Dreamcast Retrospective: Ten Years On

The brief romances are often the most memorable; a first kiss, that college crush, and for many gamers, the first time they played the Sega Dreamcast. It was ten years ago this month when scores of video game aficionados brought home, hooked up, and revelled in Sega’s final console. Despite the system’s brief run and premature demise in 2001, the fandom for the machine has not mitigated with time. To quote one of the system’s most popular games, the Dreamcast’s “soul still burns”.

Sega released the Dreamcast on September 9th, 1999 in North America. The launch was extremely important for Sega’s long-term viability; the company had just concluded a disappointing five-year stint with the Sega Saturn, and a number of poor decisions had seen Sega related to third place in the North American console market. Needless to say, one of the company’s goals with the Dreamcast was to not let history repeat itself, to recapture the impressive degree of popularity it had previously held with the Sega Genesis.

The sales looked great for Sega initially. The Dreamcast had a record-breaking launch in North America, selling more than 500,000 units in less than two weeks. The $199 launch price meant that the Dreamcast packed quite a bit of value, especially considering that it came with a built-in 56k modem – a first for a home console. The PlayStation 2, by comparison, launched at $299 with no built-in online capabilities.

Despite its initial achievements, a number of factors prevented the Dreamcast from becoming a long-term success. As a result, Sega officially discontinued the system in 2001, marking the end of both the Dreamcast and Sega’s role as a hardware manufacturer. While it can hardly be said the console bombed, Sega ended up only selling 10.6 million units. Compare this with the Playstation 2; as of September 2009 Sony has sold nearly 140 million PS2s – a staggering difference in fortunes.

Nevertheless, the Dreamcast remains one of the most fondly remembered systems in video game history. During its brief lifespan, Sega introduced a series of both software and hardware innovations that profoundly changed the future of the video game industry. The amount of nostalgia the Dreamcast garnered over the years begs for a trip down memory lane to reminisce about what made the system great, consider why it failed, and determine whether its games still hold up ten years later.

So let’s do exactly that.

The Hardware

Sega sought to address the many criticisms of the Saturn with the Dreamcast’s design. The Saturn felt like it could fall apart at any given moment, partially due to the many memory expansions and peripherals needed to take full advantage of the system. This necessity was an unfortunate holdover from the Sega Genesis’s infamous add-on systems (the Sega CD, 32X) during the 16-bit era. Fortunately, the Dreamcast came with these additions already under the hood. In addition, Sega decided to make the system white, no doubt to make it more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor (the Saturn was essentially a large, black box). Ironically, this also made the Dreamcast stand out from its competition. The small, white system was undeniably sleeker and even cuter than competitors like the monolithic PlayStation 2.

The Dreamcast easily beat the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, and even rivaled the PlayStation 2, in terms of graphical prowess. Storage capacity, however, was a different story. The Dreamcast used special high-capacity CDs, called GD-ROMS, to hold game data. While these GD-ROMS held more memory than standard CDs, they paled in comparison to the amount of data held on a PlayStation 2 DVD. This often meant that the larger games (Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia) consisted of 2 to 3 CDs.

The Dreamcast controller was essentially an updated version of the Sega Saturn’s 3D Controller (which famously came packaged with Nights). Notably, the Dreamcast is the second system (the first being the Nintendo 64) to feature an analog stick on the standard controller. These analog sticks were actually an improvement over those of the Nintendo 64, the latter’s tended to stick with age. The controller layout was simple: one analog stick, one D-pad, four face buttons (not including the start button) and two shoulder buttons. Although the controller was larger than those of its competitors (with the possible exception of the original Xbox controller), it was nevertheless light and comfortable to hold. Also, the Dreamcast emulated the Nintendo 64 by having four controller ports, thus preventing the need for an additional adapter for local multiplayer (a feature overlooked for the PlayStation 2).

Taking another cue from the Nintendo 64, Sega decided to design the Dreamcast’s memory cards to fit into the controller itself. These memory sticks, called VMUs, came with 128KB of flash memory and featured small black and white screens that would display information while one played. When playing Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, the VMU would display the character’s health status. Also, these VMUs notably had small D-Pads and buttons. This allowed gamers to unplug them from the controller and play simple games independently of the Dreamcast. While innovative, the VMU games were not particularly compelling, and furthermore the VMUs quickly exhausted their battery life. Fortunately, the VMUs only required batteries to play their games, not to save data.

Taking a cue from the Saturn’s NetLink peripheral, Sega decided to include a 56k modem built into the Dreamcast itself. Sega launched the SegaNet online service shortly after the console’s launch. This network enabled players to participate in games like Phantasy Star Online and Quake III: Arena with others across the country. Although the 56k modem was quite slow by today’s standards, it can nonetheless be said without exaggeration that the Dreamcast’s online capabilities were the precursor to Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

The Games

In terms of game variety, the Dreamcast truly had something for everyone. Namco’s Soulcalibur was the console’s premier launch title. his quality 3D fighter marked the point where home consoles actually began outperforming their arcade counterparts. Soulcalibur entertained fans for hours, not only thanks to its excellent gameplay, but also through its numerous secret characters and other unlockables.

Speaking of fighters, the Dreamcast is known for being the original home of some of the best Capcom-style 2D fighters of the past decade. Of these, the most popular is no doubt Marvel vs. Capcom 2. This beautifully animated, frenetic fighter featured literally dozens of characters from the Marvel and Capcom universes. So popular was it that fans played the Dreamcast version well after the system’s life cycle. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 would probably not have been recently re-released on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network if not for the huge fan base created by the Dreamcast original.

Shenmue is another game almost synonymous with the Dreamcast. The series was the brainchild of Virtua Fighter creator and resident Sega game genius, Yu Suzuki. Shenmue and its sequel put the player in the shoes of Ryu Hazuki as he sought to track down and take revenge on his father’s killer. The series was one of the first console games to really immerse players in what felt like a truly interactive world. Sure, Ryu fought like any video game hero, but he could also play arcade games and interact with seemingly everything and everyone (although the populace usually had little interesting to say). It was also one of the first games to widely utilize quick-time events, a staple in modern day game mechanics. Fans of Resident Evil 4 and God of War largely have Shenmue to thank for those games’ intense button-smashing sequences

Unfortunately, Shenmue was probably too ambitious for its time. If it had been released on the modern game market, the game may well have been a mega hit. In 2000, however, the Dreamcast’s hardware limitations kept it from achieving its full potential. The series reportedly cost Sega $70 million to produce, so even though Shenmue sold 1.2 million copies, it was still somewhat of a financial letdown. Largely because of Sega’s falling market share, Shenmue II never made it to North American systems (although it was later released on the Xbox).

Other notable games include Jet Set Radio (Jet Grind Radio in Norh America) and Rez. In the former, players took control of roller-blading punks whose mission in life was to vandalize Tokyo with spray paint. The game was not only innovative on a conceptual level, but it also pioneered cel-shaded graphics. Rez, on the other hand, can perhaps be best described as an on-the-rails shooter mixed with LSD. The game took place in the mainframe of a computer where the player’s mission was to destroy viruses and other electronic oddities. The game made clever use of synaesthesia in that almost everything the player destroys creates a noise that blended with the techno music. In effect the player could create a symphony of destruction if he or she really got on a roll. Like Shenmue II, Rez never made it to the Dreamcast in North America (only Europe and Japan), but it was later released on the PlayStation 2, and more recently Xbox Live.

Sega and third-party developers also took advantage of the Dreamcast’s Internet capabilities when it came to game design. Although PC gamers had been playing massive online RPGs for some time, the Dreamcast’s Phantasy Star Online (PSO) was the first time such an experience was widely available to console gamers. SegaNet supported PSO right until the end, providing hours of entertainment through downloadable quests and interactions with other players. PSO was also known for having one of the most congenial online atmospheres where, get this, players actually helped one another! In many ways PSO was a precursor to other console online RPGs like Final Fantasy XI and Fable 2.

Why it Failed

The Dreamcast’s failure largely stemmed from two factors: consumer’s mistrust of Sega as a company, and the PlayStation’s huge install base. Regards the former, many felt Sega had burned them too often in the past. They still had memories of the Sega CD and 32X. Both of these expensive additions featured lackluster games and a general lack of support from Sega. The Saturn fared somewhat better, but Sega dropped the ball by making it a superb 2D system and lackluster 3D system, thus allowing the technically advanced PlayStation to grab hold of the market. These PlayStation devotees, knowing that the PlayStation 2 was right around the corner, were apathetic about the Dreamcast. Since this was where the gaming dollars were, third-party companies likewise ignored the Dreamcast in favor of the competition. There was simply no room left for it in the marketplace.

The games themselves also contributed to the system’s demise. While Sega undoubtedly produced some innovative, quality titles for the Dreamcast, it also refrained from releasing new installments of popular series like Nights and Panzer Dragoon. In addition, many of the third-party games were simply ports of PlayStation versions. Soul Reaver, for example, did not look significantly different from its PlayStation version. Gamers simply bought games for the console they already owned, rather than spending more money on a Dreamcast.

Sega also spent an inordinate amount of time promoting the wrong titles. For example, there was a big marketing push for Space Channel 5, which relegated others titles, like the critically acclaimed Skies of Arcadia, to the backbench. Similarly, Sega placed a huge emphasis on Shenmue as its killer app. As previously mentioned, however, Shenmue’s ambition outweighed the reality. The result, while not without its devotees, was an extremely esoteric title that at the time did not fit the definition of what gamers thought of as a must-have game.

In Conclusion

It’s an understatement to say that the Sega Dreamcast died before its time. In terms of horsepower, it could have easily competed with the PlayStation 2 well into the middle of the decade. Sadly, the install base for the original PlayStation and a general mistrust of Sega were two insurmountable obstacles. In addition, the upcoming releases of the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox insured stiff competition and further shrinkage of the Dreamcast’s share of the market.

For those gamers who were too young to experience the Dreamcast during its heyday, or for anyone who is simply curious about the system, the good news is that the console is still widely available. Used systems typically run for under $50 on eBay. Purchasing a used system is an attractive option considering that many games, such as Shenmue and Jet Set Radio, were never released on any other platform. There is also a strong import market, with several Japanese-exclusive games like Border Down and Ikaruga available (although keep in mind that boot discs or modded consoles are needed to take advantage of these games). Furthermore, independent developers continue to produce games for the Dreamcast. Redspotgames, an independent publisher, recently announced the release of a new Dreamcast game, Rush Rush Rally Racing, for this October.

Luckily, much of the Dreamcast’s library has been ported to other consoles over the years. Rez, Ikaruga, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Soulcalibur are all available on Xbox Live. Other titles, such as Shenmue II, Skies of Arcadia, and Grandia 2 were re-released on the original Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 respectively. These versions are often preferable to the Dreamcast originals, since many feature smoother graphics/framerates and refined gameplay.

It’s easy to see why gamers are still posthumously raving about the Dreamcast. Sega’s last system was arguably the most innovative console to emerge onto the marketplace until Nintendo unveiled the Wii in 2006. The Dreamcast set the standards for the subsequent decade by embracing the Internet gaming with open arms. Moreover, Sega always made a valiant attempt to make each of the Dreamcast’s first-party games unique and innovative in some way. Sega was not afraid to take risks and refused to simply put out cookie-cutter versions of popular genres. There is a lot than current developers can learn from the Dreamcast, especially during a time when derivative titles are becoming increasingly commonplace. This makes the Dreamcast’s many games perhaps even more compelling, even worthy of reverence than when they first came out, something that can’t be said of the games from most other consoles.

Author: Dave Taylor