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The Dreamcast was the beginning, and the end, of the golden age of peripherals

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product photo of Sega Dreamcast controller hooked up to Sega Dreamcast, with VMU to the right of the console Sega

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.

I’m talking about the Dreamcast, of course.

Looking toward the future

You have to start by putting the Dreamcast into context historically. It was more powerful than its competitors when it was released, and its GD-ROM drive offered more storage for games. It was a system that looked toward 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 wild, forward-looking stuff when the system launched in 1999.

Games were saved on the virtual memory unit, or VMU, a little memory card that could show images, information and animations on a 48-by-32-pixel screen.

two Sega Dreamcast VMUs connected to each other, one blue and one black
You could hook up VMUs to transfer data between them!
Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons

The VMU included a D-pad and four buttons on its face, allowing you to play very basic portable games that could interact with the system when it was re-connected. Each Dreamcast controller had two slots carved out of the back for VMUs or other accessories, or you could even connect two VMUs to each other without a system to swap data.

Sega successfully melded the memory card with a portable gaming platform and added a social element of data sharing and trading in a way no company has tried before or since. These are interesting ideas now, but they were bonkers in the late ’90s.

The add-on hardware and peripheral list doesn’t stop there. Sega also released a VGA box to allow you to play on computer monitors or "modern" displays in 480p. Progressive scan! This was a big deal.

There was a broadband adapter attachment, too, in case you lived in an area where high-speed Internet was available. You simply disconnected the dial-up modem and snapped in the upgraded part.

An arcade in your home

You could buy a keyboard to play the amazing Typing of the Dead, which taught you that the best defense against zombies was your touch-typing skills. That series is still around, but it was a violent way to learn a valuable skill back in the day. There was even an adapter available if you wanted to use your own keyboard, because of course Sega thought of that.

The Dreamcast was also a great system for light gun games. Remove your VMU from your controller, plug it into a Sega-brand or third-party light gun peripheral, and get to work. You could play House of the Dead 2; Virtual Cop 2 was included in the Sega Smash Pack; and Confidential Mission also supported the light gun.

Want force feedback on your light gun? Add one of the vibration packs to one of the slots in the back next to your VMU, and there you go. Because of course vibration was an accessory, and thus modular.

There was 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 damn 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 setup 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 that the Dreamcast supported it, and offered some form of plastic accessory for you to purchase to enhance the experience.

Frozen in time

Sega discontinued the Dreamcast 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.

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.