Happy 15th Birthday, Dreamcast! by Gustavo Lazo


A stellar launch line-up. A successful marketing blitz. Apple may want you to remember today, but in 1999, Sega made damned sure you remembered September 9.

In reflection, the nineties didn’t seem particularly kind to Sega. The company’s Genesis console had seen success, sure, but was still overshadowed by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in worldwide sales. With Sony entering the video game market with PlayStation (which, coincidentally, also released in North America on this day in 1995), Sega infamously, prematurely, released their Saturn console months ahead of their targeted September date.

I imagine the blunders of the Saturn were why the Dreamcast was as aggressively marketed as it was. Launching the Saturn months ahead sent retailers and agencies in turmoil promoting the product, as well as harming its launch lineup. 9/9/99, a Thursday, was an easily identifiable date (Fox tried this stunt in 2006 with their forgettable Omen remake). Also in their favor was the broadcast of MTV’s Video Music Awards on that same day, which still draws young audiences today, and Sega was the primary sponsor. It all seemed to come together and, at least according to Wikipedia by way of G4, the Dreamcast saw a successful two-week launch of 500,000 sold units.

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I remember the buzz (at least among fellow enthusiasts on America Online) about the hardware itself. Its CPU was ten times more powerful than the Saturn’s. They elected to go with NEC’s PowerVR2 over 3dfx’s “Blackbelt” for the GPU supposedly due to a falling out with 3dfx back in 1997. Even if those mixtures of letters and numbers are meaningless to you, you simply had to pick up an issue of GamePro, Electronic Gaming Monthly or, as I was reading, Next-Generation magazine to see what the hardware could pull off. Combine this and a broad and an arguably stellar line-up and you can see why people are still acknowledging this console today. It even has the distinct honor of being the first game console with a built-in modem, which really wouldn't become the standard until the PlayStation 2 ‘slim’ model in 2004.

Sega also didn't seem content to simply use a memory card, so we got Visual Memory Unit. The VMU not only stored game save data, but could be used independently with its LCD screen and button face, serving as a secondary unit for individual titles: Sonic Adventure had its Chao virtual pet game. NFL 2K games showed secret plays and NBA 2K had foul counts. Even though these features seem arbitrary today, it might not be a complete, complete stretch to say it was a small step to the second-screen features developers embrace today. It also came in a bunch of colors, because why not?

Want a fighting game? Soulcalibur, Power Stone, and Mortal Kombat Gold were there. Sports? Dominate with Randy Moss in NFL 2K (a series people still clamor for today) or power-bomb a quarterback in NFL Blitz 2000. Knock some teeth out in Midway’s Ready 2 Rumble Boxing or speed through the waves in their racer Hydro Thunder. Sega delivered on the first-party end with not just the ‘Sega Sports’ brand, but Sonic Adventure (well, sort of) and The House of the Dead 2 as well.

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As the Dreamcast’s lifespan progressed, it seemed like Sega really put their creativity to the test. This meant getting games likes its fantastic arcade port of Crazy Taxi (and a 2001 sequel), Chu Chu Rocket! in which you guided mice around a board while avoiding cats. Space Channel 5, Samba de Amigo, and Rez were early entries in the rhythm game scene, though Rez would see a North American release on the PlayStation 2. Jet Set Radio (Jet Grind Radio in North America) put some kids in a gang fighting police militarization with graffiti and techno-pop in a notable cel-shading aesthetic. Perhaps the one title that stands out for enthusiasts is Seaman (I hear you giggling!), a virtual pet simulator which bundled a microphone attachment for the system’s controller, that had players raising a fish with a human face with narration by Leonard Nimoy. It has to be seen to be believed.

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The installed modem allowed console gamers to connect to one another online and dabble in consistent multiplayer, which was fairly impressive by 1999 standards. Sega would even launch its own ‘SegaNet’ service. Online titles included Quake III Arena, NFL and NBA 2K1, Alien Front Online, and Chu Chu Rocket!. On the horizon was Propeller Arena, an air combat title that ended on hiatus and ultimately cancelled in the wake of 9/11. Perhaps its most notable multiplayer title was the ambitious RPG Phantasy Star Online, in which teams took to various maps, created characters of different classes, and taking out monsters in hopes of finding rare goodies and weapons. I was ultimately addicted to it, always trying to evolve my MAG and find a better weapon for my hunter. PSO saw an update, several installments transitioning to Nintendo’s Gamecube in 2002, and the release of Phantasy Star Online 2 in 2012 in Japan and Asian territories.

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But no title in the Dreamcast library symbolizes the console’s short history than Shenmue. Talk about ambition. Shenmue began as a Saturn title and also as a Virtua Fighter RPG starring Akira Yuki, led by OutRun and Virtua Fighter director Yu Suzuki. It evolved into an open-world, investigative revenge tale of Ryo Hazuki, who seeks out his father’s murderer in 1980s Yokosuka while moonlighting as a kitten caretaker, capsule toy champion, forklift racer, and a nightmare for sailors (details may be exaggerated). The game touted a dynamic open-world: differing weather patterns, differing routines from NPCs, no two things alike, etc. Bob Mackey of US Gamer recently composed an in-depth exploration on Shenmue, its failure, and its representation of Sega’s bleak future. I recommend the read. In short: hurried localization, infamously large budget, and a general lack of appeal kept the series from finding an audience. A sequel released for the Dreamcast, but only in Japan and Europe. The United States would not see it until after Sega exited hardware development, and struck a deal with Microsoft to publish Shenmue II on their then new Xbox console. Much like NFL 2K, fans are holding out hope that Shenmue III sees the light of day. It doesn't help that Sega loves to troll with even a hint of Shenmue mention.

Many know how this story concludes. Though the Dreamcast did relatively well outside of Japan, in its native country, a poor launch — and I imagine Japan’s struggling economy in the nineties — saw large losses within the company. Many will also attribute the demise to the lack of support by Electronic Arts as well as the PlayStation 2 launch. Sega officially announced its exit from hardware in 2001, and wouldn’t post a profit until 2003.

I've often designated the Dreamcast as my favorite game console ever when it isn’t the SNES. Over time, the Dreamcast has become the Firefly of gaming hardware: strong, stayed consistent, but ultimately couldn’t hang on but has developed something of a cult following over time. Every September 9, I see a celebration of this system on my Twitter timeline and, in my opinion, with good reason. The Dreamcast was Sega (somewhat) learning from the Saturn, and for a short time it brought out the best in them. Depending on who you ask, it had a fairly sleek design and “nineties future” written all over it. Plenty of genre titles emerged and as cult favorites, along with a reputation for great ports (my favorites being Activision’s Spider-Man and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 from Treyarch), for me it’s no wonder people still say “Happy Birthday.”





Comments:

#1dasmule007
Ahhh, the Dreamcast! Still vividly remember 1st time playing Soul Calibur, Shenmue, and NFL 2K!!!
#2Anonymous
Great console I had on Day One. Bought 2K football and something else I can't remember right now.. maybe that fighting game that was over the top... really fun! "I'm angry now!" But ya.. waited in line at Sears at South Coast Plaza here in the OC. Great days!
#3dasmule007
The fighting game was likely Soul Calibur. My Dreamcast purchase on day one then, was the last time I entered or purchased something from a Toys R Us. Remember, it had "dial-up" Internet access for a console then?
#4
Glenn33
All hail the Dreamcast. Simply ahead of it's time. Greatest console that never was.
#5
KR1ST0F3R
[IMG]http://tapatalk.imageshack.com/v2/14/09/10/cd9fe087b3f30da1c011947df82fd00e.jpg[/IMG] Standout Dreamcast memory
#6
Wilk5280
Dreamcast was the console that introduced me to games outside of the sports genre. Games like Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, & Phantasy Star Online were just incredible.
#7
Corleth the Fey
What a console! Big shout out for PSO, Skies of Arcadia and the awesome Record of Lodoss War.
#8Turnman
The Kurt Cobain of video game consoles...the Dreamcast was great. As was this article. Well done.
#9
Papernut
Still get mine out from time to time and play. One of the best sports gaming consoles even without EA support.

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