In 1998, Sega had arguably fallen from grace. Despite the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis being one of the best consoles of the early 90s and being able to hold their own against the juggernauts at Nintendo, Sega had arguably went downhill from there. The Sega CD and Sega 32x failed to extend the lifespan of the Mega Drive and caused massive losses for Sega, and their current console the Saturn was on its death bed. While the Saturn was successful initially, it just couldn’t keep up with Sony’s PlayStation or the Nintendo 64, with inferior ports of games like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, and the lack of a mainline Sonic game preventing the console from standing out. Sega needed a return to form, and fast. Thankfully, they were working on such a thing. That thing was the Dreamcast, a console that is looked back on incredibly fondly by many, but unfortunately had its lifespan cut short by the likes of the PlayStation 2, despite having many innovations under its belt.
The Best of Both Worlds
Sega’s sequel to the Saturn was intended to break ground in virtually every way possible, and in many ways it succeeded. When it launched in late 1998, the Dreamcast had single-handedly kick-started the Sixth-Generation of consoles. At 128-bit, it wiped the floor with the 64-bit Nintendo 64 and the 32-bit PlayStation on a technical level, with its games looking leaps and bounds above the 2 consoles. Games that were released on all 3 systems would be vastly superior on the Dreamcast. Not only would the games look much better than even the Nintendo 64 versions, but they would also have the CD quality audio and FMV cutscenes that the PlayStation 1 was known for. Because of this, the Dreamcast wasn’t just the best of both worlds at launch; it was shaping up to be something more.
Lightning Strikes Twice
After the Mega Drive, Sega knew how to market a console. The Mega Drive gained its initial success by being an almost arcade-perfect system for its time, with ports of arcade titles like Altered Beast being launch titles for the system. Sega believed that lightning would strike twice, and thus had ports of various arcade games as the launch titles for the Dreamcast. Admittedly, some of these ports, such as Mortal Kombat Gold and WWF Royal Rumble, were received poorly due to being nothing more than arcade ports or being of poor quality. The vast majority however, were critically acclaimed, with ports of Soul Caliber and Crazy Taxi being highlights due to added content and how much of a perfect conversion they were. Some ports were so popular that they even received Dreamcast exclusive sequels, such as Crazy Taxi 2. These ports definitely helped the Dreamcast early on in the same way the older Mega Drive had been helped by its arcade ports.
Arcade perfect ports and superior console ports can help a console sell, but its exclusives are what keep them in people’s memory. Thankfully, the Dreamcast had plenty of exclusives in terms of peripherals and games to keep its library afloat for the time being. Because of the Dreamcast’s power at the time, developers wanted to innovate and push the limits of the new technology. This led to a lot of fantastic and sometimes oddball exclusives highlighting the Dreamcast’s library. Some notable titles include Jet Set Radio and the 2 Shenmue titles. Shenmue in particular was incredibly ambitious, with both games barely fitting onto 3 discs at the time. It introduced elements like a real time clock affecting shop and bus times, as well as the ability to interact with anyone and anything in the game world. If you want to play pool at the bar, you can do it. If you want to go onto arcade machines to collect figurines of Sega characters, you can do that. At the time of release the Dreamcast was the only system powerful enough to capture the vision of Shenmue. Other exclusives like Sonic Adventure also perfectly displayed the Dreamcast’s power, with the main antagonist Chaos being rendered completely in liquid, something not possible on the Saturn.
Sega also stretched their wings when it came to peripherals as well. While it had the classic light-gun for games like House of the Dead 2, it’s the Dreamcast’s more wacky peripherals that stands out, such as a microphone that plugged into the controller. This microphone was made more famous by the game it was bundled with: Seaman (get the laughs out of the way, I understand). The microphone was used to talk to a fish with a face that was also voiced by Spock. I wasn’t kidding when I said the word ‘wacky’.
Sega weren’t content with having simple memory cards either, they had to take it one step further with their Visual Memory Unit or VMU. The VMU was unique in the fact that it was a memory card that doubled as a game console. Certain games could upload microgames to the VMU for you to play on the go, and the VMU had its own buttons to play said games. Games like the afformentioned Sonic Adventure made heavy use of this. Thanks to the Chao Garden, one could upload their Chao from their Dreamcasts to their VMU and take them on the go. 2 VMUs could even link together to trade Chao and other items. The screen was also helpful when plugged into the controller, as certain games like Dino Crisis and Resident Evil: CODE Veronica utilising the screen of the VMU to display vital information to the player.
The Dream is Online
The Dreamcast was also incredibly innovative in another way: Online play. The Dreamcast had the ability to connect to a modem and allowed players to take their gameplay experiences online. Considering that online play on consoles was unheard of in Western Territories, this was big. Considering that the Dreamcast had a version of Windows built into it, it made sense for the inclusion of online play to have a PC feel to it. Games like Phantasy Star Online were fully functional MMORPG’s, and the likes of Quake brought online fragging to the living rooms. Quake even had crossplay with PC and the ability to use a mouse and keyboard, making the Dreamcast a sort of hybrid of PC and Console, and it worked incredibly well for its time. Internet browsing was also possible through the use of a Dreamkey disc.
While the Dreamcast did kick-start the Sixth Generation of consoles and enjoyed early success because of it, it didn’t take long for other systems to make their way onto the scene. It turned out to be Sony that would kill Sega’s dream when they released the PlayStation 2. Sony looked to be out to reclaim their throne. Thanks to Sega not advertising the Dreamcast as much as they could have, Sony went in with force, and aggressively advertised their new console where the Dreamcast didn’t. While both consoles had great games in their opening years, the PlayStation 2 had the more high-profile titles, like Grand Theft Auto 3. Everyone began looking at Sony’s black box and away from Sega’s Dreamcast. It also didn’t help that the Dreamcast’s like of privacy protection meant that those who did buy the Dreamcast had less of a chance of even buying games. Sega ended up losing money in the long run, forcing them to cut their losses and discontinue the console, and drop out of the console market entirely.
Looking back at the Dreamcast is a sad endeavour. It was a console well ahead of its time, but a combination of internal problems and competition from Sony snuffed it out before its time. The legacy of the Dreamcast is still felt to this day however, with the original Xbox being considered a successor to the Dreamcast, with sequels to many Dreamcast exclusives adding to the Xbox library. Because of the lack of piracy protection as well, the Dreamcast still lives on today in the homebrew market, with people developing games for the console to this day. The Dreamcast is a console close to many people’s hearts including my own, so it’s good to see it still live on, even in an unofficial way.