Microsoft's First Console Adventure Was A Lesson In FailureS

Like most other things associated with Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast console, it's been largely forgotten that the ahead-of-its-time machine featured the first ever console appearance (at least in terms of the console itself) for a company by the name of Microsoft.

While Microsoft would of course enter the console business properly with the Xbox in 2001, three years earlier it dipped its toes into the market in a collaboration with Sega.

In May 1998, the Redmond-based software giant sent out a triumphant press release declaring that Microsoft would, in a world first, be providing an operating system for a home video game console (the MSX being more of a home computer). It claimed that a modified version of Windows CE - which was normally found on early smartphones and pocket computers - would serve "as the operating system for use with Dreamcast".

Microsoft would, alongside the operating system, also be providing DirectX development tools (normally associated at that time with PC gaming) that would "ease title development and make possible true cross-platform title compatibility with Windows-based PCs".

It sounded like a big deal! The world's biggest computer software company lending out a version of its flagship operating system for use with a console that, as the first of its generation set for release, had a lot of people very excited.

But then...something happened. When the Dreamcast was officially launched in the West in late 1999, there was little sign of Microsoft. When you booted up a console there was no Windows logo, and there was little if nothing said about Microsoft's supposed contribution through the system's launch, from Sega or third-party developers.

Weird. You'd think that would have been part of the console's appeal! Something to crow about, right? Turns out, no, aside from a curious little logo on the front of the console (pictured above), it wasn't.

See, despite Microsoft's boastful proclamation from 1998, Windows CE did not power the entire console. Not like it does a PC, anyway, where once you boot it up Windows becomes the software that runs everything else. Instead, Sega had decided that the best way for the console to run - and for it to be able to cope with advances in technology as years went by - was to have in essence each game disc contain its own operating system, which would start up alongside the game.

That way developers could pick and choose. If a game could best make use of Microsoft's software, including its DIrectX tools, then it could run off a version of Windows CE included on the disc. If a developer figured Sega's own code would be a better fit, though, it could use that instead.

So when Microsoft proclaimed it would be using Windows CE "as the operating system for use with Dreamcast", it really should have said it would be one of the operating systems for use with Dreamcast.

And an unpopular one at that.

When the Dreamcast launched, not a single game was running on Windows. And over the next three years, not many followed. Power Stone, Jet Set Radio, Marvel vs Capcom, Skies of Arcadia, NFL2K, Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure, Space Channel...not a single one of the console's biggest selling and most loved games had a thing to do with Windows.

Only a handful of titles would eventually make use of Microsoft's software, and many of these were multiplatform ports. Only Sega Rally and Resident Evil 2 really stand out as decent Dreamcast games that ran on Windows CE.

For a company that had hoped the Dreamcast would be its way into the video game console market, it was a failure. Not only had Microsoft's operating system failed to catch on with console developers (or Sega), but after poor sales and the launch of the PS2 the Dreamcast itself soon failed, its death in 2001 making it one of the shortest-lived consoles in history.

From that failure, however, would come lessons learned. Even during the Dreamcast's launch window in the US in late 1999, rumours had begun to circulate that Microsoft, convinced that the home console business was one it could make a difference in, was planning to launch its own machine.

Only two years later, it did. The Xbox was in many ways the spiritual successor to the Dreamcast, from its twisting of Microsoft's PC-centric code to run a console to its networked gameplay possibilities right down to the fact the Dreamcast's public face (Peter Moore) and favourite series (Jet Set Radio & Shenmue) would return on the Xbox.

UPDATE - Reader JerryTerrifying points us towards the obscure Tandy Video Information System, an "interactive CD-ROM player" released in 1992 that ran on a version of Windows 3.1. Unlike the MSX, which was clearly a home computer, the VIS could easily be called a console. An incredibly rare and ineffective one, but a console nonetheless!

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