Remembering the Sega Dreamcast

Remembering the Sega Dreamcast

   Seventeen years ago today, Sega launched its final and most powerful home console in the United States: the 128-bit Dreamcast. The forward-thinking machine had been on shelves in Japan for nearly a year at this point but had not yet enjoyed much success, and although it would go on to sell over 9 million units in its short lifespan, it was discontinued only 18 months after its stateside launch. Still, as the vanguard of the sixth generation of gaming consoles, the Dreamcast anticipated the future of online multiplayer and laid the foundation for an era of gaming that would give way to the world-conquering PS2 and the original Xbox.

   To this day, the Dreamcast remains my all-time favorite gaming console for reasons that aren’t necessarily easy to quantify. The system’s library was impressive, particularly given its short lifespan and less-than-stellar third party developer support, and titles like Sonic Adventure (both of them), Powerstone, Shenmue, and Skies of Arcadia are certainly major parts of why I remember it so fondly.

“The Dreamcast had something that . . . you don’t typically find in hardware: character. It had a soul.”

   And I can’t deny that nostalgia plays another role. It hit store shelves at a pivotal moment in my life when I was nearly 14 years old, and it was the first console that I had followed at every stage of its development from its original announcement to its launch. In some ways, the Dreamcast ushered me into a new era of my own life, one in which I was no longer a child for whom gaming was a reactive pastime, playing whatever looked good to me on the shelves at the local Hastings (the only place I could rent Sega Saturn games at the time). I was becoming a young adult for whom gaming and its surrounding industry was a passion.

   But my fondness for Sega’s hardware swan song is sourced in something more intangible and ambiguous than nostalgia. With it, you could tell that Sega was all in, they weren’t afraid to be innovative or unique. It was weird and quirky, but it was also cutting-edge. The Dreamcast had something that, for me at least, you don’t typically find in hardware: character. It had a soul.

“Online multiplayer was growing increasingly popular and accessible to PC gamers, but it little more than a daydream to those who exclusively played on consoles”

   To commemorate it, let’s take a brief look back at the hardware and games that made the Dreamcast special, from the days leading up to its launch to its untimely demise, as well as the legacy it left to benefit of gamers everywhere.    

   To appreciate the Dreamcast fully, it’s important to realize the state of the industry at the time. While Sega was still regarded as one of the major players in the console business, the console wars were no longer divided between Nintendo and themselves. Sony had won a decisive victory in the fifth console generation over both the incumbent hardware manufacturers, and Sega—whose 32-bit console more closely resembled the PSX than the Nintendo 64—had lagged behind them virtually every step of the way. The Saturn was more costly to the manufacturer, its dual-CPU architecture more difficult to develop for, and its sticker price was a full $100 greater than those of the Playstation. The Saturn had suffered, too, from a weaker marketing strategy, and despite launching in the US nearly four months prior to the PSX, it failed to capitalize on its own head start.

U.S. Launch Model with Controller

U.S. Launch Model with Controller

   After the Saturn’s commercial failure, Sega seemed to have learned a number of important lessons about the industry’s new landscape. For the Dreamcast’s core hardware, they opted for components that were already available on the PC market in order to not only drive down costs of manufacturing but also to foster a friendlier environment for developers. To that same end, the Dreamcast’s operating system was based on a customized version of Windows CE developed by Microsoft with the intent of making porting PC games to the console simpler, and stamped on the front of the console were the words “Compatible with Windows CE” alongside the Windows logo, making it the first home console in the U.S. to feature a Microsoft brand name. The Xbox, which was already in development at the time behind the scenes and all but unknown to the gaming community, would later share much of the Dreamcast’s DNA, but we’ll discuss that later on as part of the Dreamcast’s legacy.

   Four-player splitscreen multiplayer titles such as Goldeneye and Perfect Dark had proven wildly popular on the N64, and Sega took the cue to include four controller ports on the front of the Dreamcast. The controllers themselves resembled the Saturn’s analogue “3D controller” that had been included with copies of Nights: Into Dreams complete with spring-loaded triggers, a joystick in the top-left and a digital directional pad, and an ABXY button diamond layout on the right. Taking another card from Nintendo’s deck, vibration packs were made available for the controller, and a second port was included to enable the simultaneous use of one or two memory cards and/or a single vibration pack per player. The controller itself matched the aesthetic of the console, but was not particularly well-received at launch as comfortable to use.

Controller with VMU

Controller with VMU

   The Dreamcast’s memory cards, called Visual Memory Units (or VMUs), were particularly unique to the console. In a way, the VMU summarizes everything that made the Dreamcast such a special platform. It was innovative, weird, and iconic. Each VMU featured a colorless LCD screen along with a directional pad and four rubber buttons (two game buttons in addition to a “mode” and sleep buttons). Minigames could be downloaded to the VMU from within Dreamcast titles and played on the go when the memory card was removed from the controller. While plugged into the controller during regular play, however, the VMU served as a personal LCD screen for the player that could display information to the player such as hit points, a minimap, or (most frequently) an animation of dubious practical value. More traditional memory cards were released for the console that could be used to simply store save game data, typically with improved storage capacity over the VMU, but I always felt there was something unsettling about seeing a Dreamcast controller in play without its LCD screen .

   The VMU was an unorthodox approach to memory cards, but the inclusion of a 56k dial-up modem (33.3 kbps for the original Japanese line) was perhaps the more surprising hardware choice Sega made for the Dreamcast. Online multiplayer was growing increasingly popular and accessible to PC gamers, but it little more than a daydream to those who exclusively played on consoles, and private internet access was not yet so ubiquitous in the U.S. as it is today. The modem itself was modular in order to allow for future upgrades as dial-up connections gave way to broadband services. To coax unfamiliar gamers online, Sega rolled out SegaNet, its own internet service, along with an official QWERTY keyboard peripheral that plugged into one of the four controller slots.

   Full support for the VMU and online integration was hardly universal across Dreamcast games, with first-party titles naturally being the more likely to take advantage of the consoles unique features, but they were integral to the Dreamcast’s charm. The console itself was designed with a pleasant and playful aesthetic that would later seem out of place when set beside other sixth-generation consoles (the Gamecube being the notable exception). It wasn’t bulky. It didn’t look particularly intimidating or powerful. And it certainly didn’t resemble a DVD player. The Dreamcast looked like fun. 

“During the five or so days that I had my rented Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure, I refused to power down the system and lose my save game.”

   It’s difficult to remember a time when it was the norm for consoles to release dramatically earlier in Japan than in the United States, but in the late 90s, it was still a fact of life. Leading up to its Japanese launch on November 27, 1998, Sega felt confident that the Dreamcast would perform well locally. Recognizing that Saturn sales had suffered due at least in part to the absence of a proper Sonic the Hedgehog title for the platform, Sonic Adventure, the series’ first official entry into 3D platforming, was promoted heavily and promised as a launch title for its successor. Domestic pre-orders for the Dreamcast were promising, and it seemed all but assured of success.

   Unfortunately, the Japanese launch did not go as smoothly as planned. Hardware shortages plagued the early line of consoles, and Sega was forced to halt pre-orders. Sonic Adventure narrowly missed the launch date, leaving launch-day buyers with a paltry four titles to choose from, only one of which was well-received: Virtual Fighter 3, a console port of the wildly successful arcade fighter. In spite of the fact that the entire launch stock had sold out by the end of the day, the Dreamcast failed to gain the install base that Sega predicted they would need to remain relevant when Sony’s next-gen console launched.

   Despite its disappointing launch in Japan, Sega of America had just under a year to build up hype for the console’s planned September launch. Peter Moore—who would go on to oversee the Xbox and Xbox 360 with Microsoft—took up the reigns as Sega of America’s president. Moore was determined to recapture the energy and magic of Genesis-era Sega, and spearheaded efforts towards making the Dreamcast’s launch a success. Sega of America worked closely with Midway Games to bolster the number of titles that would be available at launch, four of which were to be published by them.

“What was impressive about the Dreamcast’s catalog of games wasn’t so much the sheer number of titles that were released in such a short time, it was just how many of them were utterly unforgettable.”

   They also formed a partnership with Hollywood Video in order to offer an unorthodox special. Prior to the system’s official launch date, each Hollywood Video received a number of consoles to rent out along with a handful of games that had already been localized for U.S. gamers, including Sonic Adventure. The only problem, I can tell you from personal experience, was that Hollywood Video did not have any VMUs available for rent. During the five or so days that I had my rented Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure, I refused to power down the system and lose my save game.

   Thanks to the efforts of Moore and Sega of America, the U.S. launch for the Dreamcast, which occurred 9/9/99, 17 years ago today, was far more successful than it had been in Japan. The console itself was well-received by fans and critics alike. The launch lineup of games was significantly stronger, too, with more than a dozen titles to choose from right off the bat. 

   While third party support for the Dreamcast would dwindle not long after launch, its game library blossomed quickly over its one and one-half years life span. But what was impressive about the Dreamcast’s catalog of games wasn’t so much the sheer number of titles that were released in such a short time, it was just how many of them were utterly unforgettable. I’ve highlighted a selection of my personal favorites below, but this by no means a comprehensive list. 

   The U.S. launch lineup was particularly strong even when compared against the more successful consoles that have launched since and included multiple titles that would remain iconic to the system throughout its life. Not all of the 13 launch games were masterpieces, mind you. Blue Streak, the survival-horror game and would-be Resident Evil competitor released to mixed reviews, and Midway’s Dreamcast port of Mortal Kombat 4, Mortal Kombat Gold, both lacked polish and showed more glaringly the faults already inherent to the popular arcade fighter (I adored the game anyway, but I was a diehard fan of the series at the time). When compared to the modern gaming landscape, it’s particularly fascinating to note that five (including the brawler Power Stone) of the launch titles were fighting games, one of which became an instant classic and one of the “killer apps” for the Dreamcast.

Sonic Adventure

   Sega’s spiky blue mascot had appeared on the Sega Saturn in spinoff titles and Sonic Jam, a collection of the Genesis titles, but an official Sonic the Hedgehog title in the core series hadn’t been released since Sonic and Knuckles in 1994. Sonic Adventure was therefore hotly anticipated, particularly so as it marked Sonic’s entry into true 3D gaming. Mario 64 had shown the world just how excellently a classic platformer could be transitioned from 16-bit sidescroller to the third dimension, and Sega fans were eager to see how their own beloved series would fare.

   Sonic Adventure was a game whose value was, much like the Dreamcast itself, far greater than the sum of its parts. Featuring a six playable characters, full voiceover, a virtual pet game that carried over to the VMU, and a fishing simulator (I’m dead serious), Sonic Adventure was a hit, and it would go on to be the console’s top seller. And since it was intended to showcase the best of the Dreamcast’s system features, Sonic Adventure also included an online portal where players could upload their best level clear times to compete with one another, read announcements from Sonic Team, and download Choa (the aforementioned virtual pets) cloned from other players and uploaded to the community.

●   Bottom line: The first true Sonic game since the Genesis proved that the series could flourish in the third dimension. Its sequel would go on to perfect the gameplay formula before the series dove nose first into mediocrity.

●   VMU Minigame: Chao Adventure

●   My favorite memory: Playing through the game on a rented console without a memory card and refusing to hit the power button until I had seen Super Sonic

 

Power Stone 

   There’d never really been a fighting game quite like Power Stone, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything that resembled it since, although I’ve always lumped it in with games like Super Smash Bros. more than traditional fighters. Players chose from one of 10 fighters and duked it out with up to three other opponents in an open arena that allowed for free-roam, three-dimensional movement. Items and weapons would appear throughout the stage sporadically, and these could be picked up and used to gain the upper hand on enemies. The eponymous power stones could be collected, too, throughout the course of the match, and collecting all three—whether by picking them up as they appeared or stealing them from your opponent through brute force—transformed your fighter into a super-powered version of him or herself who could unleash ultimate attacks that were often difficult to defend against or dodge and could be game-winning. 

●      Bottom line: Power Stone was addictive fun with a colorful anime aesthetic and an arcade feel that combined near-unrestricted 3D movement with random and often hilarious weapons; its sequel released the following year would expand on the formula for even more fun.

●   VMU Minigame: NA

●   My favorite memory: My best friend commenting on “Gypsy Dancer” Rouge’s fighting abilities. I knew what he really meant.

 

Soulcalibur 

   If there was one game you were expected to own with your Dreamcast, it was Soulcalibur. The weapon-based fighting game had already been a hit in arcades, and it was ported exclusively to Sega’s console just in time for the U.S. launch. Soulcalibur wasn’t just a great fighter or even a great launch title, it marked a turning point in the history of home console gaming. The game looked and played better on the Dreamcast than it had in arcades, really driving home the power and potential of the Dreamcast and the future of console gaming. The Soulcalibur series has seen success (sometimes to varying degrees) on every major console since with an expanded cast of characters that has included the likes of Spawn, The Legend of Zelda’s Link, Darth Vader, and Yoda, but none of the games since have blown my mind quite the same way that the original Dreamcast port did. 

●      Bottom line: The Dreamcast’s first killer app, Soulcalibur ushered in a new era of gaming where consoles no longer had to play second fiddle to arcade cabinets.

●   VMU Minigame: NA, but it featured delightful character animations for each fighter during the main game

●   My favorite memory: Landing my first throw as Kilik against my friend and watching that bo staff rebound off his shattered spine

“Despite the successful U.S. launch and the overwhelming number of masterpieces released for the Dreamcast over the following 18 months, Sega saw the writing on the wall when Sony’s monolithic Playstation 2 launched”

   I’ve highlighted just three of the Dreamcast’s launch games, but I hope I’ve demonstrated the strength of the lineup. It’s rare with any major console launch to find even one game that could stand stand up as one of the console’s greats years afterwards, but the Dreamcast is still fondly remembered for these titles and those that followed in their wake not long afterward. Capcom’s Resident Evil: Code Veronica would launch to critical acclaim the final February, and although third party support would begin to dwindle soon after, with the more powerful PS2 due the following Fall, Sega kept the Dreamcast’s library strong with first party titles such as Skies of Arcadia, the bizarre Seaman, Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, and the very well received 2k line of sports titles, which would later be sold to 2K games upon the closure of Sega Sports.

   Despite the successful U.S. launch and the overwhelming number of masterpieces released for the Dreamcast over the following 18 months, Sega saw the writing on the wall when Sony’s monolithic Playstation 2 launched the following fall. It’s likely the move saved Sega since they remain a prominent and influential third party publisher and development house to this day, but there’s no denying that the company is dramatically different today than it was in the 20th century.

   But the Dreamcast left its mark on the gaming world permanently, and its influence seems obvious even today on Microsoft’s own console line. The Xbox controller still bears a striking resemblance to the Dreamcast controller—the original even featured two memory card slots, although they proved mostly redundant—although it’s no longer as unwieldy as it’s spiritual predecessor. Microsoft console also provided a home to some of Sega’s more unique first-party releases intended for the Dreamcast. Shenmue 2, which never saw a Dreamcast release in North America, launched exclusively for the Xbox in 2002, and Panzer Dragoon, a series that had always felt like the Saturn’s flagship, diverted to the Xbox with Panzer Dragoon Orta in 2003.

“The Dreamcast may have failed to take the world by storm, but it certainly left its mark.”

   The Dreamcast proved that online gaming could work in the console space, too, but it wasn’t a concept that instantly resonated with Sony, who invested very little into online multiplayer until after Xbox Live launched in 2012. While Sega had offered a unified online multiplayer service, SegaNet, Sony left online support to game developers. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 launched in 2001 and was the first game with online multiplayer support to appear on a non-Sega console, although connecting to the game’s servers required the use of a third-party modem connected via USB. Xbox Live more closely mimicked and expanded on the SegaNet model, and by the end of the console generation it had become the exemplary model for online multiplayer on home consoles (and influencing, I’d argue, PC online play, too).

   The Dreamcast may have failed to take the world by storm, but it certainly left its mark. In the wake of its demise, Sega demonstrated that they could continue to hold relevance in the industry solely as a software developer and producer, and, no longer restricted for the sake of their IP’s integrity, their most popular franchises found life with other platforms.

   Here’s to the Sega Dreamcast, that forward-thinking, little machine. It may not have been made for this world, but it made the world a little bit better in its short time.

 

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