Sega Dreamcast Hardware Analysis

Editor’s Note: For the second installment of our Hardware Analysis series we will be looking at the cult favorite Sega Dreamcast

Introduction

Dreamcast Logo

The Sega Dreamcast holds a special place in the heart of many gamers. A truly revolutionary console with features ahead of it’s time and a short but colorful life have left an permanent mark on gaming history. It has the odd distinction of having at the time, the best console launch in history and a very short life of less then three years from it’s Japanese launch in November ’98 to it’s global cancellation in March ’01. The Dreamcast is also notable for being the first major console to have built in online support as well as MMO gaming and being the starting point for many influential titles such as Shenmue and Soul Caliber.

Ultimately what killed the Dreamcast wasn’t any serious hardware flaw or lack of titles, but that it was made obsolete almost overnight by the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2 which had built in DVD support, something the Dreamcast lacked. Just like with the first PlayStation, Sony had guaranteed their dominance from the start by giving the PS2 true versatility that ensured it would appeal not just to gamers but anyone who wanted an affordable and quality DVD player.

In today’s hardware analysis we dig under the plastic to the bare metal to find out what makes the Dreamcast tick. What made it great and what made it fail. It’s hardware tells an interesting story of hard driving executives, loose lipped suppliers and how to pull of and fail a product launch at the same time.

History

The Dreamcast draws its roots to the failure of its predecessor the Sega Saturn. While the Saturn was a powerful console it suffered from an over complicated architecture with two cpus and video chips that many developers had a hard time working with. On top of that the Saturn also experienced a less than stellar launch which combined with the Genesis add-on debacle (ie: 32x and Mega-CD) greatly damaged Sega’s reputation.

In 1997 former SCEA executive VP Bernie Stolar joined Sega of America as it’s head of product development. By this time the Saturn’s poor performance in the market was solidified. Not only had the PlayStation handily beat it but Nintendo’s N64 had just been released and even though it was far behind Sony, it quickly passed up the failing Saturn. Stolar began working with his bosses in Japan on a replacement for the Saturn that would take back the lead Sega enjoyed in the 16bit era.

As part of this effort, Sega’s president Shoichiro Irimajiri created a secret hardware development team to begin work on the console. The project was so secret that Irimajiri hired Tatsuo Yamamoto from IBM to lead the project. After learning of the project Sega’s own director of hardware development Hideki Sato formed his own team to begin work on a prototype as well. After considering several different processors including IBM’s own PowerPC line, Yamamoto’s team settled on sticking with Hitachi’s Super-H architecture as used in the Saturn. The new console would use an improved Super-H chip called the SH4 and would get its graphics power from a 3dfx Voodoo 2 based GPU. Sato’s proposal was similar to Yamamoto’s in that it also used the new SH4 processor but instead would receive its gpu from a little known company called VideoLogic. 3dfx was a well known graphics card manufacturer in the mid to late 1990’s and alongside ATI and Nvidia was one of most popular suppliers of high end graphics cards for PC gamers at the time. The Voodoo2 was a powerful gpu in 1998, capable of playing the latest PC games such as Quake II at 800×600 which is much higher than what contemporary consoles were capable of. Unfortunately 3dfx leaked their involvement which blew the cover on Sega’s secret project.

The Voodoo2 video card. originally the Dreamcast was set to use a similar GPU.

The Voodoo2 video card. Originally the Dreamcast was set to use a similar GPU.

Sega then backtracked and went with Sato’s design which has been controversial. The Voodoo2 was more powerful than VideoLogic’s PowerVR and was a popular choice with major publisher EA who had invested in 3dfx. Many fans and journalists criticized Sega’s decision which from the outside looked like simple spite towards 3dfx. Whatever the reason, 3dfx did sue Sega who settled for $10.5 million.

Sega moved ahead with Sato’s design and released the Dreamcast in Japan in November of 1998. Initially the Dreamcast was met with lukewarm sales in Japan, but the launch in North America and Europe went much better. In the USA over 300k units were preordered and sold another 500k units in two weeks. This smashed console sales records and looked to be a very promising start for the new console. The launch was also backed with many high quality titles such as Soul Caliber, Marvel v. Capcom and NFL 2k. Bernie Stolar has been credited not just with key features of the console but also with its record breaking launch in North America. Despite success globally the story was not all pleasant. The Dreamcast’s poor performance in Japan meant Sega still had a net loss in sales over $400 million and the announcement and subsequent launch of the PlayStation 2 quickly killed sales and support for the Dreamcast. Even though sales had been increasing since launch, when Sony announced the PlayStation 2 and it’s integrated DVD drive Dreamcast sales plummeted.  Sony was able to repeat the strategy of the PlayStation and pull from their vast resources to produce a console that doubled as the cheapest high quality DVD player on the market, undercutting Sony’s own products. Even with a library of many award winning titles and built in internet capability (something the PS2 lacked) the Dreamcast could not compete and Sega unable to break even on the Dreamcast pulled the plug in March of 2001. Sega would never again produce a home console and would restructure themselves as a game developer while also retaining their profitable arcade business.

System Specifications

The Dreamcast's motherboard.

The Dreamcast’s motherboard.

Specification Shortlist:

  • Hitachi SH-4 CPU 200MHz 360MIPS 1.4GFlops
  • PowerVR2 CLX2 GPU 100MHz 7 million polygons/s
  • 16MB 100MHz SDRAM
  • 8MB 100MHz Video RAM
  • Yamaha AICA sound processor 45MHz

CPU

The Dreamcast uses Hitachi’s SH-4 architecture. After looking at several possible cpu choices Sega ultimately chose the SH-4 due to it’s compatibility with the Saturn’s Sh-2 which helped developers transition as well as their good working relationship with Hitachi.

Superscalar

The Sh-4 incorporates many improvements over the previous SH-2. For starters it is a superscalar design. Superscalar processors are capable of executing two or more instructions at the same time providing a big performance boost. To put this into perspective, Sega’s previous console the Saturn utilized 2 SH-2 processors clocked at 28.6MHz. Each was capable of 28 MIPS or slightly less than one instruction per clock (IPC). The 200MHz SH-4 in the Dreamcast cranks out 360 MIPS or 1.8 IPC. In a best case scenario (which was rarely acheived) the Saturn could peak at 56 MIPS with it’s dual CPU’s. The Dreamcast in raw instruction terms is over 6 times more powerful than the Saturn and 2.8 times more powerful than the N64’s CPU.

FPU

The SH-4 also features a new powerful floating point unit (FPU) which excels at 3D graphics processing. The FPU is capable of 32bit single precision or 64bit double precision operation and has a high bandwidth 128bit bus. In common operation this means the FPU can output 4 concurrent 32bit operations at once. It is capable of 5 million polygons/s on it’s own which further augments the GPU and raises the Dreamcast’s graphics potential.

16bit instructions

While the SH-4 is nominally a 32bit processor it is capable of utilizing 16bit length instructions which take up effectively half the space of 32bit instructions common in competing designs such as the MIPS in the PlayStation 2 or Pentium 3 in the Xbox. This allows for very dense code that not only takes up less space in RAM and storage media but also allows the cache to store more instructions and data for the same size and more instructions and data can be moved faster for a bus of the same size and speed. Unfortunately even with the more efficient cache usage the SH-4 is still cache performance limited. The FPU cannot sustain it’s peak 1.4GFlops for very long because the data cache cannot keep up for more than a few cycles. The sustained maximum FPU performance was thus limited to 900GFlops, roughly 33% lower than its peak.

GPU

The Dreamcast benefits greatly from technological advancements made in Personal Computers between the 5th generation consoles and it’s own release. In the previous generation console makers had to either resort to re-purposing FPU’s for 3D work (with varying degrees of success) or in Nintendo’s case spend millions on custom hardware from SGI the world leader in 3D hardware at the time. When these consoles were developed consumer grade 3D hardware did not exist in any form. PC’s rendered their 3D games in software leveraging their powerful CPU’s to pick up the slack. This was never an option for consoles, a pentium-class CPU in 1994 simply cost too much, put out too much heat and drew too much power for a home console. As a result consoles began to lag behind PC’s in graphical fidelity in the new power thirsty 3D generation. At a time when PC’s were playing games like Quake II at 640×480 and 800×600 the Nintendo 64 was rendering games at 256×224.

By 1997 when Sega was working on the Dreamcast that all had changed. Video card manufacturers such as ATI, Nvidia, 3dfx and more had succeeded in developing their own GPUs capable of putting SGI class power on PC’s.  Sega was able to leverage this new hardware and incorporate it into the Dreamcast for maximum effect.

Specification Shortlist:

  • 100MHz Clock
  • 7 million textured and lit polygons/s
  • 100 Mpixels/s
  • 8MB memory
  • full screen anti-aliasing
  • volumetric effects
  • Alpha Blending
  • Bump Mapping

The VideoLogic PowerVR CLX2 was alone 7 times more powerful than the N64’s custom SGI chip at its theoretical best and even more so in the real world. While not as powerful as the originally intended Voodoo2, the CLX2 was by far the most powerful console GPU at it’s launch in 1998. The added power and, for the time even for PC’s, substantial video memory allowed the Dreamcast to catch up with mainstream PC’s and display games at 640×480 (VGA) natively a first for consoles. The GPU could also depending on how the game was developed be aided by the SH-4’s own substantial FPU to add another 5 million polygon/s performance on top of that. The Launch title SoulCaliber was a rare example of a console port having better graphics than it’s arcade version.

The PowerVR wasn’t just a powerhouse in it’s day, it was also versatile. It supported Microsoft’s DirectX as well as OpenGL 3D APIs which allowed for easier porting of titles such as Unreal Tournament. It also supported switching between triangles, quadrilaterals and polygon strips for its polygonal primitive.

Games like Shenmue showed off the Dreamcast's superior graphics power over previous consoles

Games like Shenmue showed off the Dreamcast’s superior graphics power over previous consoles

Features

The Dreamcast was host to many console firsts that in spite of it’s short life, proved very influential for later consoles. The Dreamcast’s usage of Microsoft’s Windows CE kernel allowed full use of Direct3D and also working support for it’s built in dialup modem and optional LAN adapter for broadband connections. This allowed it to be the first console with built in online play and it even supported a web browser! Many games took advantage of the online play features including Phantasy Star Online, the first console MMORPG and NFL 2K1 was the first console sports game to feature online multiplayer.

Another innovative feature of the Dreamcast was it’s VMU or Visual Memory Unit. It was a hybrid memory card and handheld console that allowed Dreamcast games to host little minigames as well as store save file information. VMUs could also be connected to trade save files and other data. While most games didn’t take full advantage of it VMU-like concepts have reappeared in later consoles such GBA link cable for the Nintendo GameCube which allows a GBA to be used as a controller and second screen for GameCube games in a similar fashion to how a VMU-equipped Dreamcast controller would work.

The Dreamcast also started the trend of consoles evolving from custom chipsets to using off the shelf consumer PC hardware to simplify development and manufacturing. While the Dreamcast’s usage of the PC based PowerVR was modest the GameCube would follow not long after with an ATI derived GPU and the Microsoft Xbox would take it several steps further by consisting entirely of off the shelf PC hardware. In today’s 8th console generation bith the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 utilize consumer PC hardware fully.

Conclusion

For all of its innovative features and great titles the Dreamcast was ultimately a failure. When Sony announced the PlayStation 2 and it’s built in DVD drive Dreamcast sales dried up almost immediately. Paired with the Japanese market losses since day 1 and Sega had to pull the plug. The Dreamcast does live on however, not just in the minds of gamers where it is generally regarded as a major step in console evolution but also in the real world. Many great titles that started on the Dreamcast were later ported or had sequels made on other consoles keeping the franchises alive. When the Phantasy Star Online servers were taken down, fans quickly rallied and put up their own private servers to support the community.  There is also still a thriving development scene and new indie games are produced to this day. The Dreamcast’s story is a heroic end for Sega’s console endeavors. Where they had gone wrong so many times and had lost the market’s confidence, they had won it back with a console done right. Sega had learned their lessons from the 32x and Saturn and men like Bernie Stolar and Shoichiro Irimajiri ensured those mistakes wouldn’t be repeated. For all it did right it was simply a case of your best is not good enough and for that, it will always be remembered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s