Land of the free

How Dreamcast’s pirates helped make the console legendary

Boxing fans like to argue over the greatest pound for pound fighter of all time, comparing fighters from different generations regardless of their size and weight class. It’s a game nerds like to play with consoles – DS beating off stiff competition from PS2, SNES taking out Xbox 360, Gameboy battering Saturn, and Dreamcast taking on the world.

It’s hard to argue with a Dreamcast advocate. It was a short-lived console with a wealth of quality gamer’s games and import-only titles, which was immediately attractive to the kind of gamer prepared to hunt down niche games and debate the Greatest Of All Time until the End Of All Time. But when a Dreamcast advocate makes their argument a little too well and references too many games you should ask just how many of the discs on their shelf came from Sega and how many came from BigPockets. Certainly, not all Dreamcast owners were pirates, but all pirates were Dreamcast owners.

Other consoles needed speedy disc-swapping or internal modification to achieve what could be done to a Dreamcast with a copy of DiscJuggler and a blank CD. Dreamcast piracy was so entrenched in the mainstream it gave rise to legions of educated and vocal advocates who played more games and a more varied selection of games for Dreamcast than they would ever dare gamble on for any other console. Piracy made Dreamcast owners smart and smart owners made Dreamcast look good.

Before we go on: yes, piracy is wrong, but let’s leave morality to more moral men and we’ll just stick to the facts, Jack.

Dreamcast’s copy protection was broken by Utopia’s Boot Disc on June 22nd of 2000. Exploiting a hole in Sega’s MIL-CD format, Utopia was programmed from a hacked version of Sega’s own Dreamcast SDK and opened the console up to imported and “backup” copies of games.

Sega must rue the day they invented MIL-CD. Originally intended to add multimedia functions to audio CDs, it was used only seven times legitimately but was cleverly abused by hackers who twisted it to run Utopia’s boot disc, Gameshark, VCD loaders, and the Bleemcast Playstation emulator. Sega would eventually strip MIL-CD support from Dreamcast’s final hardware revisions, locking the stable door long after Utopia’s Reindeer had bolted.

Skywalker of the Hitmen demo group used the MIL-CD exploit to run his A.G.E. Demo back on April 23rd of 2000 and Bleem exploited it to run their Dreamcast PS1 emulator at E3 in May of the same year, setting the stage for Utopia’s bootdisc. That June, Utopia dumped the first ripped Dreamcast games online – Dead or Alive 2 and Soul Calibur – opening the door for a flood of games from the Kalisto release group as they set about catching up on two years’ worth of Dreamcast releases.

Just two months later on August 19th Kalisto released the first self-booting Dreamcast rips – Dynamite Cop and Virtua Fighter 3tb – creating multisession MIL-CDs which exploited the format to its ultimate piratical effect. Kalisto soon vanished, apparently changing their name to Echelon and continuing to dominate the Dreamcast scene under the new name. Echelon released a toolkit to transform rips released before the self-booting mini-revolution into self-booting ones. Then the entire Dreamcast scene set about learning the basics of downsampling to turn the content ripped from Sega’s dense GD-ROM discs into something which could be squeezed onto a conventional CD.

Other pirates quickly learned how to pad smaller games with dummy data – stuffing six hundred megs of garbage onto a tiny thirty meg game like Ikaruga to force the actual game content to the edge of the disc and save the console the mechanical stress of reading so close to the disc’s centre. Regular maintenance was a part of the special love you had to show your Dreamcast. In their wisdom Sega had connected the console’s power board to the console with six wibbly-wobbly pins and made the lid switch from wishes. After disassembling the console to bend those warped pins back and weighing the disc tray’s lid down with a phone book, dummying data to the edge of the CD was the least you could do for the asthmatic old dear’s clunking and whining laser.

Echelon, Paradox, R18, Lightforce, and Eurasia are names from the past Dreamcast owners will remember to this day. They made accessible the kinds of games most western players would never otherwise get to play. As Dreamcast became less and less viable for publishers, fewer and fewer games were released in the west. Dozens of Japanese games remained resolutely Japanese. Ikaruga, Border Down, Zero Gunner 2, Space Channel 5 Part 2, Fire Pro Wrestling D, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Guilty Gear X, Lack of Love, at least three King of Fighters games, Psyvariar 2, Super Street Fighter II X and Vampire Chronicle – both for Capcom’s online ‘Matching Service’ – all stayed in the east. Europe, in particular, took the worst of the DC’s premature demise. Daytona USA and Unreal Tournament were stripped of their online modes in Europe. Alien Front Online, Seaman, and Bomberman Online were just three of the big US releases which never even made it to Britain.

It was a problem addressed by Dreamcast’s release groups, mainstream piracy, and by the sudden rise of consumer broadband. When Dreamcast was released in the west back in ’99 most pirates were playing on dial-up connections, which was fine for downloading thirty-three kilobyte jpegs locked behind Adultcheck passwords but not so good for leeching entire Dreamcast isos from IRC. Broadband arrived just in time.

The Dreamcast itself shipped with a flimsy 28K modem, made worse by a series of exclusive service provider deals across Europe. In Britain, Sega’s Dreamkey 1.0 and 1.5 online setup and browser disc locked the system’s phone number to BT’s Dreamarena service: a doomed experiment from the days when BT were looking for a Wireplay replacement to keep their fingers in the gaming pie.

Early in Dreamcast’s life PAL games would double-check to be sure they were phoning the correct BT number, refusing to work if the modem dialled wrong. Later games were happy to accept any old number, including subscription-based dial-up lines which offered unlimited access for a monthly fee, but UK players had no access to the number embedded in the OS. Among Sega’s charitable acts in Dreamcast’s dying days was the release of Dreamkey 3, finally allowing UK users to configure their own numbers, but again, pirates were already ahead of that game. With a quick download of the Planetweb browser which shipped with American Dreamcasts, you could swap your settings, change the phone number, and play Phantasy Star Online for free.

In February of 2001 Sega halted all Dreamcast production. Later that year they were able to cancel the launch of their last major Dreamcast release – aerial combat game Propeller Arena – without losing face following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Propeller Arena was a real loss, joining Gearbox’s DC port of Half Life on the Dreamcast scrapheap. Again, release groups tracked down near final versions of both, and today both Half life and Propeller Arena can be played on a retail Dreamcast.

And even long after the console’s demise, pirates still weren’t done. In December of 2003 Sega closed Phantasy Star Online’s servers, so players came together and ran their own hacked servers like the popular Schthack. During Dreamcast’s life some games had shipped without VGA support, and again, the community responded with patches and boot discs to enable VGA functions in that small handful of games, making them sharp and playable on modern HDTVs.

Dreamcast is often remembered as the Greatest Of All Time, not necessarily because it had one of the best-ever games lineups, but because enough people played enough games to make themselves the strongest possible advocates. The kinds of players likely to argue on forums about the best console ever are the same players who are likely to love games enough to do whatever was necessary to play the Dreamcast games Sega never intended for them to play. Nobody ever said it was right, but nobody loved the Dreamcast more than the ones who played everything.

If you were among the few who imported an orange-swirled Japanese Dreamcast and bought those rare Japanese games, you’re a true Dreamcast Hero. One of only a few.