dreamcast

On May 21, 1998, Microsoft proudly announced its partnership with Sega on the Dreamcast, the "ultimate home video game system." The press release is still live on Microsoft's News Center{.nofollow} for you to read in full, but here are some of the important bits.

Microsoft Corp. today announced it will collaborate with Sega Enterprises Ltd. on Sega's new Dreamcast home video game system, slated for release in Japan on Nov. 20, 1998, and in the rest of the world in 1999. As a result of the collaboration, Microsoft will provide an optimized version of the Microsoft® Windows® CE operating system with integrated DirectX® services as the operating system for use with Dreamcast.With the inclusion of Windows CE, Dreamcast will bring the benefits of an advanced Windows-based development environment to the world of console game development for the first time. Using Windows CE, developers will be able to create cross-platform titles more efficiently by taking advantage of well-established Win32® and DirectX APIs that are source-code-compatible with the Windows operating system on the PC. Incorporation of DirectX will also allow the Dreamcast system to capitalize on the momentum toward PC gaming and the ever-increasing body of developers creating games for the Windows platform.

To be clear, the Dreamcast didn't run Windows CE. It never ran anything in the sense of a traditional OS, instead injecting the necessary bits when it booted up a game. What Microsoft and Sega had done was partner up to allow game developers to build titles for Windows CE that would run on the Dreamcast. The dream was real: help game developers create titles for PC and console using Windows-based tools. Any of that sound familiar?

In 1998 Microsoft already had some kind of vision to deliver what, in 2017, is now a reality.

The Dreamcast console

Sega Dreamcast

Compared to today's monstrous machines, the Dreamcast is very small. And for a console of the 20th century, it was quite powerful. This is what the spec sheet for a 1999 console looks like:

CategorySpec
CPUHitachi SH-4 200MHz
GraphicsNEC PowerVR2 DC, 16.77 million colors
Hardware-based texture compression, Super sampling
Memory16 MB main RAM (SDRAM)
8 MB video RAM
2 MB sound RAM
Sound45MHz Yamaha 32-bit RISC CPU @ 40MIPS
Surround Sound support
StorageProprietary 1GB GD-Rom disc
Data SaveVMU (Virtual Memory Unit)
Dimensions190mm x 195mm x 78mm
7.48 in x 7.68 in x 3.07 in
InputFour controller ports
Communication33.6Kbps modem (Original Asia/Japan)
56Kbps modem (USA, Europe, Asia/Japan after Sept. 1999)
Video Output640x224 NTSC via composite video or RF (Composite cables included with console)

It's a small, top-loading console with four controller inputs on the front (since wireless controllers weren't a thing in 1999), outputs on the back, a modem and a lot of noise. If you ever look at your Xbox One S and think it's a bit noisy, go and listen to a Dreamcast when it's doing pretty much anything. That's some fan noise.

In some regions the Dreamcast's stock connector was a composite output, with three connectors, one for video, one for each audio channel. In others, like the UK where I have my own, the standard way to hook up to a TV was via RF. You connected your TV antenna to this little box coming out of the Dreamcast, then plugged the box into the antenna input on your big ol' CRT TV.

Nowadays there are adapters and other cables that have been created to get a better quality image and importantly, use it with more modern televisions. I'm using mine with a VGA connector, and the image is a lot nicer on a modern LCD HDTV.

The controller has always been a pretty radical thing, and while it might not necessarily have been the best idea, it stood out for sure. It's a large controller, on par with the original Xbox controller, with a single analog stick, a D-pad, start, four ABXY buttons and two triggers. It's also very light, mostly because it's plastic and there is no rumble pack inside.

That was an option you had to buy yourself and attach in one of the two slots on the controller. The other was for the VMU. Back in the day, you needed an external card to save your games on, only the Dreamcast's also had a screen, buttons and a battery which allowed some use away from the console.

Make no mistake: This was as futuristic as a games console could have been 18 years ago.

Windows CE compatible, but it didn't go well

Sega Dreamcast

Despite the celebratory trumpets and huge press attention on the fact Microsoft and Sega had come together, Windows CE on the Dreamcast was a catastrophe. The console itself enjoyed a short life, but Windows CE was barely adopted at all.

This is because Sega also had its own custom software that was offered as a choice to developers on the Dreamcast. And, overwhelmingly, it became the favorite. There were very few titles ever made that used Windows CE, despite the fact the Microsoft logo was proudly displayed on the front of the console.

Sega Dreamcast

Funnily enough, the first title to showcase Windows CE was Sega Rally 2, a first-party title. Less than 50 games were produced using Windows CE.

There was some decent support from large titles, though. The likes of Rainbow Six, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider all came to Dreamcast on Windows CE. Check out the handy link below for the full list.

All Windows CE games on the Sega Dreamcast

To the gamer, there was no difference to playing a game using Windows CE over using Sega's own. Aside from a Windows CE-branded boot screen, games looked and felt the same. The principles behind it were for developers, less so gamers.

You bought your Dreamcast games, popped them in and played them. However they were made.

The end of the road

Sega Dreamcast

The console market Sega was now in was very different to the 18 years previously when it entered with the Master System. The year after the Dreamcast came to market, arguably the biggest reason for its demise appeared: Sony's PlayStation 2.

The PlayStation 2 was a game changer, there's little denying that. The Dreamcast couldn't keep up with Sony's goliath. A year later in 2001, Microsoft went it alone with the Xbox.

Sega's days were numbered, and Microsoft's partnership eventually meant very little. The Dreamcast's end was announced in January 2001, with production ending in March of that year. In North America, the last new release was NHL 2K2 in February 2002. The curtain then closed and the Dreamcast was finished.

In the space of three years, the Dreamcast went from a huge, hyped product with backing from the company behind Windows, to being discontinued and then left to memory. Sega didn't make a console again.

Despite its short life, the Dreamcast as a console can never be ignored. It was too damn good, even if it was a giant flop. Microsoft did alright for itself in the console market, right up to November of this year when we'll be seeing the almighty Xbox One X hit store shelves.

The Dreamcast had some really good ideas, some excellent games and a whole lot of charm. It may not have been much of a success, but it was, and still, is loved to this day.

The Dreamcast in 2017

Sega Dreamcast

Nowadays the Dreamcast falls squarely under the "retro gaming" banner, as you'd expect for a console that first arrived nearly two decades ago. Despite a short lifespan they're not particularly difficult to get hold of. Sites like CraigsList and eBay are obvious places to look, as are any stores that specialize in old gaming.

In the UK I picked up another one recently for just £45 in pretty good condition without any yellowing (my first Dreamcast died long ago). It's even possible as I sit writing this to get a brand new, sealed console (opens in new tab) but it'll cost you more than an Xbox One S.

The accessories market is still thriving, too, with the same said for buying games. There is plenty of Dreamcast stuff out there, both new and used. Prices will vary depending on condition, but most is pretty affordable. The important thing is to avoid getting sucked into paying more than you're happy with because of 'rarity.'

Unless you want Shenmue or Shenmue 2. In which case you'll be paying on par with a current AAA console new release!

Perhaps more amazing though is that the love for the Dreamcast is still so great that indie developers are still making new games for it. There are also still ways to get the Dreamcast online, with one of the more popular ones being the DreamPi.

With some custom software and a Raspberry Pi, you can bypass the need for a dial-up ISP and enjoy some of the many excellent, and still popular Dreamcast games like Phantasy Star Online.

Your memories

The Dreamcast will live on for as long as fans keep it alive. With the recent boom in retro gaming, though, it's unlikely to fade away completely. Generally speaking fans of the Dreamcast are passionate about it.

If you're a fan past or present and have your own tale to tell, drop it into the comments below!

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

42 Comments
  • Good console, but the most uncomfortable controller i have ever used. i have never had such hand pain from a long gaming session with any other controller.
  • I could probably say the same about the "Duke." I don't have very big hands so typically I'm more comfortable with smaller ones. OG Mega Drive controller was about perfect!
  • very true, i have never used a Duke controller, but i have heard they were pretty bad as well. honestly i never really liked any Sega controllers, mega drive/genesis were comfortable, but the buttons always seemed to not have the right feel to them when pressing them. i always preferred the snes controller at the time.
  • Just so you all know Microsoft is re releasing the Duke controller and its being revised and all. It'll work with the Xbox One. Pretty cool they are doing it.
  • It's not Microsoft, but yes, the Duke is coming back. :)
  • Really? I thought just the opposite. I have never had a controller that lent itself more to long gaming sessions than the Dreamcast controller, other than maybe the Saturn 3D controller.
  • yeah i dont know, the way that your fingers gripped underneath just didnt feel comfortable to me and would cause my hands to hurt. on the opposite side, I am currently really liking how the switch pro controller feels for long sessions.
  • I actually liked the Dreamcast controller, LOL.
  • Still have mine. Was before its time
  • VGA and s-video has been available since the Dreamcast launched. I believe rgb was also an option in some regions. My DC never touched the composite cables. Now not all games worked with VGA, but a work around was available using boot disks. I still have my launch system and a boxed "Sega Classics" system, which was opened only for the games disk.... The console still lives in its box.
  • RF was basically all you got here at launch. Equally, it didn't really matter because CRT TVs were still the norm and very few people got TV through anything other than an antenna.
  • The sad thing about Windows CE NOW is that, if emulation is the route you want to go down, it makes life VERY tricky. The 90-odd % of games that run Sega's software are fine, but anything using CE (such as Sega Rally) is near impossible to emulate. That's why I still have my actual DC still kicking around in my living room. Also, that is a PRISTINE condition console, Richard! Kudos to you for keeping it in such nick.
  • Kudos should go to the person who owned it before me! Needless to say this one will be looked after much better. The last one I had was a bit yellow and ultimately met its demise!
  • Best game console memories ever!
  • Can someone fix this **** wc app? Comments no longer load/work.
  • It works fine for me.
  • I've always felt that the original Xbox was a spiritual successor to the Dreamcast, Microsoft continued from where Sega left off and while they didn't outsell the PS2 obviously they did succeed. I would love if Microsoft would be able to licence Dreamcast games and add them to Xbox backwards compatibility, that would be dope af.
  • I agree. Ide love to see some of the Saga xbox ips come to the xbox one to like a new jsr, sega rally, Sega GT and a few others.
  • MS can only license their own games. The individual games would be up to whomever holds publishing rights. We've come a long way, the DC was launched during a time that depending where you live the same game was "blizzard", "Activision", "THQ", or whatever. It's a licensing nighmare. 
  • Dreamcast is the most underrated console of all time, not just because the hardware was interesting (VMU, built-in modem, etc.) but because of the insane amount of quality games that Sega and third-parties were pumpling out in just that short, two-year span. To this day, in my opinion, no first-party publisher has since produced that many classics in that short of a window (not even Nintendo). It's a shame the console got killed off, and it's even more of a shame that that was the peak of Sega's game development.
  • Your right for me Sony had all the hype because of dvd and the DC suffered because of this. For me that gen was won by sega followed by Nintendo then Microsoft and last was the PS2. I don't know what it was about that gen but I lost my love for the ps brand. I owned a psx and loved it. Had a DC and traded it in for a PS2 within 3 months I gave it to my brother and got another DC. I still own one now to. I do which sega were still going in the hardware decision but I also love what ms and Nintendo are now doing and if it was not for the DC we would not of had the Xbox and also online gaming like it is today as both sony and Nintendo were late to that party.
  • I'm 39. The Dreamcast was the 1st system I purchased with my own money. In my honest opinion, the Dreamcast is the best console ever. Launch Day gave me NFL2k, Soul Caliber, Ready 2 Rumble, and Sonic. There hasn't been a console remotely close to 9/9/99. A month later we got NBA2k. I can go on and on.
  • VisualConcepts blew EA out of the water with those sports games.
  • He'll yeah
  • I absolutely loved my Dreamcast. I used it far more than my PS2 back in the day. The console was ahead of it's time, and ultimately the reason why I bought an original Xbox when it launched.
  • I remember picking up this system back in my college days back in 9.9.99. It was such a great system. "The legend never dies" - Soul Calibur
  • Ha I still have my Dreamcast and playstation 2. Only because when I tried to trade it in a couple years back they were gonna only give me chump change for it. So I kept it.
  • I had Nintendo products back then and a PlayStation when it launched but my buddy had a dreamcast ps 2 and Xbox when it launched funny thing i liked dreamcast the most back then although never played the windows ce games
  • I bought one for $50 new at best buy in 2002 I think. It was great at the time. Loved playing NBA 2k2 with Iverson!
    I remember the game itself cost $40 haha
  • Imported mine 1st one from Japan a week after release with Sega Rally 2 and an indycar game I can't remember the name of.
  • Still my favorite console of all time. The games were just memoriable, and that whale chase in Sonic Adventure was friggin damn iconic for gaming imo. Loved PSO, had thousands of hours on there, and I loved just jumping onto the Japan server late night then jumping back on the NA server during the day. It was nice to be able to play with players across the world, thought it was really cool how Sega had premade phrases to communicate across with, and they had tons of them you could actually carry out effective conversations. Nowadays everything is back to being to segregated. Then there was Skies of Arcadia which I still come back and play on my launch day DC. Probably time to hook it back up, but I need a VGA box.
  • Buying the black sports-edition Dreamcast which contained NBA and NFL 2k was a wonderful feeling and I have never liked sports games. Despite my disinterest in that genre, I played a ton of local matches against my twin brother. I also thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crazy Taxi and the frustrating but addicting Vanishing Point racing game.
  • Dreamcast forever!!
  • Ahh the dream cast, probably my favvorite console, and way a head of it's time. Unfortunately one of the biggest downfalls was the lack of local storage, the 2nd was the broadband ethernet module wasn't easily available, and most people had to use the dialup module as a result. Sadly broadband had already taken off pretty well in the major cities around the uk so dial up was already a thing of the past for most people. However, I have fond memories racking up the phone bill playing Quake 3 Arena on my dreamcast against PC games online. I had the keyboard and mouse for the dreamcast so felt right at home. Until the majority of the servers went offline as the PC side upgraded the version of Quake 3. Eventually I setup RAS on my PC and dialed in to my PC and routed my dreamcast via my broadband connection, but at that point it was pretty much dead online anyway.
    The dreamcast browser disc that came bundled with the early UK version wasn't great either, and because there was no way to update it you were stuck with it unless you wanted to pay £10 for an updated disc.
    I'm sure if it had support for SD cards for local storage or even a harddisk, it'd have stuck around for a little longer. At the time of the release of the dreamcast there was a huge array of WinCE apps about, I even had a WinCE laptop, a Packard Bell Easymate IIRC. Sadly very few of them made it to the dreamcast, but there were a quite a few games that ran on Windows CE - sega rally, resident evil, ducati world racing, worms, virtua cop, tomb raider etc.
    At the time of release I was young and had a lot of disposible income, I owned pretty much every game released by the time the ability to pirate games killed the console off for me. I ended up giving it to my young nephew who loved sonic, but sadly didn't look after the games or console. The game that actually got me into buying the console was soul calibur. It was the first game i purchased along with the console and the first game I loaded. I even got the arcade stick to go with it. 
  • Downfall was not having DVD or EA on board.
    PS 2 had these and with Sonys advertising and cool factor from PS1 poor DC couldn't beat it. Checkout Dreamcast Junkyard website, there is a lot of stuff happening in DC Land. I just ordered a custom DC with 1tb hard drive so I can play games from there and save the gd Rom and laser. Got a vga and hdmi kit on the way too.
    A guy from Greece will mod your controller to make it wireless if you don't mind the spending. Can't wait for my DC to arrive and Relive the classics.
    Just paid quite a lot for Shenmue 1 and 2 in pretty good condition.
  • Yeah, Shenmue is expensive. Foolishly I threw my copy of the original away :/
  • Loved my Dreamcast. Ready to Rumble, 2k sports games, Shenmue, Soul Calibur, Sea Man, Space Channel 5, Quake, etc...
  • The Dreamcast also had/has an ethernet adapter.
  • Yeah I was going to mention the same thing, I remember playing Quake III onine via the "Broadband Adaptor". If you could grab one of those it would make getting a vintage Dreamcast a lot easier than using the dial up modem. 
  • I still have mine. It's in the original box in storage.
  • I still have mine. It's in the original box in storage.
  • It was great, loved it!!
    When I saw Soulcalibur I had to have it.
    Still own one today, the PS2 was great but it never gave the same feeling. So I bought the Xbox Original and games like : Crazy Taxi 3 and Spikeout Battlestreet gave me that same Dreamcast feeling.
    Too bad IT ended in 2001, still great today!