When it comes to the Dreamcast's online capabilities, I don't think a lot of people give it as much credit as it's due. The ability to play games online wasn't just an afterthought, it was part of the Dreamcast's DNA. In fact, the "cast" in Dreamcast is short for "broadcast" and refers to the console's ability to bring players together with the power of the internet. To Sega, this wasn't just some sort of gimmick. They knew online gaming was the future and they wanted to be the first to bring an out-of-the-box online gaming experience to consoles. With this, they truly did succeed.
Why do I say the Dreamcast doesn't get enough credit in this area? I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people say that the Dreamcast had only a few online games or that they were very limited due to the dial-up modem. These statements are far from true. The Dreamcast had around 78 online multiplayer games available for it across all regions and this doesn't even count the games that had other online features of some kind (such as leaderboards); this is an impressive number considering the short lifespan of the console. As far as it being "limited" by the 56k/33k speeds of the in-built modem, this is also not entirely true. While there were obviously some limitations due to the dial-up speeds, it didn't keep the Dreamcast from providing an online experience very similar to the modern consoles of today. In fact, there are very few things that current-gen consoles can do that the Dreamcast couldn't. Let's have a look!
The first and most obvious capability of an online-enabled console is the ability to play games online with other players all around the world. As previously stated, the Dreamcast had around 78 games with online multiplayer, ranging from first-person shooters and racing games, to sports titles and mahjong. Certainly a huge variety to please fans of just about any gaming genre. I'm sure some of the younger generation of gamers couldn't imagine playing online games over a 56k connection, but truth be told, it works surprisingly well. I'd be as bold to say that some games wouldn't even benefit from a broadband connection. This is all because these games were designed for this extremely-slow-by-today's-standards connection speed. The experience is typically very smooth, even with some games like Alien Front Online and Planet Ring which support up to 8 players. Not too shabby!
Yup, you heard right! Some online Dreamcast games supported real-time voice chat thanks to the microphone accessory. Granted there aren't many of them, but the fact that they were able to pull this off over a dial-up connection was a fantastic feat! North America and Europe both had their own exclusive voice chat-enabled game with the former getting Alien Front Online and the latter getting Planet Ring. While the voice chat in Alien Front Online isn't quite "real-time" (the box is a lie!), the fact that it works with up to eight players is impressive. Planet Ring on the other hand does have true real-time voice chat but only supports it in two of the mini games (Dream Dorobo and Splash), both of which are limited to two players. Regardless of the limitations, both games handle it very well with voices sounding loud and clear.
In addition to the two games released in western regions, Japan also got at least one online game with voice chat: Heisei Mahjong Shou. There was also a cancelled game that had support for shouting at people over the internet: Propeller Arena; no doubt this game would have had the best implementation of the feature due to having broadband adapter compatibility. Maybe one day we'll get to try that out!
And you thought slinging your voice over a dial-up connection was impressive! Yes indeed, you could Skype people with the Dreamcast before Skype was a thing! The magical piece of hardware that gave you this ability was called the Deameye camera, along with its Visual Park software. This was a Japanese-exclusive webcam/digital camera for the Dreamcast that allowed you to take and edit photos and video, in addition to beaming yourself into another person's television with the power of video calling. The video below (courtesy of the Dreamcast Junkyard) shows the video calling in action. The live video feed seems to play at approximately 2 frames per second but the fact that the Dreamcast was able to do this at all was crazy!
Downloadable content has always been a matter of debate on whether it's a good or a bad thing. Some believe it's an excuse for developers to leave out content so that they can charge consumers more cash for it later. Others think it's a great way to expand a game and add more replay-ability after the main game is completed. Regardless of what you think of DLC, the Dreamcast started it all! Granted, the DLC for Dreamcast games was all free! Can't complain about that! There were over 15 games released in North America that had DLC, including but not limited to Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, Skies of Arcadia, Samba de Amigo, Floigan Bros., and Phantasy Star Online. The DLC for these games added anything from new outfits for characters to entirely new areas, quests, and mini-games. Obviously the Dreamcast was very limited when it came to storage space so some of this content was already on the disc (On-disc DLC?! Gasp!) and just unlocked via special VMU files; this wasn't always the case though. Games like 4x4 Evolution and Phantasy Star Online allowed you to download entire new tracks and quests that were not contained on the disc. This storage limitation would have likely been rectified at some point with something like the Dreamcast Zip Drive. Just imagine the possibilities!
Spotify for Dreamcast? Well not quite, but it did have streaming music in a sense and this was in the form of the Dreamcast Karaoke Unit. The Karaoke Unit didn't actually come with any music on the disc. You would get songs by paying a monthly fee which would allow you access to a large library of songs that could be streamed over the internet to your Dreamcast. The way this was done was a bit "old skool". The Karaoke Unit came with a book that listed all the songs that were available, each with a number next to it. You would find a song that suited your fancy and input the corresponding song code into your internet-connected Dreamcast to download it. The song was only temporarily downloaded to the Dreamcast's memory however, so it would be gone once the console was powered off. Sadly this means that the Karaoke Unit is just a fancy paperweight these days. Regardless, it was yet another amazing innovation courtesy of the Dreamcast!
While the Dreamcast had many games with online multiplayer, many of them also had online rankings. This is a great way to compete with players around the world without having to schedule a a time to play them. The Dreamcast's web browser allowed leaderboards to be easily implemented into games and as a result, many games took advantage of it. Leaderboards were especially prevalent in racing titles such as Metropolis Street Racer, Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2, Toy Racer, Star Wars Episode I: Racer, Vanishing Point, and San Francisco Rush 2049. Of course there were games from other genres as well including Samba de Amigo, Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, and Virtua Athlete 2000. If you wanted to show off your super fly gaming skills for all the world to see, the Dreamcast had you covered!
Web Browser & E-Mail
Name one game console today that has a built-in e-mail client! ....... No one? No one at all? That's it! Game over! Dreamcast wins the universe! Heck, even web browsers aren't included with some game consoles these days *cough*nintendoswitch*cough*. The fact that the Dreamcast features both of these proves that Sega thought of everything! What if you need to forward that urgent email before you die a lonely and miserable death having not met your soul-mate?! The Dreamcast's got your back! Need to update your Angelfire website with more cat gifs? Pop in that PlanetWeb disc and get it done! I think I've said enough here. Case closed.
As you can clearly see, Sega didn't just stop at online multiplayer and call it a day. They took full advantage of what you could do with an internet-connected game console. It was this innovation that led to many things which we consider commonplace with current generation systems. The Dreamcast was the first to do many of these things and in today's modern gaming world, a game console that's missing one or more of these features would be severely crippled. So next time you download the latest DLC for Call of Duty 15, check the online leaderboards in Rocket League, or start a video chat with your Xbox Live Overwatch clan, give a little thought to the console that started it all, the Sega Dreamcast.