Important Importables: Pocketstation and VMU

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We’re now in the generation of hard drives, SD cards and even the occasional memory stick when it comes to backing up game saves. It almost makes it hard to believe that a few years ago the standard method was memory cards, plastic blocks gamers would shove into consoles or controllers so they could save their game progress. At the time, memory cards were the thing. They offered a sense of freedom gamers hadn’t had before, allowing them to take their game progress on the go with them, not bound by on-cartridge memory or those loathed passwords.

Some companies decided that maybe they should take memory cards a step further. Not only have these devices hold onto our valuable game data, but allow them to be game playing devices as well. The results were Sony’s PocketStation for the PlayStation and Sega’s Visual Memory Unit for the Dreamcast. Sony’s PocketStation crashed and burned, while the VMU could be helpful, but never really reached the iconic status Sega hoped for. This week, let’s learn a little more about both of them.

Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit System

Dreamcast VMU

We’ll start with the Visual Memory Unit (VMU) since it came first. When the Dreamcast launched on November 27, 1998, the Visual Memory System, as the card is known in Japan, came with it. It was a memory card with 100kb of memory, a screen on the front, a directional pad, a and b buttons and buttons to make it sleep or choose the mode. The Dreamcast controller had a window where the VMU’s screen could peek through, allowing the VMU screen to offer supplemental infomation while playing a game.
Pretty much every game made some use of the VMU. At the very least, the VMU displayed game logos or icons when plugged into a Dreamcast controller. At most, it gave players access to a supplemental mini-game. Sometimes, a VMU plugged into a controller would let you see characters’ HP or stats so you didn’t have to keep checking the menu to see how they were doing. Pop’n Music is a good example of how helpful the VMU be when plugged into a Dreamcast, as the screen would tell players which buttons to press. Sonic Adventure also made good use of the device, allowing players to raise a Chao virtual pet in Chao Adventure on their VMUs.

The VMU was the most successful of the two memory card/game devices for consoles. Multiple developers took advantage of it, providing extras for people who chose to use it. Sega released multiple versions of the VMU, in different colors and designs. Special edition VMUs were even released. Godzilla fans could have grabbed a Mothra-themed unit and limited editions of certain games, like Sakura Taisen, came with special edition VMUs.

PlayStation PocketStation

PlayStation PocketStation

The PocketStation was going to be the PlayStation equivalent of a VMU. It didn’t take off. It originally launched in Japan on January 23, 1999, and stayed there. It isn’t that it didn’t do well. Millions of units sold in Japan. It just didn’t sell well enough to merit a worldwide release. Visually, it was pretty similar to a VMU. It had fewer buttons, with four directional buttons and one action button placed beneath the screen. The main difference was the PocketStation had an infrared sensor to exchange data with other PocketStations.

If you had a PocketStation, you could only use it when you weren’t actually playing a game on your PlayStation. Once you saved your data to it and removed it from your PS1, you could then access a little mini-game or extra application on the go. With Final Fantasy VIII, you could send a chocobo around a virtual world to collect items for your game. In Monster Rancher 2, you could play minigames with the monsters you were raising to earn special items. In many cases, games had exclusive items or content that could only be unlocked with PocketStation games. Legend of Dragoon‘s PocketStation game let you play a mini-game that is the only means of earning the Dabas Shiny Bag that doubles the number of items Dart and company can carry.

Here’s a neat little tidbit about the PocketStation! If you had the Final Fantasy VIII PC game, it came with a little Chocobo World application based on the PS1 FFVIII PocketStation game. You’d guide a little chocobo around, finding items you could use in the actual game. Also, if you import a Japanese PocketStation you can actually access the FFVIII and Saga Frontier 2 PS1 mini-games.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Important Importables talks about Square Enix.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Last week Important Importables listed some good Korean MMOs to try.

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