Why Dreamcast?

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This post was published on 1up.com in late August of 2005, but was edited in September of 2009 for the Dreamcast’s 10th anniversary. I ran through it again for the 15th anniversary (September 2014) since I just realized I never really went at length about the Dreamcast on MultiPlatform. This will be the first post here for which I insert a “read more” link because it’s by far the longest thing I’ve ever posted here.

Foreword:

The time around the Dreamcast’s North American launch was probably the first time I started to feel truly involved in console gaming and started to grow up in its world. This is not really a story of the lifecycle of that gaming system, but rather the story of my own personal experience with it, and how pivotal the Dreamcast was in my gaming life.

Before 1999

Before I got my Nintendo 64 on Christmas of 1996, I probably played videogames as much as any other kid of the time. You could say that I was more of a casual gamer back then.  I played whatever my brother bought or whatever looked cool on the box and was popular then.  Ironic seeing as that was a time when gaming was even more centered on the hardcore.

Between 1996 and 1999 — when the N64 became my primary console, I started to reach a turning point where I played games more and more. I started a Nintendo Power subscription then which was the beginning of my following the industry. Our family had recently discovered the internet and through computer classes I could follow it further through IGN(64) and the late DailyRadar.com (how I miss thee). It was around this time when I heard about it…

The first mention I ever heard of the Dreamcast was on the way to school one cold morning in sixth grade. Just before getting off of the bus my friend, after our usual lengthy conversation about the N64 and PSX and whichever was better, made the quickest mention of a rumor that Microsoft and Sega were working together on a 128-bit console. Before the end of that day I’d forgotten all about it.

I never thought about it again until I opened up an issue of Game Buyer Magazine a year or so later after I had moved to Germany. I can’t find the magazine right now and I can’t remember what issue it was, but I sure as hell remember that two-page spread I stared at for days.

It was an all white background with a clean-ass white machine in the middle. I think the article was entitled “SEGA’s Project Katana Becomes Dreamcast”.  I proceeded to read the entire article but understood none of it. All I understood was, I wanted the machine in the picture.

It looked clean, it looked like everything on it was where it was supposed to be. The whole machine fit together like it was magic. This was long before I knew anything about the games on it. I guess this was back when hardware alone could wow me.

1999 – 2000

The first hint I got about the games was a couple screenshots of Sonic Adventure in some random magazine. The thing is, this was a while before I had ever heard of the Dreamcast. I looked at it and thought the graphics were really impressive but never thought about what it was running on.

It all finally hit me when I first stumbled upon that premiere issue of Official Dreamcast Magazine. I had flipped through the magazine on a newsstand and caught a glimpse of a few more games like Project Ares, Crazy Taxi, and Virtua Fighter 3tb. I read about more games like SEGA Sports’ NFL and NBA games, more on Sonic Adventure, Ecco, Metropolis, and a then rather obscure game called “Shenmue.” By the time I got to the end of the book I was pumped, but I still hadn’t seen any of this in motion. I believe the first time I saw Sonic Adventure in motion was on the news. That made it feel even more like a major event.

This was around the time that I started to hear doubters and naysayers, most of whom were anticipating the PS2.  It was practically all I heard about at school (that and Final Fantasy VIII).  Comparisons to Dreamcast were instant and, and to a middle-schooler hyped for the Dreamcast, the new console war arguments were tough to endure.

Classmates aggressively tried to sell me on a PS2.  What really got to me about it was the software landscape at the time — a huge difference between the Dreamcast and PS2 during 1999 and 2000. By that time I wasn’t just hyped for the Dreamcast, but for Dreamcast games. Every time I asked my friends why they wanted a PS2, it was for that damn DVD player. Maybe I was a bit lucky back then because I actually already owned a standalone DVD player. In any case, I wanted games, not movies in a flashy new format.

The first time I played a Dreamcast was when my super-rich neighbor was able to get his hands on one at launch and let me come over to play it almost every day.  My first time felt like that first time reading the Game Buyer issue all over again. The machine itself had such an air around it. I don’t know if it was the whiteness of it, its smoothness, the sweet clean smell of it, the feel of the controller, or the soft hum of the game disc inside. Whatever it was, in 1999 the Dreamcast felt like one classy machine.

We played Sonic Adventure for hours and got a little farther each day (he didn’t have a memory card). The whole game felt like a step up from what I’d been playing on my N64, despite how buggy and unpolished we know it to be today. To be brief, SA’s hub worlds felt more alive, its real time cut scenes more believable, and its platforming gameplay fast. Maybe this was a time when launch games could captivate me just for “looking” next-gen. It definitely had that lingering effect whenever I went back home to my N64 and its dwindling release calendar (I’d already finished Ocarina of Time at least twice).

Then my brother started calling from college about how cool the Dreamcast was. He’d go on about some game called Soul Calibur. So, the next time he visited I showed him some of the new N64 games I had, including Konami’s Deadly Arts. Five seconds in he said the game was way too slow and then launched into another rant about Soul Calibur.

He had brought all of his Dreamcast games over, but not his Dreamcast, expecting our parents to get me one for Christmas, which eventually happened. I immediately installed the system and tried out the six games my parents had gotten for me, among them being SA (but not Soul Calibur). My brother slammed in Soul Calibur the first chance he got.  At first I button mashed but within a couple rounds I was already starting to pick up moves on my own. After getting annihilated a couple times in a row, my ass was sold.

There was so much to do in Sonic, I was learning new things in Soul Calibur every day, and the other games I owned like Trickstyle and Ready 2 Rumble all had that next-gen sheen. As far as I was concerned I was completely satisfied with my choice of console at the time, and it stayed that way throughout the Dreamcast’s entire lifetime. So, just as the millennium was turning, I was making the transition from some kid who played stuff from the store shelf into an informed gaming consumer who thought he’d made the right choice.

2000

In 2000 I returned to the states and spent that summer in another state of transition.  In the midst of re-adjusting to everything that had gone on in the states during my absence (like the fall of my childhood favorite channel Nickelodeon and the rise of anime in America) and turning 14, I was largely stuck in temporary homes with nothing to do before starting high school. The PS2 wasn’t here yet and the N64 was pretty much dead to me outside Super Smash Bros.  To pass the time that summer there was only Dreamcast.

I think the first issue of Official Dreamcast Magazine I’d bought after the inaugural one was the July 2000 issue which came with a demo disk that included, among other things, a demo for Virtua Tennis which on its own kept my brother and I glued to a borrowed 12-inch TV in the tiny bedroom of a temporary apartment for weeks.

Virtua Tennis is an example of a demo that was too good. All it had was singleplayer and two-player with Jim Courier and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, but we eventually saw no need to get the full game, even when it was $4.  When we weren’t fiercely playing each other I would remember coming out of the shower to find my brother at Deuce 12 with the CPU.

While still there I celebrated turning 14 by picking up Dead or Alive 2 – which at the time was hailed as a significant leap over the original and is still arguably the best DOA game, and Resident Evil Code Veronica – my first RE game.  Those kept me busy until I finally started high school, which transitioned into possibly the best fall season I can remember for games on one console.

I don’t think anyone can deny the Dreamcast lineup for the fall and winter of 2000 was a complete badass.

First of all, the 2D fighters.  A lot of you might not realize this, but Nintendo consoles have been bereft of 2D fighters since the SNES version of Street Fighter Alpha 2 back in… 1996?  So I’m left with no Capcom fighters between that game and fall 2000. And let me tell you, Capcom was in straight-up beast mode on the Dreamcast. By that fall they’d given it Capcom vs SNK, Marvel vs Capcom 1 and 2, and most importantly, 3rd Strike.

I probably rented 3rd Strike from Blockbuster enough times to pay for owning the game. Unfortunately I had to delay much purchase of Marvel 2 until much, much later (like, the PSN release).  And then there was Power Stone.

Power Stone, one of the great left-behind franchises of gaming.  Power Stone 2 was like the SSB of Dreamcast.  Hell, the moving environments and weapon synthesis were things SSB didn’t have!  I’m still waiting for Capcom to do something with that franchise, even if it’s just an HD release of Power Stone 2 or something.  What came next was yet another undeservingly left-behind franchise and still one of the most uniquely stylish games ever.

When I first read the cover story on Jet Grind Radio and later played the demo like 50 times it definitely had the air of a AAA game — when “AAA” meant craftsmanship not budget, that was both innovative and uniquely SEGA.  With a still memorable soundtrack, the then-innovative cel-shading, and a totally new kind of gameplay that centered around sticking it to The Man and feeling good about it, Jet Grind Radio was the first game I ever played that was hip on purpose.

2000 was not only one of the best autumns in console gaming (1998 being the best ever probably), but also an especially conflicting one for RPG fans’ wallets.  Like 2D fighters, RPGs were another thing five years of Nintendo isolation had left me without.  A year earlier I was settling for scraps like Quest 64, now to choose between Skies of Arcadia and Grandia II.

I remember sites like IGN doing comparison lists between the games and ODCM doing a double review cover story (that holiday 2000 issue with the Millennia nipple slip), all basically telling me to get both games.  Between the two I actually chose Grandia II (but later bought Skies on the Gamecube) because it came in a double case which kind of tricked me into thinking that it was on two discs and thus the bigger game. Even though that second disc just turned out to be the soundtrack, Grandia II was still a pretty significant experience for me.

Grandia II was the first RPG I had played since Final Fantasy III (VI) several years earlier.  My very first encounter with many of the narrative staples we complain about in Japanese RPGs today, Grandia II didn’t seem nearly as derivative to me at the time as it probably was.  Even today the game makes up for this with an excellent and unique battle system and some of the best English localization I’d seen in a JRPG. Grandia II is the only JRPG I’ve finished three times. Today, it’s one of the few remaining games for which the Dreamcast version is still the definitive edition, further justifying ownership of the console.

Oh yeah, and Shenmue.

Screw the haters and the sailors jokes.  For three straight days I lived Shenmue.  Remember the US commercial for it?  I was that guy.

Today I prefer to explain Shenmue by calling it a Japanese arcade game designer’s attempt at an immersive sim. Yu Suzuki tried to accomplish some of the same things games like Deus Ex or Skyrim attempt, and for a 2000 console game he succeeded if you ask me, bad English voice acting notwithstanding.

Things like 300 unique non-player characters who had daily schedules, a player character’s house you could explore down to the last cabinet, and other details gave Shenmue levels of immersion console games just didn’t have back then. It was an adventure game wrapped in an immersive sim wrapped in a martial arts movie.

Basically, at that point in time the Dremcast felt as solid as ever, possibly more solid than any other system at the time.  Later on after I was trying to buy a Gamecube my dad would ask me why I got a Dreamcast in 99 if the console was discontinued in 2001.  How was I supposed to know then?  How were any of us supposed to know?

The First Half of 2001

No really.  The Dreamcast in 2000 had one of the best fall lineups any console ever had, and early 2001 was no slouch in following that up.  How were any of us supposed to know that the Dreamcast, for all intents and purposes, would be pronounced dead by the middle of the year?

If you read the stories and listen to the podcasts from those members of gaming press who were in the loop in the beginning of 2001, they all apparently knew the Dreamcast was on its last legs by then.  On the consumer level however, things could barely look better for Dreamcast.

As many were probably still playing the fall 2000 games, ODCM was already previewing more which felt like fine armor against the PS2’s hype.  In North America, the Dreamcast at the very least wasn’t going down easily.

The whole first half of 2001 was probably dominated by one game for me – Phantasy Star Online.  That game represented for me perhaps the last truly great thing to come from Sonic Team.  As I wasn’t an avid PC gamer versed in the ways of Ultima or EveQuest, PSO’s scale was larger than almost anything I’d ever seen.

To me, it almost felt like proof that Sega was going above and beyond – into new territory. Remember that magazine ad? “Now you can scream ‘help’ like a little girl in five different languages.”  I started several characters before raising one to level 90.  I’m still waiting for that PSO review from Francesca Reyes that ODCM never published.

The original release of PSO included a demo for the next game I was hyped for that summer – Sonic Adventure 2.

We could debate all we want about where Sonic the Hedgehog fell off or how good SA2 really was, but this post is about remembering the good times.  I was (and still consider myself) a Sonic fan, regardless of how much I ignore certain parts of that fandom.  I own hundreds of issues of the Sonic Archie comic.  Here was the sequel to the game that hooked me on the Dreamcast, celebrating the 10th anniversary of one of my favorite franchises.

That was one of those demos I played until I’d mastered every corner of it.  The trailer was one of those trailers I’d watch at least a few times every day. In hindsight, the full game was probably one of the worst I would ever play religiously.

I had no reason to want another console despite two more coming down the pipe that fall.

Fall 2001

PSO and SA2 however were only two of the biggest pillars of 2001 for me.  The last was one of my most anticipated games ever – as well as what would become my most painful loss – Shenmue II.

The only Dreamcast trailer I watched more than the SA2 trailer was probably the one for Shenmue II.  It was a 12-minute showcase of new characters, environments, and story elements that had been painfully teased in the original Shenmue.

By the time this game was heading for us, even I knew the Dreamcast probably wouldn’t survive into 2002, but we were still waiting for the console’s spectacular swan song.  By the latter part of the year, we were getting ads for the Dreamcast version of Shenmue II in magazines, previews about how it was four times bigger than the original game, and assurances that Dreamcast was the only system for it.

Everyone probably has their own “moment” when it finally struck them that the Dreamcast was dead.  Mine was the announcement that Shenmue II would only be released on the Xbox in North America.

It still hurts, and maybe it’s what made the Dreamcast’s fall hurt so much in the end.  Not only was the system we loved failing, but in North America it was robbed of its swan song, and I lost the opportunity to play what was then my most anticipated game of the fall.

To this day I have not played Shenmue II, but still contemplate modding my Dreamcast for a European copy of the game or trying to play the Xbox version on a 360.

What hurt the most about the Dreamcast’s fall wasn’t the fact that such a great system died, but the reason it died.  The Dreamcast was killed not by the actual success of the PlayStation 2, but by the system’s hype and expected success. Probably also by mistakes SEGA made years before it launched the Dreamcast.

Being a Nintendo 64-exclusive owner for four years and then a Dreamcast owner, I was used to being on the side of the underdog in video games.  This was a case in which the underdog did not win.

A console’s success is always supposed to come from a library of great games.  The Dreamcast had that.  Even the kids all around me who championed the PS2 simply because it was called “PlayStation 2,” loved the Dreamcast’s games but hated the system out of blind console tribalism.  From where I stood, that tribalism I’d been fighting against for two years won out in the end.

Even after I’d finally accepted the Dreamcast’s death and started deciding what I was going to move on to, the PS2 only looked attractive because a great string of games was finally coming to it in 2001.  Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Gran Turismo 3 all looked amazing, but I chose the Gamecube that year because of Super Smash Bros. Melee and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II.

That put me back in the house of Nintnedo for another four years.  Even as I gradually accepted that the PS2 was the most successful console of the time (and probably all time), I still blamed it for walking over the Dreamcast’s grave to reach that success (now who’s being a fanboy).  I didn’t buy a PS2 until 2005 upon the announcement of Soul Calibur III’s exclusivity to the system.

2002 – 2004

To me, the ultimate proof of the Dreamcast’s worth as a system is the legacy it left behind on the systems that killed and succeeded it.  Sega’s biggest problem when it came to hardware was how often the company jumped the gun.  In my opinion the Dreamcast’s only true sin was being ahead of its time, and perhaps being manufactured by a company that had little goodwill left in the hardware market.

This was proven as one after another, the Dreamcast’s greatest games were ported to most game platforms that have come around since, and became highly popular with all those audiences.  The SA games became favorites of hardcore Gamecube owners.  The Skies of Arcadia port ended up being arguably the best RPG on that console (and despite being a Nintendo console, the Gamecube had a few to compete).

The Xbox also probably wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for the Dreamcast, or at least that’s how I feel.  For some reason I can’t help but constantly see similarities between the Dreamcast and the Xbox line, almost as if the Dremacast was the “Xbox Zero.”

Also, Sega also wasn’t looking too bad during the first part of the following console generation.  Along with the ports, 2002 and 2003 saw games like Jet Set Radio Future, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Otogi, Gunvalkyrie, Shinobi, and Virtua Fighter 4 all come from SEGA. The company’s internal studios remained strong pretty much until the 2004 reorganization.

Today

Why am I “RedSwirl” wherever I go online?  It’s because the Dreamcast represented the first time I took up a gaming identity of my own.  The console arrived around the time I was just entering the tunnel of adolescence.  At this time, for once here was a platform that strived to offer me an experience that I was never disappointed with, only to meet a predestined end.

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2 thoughts on “Why Dreamcast?

  1. Jesus B. says:

    Great article, I know how you feel bro and you really nailed it. Awesome job, keep writing.

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