Cross Generation Console Wars Special Episode: Battle of the homebrew titans, Part 1
The Dreamcast, Sega’s last console, one of the most innovative and advanced machines of its time that died in plain glory and boosted the use of homebrews and emulators in consoles, versus the PSP, Sony’s first attempt at the handheld market, and praised by many for its incredible homebrew capabilities.
Both systems share a lot in common, but which one would stand out as the winner in our fictional Cross Generation Console Wars?
BRIEF BACKGROUND HISTORY
Sega’s failed attempts with the 32X and SegaCD led to the company not only loosing most of the money they invested in these accessories, but also loose some market share from Nintendo, and overall its popularity as a console maker. The Saturn didn’t help the situation either, being a hard to program machine due to the dual CPU setup, being a less powerful device than its competitors (mainly the N64 and PSX) and having no crucial game that might have boosted its sales (a proper Sonic game never made it to the Saturn). All this left Sega in a financial crisis that it had to overcome with a new hardware, and thus they released the Dreamcast. At first the Dreamcast seemed like Sega’s savior, the machine that would establish the company in the console market for good. The Dreamcast sales were high due to the huge quality and quantity of the games, heavy advertisement and innovative features everyone wanted to experience such as a central Online service for games. Despite the Dreamcast initial success, the announcement of the PS2, sporting slightly better hardware and a DVD drive, made consumers hold on to their money and not buy a Dreamcast, but rather wait for the PS2′s release. The Dreamcast was still doing good, but it wasn’t doing as good as Sega wanted, or rather needed, and rampant piracy wasn’t helping either. Soon the company saw itself in a situation where they had to stop making consoles, and start bringing their big games to other competitors in order to survive in the gaming world. Even so, refurbished Dreamcast units continued to be sold by Sega up until 2007, and the big homebrew community continued to developed for the console long after its demise.
The reasons Sony decided to enter the portable gaming market are unknown, but I’m willing to bet they wanted to bring the PS2 popularity over to portable consoles.
Despite being a somewhat frustrated attempt to overthrow Nintendo in the portable market, the PSP didn’t do that bad, selling around 76 million units. The PSP was also the first, and hopefully last, portable console to use optical media as the primary game’s distribution method, rather than the older cartridges, or newer memory cards.
Most PSP games consisted of remakes or spin-offs of popular PS2 titles, something people either hated or loved, as the system’s lack of a second analog stick made some of these games hard to play. Aside from that, the media capabilities of the console was huge for handhelds of the era, and this attracted a lot of attention from hackers and enthusiast developers, who soon found flaws in the system to allow for homemade apps to be ran. The PSP’s growth wasn’t as impressive as the PS2, the Wii, or its direct competitor, the DS, but it was steady, partially thanks to the hardware updates the console had in its lifetime.
Something the Dreamcast was really praised for, and still is praised today, was its great category of games, with huge quality and diversification. Not to mention that some titles, most notably Shemnue, sported new and innovative gameplay and story mechanics that were later used in other games. Personally I go as far as saying that you can randomly pick any Dreamcast game and have a 90% chance that it’ll be good. Overall Dreamcast games deserve a look for anyone who dares call themselves a gamer. Here are the top selling games of the system:
- Sonic Adventure
- Soul Calibur
- Crazy Taxi
- Resident Evil Code: Veronica
- NFL 2K
- NFL 2K1
The PSP on the other hand had a totally different target with games. While the Dreamcast attempted to make new games and let developers use their imagination freely, the PSP mainly focused on bringing the PS2′s experience to the handheld world.
This lead to developers having to come up with new stories inside already closed games: sequels, prequels, interquels, etc, and it really didn’t leave much room for the imagination. Despite most PSP games being chopped down versions of the PS2, some of them were pretty good, and we also have to add in the fact that people prefer to buy a game they already know, or think, it’s gonna be good rather than randomly choose new a game without knowing how good it’ll be. All this aside, here are the Top selling PSP games:
- Gran Turismo
- Monster Hunter Portable 3rd
- God of War: Chains of Olympus
- Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
- Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
- Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
While most Dreamcast games had great quality, we can’t really forget that the PSP’s catalog had some of the best selling games of the PS2 in it.
The Dreamcast used a completely new controller system from it predecessors.
The controller had four face buttons (A, B, X, Y), directional buttons, a joystick, start button and two triggers. The design of the controller allowed for much better grip than other controllers of its era. All the buttons are easily accessible and the triggers are very comfortable and don’t autopress themselves like with the PS3. Despite this, the directional button was a little stiff, and the joystick was a bit slippery. Another flaw was the connection cable being on the opposite side of the controller, rather than being on the front, facing the console, like every other controller, although the controller has a hole to make the cable fit it so it’s facing the console, this made you loose about two inches of cable. While many may think that the one joystick was a flaw, you have to think that most games were new IPs and made from scratch with the controller and systems limitation in mind, so this wasn’t really a big deal.
The PSP design was similar in comparison to the original GameBoy Advance, the Sega Gamegear, or the Atari Lynx, but having a much better screen, more buttons, and a joystick. The fact that it had only one joystick wasn’t too much welcome amongst gamers. Most PSP games were ports or spin-offs of PS2 games, the same game that on the PS2 used both joysticks, now had to use only one, and somehow find a way to map the other joystick, usually on the face buttons, the triggers, or the directional buttons (or in the case of Grand Theft Auto, by pressing a button to switch the behavior of the joystick), this leaving to either hard to use control schemes, or the game having to drop some actions in favor of, for example, moving the camera. Eventually developers found ways to overcome this. The PSP was initially a lot more bulky and heavy, but it had a much better grip than slimmer counterparts, which lead to many third party companies to release accessories to improve the PSP’s grip, but we’ll talk about that later, another flaw in the early fat consoles was the stiffness of the directional buttons.
Winner: the Dreamcast.
The Dreamcast controller was much easier to handle, and the single joystick setup was a factor taken deeply in consideration by most games, differently from PSP games being ports from a system that did have two joysticks.
When talking about sales figures there’s a huge difference between the Dreamcast, and most other important consoles in history, and the PSP is no difference.
Both the PSP and Dreamcast miserably failed to win a war against the undisputed champion of its moment: Sony, with the PS1, and Nintendo, with the GameBoy Advance.
On one side, the PSP had a much harder competition, Nintendo had been dominating the portable market ever since they created the original GameBoy, and this is mostly due to established franchises that never get old, innovative features that always attract customers, and understanding of the ins and outs of the market. Even today, with smartphones being tough competitors, the Nintendo 3DS holds his grounds and continues to be profitable for the Big N. Could Sony really beat Nintendo having no experience in the portable market, having no established portable franchises, and having its core customer base soon to leave portable consoles aside in favor of smartphones?
I really doubt it.
The overall sales figures for the PSP are around the 76 million units, in contrast to the DS having around 140 million. This gives the PSP only 35% of market share.
In contrast, the Dreamcast, having a very small life span, having 3 direct competitors (Nintendo, Sony and later Microsoft), and having a damaged reputation due to the 32X, the SegaCD and the Saturn, didn’t hold up much and it’s sales figures didn’t hold up enough to even come close to the PSP’s.
The overall sales figures for the Dreamcast are 10 million units, giving it roughly 5% of the market share.
Winner: the PSP
Having a lot more direct competitors than the PSP, a damaged reputation, and a smaller lifespan, the Dreamcast market share doesn’t even come close to the PSP’s
IMPORTANT NOTE: in the past cross-gen wars article I also compared the functionality of the Xbox to the Wii and many of you pointed out that you can do this or that if you hack the system. This is a side by side comparison of two UNMODDED, ORIGINAL, consoles, with their OFFICIAL software. A homebrew comparison may be done for some episodes as a separate category, if it makes sense that is.
When it comes to functionality, the Dreamcast was a pretty normal console of its era. It could play Audio CDs, just like the PS1. It had an internet browser, although it required buying the disc and accessories (keyboard and mouse), but was somewhat flawed compared to PC browsers. When it comes to video, there’s no support for Video CDs nor DVD (it didn’t have a DVD drive anyways). What it did have that other systems of the era didn’t was a new technology called mil-CD, which allowed the use of software on audio CDs, mostly to serve as a menu for the CD. This mil-CD was exploited to allow the use of backups on the system, which led to Sega removing the feature in the last revision the Dreamcast had soon before its demise.
The PSP on the other hand was a totally different story. UMD media with audio and Video was released for the system, similar to how the PS2 could read audio or video discs. Digital-wise the PSP allowed to play songs in the form of MP3 files, and movies in the form of MP4 video. The PSP also had an internal web browser, which could be used if connected to the internet via wifi. There was also the possibility of freely downloading and copying game demos to the memory stick. Later revisions also allowed to connect the console to a TV, allowing to play all this content on it.
All in all the PSP was the perfect portable media machine of its time. Only overshadowed by the rise of smartphones and other smart media.
Winner: the PSP
The Dreamcast functionality outside of games was not really a big improvement over what we already had, unlike the PSP, which greatly improved the media capabilities of portable devices of its era.
If there’s one thing the Dreamcast was popular for was the ease of hacking the system. Essentially, all you had to do was download and burn the Utopia boot disc, then play your backups on the system, until later autoboot games were made. No modchip or any other hacking methods of the era were required. This opened up a door to homebrew developers who quickly gained interest in making indie games for the system, as well as emulators. When it comes to playing old school games, the Dreamcast was a paradise, enjoying a huge load of emulators raging all the way from the Atari 2600 to the PS1 (albeit limited). Indie games weren’t short either, and ranged in the hundreds, including popular titles we still enjoy today such as scummvm, snake, pong, and many others. The homebrew community continued to support the Dreamcast long after Sega stopped to produce it, and games were released all the way up to the late 2000′s. If you still have the Dreamcast around I recommend heading over to dcemu’s download section and enjoy the vast homebrews they have there for the system. If you never had a Dreamcast but enjoy homebrews, I recommend you grab an emulator right now and start enjoying what the Dremcast homebrew community has to offer.
The PSP, much like the Dreamcast, was a heavily hacked console, which also sparkled interest from indie devs to make their own unofficial games for the system.
The more advanced OS and multithreading abilities of the PSP allowed homebrewers to create a plugin system to further improve the system and game’s functionality.
Homebrew wise the PSP got a huge library of homebrews written in a large variety of languages: C, C++, Lua and Python mostly. Emulator wise, the PSP can basically emulate most (if not all) systems up to the 4th generation, including some obscure systems. The system’s main menu (The XMB) can be customized in a variety of ways, most notably using the famous plugin CXMB. Many tools allowed the PSP to read file formats it wasn’t meant to: MPEG, AVI, ZIP, RAR, PDF, TXT, and a long etc.
All in all, hacks made the PSP essentially a mix of portable console, and a smartphone-like device.
Screenshot of the famous NES emulator for the PSP, NesterJ.
Winner: the PSP
Both systems enjoyed a wide range of homebrew programs: emulators, games, tools, etc. But the PSP stands out as the console with the largest collection of home-made apps, so this point goes to it.
There is not much to say about the Dreamcast design: it had a cool futuristic look, a very normal size (smaller than the PS2 actually), it had no apparent flaws, it didn’t suffer from overheating, etc. One thing that people did notice was that the GD_ROM drive is noisy, specially with CDs, which lead to people believe that burned games could damage your laser. This could be true if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s not. The reason it’s noisier with CDs is that it has to read data through the entirety of the disc, while with GD-ROMs it only had to move around the upper region of the disc.
Some people also speculate that the Samsung GD-ROM drives are of less quality than the later Yamaha ones, but tbh, it doesn’t matter, you can actually install a Yamaha drive on a system that came with a Samsung one and viceversa.
Early PSP models, the fat ones, were not really that “Portable”, in fact they should be renamed to PSAP (PlayStation Almost Portable). They were bulky, heavy to the grip, and the UMD drive was noisy, slow and a battery drainer, but on top of all that it did have a pretty nice grip. Later PSP models (nicknamed “Slim and Light”, and later “Bright”) greatly improved the size and weight, but lost its great grip along the way. The UMD drive was still noisy, slow and a battery drainer, this time being a worse problem as the smaller slim batteries had less capacity. We had to wait until the PSP Go came out to have a true portable system, without the UMD drive you stop having noise and battery issues, and the built-in memory was a godsend, if it weren’t for the fact that not all PSP games are on PSN. Still this came at a price as the mapping of the buttons was horrible, but oh well, you can always use a dualshock 3 (which kind of beats the point of “portability”).
Not much else is needed to say here, the PSP design had flaws that were fixed in newer revisions, but then other flaws also came up
Winner: the Dreamcast
While the Dreamcast didn’t really have any design flaws, the PSP was full of them.
This is something I don’t usually talk about, but this time both systems I’m comparing have proprietary disc formats, so I wanna take a look at them.
Lets start with the Dreamcast. For the Dreamcast Sega essentially reinvented the way of how CD technology works to come up with what they called the Gigabyte Disc (GD-ROM for the homies). The GD-ROM was made by having the data tracks of a CD closer to each other, therefore having more physical space for the tracks, translating into more space for data. These discs were not only made of these new tracks, they also had standard CD tracks. The first track was a normal audio CD track that contained a warning for whoever has the bright idea of inserting a Dreamcast game on a CD reader. The second track is a normal data CD track, viewable if you insert the game on a PC, normally it contained license files and such, but sometimes it contained cool walpapers of the game. The last, and biggest, track is the GD-ROM track, which contained the game data itself and allowed for up to 1.2 GB of data (hence the name Gigabyte Disc). The main problem with these discs was space, the PS2 was going to have a DVD laser with dual layer support, basically giving game develoeprs up to 8.5GB of space, same for the Xbox, not the same for the Gamecube, it only had up to 1.4GB. This means games that take up more than that will need to use more than one disc (Shemnue has 3, and an extra 4th disc). Other than that reading times were pretty decent, mostly due to the much less area the laser had to cover, improving seek times. Sega thought that this approach will stop piracy, but hackers managed to stream a copy of the game using the system’s internet connection and an exploit in Phantasy Star Online 2 (funny anecdote: the same trick was used to crack GameCube discs).
A GD-ROM, notice the difference between the low density area and the high density area.
The PSP also used a proprietary disc format, actually, it was the first (and so far last) portable console to use optical media. The PSP’s disc format is called Universal Versatile Disc, and it’s similar in design to Sony’s own MiniDisc technology (I wondered if UMDs are modified MiniDiscs). UMDs had a storage capacity of up to 1.8 GB, that’s 600 more MBs than the Dreamcast’s GD-ROM, but it had a rather annoying disadvantage: reading speed. In the past (and present), the read rate compared to the disc size and amount of data needed by the system was always on balance: the more capacity, the faster read speed, which in the end, resulted from games having similar loading speed across generations. The same cannot be said for UMDs, as while they do have double the capacity of a CD, they still have the read rates of one, and the system’s need for data are generally higher. In the end, UMD’s slow reading speed was one of its most highly criticized flaws.
Both storage medias have their flaws and disadvantages: Dreamcast GD-ROMs were much faster than PSP UMDs, but had less capacity, while UMDs had more capacity, they had horrible read speeds. For that reason, I say they are both equally bad, Sega should have used DVDs on the Dreamcast and maybe they would have stood a chance against the PS2, and they Sony should Memory Cards on the PSP and maybe they would have made the system much smaller.
This is the last category I’m gonna review here, but it’ll be a quick review, mainly because I already know who the clear winner is.
When we talk about accessories we expect handhelds to have much more than home consoles, specially since these accessories are made to make the handheld experience much like a home console experience. Even if that’s true, there is not much to say about the PSP in terms of accessories: most of them came out for the PSP 1000, and where later incompatible with newer models. PSP accessories mostly consisted of grips to make the PSP much like a controller, external battery packs and protective cases.
All in good fun except they were mostly of bad quality: the protective cases often ended breaking themselves rather than protecting the console, external battery packs ended up dying easily and grips are pretty much the same thing. First party accessories where also nonexistent, aside from the music remote on early fat consoles, and TV out on later slimmer consoles.
The Dreamcast otherwise enjoyed from a wider range of accessories, most of them first party, and of great quality. You can argue whether they are useful or useless, depends on the game and your tastes, but you can’t argue that there are a lot of them, ranging from mouse, keyboard, guns, jump pack (for vibration), VMU, microphone, fishing rods, arcade sticks and much more.
I don’t know what they used this for, but it’s pretty cool for a console of that era.
This is a no brainer, Dreamcast accessories win in every aspect: quantity, quality, diversification, support, etc
Tying up in two categories, both console come up with the same score of 3 out of possible 8. Now, this is a series of articles where there MUST be a decisive winner, but I also want it to be as fair as possible, while also keeping the length steady, so I will make a second part of the episode where I wrap up both consoles, review the areas in which they tied, and compare them in other areas.
Sorry for the lengthy post, some people might enjoy it, some might not. If you did not enjoy it but you have some ideas that might help me improve them, feel free to comment. If you didn’t read it, or you simply don’t have anything productive to say: do NOT comment, AT ALL.
If you enjoyed the post, feel free to read my past ones: