I’ll Never Love a Console Like I Loved the SEGA Dreamcast

SEGA's swansong console was ahead of its time, but its amazing games were eclipsed by the super hyped PlayStation 2.

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Mar 30 2016, 7:00pm

A screenshot from (the crisper Xbox 360 port of) 'Sonic Adventure', via YouTube

The first console I ever owned was a SEGA Mega Drive, or, to you Americans, the SEGA Genesis. It was a cherished gift received from my parents when I was six. My second was a Sony PlayStation, a birthday present three years later, with the Mega Drive having been sold to help fund it. I loved them both as a kid, but the SEGA Dreamcast—my third console—occupies a special place in my gaming memories.

For one thing, I was the right age: The Dreamcast came out in Europe just as I was becoming a teenager. Not only did I have a lot of free time to get into it, but was old enough to start getting into more complex fare than the simple charms childhood favorites like Toki: Going Ape Spit or Crash Bandicoot could provide. Secondly, the Dreamcast was a genuine surprise to me, and had all the makings of a cult console even then with its unusual library and design features. I only knew one other person at school who had one, so owning a Dreamcast made me feel like I was part of something special.

SEGA's swan-song console burned briefly and brightly for a period of only 18 months in Europe and the US. To put that in context, its production run was outlived by earlier also-ran systems such as the Atari Jaguar and Panasonic 3DO. Released in North America on the memorable date of September 9, 1999 (9/9/99), and in Europe a month later, the Dreamcast was hindered in part by poor timing. Most people I knew at school held off on one because they were waiting on the fabled PS2, and I actually felt the same way. Even though I was SEGA daft as a wee one in the early 1990s, thanks largely to Sonic, Sony was perceived as the cooler games company by the end of that decade, and Nintendo more dependable.

My folks asked, at one point, if I wanted a Dreamcast for Christmas, and while I considered waiting, my brother correctly pointed out that the only game I even wanted a PS2 for anyway was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which was being released about 18 months down the line at that time.

So I did my research. I purchased Dreamcast magazines and tried to work out this strange white console, with its weird controller, built-in modem support for online gaming (a revelation for consoles at the time), and unusual Game & Watch–like memory card, the Visual Memory Unit (VMU). The screenshots of the games in the magazines looked wonderful—loads of colorful titles with telltale SEGA-blue skies. There were pictures of Sonic Adventure and Shenmue, which both looked fantastic. I remember thinking it was such a big deal at the time that the characters in Shenmue had properly defined fingers and faces; the benchmark for 3D-console graphics before the Dreamcast came along were games like Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so Shenmue's visuals blew them away by comparison. I decided then that I had missed SEGA, and actually did want a Dreamcast. And I still have one now, so many years later.

A big memory of owning SEGA's little white box around that time was the constant plight to convince pals how good it was—but when they eventually tried it, they were always impressed. The Dreamcast had many excellent multiplayer games, especially in the fighting genre. Namco's launch title, Soulcalibur, is still one of the highest-rated games of all time—it looked incredible and still plays well today. Capcom in particular produced some real gems for the system; great 2D fighters like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Marvel vs Capcom 2; and cult 3D brawlers like Project Justice: Rival Schools 2 and Power Stone and its sequel.

Other fun multiplayer titles included Bizarre Creations' Fur Fighters, with its split screen "fluffmatches"; an excellent version of Quake III Arena; light gun ports The House of the Dead 2 and Confidential Mission, both replete with hilarious B-movie voice acting; and Virtua Tennis 2, for all intents and purposes a perfect sports game.

For more solitary gamers, there were much-loved RPGs like Skies of Arcadia and Grandia II; cult classic shlocker Illbleed; the above-mentioned Shenmue and its sequel; Crazy Taxi, which was fun to play in turns; and the then-exclusive Resident Evil – Code: Veronica, another winner from Capcom and considered the best in the series at the time. Except for that Tyrant battle at the end of disc one—that was some cheap shit.

And how about the stylish graffiti-tagging skater classic Jet Set Radio? No other game encapsulated that rebellious SEGA style quite like this superlative trendsetter, with its cel-shaded looks and exceptional soundtrack. The Dreamcast library was arguably the most esoteric out there, and represented some of SEGA's most experimental output ever, with games like Chu Chu Rocket!, Space Channel 5, Rez, and Seaman all carving niches of their own.

Yet still the PlayStation 2 loomed.

A screenshot from (the crisper Xbox 360 port of) 'Space Channel 5', via YouTube

It's hard to think about it now, given all the console went on to achieve, but the PS2 was actually a rather expensive and underwhelming system at first. Pre-release, game mags were showing off screenshots of dry-looking obscurities like war strategy title Kessen (one star in CVG), and Densha de Go! 3 (a train sim). Indeed, its launch lineup was lackluster compared to the Dreamcast's, and for about six months after launch, the best game to be found on Sony's monolithic console was FantaVision, a firework-based puzzle game that, while impressive, was hardly indicative of the PS2's abilities. Some of the PS2's early Dreamcast conversions, such as Dead or Alive 2 and Grandia II, actually looked worse on Sony's machine, and it would only really see the emergence of its first true "must haves" in Europe around the beginning of 2002, with the likes of Grand Theft Auto III, Final Fantasy X, and Metal Gear Solid 2.

And speaking of Metal Gear Solid 2, by the time I did get around to playing it, not only was it via the later Xbox version (my fourth console, having bypassed the PS2 entirely), but I was also underwhelmed, feeling Hideo Kojima and his team at Konami had pulled a fast one with its bizarre story. When I think back, if I hadn't gone for a Dreamcast, and waited instead for the PS2 to come around, I would have missed out on so many classics.

The Dreamcast was SEGA's final console as a hardware manufacturer, being discontinued in March 2001. It sold about 9 million units worldwide, a figure comparable to its predecessor, the Saturn, but a far cry from SEGA's popular peak with the Mega Drive, which estimates place as having sold anywhere from 29 million to just under 40 million units worldwide.

A screenshot from (the crisper Xbox 360 port of) 'Crazy Taxi', via YouTube

The company's ill-advised flirtation with Mega Drive hardware add-ons such as the Mega-CD (half-decent) and 32X (disastrous), as well as the company's subsequent poor handling of the 32bit Saturn in the West, were all marks against it in the promotion and launch of the 128bit Dreamcast. It was also incredibly easy to pirate, containing only the most rudimentary deterrent in the form of its proprietary GD-ROM format discs. Unlike, say, the PlayStation or Saturn, the Dreamcast didn't even need a modchip or tricksy CD swap tricks to play pirated discs, so its copy protection was a disaster in this regard. It was also disappointing that several well-reviewed Dreamcast games produced toward the end of its lifespan, such as Seaman, Bomberman Online, and Cosmic Smash, never saw commercial release in Europe. Others, such as Daytona USA 2001, saw online play removed for EU release.

The Dreamcast corrected many of SEGA's previous mistakes—it had a great launch lineup, was technologically advanced, and reasonably priced. But a combination of piracy, the sheer strength of PS2 anticipation,—remember the Emotion Engine?—and, quite simply, lack of funds, were all factors contributing to its premature demise.

Though the discontinuation of the Dreamcast marked the end of an era for SEGA, it lives on through home-brew culture and indie titles—mostly scrolling shoot 'em ups, such as Last Hope, Sturmwind, and Fast Striker—that are still being released for the console to this day. It has gone down in gaming history as a system in many ways ahead of its time, and there are few gaming fanbases out there that remain quite so dedicated.

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