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A Look Back at the Sega Dreamcast

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The next generation of gaming is almost here, with the Wii U already making its mark and the PlayStation 4 and ‘Nextbox’ looming ever closer.  It seems the absolute perfect time to take a look back at consoles of yore. This week: The Sega Dreamcast.

Sega’s Dreamcast holds a special place in my heart, it may have had its (many) faults, but to me and many others, it was a significant milestone that affected gaming as we know it.

SEga Dreamcast

In Japan , the Dreamcast finally launched in November 1998. All 150,000 available units sold out before the day was over, marking a great sign of things to come. On 9 September 1999, the US launch proved another astonishing success for Sega, as they struggled to meet the demand for the product, with 500,000 Dreamcast consoles finding their way into American households in just two weeks alone.

Sega hit the the one million mark six weeks ahead of its prediction, leading to another successful hit here in Europe, with equally encouraging sales, as Sega sent out over 400,000 units on its October launch. Sega proudly boasted that it made $98 million on software and hardware sales alone, which is nothing short of amazing, even by today’s standards. It makes the Dreamcast one of the most successful hardware launches ever.

Being the first 128-bit home console as well as the first to offer online connectivity out of the box, and setting the modern trend for sourcing internal components from PC, the Dreamcast was an absolute beast. Offering state of the art graphics, free online play—which, was a massive first on a home console—and intuitive peripherals such as the VMU (Visual Memory Unit) which was essentially a removable storage device that also rocked a pretty cool twist.

The VMU

The VMU could also serve as an additional display during normal gameplay and act as a humble handheld game console.  VMU mini-games were present, including the Chao Adventure mini-game from Sonic Adventure.  Here, you were able to transfer Chao eggs to the VMU and play to increase the stats, then upload your improved Chao back into the Dreamcast game. Whilst many developers never really used the VMU functions, some games used the display to show statistics such as one’s current health, etc.

The Dreamcast’s biggest strength, was the near perfect arcade ports, bringing gems such as Samba de Amigo to your living room.  It did this complete with controllers shaped like maracas — Who doesn’t want maraca controllers?!

The clever use of unusual peripherals continued with Sega Bass Fishing, which was compatible with the Sega Fishing Controller, although you could still play the game with a standard Dreamcast controller. Ports like House of the Dead 2, Crazy Taxi, the phenomenal Soulcalibur, and the frantic Power Stone all helped to show the Dreamcast was indeed a powerhouse, able to display off its great graphical benchmarks with lightning fast gameplay, and all in the comfort of your living room.

Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, Metropolis Street Racer, Soulcalibur, Jet Set Radio, Samba de Amigo, House of the Dead

News that Resident Evil Code: Veronica would be heading to Dreamcast, caused quite a stir, as the series had been predominantly a Sony PSone exclusive up until that point.  Whilst it was later ported to the PlayStation 2 and even Nintendo’s GameCube, as Code: Veronica X, many, even to this day, claim the Dreamcast version was superior.

Even without support from major developers like EA, the Dreamcast still churned out golden gems such as Jet Set Radio; Powerstone 2; Crazy Taxi 2; Skies of Arcadia; Marvel Vs. Capcom 2; and of course, Shenmue 1 & 2.  The original Shenmue was in fact reported to cost $70 million to produce, which, at the time, was an astronomically high budget.

Headhunter, Ecco The Dolphin, Power Stone

Then, Sony released the highly anticipated PlayStation 2 and whilst the system launched with a far inferior lineup to that of the Dreamcast, the writing was, sadly, on the wall for Sega’s white box. Even without the games, the PS2 sold on the Sony brand name alone, and by 2001; just three years after the launch, Sega announced it would be discontinuing Dreamcast production and with it, opting out of hardware altogether.

This came as a massive shock to many, but there was no crucial single reason the Dreamcast failed; many factors were to blame. The lack of support Sega showed to its killer app—online play—was a big impediment to the system’s success, because whilst internet access was there from day one, actual functions such as Sega’s promise of playing against ‘six billion players’ (which, was quite a stretch to begin with) never came through and when it ‘kind of’ did, well, it was pretty underwhelming due to the slow speed of the modem. Then there’s the initial lack of third-party developers; something that was shining bright on Sony’s PS2.  Whilst these are just two examples, the love for the Dreamcast, through no real fault of it’s own, wasn’t really there.

In all, a bigger argument could be that the Dreamcast was indeed, ahead of its time. Online play on a home console was revolutionary at the time, plus full internet access for under £200 was simply magnificent considering the price you’d pay for the privilege on a PC.  Stunning games like Rez, Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, Power Stone, Ecco The Dolphin, Daytona USA, Dead Or Alive 2, House Of The Dead 2 and Skies Of Arcadia and many, many more, showed the Dreamcast was a sublime machine that offered beautiful graphics with gameplay to match.

Sadly, even with all that, it seems not everyone got Sega’s message. Maybe the slow speeds of Sega-Net stopped anyone from reading the e-mail.

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About Callum Povey

Callum Povey, also known as the hairy one. More than once he’s been described as both ruggish AND dashing. Cal was once a born again unicyclist, until he discovered that he wasn't. True story. You can find him writing for publications such as Blogcritics, VentureBeat, GamesBeat and also a presenter on Podcast vs Player. He also has two books published, which you can buy with your hands and read with your eyes. Imagine that! Above all else, he's a proud father and geek.