The Sega Dreamcast lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse – or at least a library of bizarre and entertaining games. But Sega's blink-and-you-missed-it console is more than just an artefact prized by a few Shenmue-lovingnostalgia trippers; it represents a mess of squandered potential, a path not taken by mainstream gaming.
A glance at the major releases for today's two top consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, reveals a certain homogeneity. History is written by the winners, and in the post-Dreamcast world, the winners appear to want games that are epic, militaristic, and cinematic. Few dare to be cartoonish, cute, or whimsical, save some titles from Nintendo and a bunch of indie developers who aren't quite part of mainstream gaming. The failure of the Dreamcast was a sign of this trend, or maybe one of its causes.
The Dreamcast started with a bang and massive sales; the mnemonic "9/9/99 for $199" used in its advertising drilled the launch date and price point into parents' brains. But according to Retro Gamer magazine, Sega had blown hundreds of millions building and promoting the console. The company was rewarded in the short term with accolades like the Guinness World Record for "world's most advanced games console", and 10.6 million units were sold worldwide during its lifespan.
But it couldn't earn enough to save Sega's hardware business (already reeling from failures like the Saturn, 32X, and Sega CD) and the PlayStation 2 was announced in the months leading up to the Dreamcast's launch, creating buzz about "Toy Story-level graphics" and the machine's built-in DVD player, which was still something of a luxury at the time. After a shakeup of its executives, Sega discontinued the Dreamcast on March 30, 2001, withdrawing from the console business and restructuring itself as a third-party game publisher. That made sense, because despite its (deserved) reputation as a business failure, the Dreamcast had some amazing games.
There were the perfect translations or improvements of popular arcade staples like Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Crazy Taxi, PowerStone, and House of the Dead 2, but that same pick-up-and-play approach fostered cool original ideas as well, like Jet Grind Radio, where the premise is to skate, tag, and evade the police with an ageless cel-shaded art direction and a Jurassic 5–supplied soundtrack (hel-lo late 90s).
Denied support from EA and their "hardcore" sports games like Madden NFL, the Dreamcast nevertheless ended up as maybe the strongest console for sports gaming ever. The NFL 2K and NBA 2K games from Sega Sports found that perfect sweet spot between EA's heavy sim approach and the pure arcadeyness of Midway's NFL Blitz and NBA Jam. The NFL 2K games were so well-liked that EA later on became threatened enough by the competition to buy the exclusive NFL publishing rights after it looked like Madden might become eclipsed critically and commercially. The super fun boxing game Ready 2 Rumble from Midway was like a spiritual successor to Punch-Out!! on the NES, and ended up as one of the system's best sellers. Virtua Tennis was incredibly addictive and continued the Sega tradition of leaving the "l" out of "virtual".
Then there was the really weird shit. Sega fostered games across the spectrum of nuttiness, which is how it ended up with Seaman, where you watch and feed a fish with a human face and also talk to it (kind of) with the help of a special microphone attachment and voiceover from Leonard Nimoy. It's not even a game, really, just more of a strange virtual experience. Oddities still exist today, but those kinds of games are now strictly cordoned off in the "indie" neighbourhood and never get mistaken for major releases. The chasm between indie games and AAA games is very clear.
Seaman comes from the line of thinking that's like, "well, hey, Tamagotchis were very popular. Those were video games, technically, right? Maybe people will want a bigger, weirder version of it". Can you believe that they didn't? Other charming quirksters like The Typing of the Dead fit into this category as well – this was a modded version of House of the Dead 2 where instead of shooting zombies, you're using a keyboard controller to improve your typing skills.
Weirder still, in the best sense, was Sega's commitment to an idea like Shenmue. Ambitious and auteur-driven by Yu Suzuki, one of Sega's most successful developers and the force behind arcade classics like Hang On and Virtua Fighter, Shenmue began as an answer to the question, "what if Virtua Fighter was a sprawling open-world RPG?" which does sound pretty badass. But at some point their ambitions clearly got the best of them. Soon the operative question was more like a coked-out rant about what would make the most important game ever. Something like, "what if we created a living, breathing, small Japanese town where people are living, like, actual lives? Like, people have schedules and jobs. And you have a job, too, because you need money to buy toys. And you can play video games in the video game! It'll be like it's your actual life, if you were a teenager in 1980s Japan who witnessed his father murdered in the family dojo by a man wanting to know where he could find a special mirror".
Shenmue was envisioned as the beginning of a planned 16-part story. If narrative complexity isn't your thing, maybe this will pique your interest: Most of disc four involves working a part-time job as a forklift driver for eight hours a day, and you have to actually wake up, catch the bus, work the job – because you can't skip it – and then make it home to sleep and then do it all again the next day. When your virtual life is more boring than your actual life, it's time to start questioning what you even want out of a video game. Shenmue is also positioned as somewhat of a mystery game, but the way you solve the mystery is just interviewing every person you see about, so you end up asking old ladies walking down the street, "hey, do you know where I can find any sailors?" But what do I know? Maybe that was what the teen experience in 80s Japan was like.
The platform's top-seller, Sonic Adventure, gets remembered as a good-to-great video game, but should instead be remembered as a sign of trouble ahead. Sonic Adventure promised to be Sega's eventual answer to Mario 64 and the first 3D Sonic experience. But it only partly lived up to the hype – the Sonic stages were fast, colourful, and reproduced the fun of previous fast-paced Sonic games. But there were also way too many anthropomorphic forest critters and cutscenes.
We often remember the Dreamcast's online connectivity via built-in 56k modem as an odd ahead-of-its-time bonus that didn't pay off, but let me tell you this: online play ruled. Sure, it was a little limited, but the games that could be played online were great. I competed in NFL 2K matches against online foes mostly seamlessly, and Phantasy Star Online was a very fun action RPG experience for a minute there. Browsing the internet on your TV was also a fun novelty for the year 2000. For a brief period of time between when AOL seemed stale but broadband wasn't widely available yet, SegaNet was the only ISP in my house.
Video games have certainly evolved considerably since 2000, but for my taste, no company has been able to recreate that mixture of originality, weirdness, and breezy fun that Sega established as their brand. If the world had embraced Shenmue and Seamanconsole gaming might not have taken a hard-right turn into machine gun mayhem, AAA titles might still have dolphins and obese aliens for protagonists, and games that take place in imaginary dreamscapes might not be relegated to family-friendly Nintendo systems or lumped into Humble Bundles to raise money for charity. If fate had allowed for a Dreamcast 2 in 2006, and a Dreamcast 3 in 2013, serious money might still get invested in unserious ideas, and blockbuster games might be experiences that still felt like games.
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