Forensic Examination Of The Dreamcast Corpse - File 1 of 2

In this first of two special guest articles, SonicRetro's resident researcher, Sonic game hacker, and owner of over 400 Dreamcast games Doc Eggfan performs a fascinating post mortem on the Dreamcast to discover just what happened to the units that were destined for the shop shelves, but ultimately wound up being re-purposed in a most interesting way. Doc Eggfan, over to you...

While pondering life's great inequities, I got a little question stuck in my head the other day - when exactly did the Dreamcast expire? What was the exact time of death, good doctor? We all know that the old girl continues to be supported up to this day by some very dedicated indie developers, but when exactly did official support dry up? Sega officially announced the discontinuation of Dreamcast hardware production on 1st February 2001, where the very last Dreamcast was set to roll off the assembly line at the end of March (end of the Japanese fiscal year). Some reports indicated that a backlog of about 2 million unsold Dreamcasts were sadly sitting alone and unwanted in some dusty old warehouses at this time.

Or stacked precariously in Yukawa-san's office
Around 2004-05, there were rumours that circulated the Internet about super-rare gold-plated (or gold-painted) Dreamcasts that were the very last machines ever manufactured, thought to have been made as a final commemorative send-off. These have since been linked to an online Pro Yakyuu competition a few months prior in August 2000, and, if you’re interested in tracking one down, only 5 are rumoured to exist.
*sparkle* *sparkle*
Only slightly less rare are the actual last ever special edition Dreamcasts produced - the Gundam RX-78 Custom. Only 78 of these were made, only available via Sega's D-Direct online store from 11th April 2002 (released to co-incide with the launch of the online game Gundam: Renpou vs. Zeon & DX). If we assume that the 2001 announcement is true, then it's likely that the RX-78 Customs were modified (customised?) from existing stock, but there is a little uncertainty there. Maybe they fired up the production line one final time?
Gundam! That's a nice looking Dreamcast...
In any case, what happened to those other 2 million unsold Dreamcasts? Were they sadly abandoned in some Arizona landfill? While some would continue to be sold during the last 12 months of earnest retail support, I have devised some other more rose-coloured answers to the fate of our beloved Dreamcast (read: conspiracy theories). In 2003, Sammy's Atomiswave started hitting arcades. Despite what Wikipedia claims, the Atomiswave specs are practically identical to the Dreamcast (and not the NAOMI as is often misreported). When you sit them side by side, it even looks as if the Atomiswave ROM cartridges plug directly into the space left by the missing GD-ROM drive. Maybe the Dreamcast didn’t die when most people thought after all - maybe it just slipped inside a shiny new red case and hoped no-one would notice. Imbued with the spirit of investigative journalism, I decided to crack them both open to compare what goodness lay hidden inside.
So shed your skin and let's get started...
To start with, the Atomiswave ROM carts are not a solid state replacement for the Dreamcast's GD-ROM drive as I first thought. Their connectors are similar, but not quite the same size. Also, the orientation is different, as the ROM carts plug into the bottom side of the upside down Atomiswave PCB, whereas the GD-ROM drive plugs into the topside of the Dreamcast motherboard.
Unfortunately, you can't just plug 'n' play
While not completely identical, the two boards share many striking similarities, with identical or near-identical components arranged in much the same way. Crucially, they both use the same Dreamcast specced Hitachi Super-H SH4 CPUs and PowerVR2 GPUs. Short-sightedly, I chose to compare against one of the first generation Japanese Dreamcasts, and, once I opened it up, I was reluctant to go all the way and peel off the fancy heatpipe cooling system to reveal the components hidden underneath. Luckily, the Dreamcast motherboard is well documented online to provide the requisite comparison shots.
One of these things is not like the other… No wait, they're almost exactly like each other.
So it could be argued that either; a) the corpse of the Sega's last console donated its vital organs to Sammy's first foray into the arcade games market; or b), the Atomiswave itself is in fact a Dreamcast in disguise, one which underwent some surgery to cheat death and continue living on under an assumed identity, outside the limelight, scrutiny and mud-slinging battle royale that was the formidable 6th generation console wars. (I choose to believe the latter half of this tortured analogy).

This mutually beneficial Atomiswave partnership between Sega and Sammy was probably a large instigator for their merger in 2004.  While I can't find any information on the production run of the Atomiswave hardware itself, the system would continue to be supported with software for many years up until the release of it's final game in 2009. Fittingly, this was an updated version of a Dreamcast classic, Sega Bass Fishing Challenge, by Sega Amusements USA. Strangely, the game uses a trackball instead of a  faux fishing rod, so I'm not sure how it compared against the original.
The last “Dreamcast” game (circa. 2009)?
There are plenty more games available for Sammy’s little red box, mostly due to SNK Playmore's exclusive support after they pulled the plug on their own Neo Geo MVS. Games such as Metal Slug 6, Dolphin Blue, Guilty Gear X Ver1.5, Fist of the North Star, and Samurai Showdown VI, to name just a few, are certainly worthy of your time, and in many cases, not currently ported to any other system. It’s relatively easy to acquire the board and modify it for use in the home, as it's based on the JAMMA arcade standard, and enthusiasts have been using “SuperGuns” for decades to run these outside of the arcades.
Go out and get your own, these are mine
You can even buy pre-modified “consolized” versions of the Atomiswave that require zero effort to get running on your tv, some even using Neo Geo AES controllers for input. However, I always found these to be a little bit on the expensive side. Even so, if you’re a hardcore Dreamcast fan, there are far worse ways to spend your money than delving into the Dreamcast's hidden shadow library (much more fun than collecting all 6 chapter/coasters of Grauen no Tarikago!).
I reckon this is cheating, it's much more fun to wire it up yourself
(no responsibility assumed for any unforeseen electrocution incidents)
But our story doesn’t end there. What about all of those missing GD-ROM drives? Abiding by the idiom to ‘waste not, want not,’ they would find a new home in Sega’s Arcade/Amusement division.

But that’s a story for another time...

 - Doc Eggfan



Previous Guest Article:
Why I Hate The Dreamcast by Martin Hinson

20 comments:

The 1 Ross said...

Nice nice article. The Atomiswave was a great little system.

"Despite what Wikipedia claims, the Atomiswave specs are practically identical to the Dreamcast (and not the NAOMI as is often misreported)." I'm interested to hear why you think the Atomiswave's hardware and architecture is more similar to the Dreamcast that the Naomi. All three have almost identical specs.

The 1 Ross said...

In fact the only area that I can see they differ is in their RAM; the Naomi and Atomiswave had 32mb of ram where as the Dreamcast only has 24.Atomiswave roms can also be played on the Naomi via Netbooting, but I don't think there is thus far any way to play Naomi or Atomiswave games on the Dreamcast.

The 1 Ross said...

Also, I hope you realise that the majority of your Atomiswave carts are fake...they have the exact same serial number as my fakes :)

Tom Charnock said...

Wow - some pressing questions there. Doc - the floor is yours!

doceggfan said...

When I started the article, it was based on places like system-16 stressing that the Atomiswave is DC based and not Naomi. Until I had opened it up, my incorrect assumption was that it could literally by a DC mobo with jamma pinouts retrofitted, which would explain where the backlog of DC systems went. I was a little disappointed to find that the AW was a whole new PCB, as it's unlikely that they would have desoldered complete dcs to recycle the components, but they could have repurposed any excess supplies of unused sh4s and pvr2s originally intended for dc manufacture.

I guess it's a moot point - the DC, NAOMI and AW are all part of the same family, but perhaps it's more accurate to say that the DC is the parent of 2 siblings, rather than the AW being spawned from the NAOMI. It's also a step back from the NAOMI specs in terms of memory, and the AW's compact design more closely resembles the DC.

I didn't know about AW games running on NAOMI boards though. Are they unmodified AW Roms? That's really interesting, and perhaps blows my argument out of the water...

doceggfan said...

PS.. Yeah, I am aware they're bootlegs. shhhh, don't tell anyone.

doceggfan said...

PPS. A minor correction regarding “Sammy's first foray into the Arcade games market ” That would actually be the Sammy Seta Visco SSV, which I only became aware of just now.

doceggfan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
doceggfan said...

Another similarity between DC and AW that I didn't have time to explore was the networking/modem expansion port on both systems, both located in the same spot on the board when considering the AW's upside-down orientation. This gave the AW access to AW.NET, which I believe was used for competitive play between different machines in different arcades, and would later spawn the ALL.NET once Sega and Sammy merged. I don't think the NAOMI was ever used in this way, though it did get networking expansions via the Network DIMM board and the Satellite terminals, but I think these were only ever used for local networks within individual arcades, rather than across different locations.

I could be totally wrong here and making lots of assumptions, happy to be corrected if anyone knows more.

doceggfan said...

Did some further research on the subject (and am overrunning the comments section).

NAOMI 1 (Unknown revision, probably circa. 1998)

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091
GPU: SEGA 315-6201


Dreamcast Rev 0

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091
GPU: SEGA 315-6225

Dreamcast Rev 0, Aug 99

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091R
GPU: SEGA 315-6225

Dreamcast Rev 1, Jan 00

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091R
GPU: SEGA 315-6226-X1

Dreamcast Rev 1, May 00

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091R
GPU: SEGA 315-6227


Atomiswave AM3AGA-06, 2003

CPU: SH-4, HD6417091RA
GPU: SEGA 315-6227


Of course, these chip revisions probably have no differences between them other than dates of manufacture, but based on this evidence alone, the Atomiswave would be more closely related to a late model Dreamcast than an early model NAOMI.

However, it's likely that the NAOMI would have undergone revisions too during this time, but these are the only component numbers I could find. If I had a NAOMI 1, I'd be persuaded to crack it open and have a look, but I've only got a NAOMI 2.

doceggfan said...

And some further research:

Naomi

Main Memory = 32MB
Graphic Memory = 16MB
Sound Memory = 8MB

Atomiswave

Main Memory = 16MB
Graphic Memory = 16MB
Sound Memory = 8MB

Dreamcast

Main Memory = 16MB
Graphic Memory = 8MB
Sound Memory = 2MB

The reason Atomiswave games are more easily ported to NAOMI than Dreamcast is because the two arcade systems are designed to have their games graphics and sound all loaded into memory at start up, whereas the Dreamcast cuts corners on memory and get around it by spooling it in during play from the GD when required (resulting in pesky loading times). Since the NAOMI has more memory than the Atomiswave, that makes it easier to port, simply requiring a bit of tweaking and changing the game to recognise the NAOMI's JVS standard button inputs instead of the Atomiswave's JAMMA inputs.

So the Atomiswave sort of sits in the middle between the 3 machines, and is basically what you'd end up with if you beefed up the Dreamcast's memory to load all of the game at start up. The NAOMI just sits above this a little with a bit more beef.

Quzar said...

Following on an earlier comment, I have an email from SEGA back in the day where the Hitatchi date code (3 character code on the top right of the chip) was explained.

Quoting from SEGA Support:

"The Hitachi MCU date code is three characters long. Here is the general
format:
XYZ, where:
-X is the last digit of the year of manufacture. For example, if X=5,
the year could be 1995, 1985, etc.
-Y is the month of manufacture:
A=Jan, B=Feb, C=Mar, D=Apr, E=May, F=Jun, G=Jul, H=Aug, J=Sep, K=Oct,
L=Nov, M=Dec. "I" is not used.
-Z is the work week of the month of manufacture, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5."

Based off that, the SH4 processor in the Atomiswave pictured in the article was manufactured on the first week of September 2000. This may just be a coincidence, or standard practice, but through the life of the Dreamcast the chips were manufactured relatively shortly before the assembly of the console. These processors were also not 'off the shelf', as they had customizations for SEGA.

doceggfan said...

Cool Quzar, thanks for the info.

According to the most recent DreamPod, Adam did mention that Dreamcast production did slow down towards the end of 2000, so it could be that Hitachi were still supplying SH-4 chips, but it looks like Sega didn't end up using them until they palmed them off to Sammy in 2003.

Or alternatively, they could have been desoldered and recycled them from unsold Dreamcasts, but I don't think this would be very likely. I'd imagine there would be too much risk of damage and defective chips to make the process worthwhile (at least based on the way that I hamfistedly desolder things).

Tom Charnock said...

Fascinating stuff. Loving these comments.

Super Magnetic said...

Great article, now eagerly anticipating the follow up article. I'm loving the new team at the yard, keep up all the great work.

Mongroovy said...

Great article, really interesting story!

The 1 Ross said...

I find the relation between these three systems and the Naomi 2 and Hiakru to a lesser extent, really interesting and I'm certainly not saying I'm right and anybody else is wrong. The history and development of most arcade systems just isn't as well documented as their console counterparts so it's a real struggle to find the 'absolute truth' so to speak.

For example, was the Naomi based on the Dreamcast or was the Dreamcast based on the Naomi? This is another question that I've seen answered both ways but never any real hard proof for either. I was actually doing some research today at work (sshh, don't tell anyone) in Japanese and I discovered some things that I've never seen written in English anywhere on the net. My guess has always been that they were developed alongside each other rather than one based on the other, but now I'm even more sure that is the case. I'm going to try and make a video in the coming weeks talking about all five of the 'Dreamcast' systems. If I don't get round to it then I'll at least post them on the Facebook group in writing at some point.

As for the Atomiswave, my gut tells me that it wasn't specifically based on the Naomi, Naomi 2, Hikaru or Dreamcast, but rather it was decided to make another system within this family and then suitable components and architecture were chosen for it. I'll be doing some more research on Japanese language sites over the next week so I'll keep you posted.

It's a really interesting topic anyway, thanks for bringing it up. I think when people talk about the history of the Dreamcast they often neglect to include these systems as a part of it. When in actuality their histories are all intertwined.

The 1 Ross said...

Edit: I'm going to try and make a video in the coming weeks talking about all five of the systems within the 'Dreamcast' family.

Tom Charnock said...

Cool - look forward to seeing that.

doceggfan said...

Me too, interested to hear about the untranslated Japanese stuff you've found. Since you raised the question which made me look into it further, I've seen lots of arguments from both sides. As you say, it's probably best not to dwell on who begat who and view them all as kind of independent but part of the same family. Maybe we'll get to the bottom of this one day - and you'll hear it first on the junkyard (maybe)