Dream Library: The Dreamcast Foreunner To Nintendo Virtual Console

Being able to download games to your chosen platform is a pretty standard feature these days, and one we've all come to expect from our gaming devices, mobile phones and computers. Where would we be without the convenience of being able to simply browse an online store front, be it the Nintendo e-Shop, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live or Steam, and just select a title we want to play and then have it ready to go in a matter of minutes?

While there's a lot to be said for buying physical games, either because you're a collector or you like the option of being able to trade your games in to fund the next purchase, exclusively downloadable software is most likely the future we're heading toward. However, it isn't a new technology. If you look back through the annals of gaming history, you'll find a number of antiquated hardware systems that offered downloadable software as an option and by and large they all worked and only really differed in their availability and hardware. There was the Nintendo Satellaview that offered exclusive titles for the Super Nintendo (some of which have been the subject of admirable preservation efforts); and there was a similar service offered by Sega in the form of the Sega Channel. There are earlier examples still, and you can find a rudimentary run down of some of them here.
The Dreamcast too, offered such a service and it was called Dream Library. Unlike the aforementioned utilities though, Dream Library didn't offer Dreamcast games for download; instead it offered Japanese gamers the option to use their Dreamcast as an emulation device with which to download and play a selection of Mega Drive and PC Engine games right in their browser. Similarities with Nintendo's popular Virtual Console are quite apparent, but Dream Library precedes Virtual Console by six years, give or take; and the main difference is that games were rented temporarily with Dream Library, rather than bought outright.
A fairly short-lived service, Dream Library ran from June 2000 to January 2003, and it did suffer from a few technical issues that meant it wasn't as perfect as it probably initially sounds. Still, it was quite an ingenious service and another example of Sega's thinking outside the box when it came to pushing the Dreamcast as a jack of all trades. Not only was Sega pushing its hardware as a gaming machine, but also a business machine, an affordable alternative to a web browsing computer and also an emulation device. I'm still wondering how the console failed to crack the mainstream during its natural lifespan, but as usual I'm digressing.

Dream Passport 3's rather garish main start screen
As alluded to earlier, Dream Library was exclusively online and in order to access it, Dreamcast owners had to use either Dream Passport 3 or Dream Passport Premier. Dream Passport was basically the Japanese equivalent to the PAL Dreamkey and American Sega Net discs that opened the Dreamcast up to the world wide web with a host of basic tools designed for internet browsing, email, being a dick on message boards and the like. Dream Passport actually came in a multitude of different iterations, some of which were branded or styled in specific ways depending on the extra features they offered. However, it was Dream Passport 3 and the later broadband-enabled Dream Passport Premier discs that allowed for the implementation of Dream Library.

Once a user had access to the repository of Mega Drive and PC Engine titles offered by Dream Library (it appears that it was an option offered in the Dricas interface), they could effectively rent their chosen title for a set period of time (either two nights or seven nights, approximately) in a similar fashion to how you would rent a movie back in the days of Blockbuster Video, and the game could effectively be downloaded and re-downloaded as many times as required in that period. Which brings us neatly to one of the main shortcomings of the Dream Library service.
The PC Engine in all its glory
Because the Dreamcast has no internal storage volume, any game ROMs downloaded were stored in the system's RAM. If the Dreamcast was turned off, the ROM was erased from RAM and would have to be re-downloaded should the user wish to play it again. This doesn't sound like that much of an issue, but when you throw in the fact that dial-up was the predominant standard for internet connections during this period, having to constantly re-download a game you had rented would probably have gotten pretty tiresome after a while. Furthermore, saving progress apparently involved soft-resetting the console and navigating to the VMU screen - simply saving progress 'in game' would result in progress being erased when the RAM was emptied after power down. The Dreamcast broadband adapter was later released and the Dream Library service was fully compatible with the broadband adapter software, but by that point the service was already dwindling in available titles due to the removal of PC Engine games and the overall shrinkage of the Dreamcast as a major force in the gaming sphere.
The Dream Library start screen, with DC and PCE icons
Initially, according to the Japanese Wikipedia entry on Dream Library, there were a total of 47 Mega Drive titles and 43 PC Engine games on offer and saving of Mega Drive game progress could be achieved using the Dreamcast VMU. Using the same entry as a source, it also appears that the emulation was a bit hit and miss due to the technical limitations of the Dreamcast, but also it is confirmed that the actual emulator software was included on the Dream Passport 3 and Dream Passport Premier discs.
This probably says that it isn't going to work
Now to the fun stuff. Even though Dream Library has long since been shut down, it is actually possible to try out the emulator software bundled on the Dream Passport discs in question. Thanks for helping with this research must go to Luiz Nai of Titan Game Studios, as he is the person who initially gave me the inspiration to write this article. Here's how you do it:

As shown in Dricaschan's video above, if you have either a Dream Passport 3 or Dream Passport Premier disc, simply head to the URL address window and enter the following, with the numbers 1 through 9 as the final digit after the back slash to launch a number of emulated Mega Drive titles or bonus software hidden on the disc:

  1. Guru Guru Onsen Petit
  2. Dream Flyer Light
  3. Columns (demo version)
  4. Ghouls 'n Ghosts (demo version)
  5. Flicky (demo version)
  6. Pengo (demo version)
  7. Puyo Puyo (demo version)
  8. Dream Library
  9. Dream Passport 2.1
So for Columns, enter 'x-avefront://---.dream/proc/launch/3' and hit return. All of these demos have a time limit of around 15 minutes and are simply designed to be just that - demonstrations of what Dream Library could do. Curiously, there are demo versions of other software too and I'd hazard a guess that these were intended to be accessed through portals on Dricas that advertised them. It's worth noting that if you're using an NTSC-J Dreamcast to access these demos, if your console already has previous user data stored on it, it will try to contact Dricas and restore the old account and as such you won't be able to access the URL entry window. When I work out (with the help of dreamcastcollector), I'll update this article with instructions.
Quite useless, but intriguing nonetheless
Still, this is an interesting remnant from the days of Dream Library and it's important that this functionality is preserved in some form be it here written in English at the Junkyard, stored as knowledge in the minds of you, our readers, or in its original form on long forgotten forum threads or Japanese GeoCities sites. As a side note, Aaron Foster did cover this topic a while back here at the Junkyard and DreamcastGaga has also covered it in the past, but I thought it was worth putting a bit more of a spotlight on the topic and investigating it myself.
Finally, these have some use!
So there we are. A very brief look at the Dreamcast's game download service Dream Library. Who knows - if the Dreamcast had gone on to be the success it deserved to be then Dream Library could have gone on to be rolled out in other territories and included other consoles too. As it is, it's an interesting footnote in the long history of downloadable game services.
Will you be trying this out? If so, let us know your thoughts on Dream Library in the comments or join the conversation in our Facebook group or on Twitter.
Columns. On Dreamcast. For 15 minutes.
Once again, my thanks go to Luiz Nai for his assistance in researching this article. You should check out his work at Titan Game Studios where he is working on various indie game projects for the Dreamcast (including the Titan IDE game maker software); and also his VMU file download service that can be browsed with a Dreamcast console. Thanks also to dreamcastcollector for his assistance in deciphering the Japanese in Dream Passport 3's menus. Check out his awesome site here.

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JPG said...

It was certainly ambitious and ahead of its time. Sadly the Megadrive emulator bever seemed to have decent sound. The PC engine one was spot on though I think. There is a video on YouTube I think. Also due to the popularity of the PC Engine in Japan it made perfect sense to do that machine over there. As you say potentially they could have them rolled this out to include Master System and Game Gear (particularly the Master System would have benefitted from making lots of the European exclusives playable in Japan) I guess other systems may have followed too. Shame but again shows how Sega was on the right track

Roareye said...

Just to translate the in-Library menu from the Japanese (roughly)

1 - Start the game from the beginning
2 - Return to the Game
3 - Installation of the Controller (likely just the Controls)
4 - Save to Memory Card
5 - Staff Roll
6 - End The Game