A few days ago the Sega Dreamcast celebrated the 17th anniversary of it’s release in North America and gamers on the internet happily shared praise and admiration for the plucky yet short lived little gray box. Many people commented on how it’s innovations are still shined upon and echoed today in both software and hardware features. Things like online-ready play out of the box, or the pioneering of immersive open world experiences in Shenmue. However, one key Dreamcast component didn’t pop up in discussion as much as I was expecting and I was surprised since I’m so fond of the little thing: the Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Unit (VMU.)
The Visual Memory Unit (VMU) with base functions: Data & transfers, a clock, and mini games
I’m a big fan of the little device. It’s pretty cool! On the surface it may seem like the VMU is just a jazzed up memory card, but there’s more to it than that. For those not in the know, the VMU is the Dreamcast’s primary memory device. it has a screen, a D-pad, four buttons and tiny speaker. When playing a game on the Dreamcast it sits snug in the controller with the screen in view where it can be utilized for various in game purposes. It’s also battery powered so you can take it with you for data and mini game functions on the go. See? even on that simple surface level it sounds pretty neat. But it’s how developers used these functions to make something more that makes it an important piece to the unique Dreamcast puzzle. I honestly believe using a VMU is an integral part of the Dreamcast play experience.
You can link two VMUs together to transfer Dreamcast game data or play against another player in some VMU games
When the peripheral was well taken advantage of it really enhanced game experiences in fun, creative, and efficient ways that I honestly don’t often see paralleled much today due to the symbiotic relationship with the VMU and Dreamcast. I bought a couple new VMUs about two months ago and have been doing a lot of experimenting with them with various games and I’ve found lots of cool features and surprises, big and small. The best way to explain these high points is to go over some games directly in order of how in depth the game developers utilized the VMU.
First at the top of this spectrum, we have Skies of Arcadia and Sakura Wars 3. Both really use the VMU in effective, smart ways that enhance the central game’s experience plugged in and on the go. First with Skies of Arcadia, the VMU is something of a treasure hunting aid. It makes noise when and displays warnings when you are near secrets and leads the player to invisible items that are vital to a specific party member. When disconnected from the game Skies of Arcadia has a special VMU mini game, Pinta’s Quest, that is probably the best one out there. It’s actually a fleshed out game in of itself. In addition to exploring the map (as much of it has been discovered by the player party in game,) to find items and gold, you can also engage in 4 types of encounters. two different obstacle mini games, trading with NPC airships, or engaging in combat against pirate vessels. Not only can you level up your ship to get better at these events, but all of the gold and items you earn along the way are transferred back to your main party in Skies of Arcadia to use where you can sync to it at any time. When you use Pinta’s Quest, you can never really get stuck without items or money. All you have to do is bring along a VMU and plug it in next time you play.
Pinta’s Quest, Skies of Arcadia’s VMU game allows multiple encounters that earn you gold and items for the main game.
The Benefits of including a VMU with your game are bigger in-game than on the go with Sakura Wars 3. The VMU is used frequently and each time it is implemented it’s done so smoothly without bogging things down or being a distraction from the gameplay. In Sakura Wars 3, gameplay is split between a visual novel-like adventure kind of mode and a tactical RPG mode and the VMU is handy with both. in Adventure mode it acts as a communication device with team members at base. They can send you reminders on what to do, notes on progression options, or important information that can be used with people you are reacting with in game. In battle the VMU becomes a combo health/hit point meter, stat display, and real time map and radar. It does so much and it works so well! No extra info boxes on screen, no puttering through complex menus, It’s great. It keeps things moving forward and keeps the player engaged where the should be. Here’s a clip:
On a level below that we have games Like Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 that use the VMU to add to side sections of the game or throw in bits and pieces that amplify your investment with the game, bringing you back for a more thorough gaming experience. In Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, you have the Chao gardens where you can raise and develop Chao from eggs to be better at various attributes and raise them as virtual pets. With the VMU, you can bring one with you on the go and really play up that virtual pet concept. You can talk to it, take it places, engage it in different activities to raise stats, it really brings this side game to the Sonic Adventure series to a new level and before you know it your back in the main game paying closer attentiion so you can get the right materials to make your little guy better than ever. It’s all built to be a circle and it works.
There are more games out there that also use the VMU to useful, albeit not as elaborate effect. Using it to replace or alter an existing function that could be handled in game or on screen. Games like D2 and the Resident Evil Games come to mind. The Resident Evil games had always had a very clear, minimalist HUD with things like items, health, etc,, tucked away on off-screen menus. On the Dreamcast however, the health icon is on the VMU so you don’t have to fumble into the menu taking yourself out of the moment to see your status. D2 has you navigating vast outdoor environments that snap in and out of battle and can be brought into a first person searching POV so it’s important that it has a clear display as well. One way it does this is by putting a compass on the VMU screen. that way you only have to check your map in the menu once or twice to get where you need to go.
Dream Explorer: A homebrew VMU tool for your Dreamcast
While I would love to say that the VMU is just pure joy and it was a senseless travesty it didn’t get more attention, I have to admit that it did have some faults that held it back. First there’s the price. the VMU has buttons, a screen, needs batteries- the thing wasn’t as cheap as the PS1 memory cards back in the day. Depending on your cash situation, it could’ve been a problem. This is complicated by the somewhat low storage capacity that standard VMUs have. they only hold 200 blocks (100kb) and it just isn’t a lot, especially with multiple saves per game. On top of this it typically only allowed for one VMU game/app per unit. Lastly, the biggest fault with the VMU has to be it’s battery life. It takes two CR2032 watch batteries and if you plan on using VMUs often, you better buy some backups. They do not last long. Reports on battery life vary greatly online so it’s hard to pinpoint it. I’ve been goofing around with two of mine over the past couple of months and have had to replace batteries multiple times between the two. It’s a little bothersome. However, batteries have come some way since 1999 and I’ve found my new batteries have lasted longer than several old reports, so who really knows what to expect.
The batteries in the VMU that had “Linear Watch” from Evolution 2, an animated clock, lasted longer than the VMU that hosted Pinta’s Quest since I only briefly checked the clock.
Despite these few small, but notable flaws, I still thing the VMU is a fun and clever little accessory for the Dreamcast. When worked into a game they never did anything but improve a situation and who knows where the concept would have gone if Sega had managed to stay in the console game a bit longer. Nowadays there are homebrew games and programs that make using and playing with various VMU programs, saves and functions easier than ever. Dream Explorer is a program you burn to a disc to use in your dreamcast that allows you to manage data, install a huge variety of game saves and VMU programs onto the unit itself, or emulate it’s functions on screen. If you are a Dreamcast fan who remembers the VMU fondly or are curious about it I highly recommend checking it out. I recommend just picking up a VMU and experimenting with it. I bet you’ll have some fun.
What are your thoughts on the VMU and the Dreamcast? Did you like it? Never tried it? Miss using it with the dreamcast or just don’t care? Leave a comment below and let me know!